Conditioning and Indoctrination





‘To a sick person, sweet water tastes bitter in the mouth.’





The Nature of Conditioning and Indoctrination


    Human beings are conditioned by a constellation of experiences. In some cases the conditioning is by deliberate indoctrination while in other instances the conditioning factor is imperceptible and unrecognized. “Individuals and groups of people are played upon, diverted and pulled along channels chosen by others, sometimes acceptably, sometimes otherwise.”



 Learning How to Learn


Psychology and Spirituality

in the Sufi way


One hundred conversations with Idries Shah

Octagon Press, London




Take warning from the misfortunes of others, so that others need not have to take warning from your own. — Saadi, Rose Garden, 13th Century


When the camel of our efforts sinks into the mud, what matter whether the destination is near or far? — Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, Quatrains, 1975


The world has no being but an allegory: From end to end its state is but a farce and play.Shabistari, Secret Garden, 13th Century





On Attention

(pp. 85-88)


Characteristics of Attention and




Q:   Can you define characteristics of attention and observation as of importance in Sufic studies?


A:   Study the attracting, extending and reception, as well as the interchange, of attention.


One of the keys to human behaviour is the attention-factor.


Anyone can verify that many instances, generally supposed to be important or useful human transactions on any subject (social, commercial, etc.) are in fact disguised attention-situations.


It is contended that if a person does not know what he is doing (in this case that he is basically demanding, extending or exchanging attention) and as a consequence thinks that he is doing something else (contributing to human knowledge, learning, buying, selling, informing, etc.), he will (a) be more inefficient at both the overt and the covert activity; (b) have less capacity of planning his behaviour and will make mistakes of emotion and intellect because he considers attention to be other than it is.


If this is true, it is most important that individuals realise:


1.  That this attention-factor is operating in virtually all transactions.


2.  That the apparent motivation of transactions may be other than it really is. And that it is often generated by the need or desire for attention-activity (giving, receiving, exchanging).


3.  That attention-activity, like any other demand for food, warmth, etc., when placed under volitional control, must result in increased scope for the human being who would then not be at the mercy of random sources of attention, or even more confused than usual if things do not pan out as they expect.





1.  Too much attention can be bad (inefficient).


2.  Too little attention can be bad.


3.  Attention may be ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’ and still fulfill the appetite for attention. This is confused by the moral aspect.


4.  When people need a great deal of attention they are vulnerable to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them, e.g., someone wanting attention might be able to get it only from some person or organisation which might thereafter exercise (as ‘its price’) an undue influence upon the attention-starved individual’s mind.


5.  Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.


6.  Many paradoxical reversals of opinion, or of associates and commitments, may be seen as due to the change in a source of attention.


7.  People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, since most people are frequently attention-deprived. This is one reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.


8.  If people could learn to assuage attention-hunger, they would be in a better position than most present cultures allow them, to attend to other things. They could extend the effectiveness of their learning capacity.


9.  Among the things which unstarved people (in the sense of attention) could investigate, is the comparative attraction of ideas, individuals, etc., apart from their purely attention-supplying function.


10.  The desire for attention starts at an early stage of infancy. It is, of course, at that point linked with feeding and protection. This is not to say that this desire has no further nor future development value. But it can be adapted beyond its ordinary adult usage of mere satisfaction.


11.  Even a cursory survey of human communities shows that, while the random eating tendency, possessiveness and other undifferentiated characteristics are very early trained or diverted – weaned – the attention-factor does not get the same treatment. The consequence is that the adult human being, deprived of any method of handling his desire for attention, continues to be confused by it: as it usually remains primitive throughout life.


12.  Very numerous individual observations of human transactions have been made. They show that an interchange between two people always has an attention-factor.


13.  Observation shows that people’s desires for attention ebb and flow. When in an ebb or flow of attention-desire, the human being not realising that this is his condition, attributes his actions and feelings to other factors, e.g., the hostility or pleasantness of others. He may even say that it is a ‘lucky day’, when his attention-needs have been quickly and adequately met. Re-examination of such situations has shown that such experiences are best accounted for by the attention-theory.


14.  Objections based upon the supposed pleasure of attention being strongest when it is randomly achieved do not stand up when carefully examined. ‘I prefer to be surprised by attention’ can be paraphrased by saying, ‘I prefer not to know where my next meal is coming from’. It simply underlines a primitive stage of feeling and thinking on this subject.


15.  Situations which seem different when viewed from an over-simplified perspective (which is the usual one) are seen to be the same by the application of attention-theory. E.g.: People following an authority-figure may be exercising the desire for attention or the desire to give it. The interchange between people and their authority-figure may be explained by mutual-attention behaviour. Some gain only attention from this interchange. Some can gain more.


16.  Another confusion is caused by the fact that the object of attention may be a person, a cult, an object, an idea, interest, etc. Because the focii of attention can be so diverse, people in general have not yet identified the common factor – the desire for attention.


17.  One of the advantages of this theory is that it allows the human mind to link in a coherent and easily-understood way many things which it has always (wrongly) been taught are very different, not susceptible to comparison, etc. This incorrect training has, of course, impaired the possible efficiency in functioning of the brain, though only culturally, not permanently.


18.  The inability to feel when attention is extended, and also to encourage or to prevent its being called forth, makes man almost uniquely vulnerable to being influenced, especially in having ideas implanted in his brain, and being indoctrinated.


19.  Raising the emotional pitch is the most primitive method of increasing attention towards the instrument which increased the emotion. It is the prelude to, or accompaniment of, almost every form of indoctrination.


20.  Traditional philosophical and other teachings have been used to prescribe exercises in the control and focussing of attention. Their value, however, has been to a great measure lost because the individual exercises, prescribed for people in need of exercise, have been written down and repeated as unique truths and practised in a manner, with people and at a rate and under circumstances which, by their very randomness, have not been able to effect any change in the attention-training. This treatment has, however, produced obsession. It continues to do so.


21.  Here and there proverbs and other pieces of literary material indicate that there has been at one time a widespread knowledge of attention on the lines now being described. Deprived, however, of context, these indications survive as fossil indicators rather than being a useful guide to attention-exercise for contemporary man.


Attention upon oneself, or upon a teacher, without the exercise of securing what is being offered from beyond the immediate surroundings, is a sort of short-circuit. As Rumi said: ‘Do not look at me, but take what is in my hand.’






Overall Study

(pp. 187-188)


Method, System and Conditioning



THERE are four factors which, when applied upon human beings, ‘programme’ them like machines. These are the factors which are used in indoctrination and conditioning. By their use, deliberate or otherwise, self-applied or otherwise, the human mind is made more mechanical, and will tend to think along stereo-typed lines.

Innumerable experiments, recent and ancient, have fully verified the presence and effect of these factors. They are: tension alternating with relaxation, sloganisation and repetition.

Because most human beings are trained to accept these factors as part of their ‘learning’ process, almost everything which is presented to a human being to be learned is generally converted by him into material which he applies by these methods.

The test of a teaching system, and of its success, is whether (1) it is applied by these methods, knowingly or otherwise; (2) it develops into a system which uses these methods.

In the various groupings of people engaged in this kind of teaching whom I have contacted during the past few years, virtually none is free from this element or these factors. The result is that one set of slogans has been changed for another: and phrases like ‘man is asleep’; words like ‘essence’, certain exercises and techniques as well as literary material, have been studied so closely and so diligently that they have succeeded in the main only in indoctrination. Their instrumental effect is spent.

It is mainly for this reason that tradition repeatedly says that the formulation must change in accordance with the people, the place and the Work.

It is extremely easy to test the individuals who have developed (through no fault of their own) this (‘conditioned-reflex’) response to work-terms and other teaching stimuli. Such people always respond in a typical manner to approaches made to them, and in this respect they do not differ from people who have been indoctrinated into any static and linear system: political, patriotic, economic, religious, philosophical, where the extra dimension of understanding is weak or absent.

There is, however, a saving grace. This is that if we retrace our position to the point just before the learning and teaching became ‘established’ as a conditioning in the mind of the individuals, we can reclaim the flexibility which the work demands. The methods used to do this, however, are not ones which are familiar to most people.

You have to be able to understand before you can verify.

People ordinarily do not reach deeply enough into themselves to find out how to learn about what Sufis call Reality. They make premature assumptions about how to learn, and what attracts them must be good, and so on, which in the end defeats their putative purpose.




In the Bostan of Saadi there is the tale of the man who once saw a limbless fox and wondered how it managed to be so well-fed. Deciding to watch it, he found that it had positioned itself where a lion brought its kill. After eating, the lion would go away, and the fox would eat its leavings. So the man decided to allow fate to serve him in the same way. Sitting down in a street and waiting, all that happened was that he became more and more weak and hungry, for nobody and nothing took any interest in him.


Eventually a voice spoke and said: ‘Why should you behave like a lamed fox? Why should you not be a lion, so that others might benefit from your leavings?’


This story is itself an interesting test. One sometimes finds that it encourages people with a desire to teach to set themselves up as teachers, and enables others, who are more humble, to rearrange their ideas, so that they can learn first, no matter what they readily imagine about being able to teach and benefit others before getting their own focus right.


Everything man needs is in the world. How does he use it? Think of the Eastern proverb: ‘God provides the food, men provide the cooks.’






Sufi Studies

(pp. 257-262)


Teaching Methods and Prerequisites



Q:   According to the Sufis, is there any knowledge of the difference between teaching and conditioning; and do people know what they want when they set out to learn?


A:   People are conditioned not only by deliberate indoctrination, but also by systems whose proponents themselves are ignorant of the need for safeguards to prevent conditioning. People are also conditioned by a constellation of experiences. In most human societies, unanimity of thought has been arrived at by an unrecognised conditioning process in which virtually all the society’s institutions may be branches of the conditioning process.


This information is neither new nor necessarily exciting. But it is essential. What is new about it is that it has been concisely and effectively revealed in studies made in the West, notably since the end of the Korean war. If you do not know or believe the foregoing, you will either have to accept it as a working hypothesis, or else leave all attempts at studying other matters aside until you have caught up with this information in the generally available sources on the subject. In such a case your basic information is incomplete, and your prospects of progress are as limited in a higher sense as if you were trying to become an academic but were not yet literate.

Certain traditional teaching-systems have continuously maintained the knowledge of this ‘conditioning by environment’ factor. The essence of their systems has been twofold: (1) to stress the fact of conditioning, in order to redress the imbalance produced by it; and (2) to provide study-formats and human groupings in which the conditioning cannot easily operate.

No such systems deny the value of conditioning for certain purposes: but they themselves do not use it. They are not trying to destroy the conditioning mechanism, upon which, indeed, so much of life depends.

This is the first lesson: People who are shown for the first time how their views are the product of conditioning tend to assume, in the crudest possible manner, that whoever told them this is himself opposed to conditioning, or proposes to do something about it. What any legitimate system will do, however, is to point out that conditioning is a part of the social scene and is confused with ‘higher’ things only at the point when a teaching has become deteriorated and has to ‘train’ its members.

The second lesson is that the majority of any group of people can be conditioned, if the group is in effect a random one: non-conditioning-prone groups can only be developed by selecting people who harmonise in such a manner as to help defeat this tendency.

People who hear this may tend automatically to assume that this is a doctrine of the elite. But this assumption is only accepted by them because they are ignorant of the process and the bases. The primary objective is to associate people together who can avoid conditioning, so that a development can take place among these people which in turn can be passed on to larger numbers. It can never be applied to large numbers of people directly.

Many people who hear for the first time that conditioning is a powerful, unrecognised and spiritually ineffective development react in another manner which is equally useless. They assume that since conditioning is present in all the institutions known to them (including any which they themselves esteem highly) that it must always be essential. This is only due to the fact that they are not willing to face the fact that any institution may become invaded by a tendency which is dangerous to it.  This is not the same as saying that the institution is based upon it.

When people are collected together to be exposed to materials which will defy or avoid conditioning, they will always tend to become uncomfortable. This discomfort is due to the fact that they are not receiving from these materials the stimuli to which they have become accustomed as conditioned people. But, since they generally lack the full perception of what is in the materials, (and since it is a characteristic of conditioning materials that they may masquerade as independently arrived-at facts), such people do not know what to do. The solution to this problem which they will tend to adopt is some kind of rationalisation. If they receive no accustomed stimulus of an emotional sort, they will regard the new or carefully selected materials as ‘insipid’.

This is a further lesson. Everyone should realise that the vicious circle must be broken somewhere and somehow. To substitute one conditioning for another is sometimes ridiculous. To provide people with a stimulus of a kind to which they have become accustomed may be a public or social service: it is not teaching activity of a higher sort.

Unfortunately, people have been so trained as to imagine that something which is hard to understand or hard to do, in a crude sense, is a true exercise. Hence, people are often willing to sacrifice money, physical effort, time, comfort. But if they are asked (say) not to meet, or to sacrifice the attention of a teacher, this they find nearly impossible to bear, simply because their training is such that they are behaving as addicts. They may want sacrifice or effort, but only the kind which they have been trained to believe is sacrifice or effort. ‘Stylised effort’, though, is no effort at all.

Most unfortunately, they do not know that the system to which they have been trained has always (if they have developed such a taste for it as we have just described) fulfilled its optimum possible developmental function at a point long before we are likely to have encountered them. It has now become a vice, ritual or habit which they are unable to recognise as such.

The prerequisite of an advanced form of teaching is that the participants shall be prepared to expose themselves to it, and not only to some travesty which gives them a lower nutrition to which they have become accustomed.

This is in itself a higher stage than any repetition or drilling or rehashing of words or exercises or theories. And, in its way, it is a challenge. Can the participants, or can they not, really enter an area where their effectively cruder desires and automatic responses are not pandered to?

If they cannot, they have excluded themselves from the Teaching.

In order to become eligible, it is the would-be students who have to ‘sort themselves out’. They have to examine themselves and see whether they have merely been using their studies to fulfill social desires, or personal psychological aims, or to condition themselves. They should also be told the simple fact that, for instance, if you shout ‘I must wake up!’ often enough, it will put you to sleep. If their sense of power, for instance, is being fed by means of the suggestion that they are studying something that others do not know, they will get no further. If they are deriving any personal pleasure or other benefit from ‘teaching’ others, they will not learn any more. If they depend upon their study-community alone or mainly for friends or somewhere to go once or twice a week or month, they will get no further.

There has been a confusion between teaching and the social or human function. To help or to entertain someone else is a social, not an esoteric, duty. As a human being you always have the social and humanitarian duty. But you do not necessarily have the therapeutic duty; indeed, you may be much less well qualified for it than almost any conventional professional therapist.

It is impossible to spend time with virtually any religious, philosophical and esotericism group, or even to read its literature, without seeing that a large number of the people involved, perhaps through no fault of their own, and because of ignorance of the problems, are using these formats for sociological or psychological purposes of a narrow kind. It is not that their spiritual life is right in these groups. It is that their social life is inadequate.

‘As above, so below.’ Just as in ordinary worldly considerations, there can be inefficiency or confusion as to aims, so there may be in approaching higher knowledge. You may be able, initially, to pursue higher aims through lower mechanisms and theories, but you cannot pursue them by indulging short-term personal interests.

You must follow your personality interests somewhere else. In an advanced society there are more institutions catering for such outlets than anyone could possibly need. Make sure that your professional, commercial, social, psychological and family needs are fulfilled in the society to which you belong. The rest of you is the part which can be communicated with by means of the specialised techniques available to those who have a comprehensive and legitimate traditional learning: and who have the means of safeguarding it.

This is what you have to study first of all. Most people are trying to effect something else, no matter what they imagine that they are doing. Fortunately, it is not hard to recognise this if enough sincere effort is expended.

In ordinary life, if you think that your family is largely a commercial proposition, people will point out that you are misguided. If you thought that your profession was mainly for social purposes, people would soon put you right. It is time that you were correctly informed in this field as well. You must know, or find out, the difference between meeting to learn and experience something, and meeting in order to be emotionally stimulated or intellectually tested or socially reassured.

There is no harm at all in a social ingredient in a human relationship: far from it. But when this gets out of balance, and a human contact becomes an excuse for a social contact, you are not going to learn, no matter what materials you are working with. ‘Due proportion’ is a secret skill of the teacher.

The repeated upsurge of apparently different schools of higher study in various epochs and cultures is due in large part to the need to rescue genuine traditional teachings from the automatism and social-psychological-entertainment functions which regularly and deeply invade and, for the most part, eventually possess them.

Certain physical and mental exercises, as an example, are of extremely significant importance for the furthering of higher human functions. If these are practised by people who use things for emotional, social or callisthenic purposes, they will not operate on a higher level with such people. They become merely a means of getting rid of surplus energy, or of assuaging a sense of frustration. The practitioners however, regularly and almost invariably mistake their subjective experiences of them for ‘something higher’.

It is for this reason that legitimate traditional higher teachings are parsimonious with their materials and exercises. Nobody with a task to perform can possibly (if he knows about his task) do so in a manner which is not benefiting people on the level required.

The foregoing information should be read and studied and understood as widely as possible. Without it there is little possibility of serving any group of people, anywhere, otherwise than socially or with shallow psychology, no matter what theories, systems or exercises are employed.

Where there is ideology, conditioning and indoctrination, a mechanical element is introduced which drives out the factor of extradimensional reality perception which connects the higher functions of the mind with the higher reality.

Sufi experiences are designed to maintain a harmony with and nearness to this Reality, while mechanical systems effectively distance people from it.




(pp. 271-273)


Jumping to Conclusions



ASSUMPTIONS can stand between the student and what he might learn, if these preconceptions are not correct or if they are not functional.


The assumptions that spirtual paths should take this or that form, should be followed by this or that type of person, should belong to a certain kind of recognisable institution, etc., these ideas not only block learning – they often transform it into a search for the expected diversion, and therefore, in reality if not in appearance, towards becoming a part of the entertainment industry.


To connect with people at the outside edge, so to speak, Eastern sages have grown beards and worn turbans; to point up the jumping-to-conclusions syndrome, others have behaved like lunatics to alert those who are most teachable; yet others have not compromised with expectation to any real extent. And frauds and adventurers, to exploit the only-too-obvious assumptions, have never been slow to accord with them – to tell people what they want to hear.


If you cannot question your assumptions, you must stand up to be counted among the people of whom some may be right: but who include a large number of people, conditioned to bigotry, who must be wrong.


Perhaps worth thinking about is the illustrative test which was recently applied to over two hundred people who had been attracted to a certain spiritual teaching. They were given a number of statements and literary extracts and asked which of them were genuine and which not. Over eighty-five per cent of these people got the answers wrong: they identified the spurious documents and statements as genuine.


This indicated at least two things: (1) that these people, for the most part, had not been attracted to the teaching through any ability to discern its legitimacy; and (2) that since most of them had rejected the real materials, the likelihood was that they would eventually reject the teaching materials and procedures of the genuine school, since they displayed an overwhelming appreciation of the spurious as ‘authentic’.


One of the commonest assumptions among people who only imagine what a real teaching might be, is connected with ‘initiation’.


All over the world you will find people willing and anxious to initiate others into spiritual schools.


But, as the procedure is still preserved among the Sufis, initiation – the pledge of fealty to a teacher – only takes place ‘several years after his admission to the Order of Dervishes’. This is because, until the student knows enough, and until he has learnt something, he cannot truly commit himself to the deep studies. To get him to engage himself to follow a path while he is still not capable of it is a real mark of ignorance and imposture.





On the other hand, someone may be ready to learn and to understand when he is regarded by externalist tests as being quite unsuitable. The great Shibli one day made this very clear, in a story which contains several interesting features.


Shibli announced one day, in Baghdad, that he wanted a thousand dirhams, for shoes for the poor, for the Pilgrimage to Mecca. A certain Christian offered the money, providing that he should be allowed to accompany the caravan.


Shibli told him that only Moslems could make the journey. So the Christian offered to come as a pack-animal: from whom no affirmation of faith was required. So they set off, with the Christian in harness. At each stage he cleared the ground for the pilgrims.


When they arrived at the Great Mosque, Shibli told the Christain that he was not permitted to enter the precincts of the Kaaba. The Christian prayed that he might be allowed to enter. Then a voice was heard, inviting the Christian in . . .


Jumping to conclusions is one of the greatest barriers to learning, though not to actions which make people imagine that they have verified something or made discoveries.





Mulla Nasrudin went one day to a shipyard. Seeing a fire, which he had not expected to be associated with the sea, he asked a workman what it was for.


‘We make tar’ said the other man, ‘and cover the cracks in the underside of the boat. That makes the vessel go faster.’


The Mulla went straight home and made a bonfire. Then he tied up his donkey and melted some tar in a pan. As soon as he brought the smoking tar near the animal, it broke loose and ran like the wind.


‘It works all right’ said Mulla Nasrudin.