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In our Study of the Day feature series, we highlight a research publication related to a John Templeton Foundation-supported project, connecting the fascinating and unique research we fund to important conversations happening around the world.

The 13th-century Persian poet, Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic Jalal al-din Rumi returned time and again to the metaphor of the mirror. “A Friend is a mirror of clear water,” he wrote. “I see my gains in you, and my losses.” Elsewhere he said, “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

Sufism is a tradition of Islamic teachings and practices focused on cultivating the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom. Because Sufi teachings encourage people to seek God through direct individual experience as well as orthodox Islamic practice, Sufi practices can take on an experimental nature focused on experiencing divine love while also receiving wisdom and — to use the modern term — psychological insight. 

M.T.O. Sufi Psychology is a set of integrative psychological approaches based on the teachings of the Makteb Tarighat Oveyssi Shamaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism, a U.S.-based global organization with roots in Iran. Many Sufi Psychology techniques emphasize the distinction found in Sufi thought between the heart and the brain, helping clients learn to differentiate between “heart values” and “brain values.” The approach draws on evidence-based secular psychological approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as spiritually integrated modalities (like exploring a patient’s spiritual history and present spiritual needs). It also integrates Sufi-specfic ideas and techniques, including helping patients understand the role of the “nafs” (soul) in their spiritual and emotional development, using Tamarkoz (a Sufi meditation practice involving deep breathing that has been shown to decrease stress and increase positive emotion), as well as exploring the more esoteric Sufi understanding of electromagnetic forces and how they can impact one’s circumstances.

An initial study published by Dr. Saloumeh DeGood, a clinical psychologist and president of the Sufi Psychology Association, suggests that patients’ self-reported levels of distress were significantly reduced over a course of therapeutic sessions utilizing Sufi Psychology.

“In contrast to the Western psychological viewpoint that the brain is in charge of the human being,” DeGood writes in the American Psychology Association’s Handbook of Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapies, “Sufi Psychology focuses on the heart. … In essence, Sufi Psychology seeks to reorganize the internal hierarchical structure of the human being by directing  individuals to lead with their heart — the gateway to the spiritual dimension — and not their brain.”

By integrating a spiritual perspective, Sufi approaches to psychology aim to help patients realize that there is more to their experiences than just their thoughts and emotions, and that their innermost self has a spiritual dimension worth exploring, and inner senses of purpose worth excavating and refining. For instance, patients might be asked to reflect on Rumi’s couplet about polishing one’s own mirror, asking whether the irritations they are experiencing might be helping their self-insight to come into better focus. “Between the mirror and the heart,” Rumi wrote, “is this single difference: the heart conceals secrets, while the mirror does not.”

Still Curious?

Learn more about Sufi Psychology research and programs at the Sufi Psychology Association.