Doris Lessing’s personal letters indicate that Idries Shah’s re-presentation of Sufi teaching was a turning point in the later period of Lessing’s life and work. The Sufis was published early in 1964, and Lessing sent her first letter to Shah, the book’s author, shortly after reading it (8 April 1964).

‘I’ve been going through the process that you must have heard about dozens of times,’ she wrote, ‘trying to find out by myself how to be and what to do, and getting everything into a state of confusion. Everything in me and my life is turned upside-down; though I would never have believed, four or five years ago, that I could be as I am now, so there must be some very strong influence abroad to reach people as unlikely as myself, who have been a cheerful atheist for so long… this letter is simply an application to you, please to consider me as a candidate for when you start teaching.’

In the same letter she explained, ‘I have been reading and reading everything that I find, Bhuddism (sic), Yoga, and so on, and finally got myself into such a state of indigestion that I swore I’d not open another book on the subject till I could get advice, but luckily I didn’t keep this resolution, because otherwise I would not have read your book, for what you say in it seems to be what all the other books have led towards.’

The first letter also referred to her place of birth: ‘I was born in Persia, at Kermanshah, but I don’t remember very much, because the family left that country when I was five.’ She goes on to underplay any significance in this, but the fact that she mentions it at all may indicate a desire to belong to something viewed as ‘Oriental’.

The next letter she wrote to Shah, on 9 May 1964, was 9 pages long – about 3000 words – and detailed certain dreams and experiences. She spoke of an encounter with Irina Hoare, who introduced Lessing to The Sufis.

‘You may ask then, what evidence did I have that Mrs Hoare could give good advice,’ she wrote, ‘since I was no more equipped to judge people on Mrs Hoare’s level than people on yours? Well, but one has to trust someone; and the first time I was with Mrs Hoare there was an experience I’d never had before. I said something which was not true, and it was as if the air of the room rejected it… Next time I met her it happened again; so I decided that a quality of this sort must be respected and that I should believe what she said. Which was that you were a real teacher, but that you might or might not start teaching, according to circumstances and factors that ordinary people were not equipped to judge.’

Again she reiterated her interest in Shah’s work: ‘Of all the different books I’ve read over the last four years, this one has the most impact on me… by impact I don’t mean that feeling: how extraordinary and exciting that this hidden world exists; but a feeling of recognition – “yes, this is for me”.’

And she offered what would become a standard pattern over the years – to review the book when it appeared in the UK (she read a US edition). ‘I don’t usually review books, because the books they send me bore me. But if I can persuade an editor (the New Statesman for instance) to let me review a book which is the last they would associate me with, perhaps it would be a useful small bridge from your world to a very different one.’

One chapter of The Sufis explains the ‘Abjad’ system of assigning hidden meanings to names and words, often used by Sufis in the past when operating under a religious orthodoxy. Overt interest in such material may be used as a barometer of a potential student’s attraction to the mysterious. Lessing admitted ‘Ciphers don’t come easily to me’, but she went on to try to decode Shah’s name. Looking for significance in it she wrote, ‘I should also expect to find 33 concealed somewhere in your name.’ (At this stage Lessing comes across as a keen student, anxious to show her teacher how much she has grasped. As the years pass, however, the letters change and seem to show an understanding that Shah is aware of what she is like, and that there is no need for attention-grabbing.)

She realised that this projection of Sufism was not for everyone. ‘The book is designed not only to attract, but to repel. It has a rather brusque, take it or leave it manner… I think you are warning some people off: perhaps even purposely offending them.’

Regarding Shah’s ‘scatter method’ of writing – ‘sliding your message in under the guard of the logical mind,’ – she wrote, ‘You buttonhole the reader with a semblance of sweet reason: reasonably arguing against reason, you appear to offer facts to be accepted or not by the surface brain – meanwhile you are bombarding him on a very different level.’

The following letter revealed a concern about dreams. ‘Another thing I’m very curious about: these dreams I have. I’ve always had them. Sometimes of course, nonsense, but occasionally really intelligent suggestions. Who makes these suggestions? Who is that thing, person, who is so much brighter than I am? My soul? My essence? When I had mescalin, I was asking all the time (or rather one of the three people involved was asking all the time) who am I? who am I?… When I was a little girl, it started by my simply trusting this person to wake me up to the minute when I wanted to be woken up.’

She didn’t shy away from the theme of feeling childish: ‘I suppose when [in a previous letter] I asked if I could call you Shah I was demonstrating yet again what I know to be true anyway – namely, that I am three years old.’ Does that sound like harsh self-condemnation? At the least it demonstrates that Lessing felt committed enough to want to be as honest as she could.

She went on: ‘The particular quality of your book to me is that I feel there is a chance at least that perhaps I may find a teacher. I feel a suspicion that perhaps I am already being taught.’

And she added: ‘My general schedule is very flexible. I can be free any time in the day or the evening.’

Eventually Lessing did meet Shah and became a regular participant in events run by the Institute for Cultural Research, the organisation which Shah set up to disseminate current psychological and scientific findings of relevance to human development. And she did much to help publicise Shah’s work, placing reviews and articles about his books in many newspapers and magazines over the next thirty years.