Thinking about thinking and empathy

An important characteristic which distinguishes the work of Idries Shah from that of many other 20th-century exponents of Eastern thought is the emphasis placed on behaviour, ideas, stories and jokes which encourage flexible thinking

Flexible thinking is alien to most belief-systems, which insist on how things have to be, no matter what lip service they may pay to creativity, multiple-interpretation and ‘freedom of thought’. A belief system – unless one of its central tenets is to encourage flexible thinking – will tend towards rigidity. Study the dogmas (and it is interesting to note how this word has taken on a pejorative meaning) of a religion, philosophy or organisation over time and it is possible to see how they frequently solidify, becoming immovable and often out of touch, and subsequently requiring believers to blinker themselves in order to continue believing.

But if a system has a degree of flexibility built in, it stands a higher chance of remaining relevant. One method sometimes employed to do this is to allow for metaphorical, symbolic and alternative interpretations of the original teaching material. Shah’s material, however, takes this further, carrying the added concept that a ‘correct’ interpretation is not what counts, but the number and variety of interpretations (without becoming trivial). The ability to attach and detach is important, more so than having the ‘right views’.

Time, people and place are always changing – a factor which has to be taken into account – with the result that a sensitivity to the requirements of a specific situation is crucial. One means to developing such sensitivity can be to practice attaching and detaching from ideas. In other words, practicing mental flexibility.


The concept of empathy became more mainstream in the early 21st century and today permeates many areas of public discourse. Shah wrote in 1978[1], ‘In Sufic psychology, in what we might call “awareness of reality training”, is the ability to switch attention. This has to be achieved so effectively that, for instance, one can identify with and detach from another person so completely as to feel and see as if one does it by means of, or through the other individual.”

Some might be tempted to view empathy as a kind of panacea; as of 2017 there is even a ‘museum of empathy’[2] where you are invited to walk a mile, literally, in another person’s shoes. But a more subtle view of empathy is presented in Shah’s work, beyond its undoubted benefits, both social and personal. Here the emphasis is not only on the need to attach and see the world through another’s eyes, but also to detach at will. There is some material benefit in this: in order to move on in life, to new challenges and situations, we need the ability to detach from old ones, however strongly attached we may be to them. But the ‘benefits of being empathetic’ are not really the point. The flexibility gained by attaching and detaching at will is what may be required.

Mulla Nasrudin stories operate on one level as simultaneous examples of both mental flexibility and rigidity at work. In one tale, Nasrudin is staring at the ground under a street lamp and a passerby asks what he’s doing. ‘Looking for my key,’ comes the reply. The new-comer joins in the search. After a while he asks if Nasrudin is sure he lost it where they’re standing, as the street seems quite bare. ‘Oh no,’ replies Nasrudin, ‘I lost it at home, but there’s more light here.’

In another tale[3] Nasrudin claims a knowledge of the stars.

‘What sign were you born under, Mulla?’

‘Private Property – Keep Out!’

‘No, no, the Sign of the Zodiac.’

‘Oh, I see. Well, the Sign of the Donkey.’

‘Sign of the Donkey? I don’t remember that one.’

‘Well, you are older than me. They have had some new ones since your time, you know.’

Nasrudin shifts and changes position effortlessly; he can never be nailed down with mere words. The Nasrudin corpus can function like an intensive course in mental flexibility training.

Flexibility is needed to counter the human tendency towards obsessiveness. A certain low-level form of obsession can help in the acquisition of a new skill or in the pursuit of a particular goal. But obsession can easily start running the show. Almost anything we care about and are interested in can become an obsessive interest. But as Shah points out: ‘Are you using it, or is it using you’.

Sufis are described as being ‘in the world but not of the world’. They are reputed to have the ability to ‘get things done’ – by being in the world, by being attached when it is required – but also to be able to detach at an appropriate moment. Detaching from people and ideas is not always easy, however, which is where practising attachment and detachment as part of everyday life can come in.

Ideational Fluency

A recent interpretation of flexible thinking has been termed ‘ideational fluency’. This is the ability to move and connect easily from one idea, image or concept to another. Rather than understanding flexibility as ‘suggestibility’ or being easily influenced, ideational fluency is seen as a useful and powerful tool for stimulating resourcefulness and creativity. As Francis Bacon noted, studying poetry improved a person’s wit. Ideational fluency is akin to the notion of ‘wit’, being able to react in a smart or humorous way to whatever is said. But the concept goes further: the more substantial aspect of ideational fluency is to avoid getting trapped by ideas. Anger, pessimism, laziness, superficiality trap our minds in a certain viewpoint. Wittgenstein wrote, ‘A picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it[4]’. This was his way of explaining how a wrong philosophical idea can dominate, and not allow us to see another perspective. Certain ‘intelligent’ people may be fluent in sequential thinking, superlatively fast in some cases, but perhaps less good at flipping from one viewpoint to another. They often use their cleverness instead to build a defence of a non-optimum picture. By changing the way we look at things, by accepting ideational fluency as normal rather than ‘weak’ or ‘unreliable’, this pitfall may be avoided.

Reinvent yourself

‘Reinventing oneself’ is a useful phrase that legitimises mental flexibility. One of the positive aspects of contemporary culture is that it increasingly embraces life-changes and career-changes as being normal, with the ‘portfolio career’ and the ‘gig economy’ being a reality in more people’s lives. Though there may be no value per se in chopping and changing, at least having a cultural backing for a more mentally flexible approach is helpful.

Many of the Sufi stories which Shah uses speak of a journey. It is our most common metaphor for the way we move through life. As travellers, our biggest advantage may be learning and using mental flexibility. Whether young or old, if we can shift mental posture, see things from another perspective, then our journey may be easier, more enjoyable and more fruitful.

Active empathy

Mental flexibility does not necessarily preclude self-centredness. Likewise empathy can have its pitfalls, as demonstrated by those driven by emotion into certain forms of ‘empathetic understanding’ but resistant to people who do not conform to their idea of ‘deserving empathy’. Us-and-them thinking of this kind has its roots in survival of the family or clan unit, but is less helpful in other contexts. The importance lies in viewing ‘flexible thinking’ not just as a means to being more creative and clever, but also as a way to greater compassion, to seeing things from another person’s perspective, and then taking the next step: towards active empathy. This may be understood in terms of actually doing something truly helpful as a result of being flexible. The old concept of noblesse oblige was in some ways an attempt to enshrine this concept in the culture, especially amongst the wealthier. For the naturally – but selectively – empathetic, these mental steps may not be so necessary, but, a next step may be to try empathising with those with whom they would rather not.

[1] Idries Shah. A Perfumed Scorpion. Octagon Books 1978. Reprinted 2017 ISF Publishing.


[3] Idries Shah. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. ISF Publishing 2014

[4] Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations 115.