Many religious beliefs address the discrepancy between the ego and the unconscious mind, although not all of them fully understand what they are dealing with. Sufism’s adherents claim that the sect represents the inner mystical dimension of Islam. As in so many mystical belief systems, the aim of the individual Sufi is direct experience of God, or as the Muslims say, Allah.
One of Sufism’s key concepts is an aspect of the psyche referred to as “nafs,” which is confusingly translated as either the self, psyche, ego, or soul. In English, a similar confusion surrounds the word “self,” with some people using it to mean the psychological concept of the self (the definition of which also varies), while others are merely referring to the conscious “I” or ego. For the sake of clarity, let me say that I use the word “self” in the psychological sense that includes the unconscious mind.
The Sufi concept of nafs is changeable in that the nafs can evolve and grow over time. In the beginning, nafs is the false self that takes the place of the “soul” and stands in the way of oneness with others, with ourselves, and with the Divine.
The immediate temptation is to say that nafs is the troublesome false persona, the false self-image, part made by ourselves; part thrust upon us by others when we surrender to societal, parental, and peer pressure; and part absorbed from the culture in which we are immersed. Ego maintains this false “self” as a front that it presents to the world in order to make a good impression. The trouble comes when the false persona is quite different from the authentic self (the Sufi soul) and genuine behaviour is supressed or even repressed in favour of keeping up false persona appearances. Nafs is indeed taking the place of the soul.
In contrast, authentic people have dispensed with much of their false persona, and awareness of their genuine will (and its importance) pushes them past concerns about any poor impressions others may have of them. Their knowledge of themselves is accurate and the image they present to the world is a reasonable approximation of who they really are. In Sufi terminology, they are one with themselves.
Sufism’s multiple references to oneness are a cause for concern. To be one with ourselves is fine; this is the Jungian concept of wholeness. However, it is not fine to be one with others, for this may represent a loss of identity, or a pathological state of codependency. Nor is it desirable to be one with the Divine. If there is no God, then what are you one with? The Jungian psychologist would answer that the “Divine” is actually a masked reference to the unconscious, cast in its usual wildly exaggerated role, and then projected or externalized as God. You are one with a mirage.
Looking more closely at the nafs, we see its most fundamental origins. A Sufi says, “The nafs has an existence of its own. I cannot decide to have this or that nafs. It comes to me by itself.” Superficially, this sounds more like a description of the constant authentic self. So, is the nafs the false persona – or is it the authentic self? The earlier attribution of changeability provides a vital clue. The true self is not changeable so we know we are still talking about the arbitrary false persona.
The phenomenon known as cultural hypnosis or cultural conditioning explains how the nafs “comes to me by itself.” We acquire the nafs by unquestioningly soaking up the socially accepted way of thinking and behaving. When we fail to question what we are swallowing, we sometimes end up with a way of looking at the world that is quite different from our own authentic or natural worldview.
The nafs or false persona becomes changeable when we are old enough to consciously fake values and character traits in order to enhance our image and status. In a more positive development, it can also change as we work to become more genuine and bring the persona in line with the authentic self. The latter process is a case (always difficult) of awakening from cultural hypnosis and throwing off our cultural conditioning. For the Sufi, this is the move towards being one with the “soul.”