The Experience of Sohbet

by Olga Louchakova

In early September 2001 I left for Istanbul with a group of psychology students.
Anatolia, a region of Turkey in between Asia and Europe, for the last 5000 years was the melting caldron for all kinds of peoples and cultures. Without receptivity and tools to integrate complexity in their psychological constitution, these many ethnic and cultural groups would have extinguished each other.  Receptivity is also the defining condition under which the cosmic Heart, the center of subtle spiritual awareness in the human body, reveals its deep, esoteric essence to the mind of the seeker.  While much was written and spoken about the cosmic nature of the Heart, I want to focus on coming from the Heart, i.e. the spiritual dialog called Sohbet.

While preparing this article, I browsed the psychological and social sciences databases, in search of the studies on sohbet.  Sohbet, or sohbat, is not researched as well as other forms of spiritual dialog, such as Indian satsang, or archaic Russian “veche”.  Yet they are the vital part of oral cultural and spiritual tradition, as “talking” consciousness, which causes spiritual insight to emerge amidst the group of people participating in the enquiry.

As cultural psychology explains, cultures constitute different types of human consciousness, whence there will be also a difference in their talking styles.  Coming back to our journey in Istanbul – in 9 days after our arrival the Twin Towers in New York were hit by the plane, and the TV screens all over the world showed people jumping to their death out of the windows of the collapsing skyscrapers. The news hit us in the cab:  the driver kept repeating that U.S. was attacked. As the terrible news erupted, people spilled over on the streets of Istanbul, intensely talking to each other.  Hearing English speech, they engaged us in spontaneous, lively, emotionally intense conversations. It was a “walking” and “talking” culture, as opposed to the American culture of “driving” and “image”, which met us in depressed grief upon our return home to San Francisco on September 26th. In comparison with the talking expressiveness of Turks, it seemed that Europeans and Americans were just silent.

Between September 11th and 20th, the day of our departure, our sheikh engaged us in nearly round-the-clock sohbet.  I believe that sohbet, as an innate vehicle of consciousness in Sufism, is connected with the cultural talking styles in Muslim countries. It is a dialog heart to heart, and, as our host Metin Bobarogly said, there is a stage of the soul when special talking (i.e. sohbet) becomes its only food. Metin called it “the intensive course” in the practical study of the human being (Bobaroglu, personal communication, December 14, 2000).  Besides encountering sohbet in Turkey, I also witnessed its other form in the Malamatia Sufi group in San Francisco, as well as using it for years as a form of spiritual instruction and practice with my students.

Sohbet implies the following principles: it has to be sincere and egalitarian. The size of the group is not limited, and participants are expected to treat each other as friends, i.e. to cultivate receptivity. While the theme of enquiry may be set up in advance, the orientation is towards discussion of the meanings arising in the moment. As I describe it in my studies of the Prayer of the Heart and dhikr, which are the other forms of spiritual practices in the Heart, one has to access the primary, pre-reflective meanings, arising from within. These meanings are deployed by the innermost substance of consciousness within the Heart, and, with the proper positioning of awareness, receptivity, and the environment of safety, they can be linked to speech in the act of immediate self-explication.  The process of linking the emerging meanings to speech requires great self-presence, inner listening, and discrimination between primary and secondary thoughts. However, tying the process to the sense of self in the chest, i.e. somatic awareness of the Heart center, opens the skill of sohbet quite fast. This is what we can do as humans, having the capacity of heartful enquiry, opening the direct awareness of Divine realities, as innate to us.

The vicissitudes of relationships between the members of the sohbet group, and the “therapeutic” issues, are silently agreed to be kept outside of sohbet. Sohbet has to come from the place of "egolessness". The general mood is that of mutual respect, caring and the specific emotion of loving friendliness. This caring relatedness is a part of Islamic etiquette, called “adab", implicit in sohbet. Adab and sohbet (as one of its most visible expressions) have, not only spiritual, but also overall cultural importance. They seem to play important role in strengthening resilience to cultural stresses such as the ongoing threat of terrorism.
Modes of sohbet may vary, as the internal engagement with the specific theme opens direct intuition of various domains of the phenomenologically identified meanings.  For example one may dwell in the domain of logic, or in the domain of Divine Truths, or in the aesthetic sense, or even tap into he realms of disowned intentionality, i.e. collective unconscious. However, since sohbet engages the somatic component, that is the egological (I-centered) awareness of the chest, it  actualizes the sense of self. Self here will be not a self-concept or self-construal, but an embodied lived experience. As sohbet deepens, it also can bring out the shared group experience of the universal Self. This co-experienced insight into the non-dual consciousness is the pinnacle of sohbet. As the moment of Union emerges, it becomes a platform for the next step of discourse, emerging in the dialectical manner out this synthesis as the next step in the dance of opposites in the mind. 

The lived experience of participants in the sohbet is treated as an alive body of emerging sacred text, consciousness in the process of becoming. It is a sincere, kind, conscious conversation around meaningful and essential issues, sometimes with analyses of the separate words, among people having no operating defenses or power agendas. It has to be “horizontal.” It changes the mood of the group. Sohbet was different from therapy or growth groups in its profundity, transformative faculty, and healing as the true self-knowledge can be.  We experienced the rise from moods of depression, angst, concern, or confusion to gradually increasing states of clarity, empathy, joy, delight, and eventually highly positive experience of the self and total connectedness. Sometimes participants came up with deep existential insights. Sohbet may or may not have a facilitator. Our skillful facilitator, Dr. Bobaroglu, insisted that a group with no facilitator could obtain the similar effects. Later, my experience with this dialog in United States confirmed his observations.

Sohbet can last for several hours. In Turkey, a shared meal always preceded sohbet. Since 911 deeply affected our group, Dr. Bobaroglu intensified the sohbet for the 9 days remaining before our departure. The effects were quite stunning: shock, anger, depression, and fear lifted, giving rise to the stable self-sense and connectedness. This state lasted all the way to United States, and upon return we discovered increased resilience and resourcefulness in situations which otherwise would have been deeply disturbing. It seemed also that sohbet might cause long lasting behavioral changes, and even character shifts, to be researched in future. Meanwhile, I identified the several components of sohbet practice, which may be useful for people who want to engage this spiritual treasure as the path of their own development.  These components include attention equally inclusive of inter- and intra-subjectivity; attention to the rising embodied modalities of experience, and to the subjectivity of awareness (“I “ sense) in the chest; gravity towards focusing on presence and positive states, such as love; patience and receptivity; cultivation of empathy and friendship towards one-another; abstaining from therapeutic interactions and issues; existential focus of enquiry; self-disclosure; deep listening; sincerity, or whole being engagement; generosity; listening and talking from the heart.

Exposure to the sohbet radically changed my teaching style in the classroom. Students now frequently comment on my presence as that of the charismatic lecturer, but that has nothing to do with my personal qualities.  They owe this impression to the environment of sohbet that gets transmitted to them, if sincerity and friendliness are present in our engagement .

The above is a good example of how the inner riches of Sufism can be successfully used in other disciplines, such as psychological higher education. Sufism and transpersonal psychology, for example, share a belief that the ego is a societal hazard, however, they take different positions in regard to this assumption. While transpersonal psychology has turned away from the ego-centered processes, Sufism has specifically focused on neutralizing the ego’s destructive tendencies in favor of the needs of collectively developing community. Totally embedded in the multifold cultural and historical contexts of Islam, Sufism has contributed to the development of cultural coping mechanisms and resilience to trauma in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. This protean embeddedness in contexts makes it difficult to separate the transformative essence of Sufism from its cultural make-up, yet it is possible, as in the above described experience of Sohbet.  In the course of history, Sufism has behaved like a growing palm tree: its outer layers turning rigid and dead, to be shed -- as happened, for example, with the conservative and corrupted forms of Sufism of the Ottoman empire -- while it’s living core is always in a process of cultural adaptation.  Thus Sufism invigorates contemporary cultural practices, as I show in the use of sohbet in the environment of the psychological classroom in my practice.

Olga Louchakova. M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of transpersonal psychology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto Ca. She maintains a private practice in spiritual coaching in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA.

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