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Learning How to Learn Summary – Idries Shah

Learning How to Learn, Idries Shah

Learning How to Learn, Idries Shah

“Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way”, Idries Shah
322 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This book summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise ~70 books on Learning How to Learn - for more, see the full reading list.

TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy), theoretical.

SYNTHESIS: Collected snippets of wisdom from talks and correspondence with author and spiritual teacher, Idries Shah, on the theme of learning from a Sufi perspective.

NOTE: (N.B., Sufism is a mystical element of Islam that emphasises the internal and personal journey of discovery that each of us makes towards to God and enlightenment.) 

This book was challenging to penetrate with just a high-level 3-hour read – as such, anything written here will almost certainly either (a) be wrong or (b) have totally missed the point. The only thing I’m certain of is that I’d need at least a full week (and probably several readings over a long period of time) to draw a cohesive whole from its many parts.

The writing is dense and the book is set out over 322 pages, spanning hundreds of disparate thoughts, anecdotes, analogies and quotes collected from discussions with Sufi author and teacher, Idries Shah – much in a question and answer format. These have been loosely collected into 133 sub-sections (some as short as a bullet, others as long as several pages) split across 8 chapters.

Shah’s focus is the search for gnosis (supreme wisdom), which he tackles from philosophical, spiritual, social and psychological perspectives. At first glance, there’s a lot here that looks familiar from e.g., Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity. But there’s also some chewy stuff on perception, attention, oneness, consciousness, intention, conditioning, bias and the illusory nature of reality. 

This book isn’t one to prioritise if you’re after immediate and practical tips on learning new things or mastering new skills. Not because there’s nothing relevant here – there is. It’s just that distilling the practical from the esoteric (if that’s even a wise idea) will take you some time. It will also make your brain hurt. With immediate practice in mind – there’s lower-hanging fruit to be found elsewhere.

This book does, however, feel full of insight into the nature of “truth”, the philosophy of learning (why are you learning? what should you learn? how can you learn? who can you trust to teach you?) and a great primer on Sufism. If that sounds exciting, and you’re up for a challenge, grab a copy and let me know what you think. I will definitely be back, at some point, to tuck into Shah’s wisdom with my Philosophy/Comparative Religion hats on.

In the meantime, here’s the full “Thematic Contents” page to colour the writing above:


  1. Sufis And Their Imitators
  2. Attaining Knowledge
  3. Secrets And The Sufis
  4. When To Have Meetings
  5. The Ceiling
  6. Conflicting Texts
  7. Self-Deception
  8. Journeys To The East
  9. What A Sufi Teacher Looks Like
  10. Books And Beyond Books
  11. Saintliness
  12. Secrecy
  13. ‘You Can’t Teach By Correspondence’
  14. Background To ‘Humility’
  15. How Serious Is The Student?
  16. Social And Psychological Elements In Sufi Study


  1. Characteristics Of Attention And Observation
  2. Operation Of The Attention Factor
  3. Motivation Of Transactions
  4. Attention Under Personal Control
  5. Excess And Deprivation Of Attention
  6. Study Of People And Their Ideas Apart From Their Attentional Value
  7. Identification Of Underlying Factors
  8. Raising The Emotional Pitch
  9. Fossil indicators


  1. Assumptions Behind Actions
  2. Exercising Power Through Kindness
  3. Copying Virtue
  4. Finding A Teacher
  5. What Is Gained From Reputation
  6. Robes And The Apparatus Of The Sufi
  7. Why You Are Asked To Help
  8. Laziness


  1. An Eastern Sage And The Newspapers
  2. Basis For People’s Interest
  3. Thinking In Terms Of Supply And Demand
  4. The Effect Of Tales And Narratives
  5. Stories Of The Miraculous
  6. Continuous Versus Effective Activity
  7. Capacity Comes Before Opinion
  8. Sanctified Greed
  9. Psychic Idiots
  10. Where Criticism Can Stop
  11. Information And Experience
  12. The Teaching Is A Matter Of Conduct
  13. Knowing One’s Own Sincerity
  14. The Would-Be And Should-Be People
  15. Satisfactions And Purpose Of Ritual
  16. Real And Ostensible Self-Improvement
  17. Roles Of The Teacher And Student


  1. Real and relative generosity
  2. Why do Sufis excel?
  3. Confusion as a personal problem
  4. Being a ‘Guru’
  5. Systems
  6. The vehicle and the objective
  7. concern and campaign
  8. Use, misuse and disuse of forms of study
  9. Potentiality and function
  10. Conditioning and education
  11. The search for an honest man
  12. How can one method be as good as another?


  1. A Viable Unit
  2. Being Supported
  3. Being Physically Present
  4. Intensely Standardised
  5. Organisations And Greed
  6. Generosity As Greed
  7. What You Do For Yourself
  8. Graduating To A Higher Morality
  9. Concluding That We Are Worthless
  10. That Which Attracts You About Us…
  11. Giving And Withholding – And External Assessment
  12. Standing Between You And Knowledge
  13. Direct Contact With A Source Of Knowledge
  14. Latent Knowledge
  15. Provoking Capacity
  16. Systematic Study
  17. Consistency And System
  18. Illumination And Information
  19. Habit Of Judging
  20. Higher-Level Work
  21. Games And Annoyance
  22. Aspirations And Acquisition
  23. Opinion And Fact


  1. Learning And Non-Learning
  2. Some Characteristics Of Sufi Literature
  3. Impartiality As A Point Of View
  4. Characteristics And Purpose Of A Sufi Group
  5. Prerequisites For A Student Of Sufism
  6. In Step Is Out Of Step
  7. ‘Dye Your Prayer-Rug With Wine’
  8. The Master-Dyer
  9. Method, System And Conditioning
  10. Western Culture
  11. The Western Tradition
  12. How Does The Sufi Teach?
  13. Idiot’s Wisdom
  14. Attacking Fires
  15. A Bridge And Its Use
  16. Deterioration Of Studies
  17. Community And Human Growth
  18. The Value Of Question And Answer Sessions
  19. Dedication, Service, Sincerity
  20. Sufis And Scholars
  21. An Enterprise Is Measure By Intention, Not By Appearance
  22. Sufi Organisations


  1. Coming Together
  2. Concealment Of Shortcomings
  3. Saints And Heroes
  4. The Levels Of Service
  5. Ritual And Practice
  6. To Be Present
  7. The Way To Sufism
  8. The Giving Of Charity
  9. The Number Of Readings Of A Book
  10. Decline In Religious Influence
  11. Why Can’t We Have A British Karakul Lamb?
  12. Teaching Methods And Prerequisites
  13. Sorrow In ‘Spiritual Enterprises’
  14. Shock-Teaching
  15. Emotional Expectations
  16. Jumping To Conclusions
  17. The Rosary And The Robe
  18. Random Exercises
  19. On The Lines Of A School
  20. Conduct-Teaching
  21. The Curriculum Of A School
  22. Knowing All About Someone
  23. Remarks Upon The Matter Of The Dervish Path
  24. Meetings, Groups, Classes
  25. Internal Dimensions
  26. Explanation
Arthur Worsley
Arthur Worsley
Arthur is a thinker and writer who helps people who want more from their lives learn to be more productive, find more balance and live life more meaningfully. Want to know more? Take this 2-minute quiz to discover your Productivity Quotient (PQ) and learn how to get BIG things done. Take the Quiz →

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  1. Carl Grove says:

    Having spent decades studying Idries Shah’s 30-book introductory course in Sufi thinking, I can state very firmly that attempting to summarise any of them — and this one one of the key books, which contains many explicit statements about important aspects of Sufism — whether for a five minute read or longer, is a rather pointless exercise: rather like quoting 3 or 4 random lines from a complex computer program. The apparent, surface message can be described, but there are so many levels or dimensions in Sufism that the only value in the exercise can be to arouse interest in potential students.

    Interesting that you quoted a poetic version of the Blind Men and the Elephant, a much repeated Sufi tale, and a basis of Shah’s The Dermis Probe.

    • Arthur says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Carl! Gave this a superficial read for the Learning How to Learn Reading List and quickly realised I’d bitten off more than could be quickly or meaningfully chewed. Will definitely revisit this and more of Shah’s works in the future with a more philosophical hat on.

      Cheers for stopping by.

      • Carl Grove says:

        I wish you luck. The materials are designed to make any intellectual summary impossible, not least because (as Shah states in Learning How to Learn) Sufi writings contain deliberately false and misleading material. I wasted a decade trying to “integrate Sufism and Western Psychology,” a totally pointless and futile activity.

        • Arthur says:

          Interesting. I love a challenge. In my experience attempting a direct intellectual summary of materials like this is impossible. It’s like trying to paint the sun.

          Instead, the best approach is an indirect synthesis, not of the materials themselves, but of the way that their light illuminates and alters our experience of the world around us.

          In other words, the question is not “How do I integrate Sufism and Western Psychology?” but “How does my understanding of Sufism change my perspective on Western Psychology?”

          Of course, I’ll have to see for sure if that’s true when I eventually come back to it later. Looking forward to it.

  2. Antoine says:

    Thank you Arthur for highlighting this interesting book, reminding us that Islam has many facets.

    Beyond the direct message, I wonder:

    What is religion? Do all religions have a fundamental message of peace, love of humanity, respect for others and wisdom, acquired through inner reflection, be it meditation or prayer? How far apart are all religions, and can one be restricited to one system of thought? Are there any differences between religion, science and art, or are they all a way of labeling and expressing a vision of reality:)?

    When do these precepts of love and inner fulfillment become detached from their religious context? Were all religions hijacked to some degree by their own leaders or political leaders throughout the times, and even now?

    Why are some form of “tolerant” Islam like sufism or similarly alevism – although considered shiites — (still) targeted by some islamists, and singled out by supposedly “secular” governments or dictatorships, should it be divide and conquer?

    What was the initial context of the book and targeted audience, and should we reflect on the current context of otherwise timeless books on inner discovery?

    Or is the book just about the power of good story telling, which is at the origin of human knowledge transmission, like indeed all religions?

    • Arthur says:

      Thanks, Antoine for your thoughtful comment! These are all great questions for anyone planning to give Shah a thorough read (I will certainly be keeping them in mind).

      Your initial salvo re the nature of religion (and philosophy, in general) reminded me of a favourite poem by Saxe (based on a much older parable from the Indian subcontinent), shared below…



      It was six men of Indostan
      To learning much inclined,
      Who went to see the Elephant
      (Though all of them were blind),
      That each by observation
      Might satisfy his mind.

      The First approached the Elephant,
      And happening to fall
      Against his broad and sturdy side,
      At once began to bawl:
      “God bless me! but the Elephant
      Is very like a WALL!”

      The Second, feeling of the tusk,
      Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
      So very round and smooth and sharp?
      To me ’tis mighty clear
      This wonder of an Elephant
      Is very like a SPEAR!”

      The Third approached the animal,
      And happening to take
      The squirming trunk within his hands,
      Thus boldly up and spake:
      “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
      Is very like a SNAKE!”

      The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
      And felt about the knee
      “What most this wondrous beast is like
      Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
      “‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
      Is very like a TREE!”

      The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
      Said: “E’en the blindest man
      Can tell what this resembles most;
      Deny the fact who can,
      This marvel of an Elephant
      Is very like a FAN!”

      The Sixth no sooner had begun
      About the beast to grope,
      Than seizing on the swinging tail
      That fell within his scope,
      “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
      Is very like a ROPE!”

      And so these men of Indostan
      Disputed loud and long,
      Each in his own opinion
      Exceeding stiff and strong,
      Though each was partly in the right,
      And all were in the wrong!

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