Neal Allen’s (SF78, EC21) Book Connects Platonic Philosophy and Sufi Metaphysics
October 24, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Neal Allen (SF78, EC21) didn’t expect to find himself at St. John’s four decades after completing his bachelor’s degree. As an undergraduate, he says, the college “was just brilliant for me. It was a place where I could expand my pattern-recognition skills, where I could really add some muscle to my logic skills, where I could discover the techniques of analysis and synthesis.”
Post-graduation, he earned a master’s in political science from Columbia, then worked in journalism before pursuing a career as a corporate executive and eventually becoming an executive coach after retiring. “I never intended to go back to school,” he says. “I’m not a lifelong learner. I am not saying I don't learn things, but at this point in my life, I don't intend to. I’m here to smell the roses, not dissect the roses anymore.”
Allen means that both metaphorically and literally. He’s now a spiritual coach and writer who makes time every day to play the role of “happy, clumsy amateur gardener” at his home in Northern California. His first book, Shapes of Truth: Discover God Inside You, published in 2021, is based on the work of contemporary mystic Hameed Ali, which has its roots in Platonic philosophy and Sufi metaphysics.
“Plato is a considered a prophet within Sufi mysticism,” Allen explains. “The connection is a deep-seated conviction that there is an eternal reality that sits underneath the manifest reality. Plato calls them forms, and Sufism also has a modest system of forms that are discoverable within the body as guides to the divine.” Through a series of collaborative exercises, the book offers readers techniques for engaging in open-ended exploration of those qualities—including “strength and will and power and love and forgiveness”—within themselves.
Allen was in the midst of completing the final draft of Shapes of Truth when he decided to embark on an Eastern Classics degree from the St. John’s Graduate Institute, which he attended entirely online. (During that same period, he wrote another book, called Better Days: Relax Your Inner Critic, scheduled for release in late 2023 by Namaste Publishing.)
He was drawn to the Eastern Classics program after spending ten years reading a number of its core texts while delving into elements of self-realization. “These are standard works within Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist and other paths that are carried into New Age paths,” he says. “I thought it would be really cool to read them rigorously and dissect them with other people.”
The process was not quite what he expected, and Allen had some initial ambivalence. “I realized why I hadn't wanted to be back in academia,” he says. “I was being judged on the scale of my intellectual apparatus, and I don't like that, because I was saddled with being a know-it-all for a great deal of my life. It was fascinating for me to move through that suffering and get some peace from it.”
He also discovered that his view of the texts was different from many of his classmates. As a self-described “believer in the Mahabharata,” Allen says that “the allegory is far more interesting to me than the social context or the human struggles that we can apply theories of justice to. If [the text] is not really about war, but about the battle with one's own ego and with one's own false beliefs, then the literal meaning of the work is just of minor interest.”
Similarly, while Allen had read Tao Te Ching numerous times before, he hadn’t ever approached it in an academic setting where he was “writing notes all over the page, letting every possible connection arise, like I was parsing beautiful poetry,” a change he calls “lovely.” He also reflects that while his previous exposure to Buddhism was extensive, “I got most of [it] without bothering to spend a lot of time with the texts closest to the Buddha's actual lifetime.” That understanding, too, was deepened by the program.
For Allen, there was something energizing about studying subjects with personal resonance in a format that was familiar. “I get very enthusiastic in St. John’s-style seminars,” he says. “I've done St. John's alumni book groups, and there's a way that Johnnies talk, there's a way that we're allowed to delve into books without being tied down by critical theory or context, which allows the book to emerge on its own.” It’s a quality he calls “remarkable and hard to find anywhere else in life.”
And attending St. John’s as an older returning student came with its own rewards—most notably a change of perspective. “I was not so excited by how this is lighting up my pattern-recognition skills,” Allen says of the Eastern Classics program. “I'm more excited by how this is providing me with a new set of glasses to see the world.”