The Awakening of the Human Spirit
By Hazrat Inayat Khan
Publisher: New Lebanon, NY: Omega Press, 1988
The Awakening of the Human Spirit by Hazrat Inayat Khan (1888–1927) explores the longings, the challenges, and the potential of the human spirit. Inayat Khan is often credited with introducing Sufism to the West. In 1910, with the encouragement of his murshid (spiritual teacher), he left his native India and sailed to America. He came initially in the capacity of a musician, but soon shifted to teaching the Sufi path, and spent the rest of his life in America and Europe teaching that path to seekers. His Sufi teachings are often termed Universal Sufism because he saw the essence of Sufism as fundamentally at one with the teachings of mystics and saints of all other cultural or religious backgrounds. As he explained it:
Knowledge can be divided into two aspects: one is the knowledge we call learning, and the other aspect is knowing. … One scientist, one inventor, one learned person has one argument; another comes and says, “This is not what I think; I have found out the truth about it, which the one who looked before did not perceive rightly.” This has always been and will always be so with the outer knowledge. But with that knowing that is the central knowledge there has never been a difference, and there never will be. The saints, sages, seers, mystics and prophets of all ages, in whatever part of the world they were born, when they have touched this realm of knowing, they have all agreed on this same one thing. It is therefore that they called it Truth.
To know that truth, he says, one has to break the bondage of the body. He describes the human spirit as being imprisoned in the body and longing for freedom. Referring to the saying of the Prophet “Die before death,” he asks, “What does this mean? It does not mean ‘Commit suicide.’ It only means, ‘Study the condition of death.’ One need not die. Play it; one should play death and find out what it is.”
It is by playing death that one arrives at the knowledge of life and death, and it is the secret of life that will make the soul free. The different planes of existence, which are hidden behind the cover of this physical body, begin to manifest to the person who plays death.
Inayat Khan describes three prerequisites for attaining the inner life. The first condition is that one “should value the inner life more than anything else in the world, more than wealth, power, position, rank, or anything else. It does not mean that in the world he should not pursue the things he needs; it means he should value most something that is really worthwhile.” Second, if one really values the inner life he should give “his precious time” to it. The third prerequisite is
that the condition of his mind should be relieved of that pressure that is always present in a person’s heart, when he thinks that he has not done what he ought to have done towards his fellow men, be it father, mother, child, husband, wife, friend, or whoever it is. If the pressure is troubling his mind, then … his heart is not at rest, for he feels he has not done his duty, he has a debt to pay to someone. It is an essential point that the adept takes care that any debt to be paid in life does not remain unpaid.
According to Inayat Khan, one begins to follow the spiritual path in earnest only when certain positive qualities come to the fore. “When a man’s attitude has become a loving attitude, and when he has developed a tendency to serve, to forgive, to tolerate, to have reverence for all, good and bad, young and old, then he begins his journey.” To progress on that journey, however, one needs to let go of one’s preconceived ideas and be open and receptive.
When a person is holding onto certain beliefs, he is not going forward. And with many good qualities and high ideals, with religious tendencies, with a devotional temperament, with all the spiritual qualities that one may have, yet one can remain standing in the same place. Either these ideas are holding the feet as if with nails, or the hands are somewhere holding onto the railing and not letting one go further.
For Inayat Khan the spiritual path is a journey of discovery each of us must pursue individually:
Is immortality to be gained, to be acquired? No, it is to be discovered. One has only to make one’s vision keener – in other words, to explore oneself, but that is the last thing one does. People are most pleased to explore the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt in order to find mysteries, regardless of the mystery hidden in their own heart. Tell them about any mystery existing outside themselves, and they are delighted to explore it. But when you tell them to see into themselves, they … make difficulties, they raise complexities by their own complex intelligence. They do not like the straight way.
He describes the process of spiritual development as a relentless battle to overcome one’s own lower nature. “As soon as one has started on the journey, one’s lower nature rises up, and all one’s follies and weaknesses want to drag one down to earth, and the struggle of breaking these chains requires the strength of a Samson.” However, he says, people often have a mistaken notion that this spiritual battle is about overcoming and subduing the pleasures of the senses.
The Bible speaks of self-denial, but this is often misinterpreted. Self-denial, according to general belief, means denying oneself all that is good and beautiful, all that is worth attaining; but in reality self-denial does not mean denying oneself all that is good and beautiful, it means denying the self; and that is the last thing one wishes to deny. And the automatic action of this denial is to open the door to the inner life.
By entering the inner life, one finds the ‘friend’ he has longed for: “The friend who is a friend in life and after death, in pleasure and pain, in riches and poverty, one upon whom one can always depend, who always guides rightly. [This friend] is hidden in one’s own heart. Who is this friend? Man’s own being, his true inner being. That friend is the origin, source, and goal of all.”
But the question arises: if that friend is one’s own being, why then call him a friend, why not call him one’s self? The answer is that no doubt this friend is really one’s own being, but when the greater Self is compared with the present realization, one finds oneself smaller than a drop in the ocean. Man cannot very well call that friend himself until he has forgotten himself, until he is no more himself.
Forgetting oneself – or in Sufi terminology, annihilating the self so that one lives only in the friend – is the essence of the spiritual path. Inayat Khan describes the character of one who has attained the inner life. Such a one is
a mystery to everyone; no one can fathom the depth of that person, except that he promises sincerity, he emits love, he commands trust, he spreads goodness, and he gives an impression of God and the truth. For the man who has realized the inner life every act is his meditation; if he is walking in the street it is his meditation; if he is working as a carpenter, as a goldsmith, or in any other trade or business, it is his meditation. It does not matter if he is looking at heaven or at the earth, he is looking at the object that he worships. East or west or north or south, upon all sides is his God.
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