Mirza Inayat Khan's rich mythological and spiritual insights always leave me feeling good, even when, or perhaps especially when we touch on dark themes. We talk about angels, Rilke, Borges, reggae, David Bowie, dreams, weathering depression during the pandemic, and many other unbelievable infinities . . .
0:00 - Intro
0:58 - Names
Michael Carychao: Welcome Mirza Inayat Khan. Can you tell us about your name?
Mirza Inayat Khan: Yes, I'd be happy to. It's a long story and a long name.
When I was born, my father named me and my brother, Seraphiel and Kerubiel. Actually, I was Kerubiel and my brother was Seraphiel. And we were named after two paintings in the Hagia Sophia mosque, in Istanbul. This was an old Christian church in the Eastern Roman Empire. When the Muslims took over, they covered up all the iconography, except for these two angels, because they were not very figurative. They were more symbolic pictures. These two angels, Seraphiel and Kerubiel—Seraphiel is the Archangel of Light and Kerubiel is the Archangel of Fire. An interesting name, right? And one that I had, when I was a young child.
There's something intriguing about that idea, for me, of angels being not these innocent little baby creatures, but instead these awesome, frightening, powerful, sometimes destructive beings. You know, there's that line of Rilke I love. That is, "Every angel is terrifying." Rilke calls on the angels, knowing that they can destroy him, destroy his life, or his self, his sense of self, maybe his false self or his ego.
There's another line from somewhere in the scriptures. I'm not sure where it is. It might be in the Letter to the Hebrews, where it says that the Cherubim, the Angels of Fire, are allowed the closest to God's presence, because only they can withstand God who is a raging inferno. It’s an interesting way of looking at angels.
That was a name that I grew up with when I was very young. Then at some point, my parents thought that I would want to change my name and so they preemptively changed my name to another name, which I didn't care for that much. And so later, when I sort of came into my own and was able to make the decision for myself, I chose the name Mirza.
It's an interesting choice because it's the least descriptive possible name. It is more of a title than a name. I guess I was seeking a little bit less meaning, seeking something that was a little bit more anonymous. And that name, Mirza, just means "secretary," someone that can read and hold an office, anything from a secretary like a typist or a scribe, all the way up to a secretary of state. It's often a title given to the second son. I, myself, am the second son. The first child might be the Amir himself, the prince himself. And the second one would be the Amirzade, the little Amir, not old enough to inherit the title, but still a man of letters. I think that's an apt description of me.
And, of course, the latter parts of my name refer to my family that's from Central Asia, hence the name Khan, which is also its title. And Inayat, who was my grandfather, and who is really the pivotal figure in my family and so, since his life and his work as a spiritual teacher, everyone in my family has taken on his name as being part of a khandan, part of a tribe associated with his lineage and his work.
I often wonder about how names work, and whether a name describes the reality or the person or whether the name, in some way influences the reality of the person to conform to the expectations of that name.
I've always enjoyed naming children and pets. I love to name to name things.
06:00 - The Number Two
MC: You spoke of being the second son. Tell us what the number two has meant to you. The idea of first and second, primus and secundus?
MIK: Yes, that's a good question. One that I haven't thought of before. There was a kind of a dark joke that I heard this morning on another podcast, Trevor Noah. He was talking about this recent news of the Iranian nuclear scientist who was just assassinated, who was the premier nuclear scientist in Iran. Trevor made a joke to all the kids out there—that you should never try to be number one.
And in a way that joke, is a little bit about how I feel being the second son, is that my brother inherited my father's teaching role, and all of the responsibility of our family lineage. His destiny was a wonderful destiny, but it was laid out for him in a way. I was given a freedom and a lack of expectation about who I would become and what I would do.
There's something about being the second that is perhaps preferable in that way. You think of a monkey tribe, and there's the alpha monkey. It seems like it would be the best to be the alpha monkey, but actually, it's a lot of responsibility. Everyone is constantly challenging your monkey rule, as it were. The beta monkey is under the alpha, but it's a lot less work to be the beta. And then, of course, there's the gamma, who doesn't even participate in the alpha-beta competition, instead just takes a completely different route, and is able to be an explorer and inventor and an artist.
8:06 - Choosing Your Path
MC: So how did you go about finding your particular self-chosen role?
MIK: For a long time, I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I was interested in learning, and I was interested in reading, and every month, I would have a new subject that I was obsessed with.
But I didn't know how to turn any of them into a career or a life calling in some way. Finally, after many years of not really having a direction, not having a career, my mother suggested that I become a teacher. So, I went through the normal steps to become a teacher and got a teaching credential and entered the classroom. My first year was a little rough. But since then, I've gotten better at it. I've been a schoolteacher now for twelve years.
Suddenly, everything that I learned in the first half of my life, I get to pass on, and as I'm passing it on, I also find that, by teaching something, I'm able to experience it and live it in a way that I wasn't when I was only learning about those subjects. So that's given me a strong direction and a strong purpose in my life.
09:35 - Favorite Things to Teach
MC: What are some of your favorite things to teach?
MIK: Well, everything I teach I love. I'm in a really lucky position that I'm my own department head. I have a department in which I teach philosophy and world religions and ethics. I get to determine what to teach at different grade levels.
So right now, I have a sixth-grade class and we just read the story of Joseph, from the Jewish religion, and Joseph is interpreting the Pharaoh's dreams. I'm going to put a pin in that because I'd like to return to that story a little bit later, if I could. It's a wonderful story of Joseph interpreting the dreams.
I ask my students about their dreams. You've never seen these students have more to say. It's the one question that, when I asked my students, every single student—ones that would never talk in any other circumstance—all have something to say because it's so uniquely personal, your dreams, and also so mysterious. They are just dying to share this part of themselves. I guess that's why dreams are so intriguing. They're calling out to be to be seen, some part of yourself that's calling out to be seen. So that's a wonderful subject with my sixth graders.
With my seventh graders, right now, we're studying some of Jesus's teachings. We just read, today in class, the Sermon on the Mount. This is a great subject for seventh graders, because they're going through a lot of the things that Jesus is talking about: how do you treat the outcasts in your group? What do you do when someone is being unkind to you? These are all the kind of situations that that are really important for seventh graders.
My tenth graders are studying Taoism. We took this beautiful walk today, and looked for Taoist themes in nature, the yin and yang and the way that water flows. In that class, I also have a lot of students for whom Mandarin is their first language. So, we're able to read parts of the text in English and in Chinese and that was also really interesting.
MC: Tao ke tao, fei chang tao.
MIK: Oh, you know it as well!
MC: Just a little bit.
12:20 - Systems of Philosophy and Religion
Judaism, Christianity, Taoism. What other systems of philosophy or religion do you touch on?
MIK: I want my students to have a familiarity with all of the different religions and all of the different stories. I, myself, am particularly drawn to stories and myths. They've always held a deep attraction for me. A lot of the stories and myths that I teach are ones that I don't necessarily believe are part of a well-rounded education but are just those that are so meaningful to me personally, that I can't help but pass them on.
All of that is a background. I think that the religions and the philosophical traditions of the world ask these wonderful questions about what is the meaning of life. Those are questions that I think the young people are really—those are questions that I think it's very good for young people to consider. Not to consider my answer, or the answer of Taoism or Christianity or Judaism, but really to find their own answers to those same questions, so that they have some internal guidance for them to navigate their world right now and have some idea of who they want to be in the future.
You know, young people these days are—I'm sounding a little bit stodgy here, but young people these days are, well, they're self-reporting to be very stressed out, very aimless, not knowing what is the point of it all. "What do I want to do with my life?" That sense of meaninglessness makes it very difficult. It makes it difficult for them to navigate situations like the one that we're going through right now where some of them can't go to school and have to call in on video call and some of them don't know what they'll do after school, if they'll go to college or why they would go to college. There's a feeling of being lost.
If you have students that have found their own answers to some existential questions about what the purpose of life is and what their own purpose is, even if those answers change and evolve over time, it still gives them their own quest. They're the hero of their own quest. Then when they encounter difficult decisions, or challenging times—our pandemic is obviously a challenging time for all of us, and also for these young people—being the hero of your own quest, then gives you a way to face even those challenging things, and, in fact, sometimes welcome challenges because they make you stronger.
15:33 - What Questions Are Worth Asking Yourself?
MC: Very nice. So that comes out of the question, "What to do with your life?" And it's a question that I'm hearing you're recommending asking not so much for the answer, but for the practice it gives you in the face of that awesome mystery: not getting blown over by it. What other questions are worth asking for yourself, either asking of yourself, when you're young, or perennially as you age?
MIK: Some of the questions that have been most meaningful to me, are so difficult to put into words. They're an intuitive, almost subconscious question about the universe.
When I was really young, we lived in New Mexico up on a hill, and you could see for—it felt like—hundreds of miles in all directions, and this huge sky, and all of these stars. So, from a very young age, I was very aware of the enormity and the mystery of the cosmos. That left me this feeling of "Why?"
Not just, "Why is there an earth?" Or, "Why is there a Mirza?" But, "Why is there anything? And what is it that hosts that something?
17:22 - For Those Asking "Why?"
MC: What would you say to someone who is asking that question, "Why?" Whether it's the pandemic that's bringing on this question, whether it's adolescence, whatever is triggering it, if someone is really searching for why, do you have a recommendation as to what their next move might be to find some peace with that question or to get some depth with that question?
MIK: Well, if it was one of my students asking that question, I would simply ask the question back to them and ask them more about their thinking.
Most of these questions that you're asking me are things that have to do with myself or my job, and they should be ones that I have a quick answer to, but I actually don't. I think the reason is that I've never—I often only think about something when I'm talking about it. The act of speaking about it not just clarifies my thinking, it actually creates my thinking on a subject. And that might be true of other people, too. Definitely with my students I feel like they know more than they know that they know—especially around spiritual or philosophical questions. They already have some idea, but they don't know it yet because they haven't been asked or they haven't expressed their idea. They haven't talked it through.
18:53 - Speaking to Find out What You Think
MC: Would your recommendation perhaps be to get moving on it and to write or speak or have conversations to somehow activate that, maybe it's the . . . linguistic center? Maybe it's just kind of the existential urge?
MIK: Yes, I think that's true. I think the more that you write and the more that you speak on a subject, the more that you discover what you know, or what you believe you know—and again, that can change over time, and the circumstances change it so that the setting and the relationships that provide a context for your speaking or your writing also influenced then the content.
For students, for young people, having a setting where there is a lot of trust, and care and compassion, but also joy and playfulness—that allows them to explore these ideas in more of an open ended way, not needing to know a right answer, but being comfortable with that sort of evolving, changing set of ideas that are coming from you.
I'm the same way. I'm often changing my mind. Opportunities like this, to speak with you, is a time where I'm actually creating the ideas, rather than repeating them. Of course, when you write, it's different from when you speak, and a different set of thoughts come out. Our communications—Again, I'm a little . . . I feel like an old man here, but these days, our communications are so fast that we need to respond to people, we need to respond to a text or an email right away, we need to make a decision. We no longer have this inner space, to let ideas slowly form. A lot of the ancient philosophers and mystics and thinkers lived in this world where there was a lot more interiority than the way I think many of us live.
Many of us live where our thoughts emerge, and we immediately send them out into the world, or we get some feedback from the world and we immediately internalize it. We don't as much have that interior space. I mean, we still have that interior space, but we're not doing as much to nurture it and to protect it from the fast paced and superficial and gaudy nature of the external space.
You know, we've had some power outages here in California recently. And during each of those my experience of spending a few nights by candlelight has completely changed my feeling of what it's like to be alive.
MC: I can see from your face that you love that.
MIK: I do, because in the world of electricity—and specifically computers and cell phones—I get so caught up in constantly needing some stimulation of information and constantly feeling like I need to respond to a message. Having the candlelight softens the world. It creates this womb-like interior, where thoughts and feelings emerge that would not have been able to grow under the electric lights, but really take that loving, nurturing space of candlelight to grow.
23:27 - A Lack of Interiority and Inner Space
MC: I've got this practice of getting up very early in the morning to write. And I often use a computer, and often there is a light on. So even though I'm kind of getting up in the womb of the morning, I have it a buzz with electricity. I'm curious about that. I would definitely try lighting a candle and bringing the old journal to that session to see what the difference is. How can you develop this inner space that you're talking about? Are there techniques for cultivating and nurturing it?
MIK: Every spiritual tradition has a lot of clear guidance on this and clear practices on this, but I'm not the expert. I'm speaking of it in a longing way. I'm a full-fledged member of the fast-paced, superficial life on the exterior.
MC: Power outages welcome.
MIK: Yes, it's only when I'm forced to. I gave my tenth-grade students today a short Taoist meditation exercise and it was very simple, and they went outside and sat in nature for 10 minutes, not very long. They weren't allowed to sit near each other so they couldn't talk, and they weren't allowed to have a phone with them. They sat and then just came back to report on what they had observed in the natural world: light and color, and movement and shadow.
All of them came back not only with this deep set of observations of the natural world, but also of their interior world. Just these ten minutes sitting outside was so transformative for them. They all came back and they said, "We should do this every day in school. Every kid should do this every day in school."
I said, "Well, do you know that when you're not in school, you could do this anytime that you want?"
And they said, "Yeah, but we never would."—that they would have to be forced to be contemplative, and then they think they would really benefit from it. I'm the same way. I need to be forced to be contemplative. And then I really benefit from it.
24:27 - Developing Inner Space
MC: If somehow you could force this lesson of contemplation upon the world at large, what do you think would change about the world?
MIK: This is what the world is doing to us all the time. I just mentioned the example of the power outages, but our current quarantine is a great example of that. I think many of us, over last spring had this experience of being forced out of our normal daily routines and this very negative situation ended up also creating these new ways of living that many of us found to be deeper and more meaningful.
So, for example, in my own life, I used to take my kids out to eat at restaurants a lot. We started cooking meals at home. Then after the meals, we would all sit down to play a board game. The nature of my time with my kids changed and deepened, because the circumstances had forced that.
Instead of running an errand or going to the store, we would go for a walk. And again, it was because we weren't allowed to or that it was dangerous to go to the store. And yet what we actually experienced by going for these walks . . . I found just in the first few weeks, I found a hillside right near my apartment that had one of those contemplative labyrinths built onto the top of it. It was a most magical place that I had never known was there. I think many people across the country and probably across the world had this same experience.
You know, the world throws some really heavy stuff at us and some really dark stuff at us. I just received a book in the mail of my aunt's writing [Noor Inayat Khan, Dream Flowers]. She died in a concentration camp. The world throws these unimaginably dark and difficult circumstances at us. Every generation experiences this on some level, and every individual. I think, when I was young, I misunderstood that tragedy was a rare and notable thing, when actually some tragedy will come to everyone.
The world is doing this to us. I don't want to say that it's for a reason, but I will say that, in response, we grow. In these dark times, we have to create some light within ourselves. In the life of my aunt's, the way that she was able to have this incredible courage and defiant hope and this incredible conviction to her own ideals around freedom.
It would be terrible if I was in charge of the world. But I think that whoever is in charge of the world—although it seems really bad, not just right now but you know, throughout history, it seems really bad. I still believe in what the Greek philosophers would call the logos: that there is some purpose. All the events of our lives and the events of history are connected, not in a predestined way, but in a way of being part of a larger intelligence, a larger consciousness.
29:59 - Things You Wouldn't Go Back To
MC: It's a wonderful reminder that there is no need to manufacture dark times, power outages. They spur us to explore ourselves, to take a step back, to change our habits. Are there any things that you would not pick up again, that you were forced to put down?
MIK: I think if I could resume all my old activities, I would. One thing that comes to mind is how a lot of relationships have been frayed. You would think that we, as humans, all facing common challenges and difficulties and hardships, that we would become kinder and more forgiving, and take care of one another more—on a national level, political level, but also, you know, within families and within groups of friends. There are probably some examples of that, but I've also seen a lot of the opposite. I've had a lot of experiences where it's made us sometimes get petty and argue over little things. And I, myself am guilty of that. You know, reminding myself, of the of the larger things at stake, both in the circumstances of the pandemic, and also just in the circumstances of his history.
A generation ago, my aunt was in this concentration camp and a generation before that, another tragedy and another challenge, and a generation before that another. And that gives me a moment to not be caught up in a petty annoyance or resentment that I might have. But it only gives me a moment, and then I'm drawn back into that. I'd like to find a way to make that remembrance something that I carry forward, and that I really use in all of my relationships going forward. Every day.
32:14 - The Importance of Music
MC: Tell us about what music has brought to your life.
MIK: You and I and our friend, Jacob, were talking about what are some of the things that you could not do without in your life. For me at the top of my list was music. I couldn't imagine living without music. There have been musicians that I've listened to for decades and musicians that I've listened to for a couple of years and could never put down again. Once you fall in love with a song, or a musician—that's it. I'll love them for the rest of my life, and in a very deep, committed way. Although not in a monogamous way. My friends often joke with me that, whenever a musician comes on that I really like, I always say, "Oh, this is my favorite." I have a lot of favorites.
MC: Are there any new favorites? Or what are you listening to at the moment?
MIK: One that's coming to mind right now is David Bowie, who I've listened to for many years and continue to listen to and last night I put on this great recording of Bowie at the Beeb, where he's being interviewed and playing for John Peel at the BBC, in London, and plays all of his early songs. There's something about Bowie—I don't know why he does this for me—but previous to getting into Bowie, I was much more reserved with other people and with myself, and there's something about his vulnerability and courage to be himself that I really connected with. It inspired me to become much more vulnerable and much more present with my feelings. Much more willing to not have a boundary between my own emotional experience and the people around me and the world around me and instead, sort of put myself out there and put my feelings out there into the world and be willing to get hurt and have my heart broken and be willing to make a fool of myself, in a way. Different musicians have affected me in different ways but for some reason, he's someone who's also really changed who I am.
MC: Can you remember the first musician that blew your mind?
MIK: Well, my brother was listening to a lot of reggae when I was growing up and I inherited that love of reggae. The songs that he was listening to that would be played around our household and that I still listen to, you know, they made a really deep impression on me early on in my childhood. There was something I heard, I don't know if it's true or not, but there was something I heard that the music whose rhythm most corresponds with the human heart—is reggae. I'd be interested if there's any science behind that. But I definitely feel that. There's something tender. There's something that really makes my heart feel tender when I listen to reggae.
In Islam, there's a spiritual belief Umm Al Khattab, which is The Mother of the Book. In Islam, the book is The Quran. But of course, every religion has their book, right? Whether it's the Gospels, or the Torah, or The Bhagavad Gita. Non-religions also have their books.
This notion from Islam is that there's some Mother of the Book behind them all that has generated the inspiration for all of these forms of revelation that have come to people in different cultures and different times in history. But it all comes from a single regulatory source. For me, at least, I believe that reggae is part of that ongoing revelation that reggae—especially some artists that are inspired by the same force that has inspired The Quran and the Gospels.
36:39 - Favorite Borges Story
MC: This is bringing Borges to mind. Do you have a favorite Borges story?
MIK: I don't even know how to pronounce its name actually. But it's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" [Jorge Luis Borges]. In this story, a gentleman reader gets into a debate with a fellow intellectual and the other intellectual quotes a proverb that he says comes from this little known country of Uqbar and shows him the Encyclopedia Britannica, eleventh edition, article on Uqbar, and the man then returns to his home and tries to find the same article. But it doesn't exist in his edition. When he continues to explore it, it unravels this mystery where there are worlds upon worlds, and each of them has its own language and own way of understanding reality. A lot more Borges is based on the notion of infinity—often infinity, not as a massive outward vision or movement, but rather that the infinity can be found by going down any number of wormholes into the different chess positions, or a small citation in a book, which has an infinity of other worlds behind it, or inside of it. I found that myself, in just looking into different subject matters that I'll stumble upon an idea or an author or something, and then suddenly an infinity will open up through that window. I often also had that experience where I've cited something that's in a book, told people about it for many years, and then I've gone back and indeed, it's not in that book itself, it's some temporary portal that I've created.
MC: Yeah, it's almost like stories can be embedded with these windows that you can have this temporary access to.
MIK: That's another idea in Islam that's very intriguing. Back in the day, there was a debate about whether The Quran was a finished static book, or whether every time you opened it, it was actually tuning into a radio station: you're getting a direct input from the author.
39:10 - Reading Influences
MC: Yeah, that's an amazing idea: the living text. And, of course, when you come to a text, you're bringing the moment with you. The text itself is somewhat inert and without you, there isn't that spark. So, there's a confluence there.
Books. Where do you move from there? What's the next sequence of books for you?
MIK: Well, my reading is just completely haphazard. It's not that one book is leading to another at this point. It's what I randomly open and so, last night, I was reading a book about Sufi dreams [Shower of Stars by Peter Lamborn Wilson]. Because I've been interested in dreams lately. Tonight, I was reading a dictionary of etymology. That's a great book—a book that opens up windows into infinity. Maybe that's a common theme in books that I like.
MIK: Definitely the etymological dictionary does that because you get curious about the meaning of a certain word. Often, it's my kids that asked me about the meaning of a word. I'll give them the short answer and then I'll realize that there's some nuance to the word, there's some nuance to other words that have the same root. How are those related in in some subtler field of meaning? How did that evolve into these individual words? And so, I'll follow those trains back.
It's almost genetic, in the same way that—forgive my lack of knowledge about biology, but let's say—an RNA takes a certain piece of coding from a DNA and then transmits it to another part of the cell. That RNA doesn't fully understand the message that it's conveying from one part of the cell to the other. In the same way, I think many of us, we pass on information, or stories, or songs or poetry, that is, a piece of coded information, and it has a certain meaning to us as the messenger. That's why we transcribe it or play it or repeat it or recommend it to a friend. But it's part of some larger information-passing system, in the same way that biology is.
MC: I was just enjoying you explaining that. It made me think of how we're at the mercy of our environment for our influences, and how much we influence others without really even being aware of what we pass on, and how that's both magical and fragile. You're giving me the sense that there's a living system at play here of influences.
42:17 - Joseph's Dream
So, dreams. Dreams are potentially with us every night. Some of them are portentous. Some of them are elations. Some of them are mysterious, and many of them are just gone as you wake up. What was this dream that Joseph had?
MIK: Well, before I tell you that dream, I want to tell you how I heard about it. I was living in New Mexico, and I was very young, maybe six years old. My godmother was taking care of me and we were very close. For reasons that I never fully understood at that time, she left the states and moved to Jerusalem. I was just devastated. This was a major loss in my young life.
A month later, I got a package from her. It had a cassette tape, and I put it on, and it was her voice. I was too young to be able to read a long letter. Every month, she would send me a cassette tape. On these cassette tapes, it was her talking to me walking around the city of Jerusalem and telling me stories. The first story that she told me was the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh's dreams. And in the background of her telling me this story, I could hear the marketplace: people praying at the Temple Mount, and Hebrew and Arabic. And I listened to those cassette tapes over and over again until the little spool of tape became unraveled. Those stories became early mythology for me.
This is sort of how mythology works, that you get a powerful myth, and then you tell it over and over again, and it gets written on your heart. It's what they say: written on your heart. It actually becomes part of your psychological makeup, part of who you are.
This story did become part of who I am because then I went on to study religion and then I went on to move to Jerusalem and then I attended a yeshiva, a Rabbinical School, where they studied Torah stories like this, and now I'm teaching that same story myself. Maybe this is all a set of coincidences, but that story wanted me to know it, or I needed to know that story.
The story of Joseph is really an extension of the story of Jacob, who the rabbi says, really, is the central character of the Bible, a very intriguing figure. But Joseph first he gets into trouble. His brothers are jealous of him. He's his father's favorite, and his brothers are jealous of him. And he starts having dreams where eleven brothers and two parents. He says, "Oh, I had this dream that eleven planets and the sun and the moon were all bowing down before me, what do you think that means?" He's not discreet about his dreams and they grow more and more jealous of him.
Here's a confusing thing about dreams: they are incredibly profound, they come from a very deep place within your psyche, maybe a place that's so deep that it goes past your individual psyche and goes to the collective psyche of all of humanity, or of the entire universe. They come from this very deep place, and they're filled with these archetypal union symbols. And they are just so rich for layers and layers of interpretation. They're so profound. And yet at the same time, hearing someone else's dream is always terrible. It's the most boring thing in the world.
That's why I have my students tell each other their dreams, because to have to sit through hearing someone else's dream is terrible. It's a uniquely personal thing. It's a message that comes through the filter of the self, through the filter of these constellations of associations and memories, and that's all very subconscious. So, I'm very intrigued by the concept of dreaming, and I'm very intrigued by my own dreaming—but I definitely don't want to hear anyone else's dreams, even Pharaoh's, or even Joseph's, as much as I've just told you how important that story is to me, I find the dreams in that story to be very boring.
47:14 - Dreams Messages and the Dreams of Others
MC: They're not just boring; it makes you squirm to hear someone else's dream, doesn't it? And yet, you're saying that your students love to tell the dreams. Whenever I've had a dream that was very interesting, I felt the urge to tell it, you know, and then quickly curtail its telling when I see the dimness in people's eyes. It's an interesting phenomenon that is really so personal and feels freighted with meaning, and yet, can't be delivered into the daylight like some kind of package. Where do you think dreams want to go to communicate their message?
MIK: Well, the conventional wisdom that comes from Freud and others is that the dreams come from your Id, from your subconscious, things that you're feeling, knowing, starting to perceive, but are unfit for your ego, things that you don't want to acknowledge about yourself or about your own experiences, and yet cry out for acknowledgement from someone. Different parts of yourself kind of pushing up against one another. It's sort of like a bad relationship, people just saying, "See me for who I am!"
That's what makes them so unpalatable to hear someone else's dream is it's really kind of a glimpse into a domestic situation within themselves, that is unfit for other people.
Of course, you can pay people to listen to your dreams. I've done that before. Whether the person that you're paying to listen to your dreams is a trained Jungian analyst, or is just your friend, or is a robot, or a dream journal, the point is to get it out.
My students always start with, "I don't really remember my dreams very well, or they're just kind of weird or random." One of the analogies that I draw is that if you had a teacher who never collected your homework, you would not do your homework. Or if you did it, you wouldn't do it thoughtfully or carefully. But if you have a teacher that, every morning at 8am, as soon as you walk into the classroom, collects your homework, then you're going to be much more diligent about completing it and also much more careful and thoughtful about it. The same goes for dreams. Just knowing that you have someone to collect it then makes you more attentive to your own dreaming and then your own dreaming becomes richer and more lucid. You certainly remember your dreams a lot more.
MC: I can see this new morning ritual of mine that I have to try, which is getting a candle and my paper journal, writing down some dreams first thing to see if handing those into the teacher gets me closer to dreams.
MIK: Well, it's incredible that we have—whatever it is—a third of our life that we are having these fantastical adventures that are so creative and lurid and exotic and dramatic. Then we just get up and make a cup of coffee and forget all about them. It's like a sci-fi writer that is churning out pages and pages of the most incredible material, then it just goes straight into the recycling bin.
51:13 - Dream Journals
MC: Yeah and piercing the veil between those two worlds feels like a magic trick. I mean, it feels like really tapping into something that would be a boon. And yet it's difficult. I've definitely tried dream journals. Is that something that you keep you keeping a dream journal yourself?
MIK: Not right now, no. This is sort of back to the theme that I'll be contemplative when I'm forced to, but when I'm not, I won't. So when I did work with a with a Jungian analyst for a while, and at that time, because I knew that he was he was going to ask me about my dreams, then I recorded them and I remembered them and I had a very rich dream life. Now, because that's not the case, I haven't been doing my homework. So, I'm just putting it all in the recycling.
MC: I don't see any problem with that. I mean, I it almost seems like a goal to not be practicing, but to be busy doing. That is, instead of dream journals and a morning ritual of meditation and on and on and on, what if you could simply confront the day's actual challenge with the equanimity or self-reflection that those other practices might give you. But with maybe more attunement to the present moment that is always there, always asking something of you. In a way, retreating can be ignoring that call.
So, we've talked about books. We haven't yet talked about getting off the book.
MC: Yes, chess.
53:00 - Chess
MIK: I have some very good news.
MC: Oh, good.
MIK: I have now successfully got my kids, ten and eight, completely hooked on chess.
MC: Congratulations! That is wonderful.
MIK: So, every night we have at least three or four games. They're quick games because I kill them. I destroy them.
MC: It's the angel of fire.
MIK: That's right.
MC: Too much beauty to behold.
So, there are so many moves in chess. It compares to sand grains and stars and all the rest. And yet, the opening configuration is a particular configuration. That's the launching point for all these patterns. What happens as your children, or you or anybody plays this game? And explores those patterns?
MIK: There's something called the book, which is the record of all the recorded chess games that's now on a computer system. When they have a competitive game, the first move, we have a million games on record that start with this move, and then black responds, and we have two-hundred and fifty thousand—I don't know the numbers—and then so on and so forth, and you get twelve moves in and it's down to fifty, we've only seen fifty games that that have this set of moves. Then you get sixteen moves in and then there's a point where you go out of the book, where you get into a position that's never been recorded before—and often a position that's never been played before.
As you mentioned the number of—I don't know if it's the number of possible games or the number of possible positions—is not just more than the stars in the sky, it's more than the atoms in all the stars in the sky, which is—you have to go Google that to confirm, I couldn't believe it, but it is actually true. It's one of these unbelievable infinities. I, for one, am comfortable when I'm in book and I'm comfortable when I have a position going that I'm pretty familiar with, that I've seen before, maybe not all of the details, but I know what I'm doing, where I'm trying to get at my opponent in a certain way, and I've done it before. It has to do with my controlling nature.
MIK: I like chess because it allows me to be controlling of the situation. It isn't like backgammon, there isn't the dice of chance. Then you do as you said, you get out of the book, and you get into this into this position you've never seen before. You have to start being creative and come up with new strategies based on these new circumstances. I can do that, and I benefit from it. It's not what I want. It's, again, one of these things where it's like: the world doesn't necessarily give you what you want. Or maybe it's the Rolling Stones that says this, "It doesn't give you what you want, but it gives you what you need."
I think that's true for me for chess, and for all things that I'm completely controlling of: my chess game, and what I teach my students, and the music I listen to, and the books I read, and the clothes I wear, and everything I'm completely controlling over. When I'm forced by circumstances to not have control over it, and to be in a new situation, a new subject, a new place a new challenge, that's where I actually change, and evolve and grow. I don't seek out those situations. The world has to make me do that. But those are the situations that are good for me in the long run.
There's a thing about Fischer, the chess player, where he would often make a move that was disadvantageous, sometimes sacrificing a piece to get into an unknown position early on in the game, because he was better playing in the unknown.
57:33 - Visiting San Quentin
MC: Yeah, you don't see a lot of that. And that feels like a stroke of genius: to know when you could be better by being worse. Tell us how you came to San Quentin.
MIK: I met a woman through my work. She worked in the chaplaincy of San Quentin. They have a Catholic priest who serves there and a Muslim imam, and, I think, a rabbi who visits from time to time. They also have other programs. They have meditation programs. San Quentin has a lot of—because it's right in the middle of the Bay Area—it has a lot more programs than many other prisons. So, I met this woman through work, who is involved in San Quentin. And she invited me to visit and I said yes. Then I didn't hear back from her for some time. And then a lot of really difficult stuff came up in my life. I was going through a really bad period, one of one of the worst periods of my life, and it almost became intolerable just to be in my own head, you know, just to get through every day. And I didn't know how I could get out of it.
And then this invitation came from her and she said, "Okay, we have a date set up, and you're welcome to come down and visit on this Sunday."
I came in and it's very intense being in any prison—San Quentin's the only prison I've been in, so . . . but it felt like a particularly intense prison, because it's really old. It's like a castle, you go in through these castle gates, and they have the stone columns, and they have that—I don't know what you call that thing in the castle—the portcullis or something. The metal grate. You go in and then you end up in this open area where prisoners are walking around and you are meeting people and it's surprising. It's not what you would think it would be.
So, I went to a Catholic mass there that Sunday. It was at night. And it was terrifying. Maybe like that angel from Rilke, terrifying in a way that shocked me out of the psychic prison I had built around my own problems. And it just cracked through all of that and suddenly, I had to just be—you have to be more aware when you're in prison, you can't just be sort of walking around oblivious, you have to be very aware of your surroundings. So that got me out of my head, and then I volunteered there over the next few months. It was wonderful. I don't know that much about prisons, how they work logistically or how they work spiritually and philosophically for the men who live there. I can't imagine it almost. Maybe that's what was so intriguing to me is to be there and to talk with men who had such a different life experience from me and were carrying—you know, without any kind of judgment about if they're good people or bad people—but were carrying a lot of trauma, a lot of trauma from what they had done, and also from traumatic things that had happened to them, and the circumstances of their upbringing.
I was in the chaplaincy, so it was men who were taking a lot of this trauma and trying to find where's the light and the hope in it. How do you take those experiences and do something good with them to help others, to be a good example, to find some compassion?
Then I was invited to put on my own program there. At that point, I invited you to join me. We had a funny time of it because we decided to do what in Sufism is called a Universal Worship, where you light a candle for each of the religious traditions of the world, and read a passage of each of the scriptures, and perhaps make an offering of songs. So, we decided that you would sing songs and I would give sermons on the scripture readings.
We had a great time planning it all out. We met up I think a half an hour beforehand, and you are wearing jeans, which are not allowed in prison, because the prisoners wear jeans, so you can't wear jeans yourself. You'll get confused. We had to very quickly go to—Home Depot was the closest store—we had to go to Home Depot and find you some white painter pants that I hope you still have. We went in together and did this ceremony. And I thought it was great. But then we were never invited back. Which I still don't know why.
1:03:09 - Hiking in the Dark
MC: Yeah, that was definitely an off-the-book experience. And very eye-opening, to go in there, and lovely to be part of your program. Off the book, off the path. Talk to us about walking in the dark, hiking in the dark.
MIK: Well, this is another pastime of ours, which is we used to take these night hikes and go up to the top of this mountain here and often stumble down and receive all sorts of well-deserved injuries stumbling around in the dark. I guess when I first came back to this area—Marin County here—as an adult, I got really into hiking with my brother, and we didn't hike on trails. We would just hike out in the woods and always get poison oak and always get lost and never make it that far. But it just never occurred to us to take these hiking trails. I don't know why, it just seemed square. It doesn't even occur to me to stay on the trail or hike during the daytime when you can see it. I just—I start from a place of assuming that it's better off the trail.
MIK: There's a story of Moses like this, too—not to compare myself to him—but he, in the story of Exodus, Moses is walking along the path and on the side of the path there is a burning bush. In one of the Midrash the rabbis are talking about this and someone asks, "Could only Moses see the burning bush? Or if someone else was walking down the path, would they have been able to see it too?"
And the answer is that it was off to the side of the path. So, anyone could have seen it. But everyone else was looking straight ahead along the road. Only Moses was open to new possibilities, new opportunities. So, he was looking all around and so he saw something that was to the side and off the path. And so, he approaches.
The first thing that the bush says to him is, "Take off your shoes, you're standing on holy ground."
There's a quality of that sideways space—in anthropology might call that liminal, that liminal space—which is holy. It's not the quotidian everyday path. And then, from that place, the burning bush has this message for him that he must set his people free, must set himself free.
Moses, he grew up in Egypt. So, he knows about a lot of different gods. He says, "Well, which God am I talking to here?"
And this is the first moment that—in the Bible—the first moment that God introduces itself. And the name that it chooses is very mysterious. God says, "I am that I am. I am existence itself. I am this act of being. I am everything. And my message to you, is to be free!"
And so, from the story I get that Moses leaves the confines of the life that he had known, the daily schedule he had known, the path that he was on, and he has this courage to just look around for something, some other possibility, and from opening yourself up to another possibility, in that way, he discovers the limitlessness of the Divine, this force wherein lies all possibilities, all infinities—right?—and is calling to Moses and calling to us to be free, to be free, not just the bondage of being a Hebrew slave in ancient Egypt, but from all of the bondage that keeps us on these paths that are maybe not as exciting as those paths that we could be taking.
One of the things that has been brought up about this pandemic, and how it's different than World War Two, or the Great Depression, or the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or whatever previous generations have gone through is that we're facing this world-changing, tragic event. And the only response is to sit on our couch in our sweatpants. There feels something wrong about that. But perhaps that's a lack of imagination, that, actually, we could be going out and volunteering to—I forget what you call this—someone who they test the vaccine on. Besides the virus itself, there's the economic toll and the educational toll and the depression that people are under and the loss of businesses and art forms. And it takes a little bit of imagination about what you can do to make the world free again.
MC: This pandemic is not over, although vaccines arriving are very hopeful. It may be a solid year before they're all distributed. It's hard to say. And so, there's this feeling of buckling down for yet another session.
MC: And if it's just going to be the same book as before—the same chapter we've been reading—are we going to really reread that same chapter and get that chapter etched on our heart? I mean, that feels pretty grim. So, the message of, or the challenge of finding liberty, finding some freedom, finding a way off that path—not irresponsibly, but some way that genuinely frees you—I mean, that's very welcome.
1:09:44 - Stepping off the Path During a Pandemic
Some things that have come up here are dreams and developing contemplative space. Are there anything other things that you would point people to in order to experience that stepping off of the path or give them the bravery to do that? It is nice to have control of your domain. And yet here we are being nudged to take a step further. Laterally.
MIK: I'm not really able to give advice to anyone about what they should do to be more free or be more courageous. I do know, in my own experience—it has to hurt first. There's a saying that comes up, that "pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth." That, in order to want that freedom, you need to also feel the lash of the whip, the chains. It's the feeling of that pain that gives you the courage to do something different, to enter into this unknown space, because it is the unknown. In the story of Moses, when the Israelites are going out into the wilderness, that's the wilderness, that is the unknown. You go out there, and there's no map. When we try to do something in our own little lives that's very different, it can have the same feeling of going out into the unknown. So, it does take courage, and it takes a courage that, at least for me, comes from pain, comes from what's not working in your own life, you know? And when we were talking about this story of visiting prison, the motivation there was, again, being in a very painful place in my life, which made me want to seek out something different.
And I think we all experience pain differently. There's sharp pain and there's dull pain. Freud says that, "depression is mourning, left unfinished." At these times, when we have some loss, some change, some sadness, some grief, sometimes there's a way in which we don't allow ourselves to fully experience that, and experience it, it's complexity.
A friend of ours, whose mother just passed away, was writing to us and he was describing the grief as also containing gratefulness and joy, all mixed in with the grief. Sometimes we don't allow ourselves to experience the full spectrum of our feelings when part of those feelings is really uncomfortable, and it's really sad, and it's really painful. Perhaps in other cultures or other times in history, there's been more of a ceremonial space that allows for that kind of grief.
Look at what's happening right now with the amazing loss we have experienced as a as a nation, as a world, with the pandemic. There's been so much loss, and yet, not so much of a funeral, not so much of a memorializing.
MIK: Of all the loss. And so back to this point of Freud, he says when we don't allow ourselves to feel grief, it can become a depression, it can become sort of an ongoing thing. And I think a lot of us have that. Some of us have a clinical depression, but I think all of us have just a kind of an ongoing kind of dull feeling because we are separated from ourselves and from each other and from a mode of living that is more authentic. A lot of our experiences are mediated and commercialized. Again, kids these days, they don't know what it was like.
But I don't know what it was like, either. I grew up sort of after life had become a little bit prepackaged. And so, I think just being born into this world, you start with a little bit of grief and loss for the fact that you're not living like the authentic life of a human being. There's that kind of dull feeling that comes from that. And that's harder to galvanize that sort of dull depression into the courage to change, to liberate yourself, to liberate others, to step into the unknown. It's kind of the sharp pain, the sharp tragedy that can catalyze that kind of transformation. The ongoing dull depression—it's harder to get out of, in a way.
MC: Yeah, it has a very heavy momentum. It makes me feel like we're all in the middle of something that could take a great deal of time to get over later. And it makes me hope that there's some way we can find to begin to manage it, transform it perhaps, in the midst of experiencing it.
MIK: Can I tell you one other story that I think relates here? When I, myself, moved to Jerusalem and I started going to this yeshiva, I met a lot of other young men who had a similar interest in spirituality to me. On the solstice, they had a ritual of staying up all night in a park in Jerusalem and telling stories. One of the stories they told me was about Adam, the first human—mythological first human—Adam, whose name means "clay" or "earth," he was created in the spring and summer months. Then during his first year on Earth, he observed something happening, which is happening right now outside of us, which is that the each day is getting a little bit shorter, each day is a little bit darker, colder, each night is longer, and the world is growing, incrementally, darker and more hopeless. And I think many of us have had that feeling, not only in the season, but also in the world.
And Adam, never having been through a year before, assumed that what would happen is that the darkness would just destroy the world. So, he grew more and more desperate, more and more afraid. And the world just became completely dark and it was down to this one little spark that he had in his heart. That was the last point of light in the world. And then, just before that was extinguished, the cycle turned, the light started returning to the world. There's something the rabbis say about that—and I don't know the exact phrasing—but that there is a symmetry between, a symmetry and a correspondence, between the human heart and the world. I don't know . . . I don't know what we need to do. But I know the cycle is not going to turn until we are ready for it. But it will turn. And I don't know how we make ourselves ready for it.
MC: I don't know either, but that spark does exist. That spark is in dreams, that spark whispers. And I, for one, have great hope in that spark.
Mirza, thank you. Thank you so much for having this conversation and stirring up these themes. Is there anywhere that people can go in this buzzing electronic world to find out more about you or to engage with you? Or is there anything that you'd like to give a shout out to?
MC: Then, folks, you're on your own.
1:19:00 - Outro
Thanks for joining us and exploring the world according to Mirza Inayat Khan. This is your host, Michael Carychao, wishing your world the very best.