0:00 - Intro
Michael Carychao: Welcome to the second episode of The World According To, a podcast that explores the unique worldviews of amazing people. In this episode, I had the pleasure of visiting the world according to Mirza Inayat Khan, a great friend, whose 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. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. Welcome to the world according to Mirza Inayat Khan.
0:58 - Names
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...