A Memory, a Presence

Image-17CDBF24470E11D8_2I am a little late acknowledging the Urs (anniversary of the death of a great teacher) of my best friend and spiritual father, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan.  Traditionally, the Urs is a celebration of the “wedding” of what the Hindus would call the maha-samadhi, a term I use simply because it popped up in my head, residue of my days in various Yogic groups in my twenties, while I was waiting for my teacher to find me.  He found me pretty early, as it happens, because I was age sixteen when I first saw him, but it was awhile before I met him; and that is another story for another time.  As to the maha-samadhi term, it is meant to describe the final, conscious departure of one from her or his body, with the accent on the word conscious. . . and although I wasn’t there when Pir, as most of us called him, left his body, my impression is that he made a pretty conscious exit, and I do know that he managed to visit many of his students as he departed, including me.

It has come to my deepest attention, lately, that teachers and the organizations that form around them become, ultimately, traps that keep the seeker from a full awakening, and I find myself in a conundrum, because I give my own acknowledged teacher the credit for saving my life and bringing me to God.  He was a deeply flawed personality and vastly awakened soul who by his own admission made many mistakes, but never gave up.  The only explanation I can give for these competing awarenesses of mine is that perhaps when one is younger–both spiritually and chronologically–the teacher-disciple relationship acts as a sort of jump-start to awakening, but ultimately may become a trap if the teacher fails to set the student free.  My teacher never, in my experience, held onto his students or their understanding in any way.

The thing that Pir Vilayat gave his students that stands out most for me was that he made us aware that we could do anything we wanted to do.  We trailed after him into numerous natural settings such as the French Alps and the New Mexican desert, and we read what his father, Inayat Khan, called the sacred manuscript of nature, often in the pouring rain or unbearably hot sun. I personally slept in a cold, wet sleeping bag in a flooded tent or nestled among boulders in excruciating pain.  I wept the tears of understanding and of rage, and I made a complete fool of myself on many occasions.  I will tell you a little story that is connected to the photo here, a very bad one from the era of disposable cameras, that depicts one of my finest moments as a fool, “the fool on the Hill” of Beatles fame.

Pir Dargah

For many years, Pir Vilayat held a multi-lingual alchemical retreat in the French Alps, way up past the treeline, a gathering in the hardest of physical conditions and the greatest natural beauty and majesty.  It may have been about 1975, when I became determined to climb the mountain, become fully enlightened, and thus have no more pain in my life.  I was married to my first husband at the time, but without a thought for him or anyone else, I somehow found the money to fly to Geneva and then take the train to Chamonix, and I struggled up the mountain with far too many personal possessions, material and immaterial both, and once there, I finagled and maneuvered and somehow got possession of THE RETREAT HUT,  way up on the mountain where all the big shots had done their retreats…all the big guns who some of us believed could take us where we wanted to go (and that is yet another story).  I don’t even remember who most of them were now, but it sure seemed like a big deal to me, age 24, that I was going to get to make my retreat in the footsteps of the great, sleeping on the same floor they’d slept on.   So my plan was to climb up to that hut and stay there until I died to myself (that was a phrase we used a lot in those days), and then I, or so I assumed, would be a changed person and I would never be in pain again.  Pir Vilayat said, when I announced this (in the picture above), “Well, I don’t think you’re quite ready.”  That clipped Oxford accent…  I was devastated.

I threw as much of a fit as I dared throw in his presence, but he wouldn’t give in and let me straggle up the mountain alone.  He said I should go on his group retreat first, and then we’d see.  The problem was, his retreat was on another mountain peak, way across the valley where the main camp was held.  But I wasn’t about to give up possesion of that hut.  It was a tiny, cinderblock shepherd’s hut, about a half hour’s climb from the main camp.  I was determined to go up there and fast until I died and became reborn.

But he said I had to go on his (group) retreat first.  So, with all my stereotypical ideas of obedience and dedication to the guru’s wishes, I got up at dawn on the first day of the group retreat and, fasting,  I set out from my hut, and hiked down the mountain and across the valley.  It  took me about three hours; there was no path, and the way was mostly rocks, and I had no experience whatsoever at hiking in such a setting.  Somewhere along the way, I turned my ankle, and from then on, I could barely walk.  But I made it, feeling desperate at the prospect of getting back and forth for the next days.  I sat and wept all the first morning of his retreat.  We were in a setting of the most phenomenal beauty and majesty we could possible be in, but I wept from pain and egotism.  When the group broke up, he casually asked me “so what’s the problem?”  I wasn’t about to tell him I had a sprained ankle and the walk was too much for me, so I mumbled something about the “power of the process,” and he pretended to buy my excuse and I hobbled back to my hut.

What an ego trip.

So this went on for about three days, and on the third day, when I got back to my hut, I felt desperate.  In addition to a sprained ankle, I was not in good physical shape.  I just didn’t know how I’d ever be able to do it.  I lay down on my sleeping bag on the cement floor (I spent the nights listening for the air to hiss out of my air mattress so I could get up and blow it up again), and later in the afternoon, I heard pounding, and voices on that lonely mountaintop where I was in residence.  Down the slope, just in front of my hut, what looked like a large tent, of the circus variety that was always associated with his group retreats in nature, was being pitched.  I broke the traditional silence and asked one of the guys working there what was going on, and he told me something about how Pir Vilayat had decided they’d better move the group retreat over to there, because of some problem that didn’t sound like it had much to do with my predicament.  I’ll never really know why that retreat was moved over to “my” mountain.

Next morning, and the next, I hobbled down the slope and attended his retreat. I could have died of happiness, it was so easy.  Now I could really focus on the work at hand.  Two days after that, when the group retreat broke up for that day, I was about to get up and go back to my hut.  I was feeling peaceful and accepting of the entire process by then, and it helped a lot that I was in less physical pain.   Suddenly, I sensed a presence.  I opened my eyes and there was THAT ROBE in front of me, the traditional dervish robe that he always wore.  He said to me, “You can just go and be free now, you don’t have to come to the group retreat.”  It took me a moment to take that in.

“With your approval?” I asked him.


In those days, of course, before the alchemical retreat system he developed, a Sufi retreat consisted pretty much of just repeating dhikr thousands of times a day. I believe the prescription, then, was about fourteen thousand, if possible.

So I limped back to my hut and stayed up there for about ten days, and I’m sure I made a very bad retreat, but I stayed there in that glorious setting and said dhikr, and while it was mostly hard and very inexpert work, there were a few sublime moments.  There were a few terrifying ones, too: the hut had a glass-windowed door, and one night I woke up to find a very strange-looking man staring in the window at me.  I was petrified.  There were a lot of tourists going through there, but he was a very odd-looking one.  Later, a friend told me that there was this “weird guy” walking around the mountains, and they were worried about me.  But I was fine.  I saw him a few times, but I felt protected.  I called on Pir when I was afraid, and I felt that he was with me.

So that was my first retreat, and that’s what is taking place in that picture up there.  Suffice it to say I did not die to myself, become enlightened, or solve all my problems on that retreat, but it was glorious, nevertheless.  After I went down, I attended group activities, sacred dances, etc., but mostly I sat on the side of the mountain and wept.

For those who are interested in the retreat process, I read an article about retreats recently, and I thought it described the process rather well, although mostly in terms of American Buddhist retreats.  If you would like to read it, go here:  http://www.tricycle.com/blog/5-things-about-meditation-retreats-might-surprise-you.

Full moon, where will you be going from here?

“Into a retreat.”

Why do you take a retreat after fullness?

“To make myself an empty vessel in order to be filled again.”  Inayat Khan

He was my best friend, my father, the one who picked me up and made me fall so that I could learn to pick myself up again.  He took me to the heights, and he helped me explore my own depths.  He is still here, and I love him so.  May he be eternally blessed.

5 thoughts on “A Memory, a Presence

  1. Laurie Lindgren

    Nicely written and very engaging, as well as realistic. Thank you for sharing this time in your life with all its concomitant ups and downs.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Enjoyed reading this and remembering… Glad you can see the flaws in your teacher and love him more because of them. It shows the depth of a heart that any teacher would be glad to live inside of. Happy Father’s Day to David.

    1. If your kids still want to spend Father’s Day with you, you did something right! Em flew to Kansas for an interview. Puget Sound fell through, but if this one doesn’t, she’ll start out making more than her father does presently!

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