Departure of the Master and diving into "the ocean within”
Memorial of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Elise Schamhart et Michel Guillaume
Now follows a passage from “The Ocean Within”: it is an account of a lecture given my Murshida Sharifa. The date is uncertain and would have been between 1930 and 1932. As it is of the greatest importance we have transcribed it in bold:
« Life has been compared by mystics to a sea, the ocean of being, on whose surface are the waves moving up and down, while the depth is still. We are the foam, the bubbles that appear on the surface. Rumi says:
‘He is the depth, we appear on the surface a moment and return to the depths’.
In this ocean there are some who swim; they can
manage their affairs in life. They are the master-swimmers who can swim
with or against the tide. There are those, the masters, who walk upon
the waves, and the mystics who dive into the depths, and from there they
bring up precious pearls. …
"Hazrat Inayat Khan says: 'Even men who, born and brought up on land, make a practice of swimming and diving deep into the sea and bringing up from there the pearl shells’. For this diving there is a process. The one who without the practice of any process would attempt to dive into the depths would be a very long time learning how to dive and would take a great personal risk. But with the practice of a process the diving becomes safe and easy. So it is with diving into the ocean of being, which is the natural inclination of the soul. This process may be followed by one who has the earnest desire to dive into the depth of life.
"This process is given by the mystic – not to
those who are careless, not to those whose chief occupation is with the
surface of life. It is given to those who are turning in their sleep,
turning from the outer side of life to the inner.”
Roumi – Jelal-uddin-Roumi. One of the great mystical poets of Sufism, whose principal work, the Masnawi-i-Manawi, written in Persian, is still considered today as a veritable Bible by a large majority of Sufis. He lived in the 13th century of our era.
These lines, written several years after the departure of her Murshid, indicate clearly the nature of the experience through which Murshida Sharifa was to go. While Hazrat Inayat was physically near he had guided her, supported her, trained her to plunge into the "ocean within". Now she was left to her own devices, like a pupil is left by his instructor after a long accompaniment, because he must prove his own mastery.
But the mastery in her case was far from the usual.
Wazir van Essen recounts:
« When the news of Murshid’s passing reached Murshida she was in Vienna, where she continued the work for a short while. So I do not know how the initially took the news, but I do know that shortly afterwards she wrote to Sirkar that: ‘She felt how the mureeds in their desolation often turned to Murshid, but: ‘that the restless vibrations of this sphere should not be sent up’.
“Back in Paris from Vienna Murshida spent a time in seclusion, in the house at 7 Rue de la Paix in St Cloud. This was after she had spent a time in a sanatorium in Paris. At St Cloud she was looked after by a French domestic worker, Madame F, who greatly admired her. Madame F recounts that at times strange things happened in the little room where Murshida lived, and how for example heavy easy chairs flew through the air and then landed back in their place without being touched. There is no doubt that Murshida passed through a period of imbalance, from which she slowly recovered.
“During this period Murshida Rabia Martin from the United States tried to obtain the papers recording Murshid’s words, which were in the care of Murshida Goodenough. She managed to get to see Murshida, who replied to her with a smile that 'everything had been arranged'. Murshida Martin then tried to procure a sleeping powder from the lady doctor in Paris who was treating Murshida, so as to obtain the documents from her in this way. But the doctor refused this every firmly, saying: 'She is excessively exhausted, but perfectly lucid'. So, while there were moments of strangeness, Murshida was 'perfectly lucid' when this was necessary.
“When she returned to Suresnes and was living at 32 Rue de la Tuilerie, I tried to visit her, but I was not admitted. Because there was no answer to my knocking, I walked up the stairs to slip a note under the door. The only response was another note saying 'nobody must come up'. Later I understood the reason for this, when the French resident in the house, Madame L, told me that Murshida had not (yet) regained control over certain bodily functions. A few days later I received an invitation to come and see her. The only recollection I have of this visit was her loving and extremely sensitive glance."
Later Murshida lived in the house of Margaret Skinner where Feizi looked after her. Here Murshida rapidly regained her equilibrium.».
Sirkar van Stolk – (1894 – 1963) - One of the principal disciples of Murshid Inayat Khan. He was Murshid's secretary for a long time, and accompanied him on many of his travels. He also organised Summer Schools in Suresnes, assisted by Wazir van Essen. Sirkar was for many years National Representative for the Netherlands, and finally moved to South Africa, where, still assisted by Wazir, he founded a Sufi movement which thrived and spread. He left, among other things, a collection of his souvenirs, "Memories of a Sufi sage, Hazrat Inayat Khan". He had the qualities of a good guide: experience, benevolence and the ideal of the Message. He counselled, helped and guided a great number of his Sufi friends in the path shown by Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan.
Margaret Skinner – - Owner of the house at 19 Rue Victor Diedrich which she let to Murshida Sharifa until she refused to renew the lease, probably influenced by the campaign of disparagement against her. The result had a very unfavourable effect on the health of Murshida Sharifa.
The preceding passage is that which was seen from the outside. To summarise: she was a person who was “excessively exhausted”, who had lost her equilibrium – but was “perfectly lucid" when this was necessary. “At times strange things happened in the little room where Murshida lived, ”for example heavy easy chairs flew through the air and then landed back in their place without being touched”. A little later she “had not (yet) regained control over certain bodily functions”, but she “rapidly regained her equilibrium". In truth, a strange and unsettling illness. But was it an illness? There is in general a large lack of knowledge, even in the east but even more in the west, about certain phases of the mystical way. But whereas in the east no one discusses such things, in the west, when one finds oneself before unexplained phenomena, the tendency is to speak of hysterical phenomena –to explain what has happened and which is beyond current understanding as only appearing to be beyond that which one knows – and even the ecclesiastical authorities show reticence in this domain.
It is nevertheless not sacrilegious to try to
understand, at our humble level, Murshida Sharifa’s trial.
The apocryphal gospel of Thomas - Gospel excluded not without reason by the Catholic church: its enigmatic character could lead believers into confusion. One needs "ears to hear", that is listeners who, even without much experience of the mystical way, are aware of a certain number of facts, both internal and external..
And we will also see what the Sufi tradition has to say on this and what the known phenomena of the Hindu yoga tradition are.
To return to the second verse, we read that “when he finds, he will become troubled”. But troubled how? When you take a pack of cards well packed by value and by colour, and you shuffle it, you so to speak trouble the order of the pack. In other words you create disorder in the pack. But what upset, what disorder will be befall a being who “finds”, who has reached this critical point on the inner path?
We have already related the saying of Hazrat Inayat Khan that “there is one single line which links man to God; the limited pole to the boundless pole”. In this continuing ascension there must needs be a meeting point between humanity and divinity. The Sufis allude to this in what they call "tajallî", a divine “glow” or “eruption” in a human being. The Hindus speak of the work of the divine "Shakti", the divine Energy which penetrates into the adept to do its work of redemption.
This can happen more or less progressively; with one inner advance following another, like drops of water falling on the earth soften, penetrate and fertilise it.
But it can also be devastating. In Islam it is said
that there was a moment in the life of the Prophet, when he meditated in
the Cave of Hira, in the desert mountains, where the angel Gabriel, the
Angel of Revelation, swooped down on him, and that he felt broken,
destroyed. Terrorised, not understanding what had happened to him, he
ran to take refuge with his wife Khadidja, who enveloped him in her
garment. She comforted and reassured him. And with her remarkable and
loving female intuition, she broadly understood the meaning of what had
happened and she strengthened the Prophet in his mission.
With this mechanism explained, the experience becomes comprehensible to our intellect which always so avidly wants to “understand” and to satisfy itself of the good order of its ideas. But the actual experience of the living reality, which is the domain of the mystic, is completely different. This is why it is useful to listen to a more authoritative voice, which gives another aspect to what we have just said and which resonates at a different level of profoundness. It is the voice of the great Sufi master of ancient times, Najm-al-din Koubra:
« The realisation which (mystical) science has attained through these events (recounted above) is that the sacrosanct spirit is a subtle celestial vehicle. When this overwhelms by the force of its visionary concentration, it attains heaven in the sense that heaven plunges into it. And then, heaven and spirit are one and the same. This spirit does not cease to fly, to grow, until it acquires a nobility superior to that of heaven. Then the mystic is outside of himself».
Najm-al-din-Koubra – (approx 1221 of our era). Great Sufi Master of Central Asia, who left important written work, making an important contribution to the knowledge of the path called "ishraki", the spiritual path based on the development of the inner light.
This is how the last verse of the gospel quoted above is realised:
« and he will rule over the All»
Then comes a moment when the sense of ego and the consciousness which accompanies it are also perceived as being labile, erasable. But then, what is left? In a way the adept finds himself before his own annihilation, his own Destruction, with a capital D.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, in the play “Una”, dramatised this event under the veil of symbolism. Una, an artist, sculpted a statue so beautiful that she says to herself: « It is not possible, it is not I who created this statue, which has no equal. Oh, if this creation could live, could speak to me! » At this point the statue comes to life and proposes an exchange: Una’s life for his own. Una accepts and the statue gives her a cup of poison to drink. Una falls down dead. The statue, now living, lifts her up, restores life to her and says :
« Thou hast gone through death, but hast not died. The sacrifice thou madest did not after all rob thee of thy life. It has only raised thee above death. Now thou art living with my life. It is thy love which has given thee the life after death, a life to live for ever ».
And Una answers with these words, which are also found in the first Raga of the Gayan :
« Thy life hath illuminated the dark chambers of my
There is still another aspect to consider. To try to give an idea of the whole manifestation of the inner life is like trying to have a good look at a statue: it must be looked at from various angles, a two-dimensional photo would not show it like it is.
We may say that that which Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan called the mysticism of sound can help us understand a little more of the unusual events in Sharifa Goodenough's life at this crucial moment in her experience. We know from her dreams that she had been especially trained in "esoteric music"; what does this mean?
In the Sufi tradition there is the knowledge of Saut-e-Sarmad, the sound of the abstract, the sound which resonates in the depth of all things and all beings. To the extent that a being listens to this sound and concentrates on it, it invades the entire being, penetrating each cell of the body. This sound is not just a sound, it possesses an energy, a life one would call transcendental, a life above the life we know. This subtle life is extraordinarily penetrating. Its action activates the subtle centres which remain asleep in our normal human condition. These centres, confirms Hazrat Inayat, have so to speak two sides. One side is exterior and works to regulate the circulation of the breath, of prana, in the whole organism, and so act on the physiology of the body. Their subtle "inner" side brings the consciousness in touch with the entire cosmos on all its planes, in all its modes of reality. Among other things, some of these centres are known to produce results which seem to defy the natural laws. On this latter point there are plenty of examples, including those of western mystics. For example there was Therese Neumann who passed years without drink or food, there are all those who received Christ's stigmata (and there are many in the history of Christianity). But this has nothing to do with individuals who could or who can develop what one calls "powers"! These powers do not give authentic proof of spiritual development. If they are a development, it is without equilibrium. Their counter-part is the intimate union of the consciousness with the divine.
We read in the Mysticism of sound:
« The more a Sufi listens to Saut-e-Sarmad, the sound of the abstract, the more his consciousness becomes free from all the limitations of life. The soul floats above the physical and mental plane without any special effort on man's part, which shows its calm and peaceful state; a dreamy look comes into his eyes and his countenance becomes radiant; he experiences the unearthly joy and rapture of Wajad or ecstasy. When ecstasy overwhelms him he is neither conscious of the physical existence nor of the mental. ... His mind is purified from sin, his body from all impurities, and a pathway is opened for him towards the world unseen. He begins to receive inspirations, intuitions, impressions and revelations without the least effort on his part. He is no longer dependent upon a book or a teacher, for divine wisdom - the light of his soul, the Holy Spirit - begins to shine upon him.».
This divine eruption can come as a torrent, or in a
more gradual way and it is important to bear this in mind when picturing
the path taken by a mystic. And then of course the development of each
mystic is unique - there is no standard development. In any case it
seems that in the case of Murshida Sharifa this crucial experience
occurred at this precise moment in her life, and that it caused an
intense though temporary upheaval. We do not know exactly what she went
through, as until the last she retained an exemplary discretion about
her experiences. But we can be certain that after this experience she
reached a very high degree of spirituality. What the co-authors of this
work have experienced since their childhood and subsequently, as well as
various events witnessed by others as we will see below, could only have
been the work of a major spiritual personality and a being who knew and
lived the divine life.
" Among those whom we consider as having lost the faculty of logical reasoning, there are many whose balance has been upset, and yet they are right to say that they see something. Their imbalance does not lie in this but in the rupture between the world outside and the world within them…. It is the aim of the mystic always to maintain his balance in the experiences which he undergoes. When he has succeeded in realising existence and life at their deepest levels, and at the same time remains conscious of external life, he has attained the true wisdom."
And Feizi adds; "It is that wisdom she attained ".
The foregoing considerations are lengthy but we think they help in understanding the trial through which Murshida passed. It must be remembered that she endured this alone; her Murshid was not at her side to support and advise her. She needed great courage and an unfailing discipline to regain her equilibrium and all her bodily functions, so as to be able to once more brave the exterior world. For during such a phase, the existence of the physical world is perceived as being painful. But Murshida was lacking in neither strength of soul nor in courage..
The life of Murshida Sharifa after this great experience, by a witness.
To get some idea of this period of Murshida Sharifa's life we have the precious manuscript written by Feizi van der Scheer in 1955, just a few years before her death.
« It was during the Summer School of 1929 – when she was still in seclusion – that I was told Murshida needed some help a few hours a day. When I went to see her I was very much impressed by her personality. It is true that in 1926 I had seen Murshida Goodenough and also heard a lecture of hers, but then my mind was quite focussed on Murshid. What I remembered from her lecture was her voice and especially the way in which said: 'And yet…' ».
Elsewhere, Feizi wrote this: « All those who met Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan and became his mureeds will always consider this meeting as the greatest privilege of their lives. How can one explain the feeling of upliftment one experienced in his presence? With him faith came easily, even for those who, like me, were brought up in an intellectual and sceptical milieu. When Murshid had left this earth, things became more difficult. A question arose in my mind: can a westerner be intellectual and mystic at the same time? Certainly, Murshid reunited in himself the East and the West, but that was Murshid; he can be compared to no other. It was in Murshida Sharifa that I found the answer: 'yes, it is possible'. ...
"My spirit tended to be critical and I was not an easy pupil for Murshida. I tested her, always, comparing her actions with what I had understood of the Message of Pir-o-Murshid. I could not follow her blindly. And during the years that it was my great privilege to live beside her, I saw the extent to which her only thought when faced with any difficulty was: 'how would Murshid have wished me to act, how can I best serve the Message?'. I saw that she was not content with reflecting the Message in its verbal purity, but that she lived the Message.
"I understood that she oriented towards Murshid all who came to seek her help and her guidance.
"There was in her a great pride: 'Blessed are the proud in God, for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven' - says the Gayan. And this pride went alongside the greatest humility. One day, when speaking of the Sufi poets of the past Murshida said to me: 'I feel as dust at their feet'. And yet if anyone understood them and followed their path, it was she.
"When I came to Murshida Sharifa, two years after the death of the Master, I felt myself in the presence of someone who lived much more in another world than in this one. Murshida only gradually returned to this plane of existence. It was for her the greatest sacrifice, but this sacrifice was necessary for the Message.
"Even for me Murshida's return to the world seemed a loss. The preceding period had been so beautiful! Yet how did the world accept her sacrifice? How few understood ! »
During the summer of 1929 Murshida received a few mureeds. She was then living in a room in the Rue de l'Hippodrome (in Suresnes). The following year she received more mureeds and started giving lectures in the Hall. In November 1929 she moved to a house near the Sufi field. Let us return to Feizi's manuscript:
« There are very few people I think, and perhaps there is no-one, who can quite imagine the sacrifice Murshida made by this return to the world. I found a scrap of paper on which she had written ; 'March 1st, 1929. I had a vision in which Pir-o-Murshid made a sign to me to go on with the work I was doing…'
"To work for Murshid and the Message was her only aim in life. She also once said; 'When a person by his love becomes absorbed in his ideal, it is never cut out of his mind, but in everything he does, it is before him'. And indeed so it was with her.
"Sensitive by nature she had become still more so by this seclusion. To receive letters, often I think, was felt by her as a burden, to her it meant a call of the outer world which she had to answer. Once it struck me so much when during a lecture she said that the eyes of grown-up people are always hurting, not the eyes of a child. When - later on – she went again to Paris to give lectures, she often crossed the street by another way that was indicated; probably because she felt the unpleasant influence of some places.
"It was only gradually that Murshida returned to the life of this world. The first winter after she has moved I slept in the Mureed’s House and was only with her by day. She then got very ill, so ill and weak that she could not even stand on her feet, but she was so independent that she would rather creep on hands and feet to fetch what she wanted, than ask my help. However, once while taking a bath, she had to stay in it for hours, because she was alone in the house and could not get out. After this I was allowed to help her.
"Murshid tells how the light of the soul when active, beams through the eyes, through the radiance of the countenance, even through the pores of the skin; and once, when she was taking a bath, it struck me how shining her skin was, so shining that the idea of a golden idol all of a sudden flashed through my mind.
"In the beginning, Murshida was much more aloof than later on. I had been with her for over a year, when I saw her smile for the first time».