Near the end of his life, Sufi Inayat Khan gave a talk on the relationship between spirit and matter. The talk concluded with these words:
What is consciousness? Consciousness is the knowing faculty, but it is the knowing faculty when it has some knowledge—it is only then that we call it consciousness. One is conscious of something, consciousness must always be conscious of something. When consciousness is not conscious of anything it is pure intelligence. It is in this realization that the greatest secret of life can be revealed.
One might say that the experience of pure intelligence is possible only for the only Being, for God, but no one can stand outside of the only Being. The only Being includes all. And undoubtedly there is a certain process by which one can attain to this pure intelligence. Man is not conscious of it anymore—he has lost the habit of experiencing what pure intelligence is. But all the meditations and concentrations, the whole process by which the mystic treads the spiritual path brings us finally to the realization of that pure intelligence. If one asks what benefit one derives from it, the answer is that since all that benefits us comes from one source, that source must be perfect. It must be all-beneficial. It is beyond our limited imagination, but it is the greatest thing one can attain in one's life.
In these few words spoken spontaneously to a small group in 1926, Inayat Khan pointed to the "secret" of nondual awareness at the heart of the spiritual path — not only of sufism but also at the heart of humanity's entire mystical heritage. What is this secret? How can it be experienced? I would like to reflect here on a few of the key elements mentioned in this passage, and the possibility of direct realization of this "greatest secret."
Inayat Khan draws the distinction between consciousness that is conscious of something — that is, objects of consciousness — and consciousness that is without an object. This pure consciousness he names "pure intelligence." In the Open Path work of the Sufi Way we use the words "pure awareness" to signify this primordial reality. In other traditions it is known as Buddha mind, gnosis, rigpa, atman, nondual awareness, contentless awareness, God-Consciousness, etc. Since what is pointed to here is awareness that is free of all objects and not an object itself, it cannot really be pointed to. It doesn't show up as anything. Yet even though it cannot be seen or felt as a particular sensation, it is intimately apparent to us since we each can say at this very moment we are aware. It would be absurd to say we are not aware; after all, what could it be that recognized it was not aware but awareness? Awareness is the one element common to our experience of everything.
Most nondual traditions make this distinction in one way or another between our conventional sense of awareness that is aware of objects and awareness that is "pure" or free from objects. Usually this distinction is made early in these teachings. Similar distinctions are also made between our everyday "conditioned" world and the "unconditioned" dimension of pure being, or between the Absolute and the Relative, or between emptiness and form, nirvana and samsara, heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane. It may seem strange that teachings purporting to be non-dualistic would instill this kind of dualism in their initial narratives. But in all cases the distinction is later released into a recognition of the unity of emptiness and form or of the Absolute and the Relative. The distinction is necessary to make at the outset because we are usually thoroughly identified with the stories our minds create about the contents of our awareness — the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that we take as real. Learning to distinguish awareness that is free from whatever contents are arising in it is a crucial step in the disidentification process (in sufi terms, fana) that is essential to realization. As Inayat Khan says in this passage, we are not conscious of pure intelligence anymore; we have lost the habit of experiencing what it is. To experience pure intelligence we first must allow for its possibility.
We can experiment with this right now, even while reading these words. Simply notice there is a constant flow going on in your awareness of words, thoughts, the ever-changing shapes of letters on this page, the shifting images of other objects appearing in your peripheral vision, sensations of your body, etc. Now ask yourself, what is it that is aware of these things? Turn your attention toward the awareness itself. What is it?
Curiously enough, whenever we look directly into awareness we see...nothing! We know that it is, but its pres-ence is completely empty of being a describable something. It is wakefulness itself, but it has no surface features that locate it anywhere. It has no edges. It is open, boundless, utterly clear. See if you can rest for even a short moment in this openness. You don't have to do anything to "rest in it" because it and you are identical. Whatever else you might think you are — your body, your history, your desires, your fears — you are most definitely awareness, since these other things could not even appear to you without you being aware. So for the moment just rest as the awareness you are. Thoughts and feelings may keep arising and vanishing, but the empty awareness you are doesn't go anywhere.
You may find that your mind keeps trying to distinguish something that it could describe as awareness. This is fine, it's the job of the mind to make thoughts like this (in fact, the mind is nothing other than thoughts.) As you sense this happening just relax. Don't try to distinguish anything. What you are looking for — awareness — is what is looking. It is already present now.
At this point you may experience — if only for a brief instant — that what you have always associated as being your awareness is actually not private to you. It is not limited to being inside your body. It is completely irrelevant to the ideas or subjective senses you might have of being a personal self. Its nature is boundless and completely open. Here it may help to experience awareness as synonymous with infinite space itself, since space, like awareness, is not a thing, has no location, and is completely boundless and open. But again, don't try too hard — the key to this primal realization is to relax — it is what already is.
Inayat Khan mentions that some may think experiencing "pure intelligence" is only possible for God, but in a few elegant words he evaporates that distinction: "No one can stand outside of the only Being." Only God can know God —
or as Ibn 'Arabi states, "None knows You except You," — because there is no other, there is not a second, there is no way to be a "something" separate from the One Pure Intelligence. My little dreams of being a separate self looking for spiritual improvement or realization, or looking for happiness in life, are nothing more than empty dreams dreaming I am a me. No, the "me" cannot know God because it is simply a thought-dream. As we awake from the dream we vanish, in exactly the same way we vanish when we realize we are pure awareness — that we are not our thoughts, bodies, sensations, or memories — we are this boundless openness in which everything arises. Even to say we "vanish" is not quite right, since there was nothing there to vanish in the first place. Does a dream exist before it vanishes? Where?
Toward the end of the passage Inayat Khan acknowledges that the ultimate purpose of all spiritual paths is to realize pure intelligence, this awareness that is without objects. All the "meditations and concentrations" have this intention. In my experience the spiritual practices he is referring to primarily serve to calm the mind and loosen identification with our emotions and thoughts, as well as open us to the possibility that we do not know what is happening or what we are. This humility is essential — it is the vanishing mentioned above that "brings us finally to the realization of pure intelligence."
In conclusion he asks, why do this? what is its benefit? His answer is simple: "Since all that benefits us comes from one source, that source must be perfect. It must be all-beneficial." One way to interpret these words is to see that they recognize the one source of blessing hidden within all manifestation. To speak of this source as "all-beneficial" (or "All-Good" as ancient Tibetan texts affirm) is not a description that results from logic. It is a description that arises from the direct experience of pure intelligence. The benefit that comes from this experience is the wonder of awareness itself.
Inayat Khan concludes by saying this source — the All-Good, the All-Beneficial — "is beyond our limited imagination, but it is the greatest thing one can attain in one's life." While it is beyond what we can imagine, its realization is not beyond us, since it is not other than the source and essence of our present-moment awareness. It is what we are.