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Towards Islamic Mindfulness

It was a perfect spring afternoon in Kyoto, Japan. The light rain of the morning subsided, and the sun began to shine through the droplets on the leaves and trees. I entered a local Buddhist temple with great anticipation as I was eager to meet one of the head monks to learn about Zen practices in mindfulness. We took our seats on comfortable cushions provided by the temple and the monk guided us through a meditation session. As I closed my eyes, settled my breath, and took in the sounds and smells of my surroundings, a great calm swelled inside me. I was at ease, happy, grateful, and most importantly completely content with the here and now. I don’t get many picturesque moments in my life, but that day was certainly one of them. It left a mark I carry till this day because it was at that temple and in conversation with the monk afterwards over a warm cup of matcha that a light of inspiration struck and from whence was born the Making Sense of Islam platform.

After about nearly an hour of fighting to tame my running thoughts, the monk asked us to draw our attention back to our breathes and prompted us to open our eyes slowly. He gave us all feedback on the way we were sitting and coached us through ways we could carry on as we journeyed back to our respective homes. He also gave some informed remarks about the mind, wandering thoughts, and asked us to retire in the next room for light refreshments.

I have always felt the need to settle my mind as it races throughout the day, and since I am a long-time student of the Dharmic faiths, I was used to the idea of meditation and mindfulness. I struck up a conversation with the English-speaking monk and he tried his best to make comparisons with the working knowledge he had of Islam. In our back and forth he introduced me to the Pali word “sati” and its Sanskrit counterpart “smrṭi,” both sharing a root meaning of to remember, to recollect, to bear in mind – as in the Vedic tradition of remembering Sacred texts. The first of a series of light bulbs went on for me as I shared with my interlocutor my own Sufi practices of dhikr and fikr (I will define these shortly) and he responded that he was familiar. However, he pointed out that the point of Zen practice is to empty the mind of all things and train it to settle and calm, not necessarily an overtly religious practice. A second light bulb went off.

At that time in my life, I was going through a lot of difficulties with one of my businesses and it was making me miserable. As a matter of fact, it was just a few days prior when I took the picturesque train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto that I came to the decision to cut ties with our main distributor as he was essentially killing the quality and price of our product. It was a bold step to take and came after months and months of struggle and hustle. In the thick of all that, I realized that I needed to find a way to take care of myself in order not to buckle to the pressure (it didn’t help that I was also in the middle of a lawsuit against a vendor who happened to rob me!). I looked at many models of mindfulness, especially those coming from the Buddhist tradition, but I was ultimately led back to my roots where I realized I had a toolkit for Islamic mindfulness all along.

I began reexamining my own spiritual practices as taught to me through my study and practice of Sufism. I started to realize that for me, and in the context of Islam, mindfulness is much larger than simply resting the mind, although that is an important part of it. For me, Islamic mindfulness is to be present and connected to both my beliefs and daily practices. It is to be aware and “mindful” of what I do, whether mundane and secular, spiritual or religious. To do these acts with purpose and appreciate the opportunity of having to do them. I also started to realize that- and I mean no offense to any specific practice, group, or persons – much of what I found by way of mindfulness practices were essentially commercial products taken from their original and native teachings and reworked for a wide market to help give people a quick high and keep them coming back for more. I, on the other hand, am interested in practices that are squarely within the Islamic paradigm and hope to develop tools that help Muslims achieve a level of mindfulness with their daily practice and beliefs, allowing them to thrive without crutches. I want Muslims to excel in both their spiritual & secular life by achieving a level of mindfulness that can link the two seamlessly. It is to this aim that Making Sense of Islam is dedicated.

Meditation, Remembrance, and Kindness

Meditation (Fikr)

God constantly praises those who think and reflect on both the revelation of Islam (Quran and Hadith) as well as the world around them. In fact, Islamic scholars refer to one as the revelation that is written and the other as the revelation that is observed. Accordingly, meditation is the practice of linking what we observe, perceive, feel, experience to the first principles of Islam, i.e., revelation. One of the most famous lines of Arabic poetry is: “indeed in everything there is a sign pointing to His Oneness.” Our experience of life, therefore, is nothing but an experience of God’s creation; His manifestation (tajjalī) upon the created world through His Divine Attributes. In contemporary approaches to mindfulness where the focus is on settling the mind there is, in my opinion, a great loss of opportunity to use this settled mind to make these connections and appreciate them to their fulness, which leads to immense self-transformation. Settling the mind is essential, for without it we cannot make these links, but by not moving passed the settled mind, it will, by nature, find an object to cling to and if it is not the Divine, it will ultimately be the self. In this manner, mindfulness without faith and Prophetic guidance can turn into a practice that increases the ego and leads to arrogance or, and even worse, self-worship. Islamic mindfulness, therefore, is the precise practice of taking the major aspects of the world around us: the natural environment, our physical selves, our social interactions, etc., and training the mind to focus on them (one at a time in different sessions) and make the journey from observation to appreciation; from fear and heedlessness of the Divine to love and longing for Him.

As mentioned previously, there are numerous aspects that the practitioner can take as areas of focus. However, one of the most useful, especially for people starting for the first time, is to take one’s personal behavior as the focus of meditation. By focusing on one’s use of the five senses in addition to emotions they tend to experience and display, through a guided meditation practice one can gradually move from sinful acts to acts of piety; from feelings of guilt and fear to hope and relief; from frustration to relief; from tension to relaxation; from misery to lasting happiness.

As I mentioned at the outset, this is not a theoretical topic only. Rather, meditation is meant to be a daily practice that takes a little time out of one’s day and gives dividends multiple times over.

Remembrance (Dhikr)

Mediation is a wonderful tool that yields many, many gifts. It helps strengthen the mind and releases tension we hold throughout the days and weeks. However, these are also fruits that can be easily lost if they are not reinforced and constantly anchored deep within. For this reason, remembrance is an essential component of Islamic mindfulness. In the self-help world many people talk about the importance of incantations: the idea of constantly repeating a phrase or concept to oneself and by so doing have this concept seeded into the subconscious where it eventually points you in that direction night and day. In fact, this is a true concept and without doubts yields results. However, and like the modern practice of secular mindfulness, this approach misses another great opportunity. Islamic spirituality teaches us that the greatest journey is the journey within where real transformation takes place. The point of remembrance, and indeed the entirety of Islamic mindfulness, is to help each of us be the best versions of our selves. We are not focused just on our worldly life, but more importantly self-transformation. Secular incantations operate on the horizontal plane: you repeat worldly things you want to attract to your own sphere to eventually achieve them. However, at the end you are fundamentally the same within. Remembrance works on the vertical plane to help you unlock your hidden potential. Part of this is not to approach remembrance as a transactional tool. We don’t want to get into the mindset that we are invoking God’s name or the Prophet’s name (God bless him and give him peace) because we want something from this world in return. The purpose of remembrance, as stated, is to help each of us in our journey within and by so doing help us all achieve a higher level of mindfulness throughout our daily lives.

The practice of remembrance is typically done through morning and evening litanies: Quranic and Prophetic prayers that are recited day-in and day-out and incorporated into one’s daily routine. The more dedicated and consistent one is in reciting these litanies, the greater chance they will have a transformative effect. They also become one’s “self-talk” when the going gets tough and help settle the heart in difficult times. For this reason, God says in the Quran, “verily by the remembrance of God is the heart settled (13:28).” A settled and sound heart is the key to a mindfulness life and a source of salvation in the hereafter: “except those who come to God with a sound heart (26:89.”

Kindness (Rifq)

There are two hadith traditions that explain kindness. The first is called “the first hadith” as it is the first tradition a student hears from any teacher. The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “the merciful ones receive mercy from the Merciful One. Show mercy to everything and everyone on earth and you shall be shone Mercy from the One in the heavens (narrated by Tirmidhi).” The second is, “kindness is not introduced into something except it beautifies it, and it is not removed from something except it ruins it (narrated by Muslim).” These serve as the pillars for understanding the importance of kindness as a key practice to Islamic mindfulness. In verse after verse, tradition after tradition the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) is referred to as the merciful one, a merciful gift, only sent as a mercy for all mankind, etc. These two traditions, therefore, underscore one of Islam’s greatest first principles which is that everything we do and say should be through the lens of kindness and mercy.

We often harm ourselves and others through what we say and do. Unfortunately, being mean, rude, harsh, and curt are not illegal. In fact, in some manifestations of our modern culture these qualities are praised as essential qualities to get ahead and succeed in the game of life. How many biographies have we read of the wealthy and famous, people society hails as the lucky ones who made it, only to find that on a personal level they were utterly miserable human beings? For many, it is almost impossible to conceive of success without some sort of scandal, controversy, abuse, meanness, and total selfishness. However, this need not be the case for kindness and mercy are not qualities that hamper development and success. Rather, they are qualities that are essential to lead a good life and succeed.

Part of the Islamic practice of kindness is to practice kindness first to oneself. The Arabs have a famous saying, “one who does not have a quality cannot give it.” If you are not kind to yourself, if kindness is not a core value and trait, as the hadith we began with state, the rest of your character will eventually be flawed. In addition, you will not be able to practice kindness and mercy towards others. The deep work-the hard work-is for us to begin within and start to practice kindness to ourselves. This begins with an audit of where we are vis-à-vis kindness and mercy towards our physical health, our social health, and our emotional health. Within each of these is a corresponding kindness practice associated with it that helps us move from destructive behavior to kindness, love, and mercy. To help in this regard, we look at God’s Divine Names of Beauty, for example: Mercy, Compassion, Love, Kindness, Subtleness, Forgiveness, etc., to determine how we manifest and demonstrate these qualities in our own lives. By first mastering the self, only then can we begin to live a life of kindness and mercy to others.

The Path Forward

This simple overview of Islamic mindfulness is the main reason I created Making Sense of Islam. First, to help myself in my personal and professional life. Second, as tools and practices to pass on to others who seek the same benefit. However, and this is an important concluding thought, the tools, courses, and practices I develop in the space of Islamic mindfulness will not be very effective if there is no basic understanding of Islam as a religion, paradigm, and civilization. It is for this reason that much of what I do on the platform is offer courses that increase one’s literacy of Islam in many of its various facets. If we don’t all share the same first principles, it will be very difficult to live a mindful life.

Well, this is just a sketch, the beginning of the beginning, and I can’t wait to share with you all these tools and practices in the coming months and years, online and in person. I hope to see you all on this exciting journey!