.. a Mindful Muslim Monk: Exercising mindfulness in Islamic Meditation
We all know that we need more presence in NOW, more control over our wandering minds and desires. But what exactly do we do to achieve this? How can we become more mindful in all aspects of our lives, spiritual and temporal?Our senses are constantly stimulated from every direction to the point that a simple moment of quiet stillness seems impossible. This continuous agitation hinders us from getting the most out of each moment, subtracting from the quality of our prayers and our ability to remember the Almighty Allah. This is where the practice of exercising mindfulness, in the Islamic context of muraqabah, can help train our minds to become more disciplined
Mindfulness linguistically is defined as the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something and more specifically a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. When we are in a state of unmindfulness, we react to thoughts and emotions and let them lead us wherever they wish. By contrast, cultivating a state of mindfulness gives us the ability to follow or not follow our thoughts as we choose.
Put differently, mindfulness is a form of metacognition (“awareness of one’s awareness”), a self-awareness of what is really going on inside one’s mind and heart. In the Islamic context, mindfulness is the virtue of muraqabah, a word which is derived from the root meaning to watch, observe, regard attentively. Already we can see the close proximity between “mindfulness” and “muraqabah”. As a spiritual term, it is defined as “the constant knowledge of the servant and conviction in the supervision of the Truth, over one’s outward and inward states”. A Muslim in a state of muraqabah is in continuous full knowledge that Allah is Aware of him or her, inwardly and outwardly. It is a complete state of vigilant self-awareness in one’s relationship with Allah in heart, mind, and body. The basis of muraqabah is our knowledge that Allah is always watching us at all times and, as a consequence, we develop greater attention and care for our own actions, thoughts, feelings, and inner states of being. As Allah said, “Remember that God knows what is in your souls, so be mindful of Him”
As the Prophet defined in the famous hadith of Gabriel, spiritual excellence “is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He certainly sees you”. In other words, spiritual excellence is to be completely aware and mindful of Allah at all times.
The fruit of muraqabah is a state of tranquil calmness leading to contentment in life, leading to stillness (Al-sakinah). Muraqabah is to be devoted to the names of the Watcher (Al-Raqib), the Guardian (Al-Hafith), the Knowing (Al-Alim), the Hearing (Al-Sami), the Seeing (Al-Basir). Thus, whoever understands these and is devoted to fulfilling them acquires Muraqabah.
Muraqabah necessarily includes mindfulness of one’s own intentions, thoughts, emotions, and other inner states. Muraqabah is observation of one’s innermost being (Al-sirr). In every word we speak and in every thought that we choose to pursue, we should be aware of our thought patterns and emotional states in order to react to our inner experiences in the best manner.
Silence has an important effect on our hearts and character. The Prophet said “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, and his heart is not upright until his tongue is upright” , silence therefore is an aspect of positive character .Similarly Bhagwat Geeta says: यथा चित्तं तथा वाचो यथा वाचस्तथा क्रियाः ! चित्ते वाचि क्रियायांच साधुनामेक्रूपता !!( Your thought becomes your words, your words become your actions..its the sign of wise or sadhu)
Silence is a form of wisdom, yet few people practice it. Silence is a means to help us defeat the devil which come in the form of evil thoughts. The Prophet said, “You must observe long periods of silence, for it will drive away Satan and help you in the matter of your religion”. Moreover, silent reflection is the sign of a wise person, with the Prophet as the leading example. “Have you sat with the Messenger of Allah ?” Jabir said, “Yes, he would observe silence for long periods of time and laugh little”.
Silence is related to muraqabah in that observing silence in seclusion for a regular period of time cultivates presence, the mind’s quiet awareness of here and now. It is to abandon preoccupation with the past and the future.When in silent reflection or mindfulness exercise, we have time to simply be present in the moment without worrying about what is past or future or elsewhere in creation. It is an opportunity to nourish our presence before Allah (al-hudur). Those in seclusion are those who seek solitude and they withdraw from people to be alone and reflect upon one’s inner soul.
One of the best and most concise explanations of the many meanings of “meditation” in Islam is by “reflecting (tafakkur), remembering (tadhakkur), examining (nathr), meditating (ta’amul), contemplating (i’tibar), deliberating (tadabbur), and pondering (istibsar). Each of these words represents different shades of mental activity that can be considered forms of meditation. It is called ‘reflection’ because in that is the utilization of thought and its procurement during it. It is called ‘remembrance’ because it is the fetching of knowledge which must be considered after being distracted or absent from .It is called ‘meditation’ because it is repeatedly examining again and again until it becomes evident and uncovered in one’s heart. It is called ‘contemplation’ because one takes a lesson from it to apply elsewhere. It is called ‘deliberation’ because it is examining the conclusion of matters, their endings and consequences, and deliberating on them.
To become more mindful of what is happening within us, we need to understand how our thoughts progress through stages into actions. According to Al-Suyuti, the first stage of a thought is al-hajis, a sudden and fleeting thought that comes and goes before one can consider it. We may not even notice it was there at all. The second stage is al-khatir, a thought that we give attention and consideration. At this stage we have a choice to continue down this train of thought or to ignore it. The third stage is hadith al-nafs, our inner dialogue or “talking of the self” as we pursue the thought and seriously consider acting upon it. The final stages are al-ham and al-azm, the decision and determination to put the thought into action. Of course, when thoughts are good, we can and should pursue them. The trouble comes from bad thoughts. How do we learn to ignore them, especially when they feel at times so powerful and overwhelming?
Mindfulness exercise in this context is not about suppressing thoughts, but rather simply becoming aware of them and learning to let them pass. As we become more cognizant of our thoughts, we begin to perceive a distance between ourselves and our thoughts. We disassociate and dis-identify ourselves from our thoughts; our involuntary thoughts are just “happenings” (hadath) and do not necessarily reflect who we are. Initial thoughts (al-hajis) can originate involuntarily from the self, as Allah said, “We created man — We know what his soul whispers to him”.
Mindfulness Exercise in Islam
To begin, choose a time of the day when you can be in a quiet place alone. A quick exercise right before prayer is particularly beneficial as mental preparation for meditation.Next choose a posture that you find comfortable. You can sit up in a chair, on a comfy cushion, or even laying on your side or back in bed.The aim is to find a posture that is relaxing and comfortable.Now, begin by focusing awareness on your natural breathing. Progressively relax the muscle tension throughout your body: your arms, your legs, your core, your jaw. You can close your eyes or simply lower them. As you start with relaxed breathing, feel for a sense of your state of heart and mind in this moment. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? Is your mind racing or calm? Try to settle your mind by bringing awareness to your natural, relaxed breathing, simply feeling the life and energy Allah gave you throughout your body. Feel a deep sense of gratitude to Allah for your breath, your living and being in this moment.
As you settle into stillness within your inner space, begin to perceive the feeling of muraqabah with Allah. Know and feel that He is watching you and with you wherever you are. He knows everything going on inside you right now and at all times. Focus on the feeling of muraqabah in this state of inner silence (samt al-sirr). Try to stop talking to yourself (hadith al-nafs) or pursuing trains of thought. Silence your inner dialogue as much as you can and simply focus on being present with Allah in the moment. When your mind starts to wander off — and it surely will,bring your awareness back to the center of your being, and to your presence in this moment before Allah, by quietly reciting remembrances of Allah. The Prophet would use supplications to bring him back into a state of muraqabah if he had become distracted. The Prophet said, “Verily, at times there is fog over my heart, so I seek the forgiveness of Allah one hundred times in a day”.
No matter how long your mind spent in unmindfulness, every time you bring it back to muraqabah it becomes stronger and stronger. And every time you mentioned the name of Allah inside you or silently nurtured gratitude for His giving you life & energy and breath, it polished away some of the rusted spots over your heart bringing you more and more closer to him and the more closer we come to Almighty, the more we become aware of how far we were away….