I have always had a fascination with mindfulness. I think it began with hearing the verses in Surah An-Naml of Sulaiman r.a. requesting the throne of the Queen of Sheba to be brought to him. A powerful Jinn said he could bring it before Sulaiman rises, but one who had knowledge of the Book brought it before his gaze could return to him. This always amazed me and without realizing it set me on the path towards mindfulness.
But what exactly is mindfulness? There seems to be so many different definitions that it can be overwhelming. My favourite is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines it as:
paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.
Although this is a great definition it doesn’t really help us to understand how important this act is for our everyday mental wellbeing, as well as for our faith.
So over the years I have begun (and at times even finished heh!) reading dozens of books on meditation and mindfulness. But I have yet to really put mindfulness into practice properly or even really experience it for myself! My mind has always zoomed along at a blistering pace from topic to topic, seemingly with three or four internal conversations happening at any given time.
So whenever I used to try mindfulness or meditation I could not last for more than a few minutes before I start thinking “OK, you are doing well, you are not thinking about all that work you have to do! And you are not thinking about the kids, and the housework , and oh my goodness that dripping noise is the shower isn’t it! I will fix that tomorrow! But I need the washer from the hardware store. Oh the hardware store! Man I love that place! I really need to get some garage shelves. Wait! Mindfulness! Concentrate! Focus! If I had this focus in my studies I could probably have done better. Man my studies are lagging at the moment…” And so on.
I know that this is something that everyone goes through and it just requires practice to slowly gain the state of mindfulness, but I am at times extremely impatient!
It reminds me of a story I heard years ago. A simple farmer leaves his village that is constantly harassed by bandits to learn the art of swordsmanship from a master in the mountains. He travels the long and weary path for weeks before arriving at the doorstep of the wizened old warrior and begs to be taught true swordsmanship. The master looks him up and down and says that for someone of his skills it will take him 3 years of hard training to master the sword. The man is distraught and says that he must learn it faster as his village might be destroyed in 3 years! He asks the master if he works twice as hard then how long will it take?? The master strokes his beard, thinks for a minute, then says “With this it will take 4 years.” The farmer is shocked! Longer! Maybe the master is testing his mettle! He says he will train from the moment the sun rises until the moment it sets every day! How long then? The master once again ponders for a few seconds before saying “With this much effort, hopefully it will be learnt in 5 years!”
Some things just take time to master, and the effort of trying to rush through things can sometimes undo the hard work you have done. In my experience mindfulness is definitely one of those things! Sometimes when I am trying to practice meditation it feels like I am standing in my head, holding my own hands and screaming at myself to “Relax! Empty your head! EMPTY IT!” Yeah. That isn’t helping.
Although mindfulness is all the rage these days there are still many who perhaps due to confusion about what exactly mindfulness is, question or wonder about its place in Islam.
The sunnah is full of examples of the Prophet pbuh acting in a manner identical to mindfulness. He used to give full attention to people and matters at hand. He always listened attentively to what was being said, and he was always in a state of mind that gave him tranquillity, that allowed him to act with compassion rather than anger, as when his neighbour used to abuse and throw rubbish at him, or when he stopped the sahabah from abusing the bedouin who urinated in the masjid.
He was known to have placed great importance on mindfulness towards God as in the hadith An-Nawawi:
…Be mindful (i7fath) of God and He will take care of you. Be Mindful of Him and He will be by your side…
Or in the hadith in Al-Adab Al-Bayhaqi :
The virtue of knowledge is more beloved to me than the virtue of worship, and the best of your religion is mindfulness (al-wara’).
And the well known but often controversial (what isn’t these days honestly) hadith:
An hours contemplation is worth a year of salat.
Among countless others.
From what I can tell, there are two kinds of mindfulness.
There is the conscious mindfulness that you struggle to achieve, which is what is normally taught in mindfulness classes and books. But there is also the other, unconscious mindfulness that just comes upon you with no warning. I get these all the time. What I mean is those times when you are walking and in your own head as usual, then you suddenly see/hear/smell something and are pulled out of your internal dialogue, yanked from the past or future into the present (what a beautiful flower! Wow the air is so fresh today! Subhanallah thats a fantastic view! etc), and you appreciate it fully, just for that moment. And then back you go into the past or future in your mind. I love these moments and would love to progress beyond these uncontrollable bouts of mindfulness and develop a more constant, conscious mindfulness.
So here is a sort of ladder of increasing difficulty of the areas I want to try and improve my mindfulness and try to come closer to Allah swt:
In Salat – This is a no brainer but it’s something that I take for granted all the time. When we pray we are told that we are standing before Allah s.w.t., and as such we should give our full concentration to Him.
But I know that for myself, especially after having kids, I sometimes use my salat time to think about all the things going on, and in the background of my mind I perform the salat as a robot. The worst part is when I realise I have done qa’dah every raka’at! This is obviously not the correct manner to pray and I am currently in the process of trying to make every salat the time when I really focus on the ayahs I am reading and on Allah s.w.t..
In our intentions – Growing up I never could see the importance placed on intention in Islam. Before we take wudu we make intention, before we pray we make intention, before we eat we make intention, etc etc etc. I always thought in my head “well obviously I am intending to pray otherwise I would not be up here about to pray!”
But I am realising more everyday that the purpose of the intention is for us to put all our focus on the present moment and be aware of what we are doing and why we are doing so. Otherwise it is so easy to slip into robot mode and go through the actions without any thought or care put into them. So many times when praying my sunnah I get up to pray and suddenly think “Is this number 2 or 3?” and realise that I had no REAL intention, just words on my lips. My mind was absent through the entire salat!
With almost every action – I grew up being told to say Bismillah before almost everything. Bismillah when you get dressed, when you travel, when you enter and leave your home, when you eat, and so on! Again I believe this is recommended to create an attitude of mindfulness. I cannot count how many times I have started eating without remembering to say Bismillah. Let alone get dressed or all the other things. But imagine if I had.
In order to do so, I would pretty much need to be constantly aware of what I am doing, I would need to be in the present moment completely, which is exactly what I believe mindfulness is. But the importance here is not in saying the words like a robot, but in being aware of their implications. When I get dressed I say “In the Name of Allah” because I am aware of how lucky I am to have nice clean clothing to be able to wear. I recognize that these are not my clothes but are gifts from Allah s.w.t., just like everything else.
With every breath – this is one that I doubt I will ever achieve but it is something that those close to Allah s.w.t. are said to have achieved. Its like the previous point on steroids. To be constantly aware of our dependence on Allah for our existence every moment. To be truly thankful for every moment we have been given. To never forget Allah and have him always in our minds. That is the goal, and though for me it seems like a destination that is unreachable. But then I remember that every journey begins with a single step, and of the Hadith Qudsi “…Whoever comes to me walking, I come to him running…” and that gives me hope.
Someone I respect greatly once told me that mindfulness is doing what you can in the present and leaving the rest to Allah swt. We all say that but then we regret and grieve about the past, and are afraid of the challenges that we both know about and dont know about in the future. We must strive to become true believers, who Allah swt describes in the Qur’an:
Indeed, those who believed…and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. (2:62)
What has come before and what has come after, they leave with their Lord. Their focus is purely on this moment, the present, within which they strive to do righteousness. This is mindfulness, and what I pray we all can attain insha’Allah!
May Allah swt forgive me for any mistakes, and Allah knows best.