The Gift of Ramadan

Ramadan is a gift. Not only because of the most obvious and important sense of increased reward and multiplied blessings, but also for its ability to re-structure our environmental patterns. Negative habits within us usually feed off our established sense of routine, not stand alone impulses – since impulses are almost always based on our environment. The misunderstanding leads to a conceptual underestimating of the workings of the shaytan, who is merely and mistakenly seen as one who only ‘whispers’, rather than one who is hell-bent on the more subtle task of manipulating our routinely environment, to institutionalise within us negative habits and mental states that occur automatically. If the ball is already rolling downhill, there is no need to apply another push. In other words, many of us are running on our own habitualised momentum of self-limitation, or worse, self-destruction, and not much further effort from a malicious, external source is needed. This would explain why it is natural to carry some of our negative impulses into Ramadan, despite the shayateen allegedly being chained.

Herein lies the genius of Ramadan for those who seize the opportunity. The holy month, if followed properly with all its recommended requirements, breaks normative patterns and demands personal improvement. A re-structuring of our daily environment is combined with a dramatic incentive to do good, making the blessed month a unique opportunity to strive, more easily, for personal excellence. Our eating and sleeping patterns are altered by the times of iftar and suhour, re-orienting the flow of our day. Aside from increased self-restraint and patience cultivated from a lack of bodily consumption, not eating and drinking also causes a physiological change which can break (or make it easier to break) psychological patterns. Nights of Ramadan, ideally spent performing taraweeh/night prayers, or spent with the Qur’an, are also routine-changes for the vast majority of us, bending our nightly patterns towards something inherently soul-disciplining. I’ve often marvelled at how clever the faith is to practically oblige all its followers to recite or hear the entirety of the Qur’an, systematically, every year; not only a powerful way to make a religious faith and revelation survive across centuries, but to repeatedly pull its believers back to its complete, core message. These environmental changes make us more susceptible to spiritual transformation, particularly in a month so sacredly rich. Furthermore, emphasis on better character invites a moral cleanse in the knowledge that the fast is compromised by the one who still gossips, backbites, lies, or gives into anger. Multiplied good deeds are an incentive to give more in smiles, love, generosity, charity, and service to others, while multiplied bad deeds are a stern reminder to avoid engaging in what really works against your soul this month. And of course, any intentional sexual release, whether alone or with a partner categorically breaks the fast, building further self-restraint and patience. All such components of the month open opportunities to collapse old negative habits and patterns in replace of better ones.

That Ramadan lasts for around 30 days adds to its positive value. A month is a good amount of time to organise, expel and instil certain patterns of behaviour. In this way, it can be used as a periodical ‘springboard’ to leap you into the person you want to be. However, it would be most effective to psychologically prepare for the month prior, and to continue its positive momentum once it has passed. Since old environmental structures of life often immediately resume after Ramadan, it is easy to instantly fall back into old habits, even if one had been – for the most part – successful in giving them up for the month. Therefore, a continuation of some of the daily and nightly practices of Ramadan become vital, particularly after the crescent moon has waned. Similarly, a sudden jump into Ramadan with no psychological or physiological preparation might cause the first portion of the month to feel uncomfortable and somewhat daunting. This, in my opinion, might be a reason why voluntary fasting is particularly encouraged in the preceding and consecutive months of Ramadan. Fasting in Sha’ban and Shawwal, eases us into and out of the pinnacle of blessed months, to help the graduation and maintaining of optimal character and excellence.

So if you’re someone who is keen on bettering the self, do not waste this paramount opportunity. The birth-month of the Qur’an comes once a year, and for many of us, will be the only time we get to work on ourselves so effectively. Finally, regarding the fast, be wary of what you consume with your eyes and your ears, not just your mouth. For some of these things are respective equivalents of poison to the stomach; subtler, but no less hazardously intrusive. May the sight of grateful believers and the speech of God fill your eyes and ears this month. God bless.

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Getting Over An Emotional Obsession: An Email

OK so, it’s taken me a real long time to post this for a couple of reasons. The main reason being that I wanted to make sure that it worked. To give a brief outline, I got an email from someone I didn’t know explaining that she had this year-long uncontrollable love for a guy and wanted my advice to make her feelings go away (tall order, no?) In her case, she was a Muslim, in love with a non-Muslim, BUT faith really isn’t an issue here. The advice I gave (though at times directed specifically to her circumstances) is for ANYONE. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim/atheist/spiritualist, whatever, nor does it matter what the other person is; the advice is psychological, and concerns thinking patterns. If you’re human, it should work (love-struck dog groans and turns away from computer screen). So fellas can use this too – if a guy had emailed me, the advice would have been the same.

I just have one major thing to mention before we go into the emails. If you are someone who has an uncontrollable love or obsession for someone and no longer want this feeling, in order for the advice here to be effective, you need to WANT to get better and you need to want it BAD. If you’re just reading this out of interest, pass it on to someone else who is sick to their stomach from their ordeal. The girl who messaged me clearly wanted it bad (heck she emailed a stranger). And that’s a major reason why this worked for her. I do have her permission, and have obviously censored the email for the sake of anonymity. Where my advice is specific to her circumstances, just substitute them with your own.

Email from young woman:

“Salaam aleikum,

I have read your tweets and your columns.
I have the following matter.
I have been struggling for a while with this.

I’m a young woman who lives in X. I’m in love with a non-Muslim man and I don’t want to pursue with this because I know its haram. He actually doesn’t have a faith but he is into spiritualism like sufis.

I pray everyday to Allah to release me from this passion and feelings for him but they wont go away. I’ve tried not to contact him but my heart ends up bluffing and I call or text him.

He lives in X so I don’t see him that often. But I love him when I don’t want to, because I know in my life I can never have the halal life I want for myself and my family. As a practicing Muslim that’s my problem but my heart doesn’t want to acknowledge this.

This has been going on for a year and I don’t know who to tell this because I don’t want my surroundings to know…

If you could share some advice I would be grateful.”

Philo_Human REPLY:

“Salam X,

I want you to take these words seriously because I know about these situations and have had plenty of experience. What I will say might sound harsh, but I sympathize with you a lot.

In the same way the body falls sick, the heart and mind can become sick too. You have a disease of the heart. Make no mistake about this. It is a habitualized feeling that you have constructed in your head. There is nothing “special” about this individual or your relationship to him. You may suffer from some kind of addiction to him, and it is like any other addiction – be it to sugar, or alcohol, or sex, or whatever. Know this. It could have been anyone. That it IS him is purely due to the specific circumstances that have led you to this outcome: right place, right time, right background, right words, and hey presto – you’re in “love”. But you’re not in love in any positive way because clearly this situation is bringing you great difficulty.

Know this: You create further “love” in your heart the more you invest in him. By “investing” I mean putting time, effort or money into him. This includes sending him a text, calling, checking his online profile (if he has one) etc. By doing these things, you FUEL the attachment, and will never get over it. You must cut off contact entirely – not even a glance to a photograph of him.

You need to make sure other things in your life are in order: Your health (eating well and exercising), your other relationships (family and friends), your job, your goals and ambitions (what are you trying to achieve in life; who do you want to be?). Often people aren’t able to move on from the past because they don’t have a great enough future to aspire towards. I obviously don’t know your situation, but this is all very important.

Most crucially, you need to RE-CONDITION your mind to change what he means to you. This is what it’s all about. You have falsely associated certain positive meanings to him: “happiness” “love” “completion” whatever, you need to radically change this. I want you to write down a list of new associations to him: “He’s bad for my faith”, “He takes me away from God”, “He will destroy my state in the akhira”, “He compromises my job ambitions”, “He makes my life miserable”, “He wastes my time and energy” “He brings out the worst in me” etc. Add your own, make them general and specific – make them emotional; and make them MEANINGFUL TO YOU. Feel the effects, contemplate on each one. I want you to do this EVERYDAY. Preferably before you sleep and when you wake up, as the defenses to the subconscious are weakest at these points.

In addition, I want you to remove the assumptions you have about him, as you are currently filled with them and they are a huge cause of your distress. You may have hoped that he will somehow come round, embrace Islam and marry you. Or you might think that he’s truly perfect for you. These are all likely fantasies and have no basis in reality. I want you now to make a list of questions that undermine and destroy these assumptions. Make them in the form of QUESTIONS. So for example, ask yourself something like: “Will he get married to someone before I get married, or after I get married?” (here the assumption is that you will both marry other people) or “Why waste precious time, energy and thought on someone you don’t ever want to see or hear from again?” or “How grateful will I be when God blesses me with someone who I am so much happier with?” (the assumption here again is that you are not going to be with him). It’s all about undercutting your assumptions. Make some more up of your own and ADD THESE to the list of associations I mention in the previous paragraph. Ask yourself these questions EVERYDAY. Make sure you FEEL the effects of asking these questions, because the subconscious is shifted more strongly when there is an emotional charge to it.

Try not to talk about being depressed over him to friends or family as this is also a form of investment and will fuel the attachment. If you must talk about it, make sure it’s from a position that empowers you.

In general, pray to Allah and repent. Repent until you feel like crying for all faults major and minor, hidden and open. Do this EVERYDAY or as often as you can. Know that He loves you and will not put you through anything without it strengthening you in some way. In-sha’Allah, you will be able to help someone with the same difficulty in the future, as it is a common problem among people.”

Now thankfully, she did as I said and emails that followed were very positive on her part. I won’t paste them all in full here because I want the focus to be on the method, but let’s just say it worked better than I imagined. Within a few days she was seeing dramatic changes, and by two weeks she displayed a huge turn around. Here is a part of one of her later emails (2 weeks later):

“I’m in a state now I’ve never experienced before. I’m enjoying my life again, I have a wonderful time with my family and most of all I’ve found peace in my mind and connected stronger with my Faith!

I’m no longer desperate in this kind of love. He’s been trying to reach out to me different times but I can handle it very well. He called me once because it was his bday. I clearly showed no interest and I told him that I have no intention in going further in such kind of relationship. He asked to skype etc but I refused. I said goodbye and that was it. I cried after but those were these of closure and joy at one side.

I can truthfully say to myself that I can look back at his pictures/memories without feeling any emotions (love kind)…

There are times where I have a moment because something I see or hear makes me remind of him. But then I just laugh it away and think, I was blind to not see the signs but hamdellah on the other way it brought me closer to my truth and to Allah and my family.”

But girls and guys, before you start sorting your lives out, I just want to add a few points:

When you do this just like I said, you may start feeling better to the extent that you feel you don’t need to carry on doing the daily re-conditioning. This is a mistake. You must keep going. The mind is like a rubber band; if you stop pulling it in one direction, it will slowly relapse back into its old thinking patterns. You need to create a new default. The girl had emailed me a few weeks later saying she had had some set backs due to “some brief encounters with him”. When I spoke with her much later (when everything was good again), I asked her if she had stopped doing what I told her during that time and she said yes. So do not stop. Feel great, but just keep doing it. Do it for months if you have to. And later you can start doing it less. I can’t stress this enough. Do not think, “OK I’m fine now, enough conditioning,” especially not for the first few weeks.

This leads me on to another point, which is that you should feel free to change and add to the list of new associations or questions according to how you feel. In the course of reframing the way you think about this individual, you might realize more reasons why this person isn’t good for you, or why you need to stop thinking about them. Add them to the list. Or, a new negative thought might arise which means you need to ask yourself a new question to undercut and uproot it. The mind can be nasty like that – you get over one negative thought and then it’s like, “oh yeah…? well, remember THIS!!” And you’re like “Noooooo!! I just remembered some sentimental detail which has made me mushy again!!” (or whatever).

And this leads me to a final point, which is: expect triggers to spark off emotional reactions now and then. Don’t worry, they’re totally natural and not a set back. They’re just associations. It could happen when you see the road he or she lives on, a park bench you sat on together, a gift they gave you, etc. This is normal, and eventually these strong emotional associations will fade away the more you just keep doing everything I mention in the email. And don’t skimp on the healthy eating and exercise – that’s all important too! (trust me, everything in that email is thought out with rifle-scope precision).

Please bear in mind guys, I’m not an agony aunt. I might even take this down later because this isn’t really my “field”. I just want to give you the tools to help yourself. I’ve now given you more than I gave to the young woman who got better just from that email. If you do everything there, you should notice big changes. Feel free to comment but pardon me if I can’t be so responsive because I will not have a life if I addressed everyone’s relationship issues individually. But it would be nice to hear how you are doing.

I really wish you all the best and am genuinely excited, because I know you can be happy again.

Peace be with you.

And with Allah is all success.

Time: An Over-Rated Healer

It’s commonly perceived that ‘time is a great healer’ of emotional pain. If we take this claim at face value, it would imply that the mere extension of sequenced events carries with it some intrinsic medicinal or healing value, which appropriates itself to remedy feelings of emotional pain. If time truly was a great healer, the human being would indeed exist in a state of great fortune. By definition of our space and time-bound existence, no human being would ever be outside the healing process so long as they were alive. We would all, by default, be in a state of constant emotional recovery.

Obviously, this is not true. Many people still deal with emotional pain or traumatic experiences from years in the past, which negatively impact upon their lives in the present. Sometimes a situation could appear to get better over time, but in reality, the pain has merely taken a different form. Tears and anguish might characterise a broken heart in the relatively short-term period, only to be followed by bitter resentment and anger in the long term. In such cases, the negative attitude is then often projected onto other individuals who have nothing to do with the experience, spreading the pain further.

Sometimes emotional pain worsens with time. The mere realisation that a certain problem has relentlessly continued to trouble an individual for so long can in fact accentuate the feeling of its burden. In other instances, the later discovery of how a personal problem affects other parts of one’s life – in a way previously unknown to the individual – can progressively complicate the emotional disorder, increasing its intensity, and further one’s loss of self esteem. In such examples, the individual doesn’t necessarily do anything self-harming to feel worse, yet one’s emotional state can quite easily deteriorate as time passes.

The confusion of the myth that time heals may lie in its false analogy with the healing experience of physical pain. Broken bones, cuts and bruises heal in time. The body possesses biochemical properties, which temporarily ‘address’ injuries immediately after they occur. Here one doesn’t need to do much. Chemical signals send the correct cells to perform their own consecutive tasks best suited to the problem. In the case of a cut, platelet cells instantly rush in to cause congealing at the opening to prevent bleeding, while white blood cells follow to kill any unwanted bacteria from the intruding instrument. After the area is cleared, other cells arrive to form new skin beneath the now dried congealed area (scab), and the area is well on its way to full recovery. What’s important here is that although the healing process occurs in temporal stages, time itself is actually not a cause of healing. In fact, time is no more of a cause to physical recovery than it is a cause to the building of a house, or to the winning of a tennis match. The causes are respectively, the biochemical processes and the skilled physical and mental activities involved in these occasions. Time, on the other hand, is impotent, having no causal or healing properties whatsoever.

So why is this now hopefully obvious fact important? Because the general assumption that ‘time heals’ makes people do nothing about their emotional pains. It validates the idea that prolonged anxiety or depression will eventually just go away. Even the language of ‘moving on’ implies that some kind of temporal ‘passing’ is required to get over something. This is simply not true.

Our ability to overcome an emotionally painful situation has little to do with time and much more to do with changing the way we think about the experience. This is the ‘healing process’ of the mind. Like the processes involved in physical healing, it’s active, characterised by various methods that address one’s thinking patterns. We don’t have the equivalent of automated cells to rush in at the scene of a problem and patch things up; hence, emotional healing is conscious, and comes down to our cognitive choices. In particular, it concerns how we interpret what an incident or circumstance means to us. It’s about keeping grounded in reality and not lost in baseless negative assumptions. Deeply seeking answers to questions such as: what can be learnt from this experience; what good can come from this, and thereafter, letting answers to those questions become the ultimate meaning of the situation by consistent review and repetition, can alter, quite profoundly, the way one feels. How you talk about the issue to yourself and to others, and the extent to which you interrogate the assumptions on which this speech is based, can also effectively cause your trail of thoughts and therefore your emotions, to break out of the limiting, negative, cognitive frame in which they are trapped. (Good friends, family members or psychiatrists can also help with this process.)

Such examples are just some of the ways in which one can begin to re-evaluate and re-organise one’s thoughts regarding a situation. Negative thoughts bouncing within falsely constructed frames do not just naturally break out after some time. However, it is possible that this may happen accidentally. That is, eventually, something may happen, or something might be learnt that naturally causes an empowering shift in one’s understanding of the situation, changing the way one feels. But there is no guarantee here. It could take years for a person to break out of a negative thought pattern in this way, and even still – given the accidental nature of this solution – it doesn’t equip the individual with the correct mental tools to prevent the same feelings or heartache from being experienced again and again in the future.

So, no. Time is not a healer. No one should leave his or her feelings to the mercy of time. Rather, we should take active control over our emotions by looking into the cognitive methods that re-interpret what our emotional experiences mean to us. The body may have its rescue functions to heal its pain, but when it comes to the mind, we really need to get to work ourselves. With enough training and conditioning, such healing can eventually occur naturally.

Nurturing the soul

Ascending the spiritual path is like a science. By applying certain methods and practices, one attains certain results. There are many distractions and misperceptions that block the clarity of that path and its illuminating effects in the world, requiring us to refocus over and over again; hence, for example, the repetition of prayer.

The believer, in his or her better state, understands Reality, but is swimming against a current of false assumptions and misplaced values. We have associated, by conditioning, pleasure and value to incorrect objects and practices – entities, which in fact bring us subtle or manifest harm. This is precisely the illusion of the world.

The purpose of the following list is to provide a clear reminder of some of the benefits of performing the basic religious and spiritual practices that feed the soul; to help us associate positivity and pleasure with what is truly deserving of it, and to encourage us to keep going.

1. You fulfil your Purpose.

You fulfil the essential purpose of your creation as one who knows and worships God and you realise the intended relation that you should have with Him.

2. You better your relationship with God.

That is, God becomes more pleased with you as you feed your soul and remember Him and you too become more willing to please and draw closer to Him. Your link with Him is thus strengthened and enriched. You grow to find Him in front of you and He becomes the eyes with which you see, the ears with which you hear, the feet with which you walk (hadith Bukhari).

3. Your heart softens.

You lose hardness of the heart which impacts negatively on your character and become emotionally responsive to the remembrance of God and to the life and teachings of His Messenger, peace be upon him, as well as to the joys and pains of other people.

4. You put situations and all things into perspective.

Situations and events as well as objects around you assume their relevant significance in this short, illusionary world. Your priorities are rearranged so they are now befitting for a strong believer and all superficial/unimportant things are marginalised accordingly. In addition, you see harms as harms and are not deceived by their allurements.

5. You feel happy and at peace.

You begin to feel the settled joys of feeding the soul, which positively affect both your deeper and temporary sentiments.

6. You become protected from harm.

The feeding of the soul earns you God’s protection from harms that are both known and unknown to you. These include harms from your own self, from other people, and harm from the shaytan and his followers.

7. Your life is divinely guided.

God takes control over your affairs and wills beneficial things for you allowing you to grow and develop in ways that you could not have manufactured yourself. This includes who you meet, where you go, what you come across, and what you beneficially gain and lose on your journey.

8. You have dreams that can reveal what you otherwise don’t see.

A purer soul is in a better state to receive insight when God takes it up to Himself during sleep. These insights can be warning signs or any new/useful information and indications regarding past, present, or future circumstances.

9. Your relationships in the world around you improve.

God places a mercy between you and others. The illumination of the self radiates an energy and gracefulness that is felt by others around you. People become drawn to you through the beauty of your character as it increasingly embraces qualities of humility, selflessness and contentment.

10. You become largely immune to negative states.

Negative states and emotions such as anger, despair, sadness, insecurity, arrogance, jealousy, envy, fear, laziness, depression, anxiety, etc., are not experienced in any serious way. The higher you ascend, the more insignificant they become until most of them, if not all, vanish completely.

11. Your sexual energy becomes more within your control.

Your basic desires are stable while your higher self is being nourished. Uncontrolled sexual desires of the body – if previously present – are reduced since you have discovered and are enjoying the higher, more lasting and rewarding pleasure of the spirit.

12. You feel inclined to do good.

The pleasure of feeling close to God makes you want to maintain and progress in this relationship. A pure soul will naturally and instinctively use its vehicle – the body – to do things in accordance with God’s guidance, typically in the service of others.

13. The Angels visit you more.

God may be so pleased with you that He mentions you before the Angels who are sent down by Him to both protect you from external harms and to pray for your forgiveness, though you are unaware of their visits.

14. You become more aware and sharper.

Inspirational and intelligent thoughts and ideas come to you more easily due to the mind being unhindered by previous priorities of mundane concerns and distractions. God may also inspire you with a thought or idea beyond your natural conceptual grasp.

15. You are psychologically/mentally stronger.

Negative situations and circumstances will no longer stunt you the way they did before. You will remain stable and more secure in the face of harsh realities and misfortunes of life.

16. You eat better.

Sensitivity towards your nutritional intake becomes more acute as you find yourself preferring what is wholesome and natural to what is processed and lacking nutritional value.

17. You sleep better.

A soul at ease renders the body and mind at ease, especially when at rest.

18. You become more confident.

As a result of having a close connection to God, worldly ‘threats’ cease to worry you. A security is established within yourself, knowing that everything that could happen is only due to God’s will or allowed by His permission, which always has an ultimately constructive purpose. Therefore you are able to approach the world with minimal fear of any person or circumstance.

19. You are used supernaturally to help others.

You become used by God as an instrument to mend and harmonise situations around you. Such instances are orchestrated independent of your choosing, though you will recognise such situations immediately for what they are and play your part accordingly.

20. You feel secure about the course of your future.

In the knowledge that your life is guided by an All-Powerful, All-Knowing Being who is capable of giving you everything you want and who wants the best for you out of Love, you can rest deeply assured that your future is in Good Hands.

21. You use your time more efficiently.

If you are feeding the soul well then you are naturally less inclined to consume time on empty distractions for fear of undoing what you have spiritually achieved, since such activities are counter-productive to the betterment of the soul unless sincerely utilised as a period of rest or temporary enjoyment in preparation for more good.

22. Your duas (invocations/supplications) are stronger.

When one’s spiritual state is weak, a dua can be akin to the force of something coming out through the mouth and abysmally hitting the floor in front of you. In a high spiritual state, the force can be likened to a powerful beam that shoots from your self and penetrates the sky. You feel like you are being heard and receive answers to requests with striking clarity.

23. You ascend through higher spiritual states.

This is the nature of the spiritual path – not something switched on and off, but rather, like the sunrise which brightens in small increments. Like anything worth striving for, it is easier to fall from grace than it is to rise to enlightenment. The path may be difficult initially but the effects on your self and in your life are increasingly profound and well worth it. Even if you slip, like Adam and Eve slipped, you learn, turn around, and keep moving towards Him.