We have messed up priorities. We spend less time pursuing the things that matter most to us and more time pursuing the things that matter least to our success in this world or the Hereafter. Throughout the day, we function in a never-ending distracted mode. However, if we want to thrive in the 21st century and achieve success in this and the next world, the ability to focus on the things that matter most to us is the most crucial skill to cultivate. This article describes how to develop that focus through mindful meditation.
The minute I utter the word “meditation”, people look at me baffled. I can’t read other’s mind, but their facial expression says it all, “isn’t meditation an un-islamic thing?”
I understand the confusion. Most people imagine this when I talk about meditation:
However, meditation is much more than this. In this article, you’ll find what meditation truly is and how you can utilise its superpowers to achieve focus, calm and relaxation.
Meditation is a broad term that carries different meanings in different contexts. In the context of becoming a mindful Muslim, meditation is a simple mental exercise. It’s a workout for your brain. You train your brain by regulating your attention in a specific way.
Dan Harris, in his entertaining book 10% Happier, mentions this most succinctly.
“It (meditation) really involves three extremely simple steps.
- One: Sit with your eyes closed and your back straight.
- Two: Notice what it feels like when your breath comes in and when your breath goes out, try to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.
- Third step is the biggie. Every time you try to do this, your mind is going to go crazy. You are going to start thinking about all sorts of stupid things like if you need a haircut, why you said that dumb thing to your boss, what’s for lunch, etc. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and begin again. This is going to happen over and over and over again, and that is meditation.”
Wait? Is that all? Yep, if you are beginner, that’s what meditation is all about. It’s simple.
Let me explain each of these steps in a bit more detail.
Step 1: Sit with your eyes closed and your back straight
Sit comfortably, but with dignity. If you slump, for instance, it’s not dignity. When you sit in a dignified manner, you’ll automatically straighten your back.
Here is a simple way, how you can sit dignified and straighten your back: Imagine a thread that runs from the very top of your head down through your spine to the base of your tailbone.
Now gently pull that imaginative thread up. Relax your shoulders. Lengthen your spine. Chest up. Chin (and shoulders) down. Breathe in through your nose, down into your belly and exhale through your nose.
You may sit on the floor cross-legged or sit on a chair. If you choose to sit on a chair, keep your hands on the thigh and let the feet touch the ground.
For a beginner, it’s recommended to close the eyes.
Step 2: Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out
This step is simple but not necessarily easy.
Feel the sensation of your breath coming in and going out. Don’t attempt to control your breath; just observe how your breath comes in and goes out.
Step 3: Your mind will frequently wander, bring back your attention to breath repeatedly
While you try to focus your attention on the breath, your mind will wander a million time, and that’s not a “failure”. The more you fail to focus and bring back your attention to breath, the better you succeed! Just as you lift weights to get stronger or run to build your aerobic capacity, your repeated attempts to bring your focus on breath strengths your prefrontal cortex and helps you achieve focus.
The whole game is about bringing your attention back to your breath again and again and again. So, whenever you lose focus on your breath and your mind starts to wander, bring back your attention gently to your breath.
Imagine your breath like an anchor for your mind. Just as a ship is kept in a place using a heavy anchor, your wandering mind can be kept in one place using your breath.
The cornerstone of meditation is, in fact, about improving your concentration. Your concentration is developed and deepened by continually bringing your attention back to the breath every time your mind wanders.
When you catch yourself being distracted or notice your mind has wandered, don’t spend any energy or thoughts as for why it had wandered. Instead, be happy that you’ve recovered your mindfulness and bring back your attention back to the breath.
The more you practice bringing the attention to your breath, the better you become at staying on the breath or becoming more aware of your earliest impulse to become distracted.
As Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “meditation is the process by which we go about deepening our attention and awareness, refining them, and putting them to greater practical use in our lives”. So that is what meditation is all about.
Meditation is not about…
It’s also important to remind you, what meditation is not about.
- It is certainly NOT about emptying your mind, suppressing your thoughts or sitting in a particular position.
- It is also not about chanting in a language you don’t understand
- Also, most importantly, it’s not a religious act that belongs to a particular religion.
Rather, meditation is a simple mental exercise that can improve your concentration, your focus and your health.
Types of meditation
Though there are many different types of meditation, the core of meditation is the same. It’s all about bringing your attention to a specific thing.
These are the four most popular types of meditation:
- Transcendental meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Yoga Meditation
- Mindfulness meditation
The only meditation I learn, practice and teach is mindful meditation. That’s because;
- it’s easy,
- it’s the most used meditation in scientific studies. Thus it has tons of scientific evidence to back its efficacy,
- and it’s free from any religious connotations.
What does Islam say about mindful meditation?
In the most basic sense, mindfulness means to be conscious and aware of your current action.
Islamically, bringing mindfulness to your action is extremely important. Most of the i’badah (worship) we perform daily require this mindfulness.
For instance, while you perform your five daily salah (prayer), the goal is to be mindful of what you recite, ponder over its meanings and to glorify Allah subuhanawuta’la. The reward of your prayer is directly correlated to the percentage of mindfulness you have observed in the prayer.
‘Ammar ibn Yasir reported: The Messenger of Allah (SAW), said, “Verily, a man may return from his prayer, and nothing good is written for him but a tenth of his prayer, or a ninth, or an eighth, or a seventh, or a sixth, or a fifth, or a fourth, or a third, or a half.”
(Sunan Abī Dāwūd, sahih(authentic) according to Al-Albani)
In other words, the more you are present in the prayer and mindful of what you recite and perform, the more rewards you get.
Likewise, all other forms of Islamic worship involve mindfulness too. Even your du’a is not accepted if you are not mindful of what you are beseeching Allah subuhanawuta’la.
Abu Hurairah narrated that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said, “Invoke Allah while you are certain to be answered and know that Allah does not answer a du’a from a heart which is inattentive and unmindful” (Tirmidhi, graded hasan by Albani).
Also, if you want to achieve ihsan (the pinnacle of Islam), it’s impossible to do it without becoming mindful of your deeds.
Mindfulness in your prayer, in your communication with others and your daily activities, are crucial for your success in both worlds, yet most people are confused about how to achieve it.
That’s where meditation can help. It can help you achieve more control over your ever-wandering mind because meditation, in its essence, is about bringing mindfulness to your actions.
The practice of exercising mindfulness is called muraqabah in Islamic literature. Muraqabah is also about inspecting and introspecting our actions, for which mindfulness is essential. In an excellent article (I highly recommend it, if you are interested in becoming a more mindful person) brother Justin Parrott gives a beautiful example, how meditation can help us to improve our i’badah!
He says, “Mindfulness exercise is not about supplanting our regular primary acts of worship either. Among other benefits, it functions as a type of preparation for the main acts of worship, similar to how some Muslims prepare for Ramadan by eating less on non-fasting days. Think of mindfulness exercise like basketball practice and ritual prayer (salah) like the basketball game; we strengthen our muraqabah through exercise and practice so that when we put muraqabah into action, in salah, we are in top mental and spiritual shape. The salah is the performance, the mindfulness exercise is the rehearsal.”
I can testify that my focus in salah has improved a lot after I started being consistent with meditation. The improvement of the quality of my salah led me to enjoy my salah and my i’badah more. That’s when I truly understood the hadith, “The coolness of my eyes was made in the prayer” (Al-Tabaraniin al-Mu’jam al Kabir)
Prophet Muhammed (SAW) also called salah as a source of tranquillity. He used to say “O Bilal, give us rest with it (by calling the adhan to start the salah).” (Abu Dawud).
The latest science does confirm this ultimate truth that salah is a source of tranquillity and relaxation.
Salah – the source of tranquillity
Muslim scientist from the University of Malaya, Malaysia came together and wanted to find out whether salah provides similar health benefits as other meditations.
In this interesting study, scientist found a remarkable increase in α (alpha) wave activity during salah. Here is the result of the research in their own words: “A notable increase in α wave activity was observed at the occipital and parietal regions of both brain hemispheres. The production of α waves is normally promoted by the parasympathetic nervous system with suppression of the sympathetic system.
These findings strongly suggest that the high levels of α activity during salah are associated with increased relaxation, reduced tension, sustained focus, and a balanced condition of the human mind and body.”
It’s important to note that we don’t perform our salah to meditate or to achieve any health benefits. Instead, our primary goal of salah is to come closer to Allah subuhanawuta’la by speaking to Him and enjoying His company. However, in pursuit of that goal, we do achieve countless other physical, mental and spiritual benefits that make our life more fulfilling and tranquil.
That’s the beauty of salah. Its unidentified benefits for our life is more than the identified benefits. It’s like a quadrillion dollar hidden treasure that is waiting for us to explore.
One of those known benefits is that salah itself is a type of meditation. So striving to achieve mindfulness and focus in our salah will have a greater ripple in all areas of our life. Mindfulness meditation is one of the ways to “practice” to achieve that more significant success in our salah!
There is so much to talk about the benefits of meditation. That’s why we’ll explore the scientific benefits of meditation in part 2 of this article.
We’ll also talk about how to start a sustainable meditation practice in a few easy steps.
Until then, I want you to take 5 seconds before every salah to thank Allah for granting you the opportunity to pray. Indeed, salah is the greatest gift you’ve received from your Creator.