Our attempted mastery over natural law has increased our alienation from our own spiritual nature through our delusion of self-sufficiency and individual autonomy. There is no void more terrible and terrifying than not knowing who you are. The modern spiritual, self-help industry arose as a response to our own inner disconnectedness.
We now have new spiritual answers framed to be palatable to our Western liberal secular sensibilities: There must be – God forbid – no God; spirituality should not fetter our autonomy to make life choices according to own personal and relative morality; and spiritualism must not dare threaten any of our precious material privileges. The new spiritual ecumenism respects everyone’s personal space.
Among the many new answers is mindfulness meditation, which has fast become our zen du jour that promises to give us purpose, peace and presence. Its jingles are ubiquitous: live in the now, stay in the present, become a non-judgemental observer, don’t feel guilt – you are not your feelings.
Mindfulness meditation exercises have been introduced in therapy sessions for addiction and trauma, schools, universities, correctional institutions and the military. Even the heavyweights in the corporate world can be counted among the converted. Among the ranks of the believers, Apple and Goldman Sachs. The McMindfulness revolution, as some have coined it, is in full swing.
What is mindfulness meditation? Mindfulness is promoted as an acute, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment within your subjective consciousness, leading to a gradual, experiential realization that your feelings, thoughts and inner drives are transitory. Once this shift in experiential consciousness occurs, the belief is that one can control their external manifestations and thus become less reactive, calmer, purposeful and more peaceful.
It is at this level that proponents believe that mindfulness provides a useful method in dealing with the triggers, emotions and thoughts that create and feed negative moods, habits, certain addictions and the like.
But the reach of mindfulness meditation extends far beyond therapeutic applications. Mindfulness is traditionally rooted in the normative tradition of Buddhism and was always understood as an avenue to gain insight not only into the workings of the self but the nature of reality itself. In Buddhism, there is no God; nothing is permanent; our self is a fiction and a construction; non-self is the only way to freedom from suffering; and there is no dualism in existence – we are one with all, connected, part of a cosmic being.
Mindfulness experiences were understood in this light. Modern practitioners of mindfulness meditation, for example, frequently recount “experiences” of cosmic unity. One practitioner writes:
According to those who experience profound states of meditation, they often describe it as, liberation from mental constructs and experiencing union with reality and experiencing pure being…They feel connected to the great chain of being and feel fully alive in and of the universe.
Many such experiences are recorded, all of which are then affirmed as truth by the ontological assumptions of Buddhism. The subjective, interpretable experience of reality now becomes “verified” as “objective reality.”
Modern mindfulness meditation was imported for the Western market in neutral and non-denominational terms that supposedly transcend faith differences. Mindfulness does not demand fealty to such core principles of Buddhism such as reincarnation, or some of its ethical prohibitions like abstaining from luxury in food and material possessions; alcoholic drinks; instrumental music; singing and dancing; jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics; and all sensual overindulgences. Many Westerners, especially those who are not tied to institutional faith, do not appear to have reservations in accepting the Buddhist belief of no God and the unity of all being (which is a mainstay belief in many new Western modalities of spirituality).
Muslims should not be uncritical in accepting mindfulness meditation as yet another attempt to treat the spiritual void generated by secular materialism. For all its perceived benefits, mindfulness remains a fast-food solution to the spiritual hunger of our times. It is a proverbial doughnut that satiates symptoms but does not address root malnutrition.
The ‘aqidah, or creed, at the heart of mindfulness should be of even graver concern. Its oneness of everything, akin or similar to Monism, is categorically rejected by Islam, which teaches that there exists a Creator and created. Never will the two meet, join or unite. How can the Infinite ever unite with the finite, or the Perfect with the imperfect? We are not part of God’s being, nor can we ever become, in any way whatsoever, part of Him. The claim by anyone – Muslim or not – of oneness in reality or a wahdah al-wujud is definitively rejected by Islamic texts and the legacy of Islamic scholarship as a perversion that stands in the starkest contrast to the ‘aqidah of Islam.
Some Muslims might claim that modern mindfulness meditation is harmless because it is shorn of its Buddhist ontological tenets. But is it?
It is clear from the experience of many practitioners that their experiences have led them down a slippery path that ends up affirming pure cosmic oneness as true reality.
Mindfulness meditation was originally a means to produce an experience of the nature of reality. Its discourse, method, aims and pedagogy – no matter how instrumentally or therapeutically applied – still bear this imprint.
For example, the discourse of mindfulness meditation brings with it certain supra-rational assumptions about the self, mind and being. Are these harmonious with the revealed texts of Islam and the understanding of those who walked the path of purification? In the absence of revealed guidance regarding issues of the metaphysical and unseen, any such path to purification of the self will be speculative, a result of the states and experiences of practitioners unguided by Divine guidance and driven by personal subjectivities, however well-intentioned.
In its method and aim, the method of modern mindfulness meditation is similar to its classical formulation, as is its aim, which is to realize an experiential awareness of the impermanence of everything, the dissolution of the self and a oneness of being.
In the dimension of pedagogy, the practitioner is beholden to the teacher, whoever they may be, to interpret the experience of meditation, to guide them through its stages and what they might experience. Who are the teachers? Who will you allow to interpret your experience, as they understand it, of reality? From whom will you take your din?
As it wouldn’t be fair for Muslims to immediately deny some of the apparent therapeutic benefits of modern mindfulness meditation, it is equally unfair to be wilfully blind or ignorant to its great probable harms. And, for argument’s sake, even if the benefits were many, the harms negligible and the practice of mindfulness was purely therapeutic, our embracing of mindfulness to find peace and serenity represents a mindlessness of our own faith.
Everything in Islam is about the experiential realization of finding peace and happiness of the heart (qalb) through its loving surrender to the Divine. It is trite to say that Islam has all the answers to peace and happiness. But it does. And it is not enough that we know. Knowledge by itself is necessary but not sufficient for internal change and the experience of tawhid. Perhaps our intellectual blindness is born out of a deeper emotional and spiritual disconnect with Islam itself. Islamic psychology teaches that the mind is in reality the executive officer of the heart. We reason correctly or incorrectly due to our heart’s purity or lack thereof.
How can we justify rationally and Islamically the hours spent in mindfulness meditation? The essence of mindfulness is to focus inward on the mind, thoughts and sentiments, and to strive to then live in that state even outside the meditative moment. But is this focus and preoccupation not the very definition of ghaflah (heedlessness) – that is, to be unaware of the Divine? If our time and energy is spent outside of focus on the Divine in our spiritual journey, the Islamic value of this is at best zero. In Paradise, the abode of infinite, unceasing happiness, we are taught we will regret our ghaflah:
The people of Paradise do not regret anything except an hour or moment that passed them in the world without the remembrance of Allah (al-Bayhaqi, al-Tabarani)
A heart empty of Allah falls either prey to the lower self or the Devil. Ghaflah is to be resisted and struggled against. It is not to be sought directly or indirectly. We remember Allah not for His benefit – for He is beyond need – but rather for our own dire need for His nearness, love and grace. The quality of our happiness, beauty and joy comes from our nearness to their Source. Allah is the Source of Peace, the Beautiful, the Ever-Loving, the Magnanimous, the Subtle in Every Goodness, the Responsive. There is no greater approach to Allah’s nearness than constant remembrance. Dhikr is the means of cleansing the spiritual heart (qalb) which is the seat of cognition, feeling and will. Once the heart is cleansed, it is able to perceive Allah, know Him and seek Him. In that is its ultimate happiness.
This is the reason why dhikr is one of the most foundational Islamic teachings, and why it is the heart and soul of all worship and ritual. For this reason, we should strive our utmost to make dhikr our constant, steady state, to remember Allah with every beat of our heart and every breath.
The texts of Islam encourage us time and time again to seek this means of approach to Allah. We are informed that all the angels fill space-time in perpetual dhikr; that the unseen realm of angelic creation surrounds us when we are in dhikr, that all of space-time – nature, animals, birds, trees, mountains – are in dhikr; that dhikr is the cleanser of the heart’s tarnish; that the Devil flees from the one in dhikr; that dhikr is the deliverance from Allah’s chastisement and draws His bounty; that dhikr removes estrangement; that dhikr draws sustenance and provision; that Allah remembers in His self the one in dhikr.
We are taught to always thirst for more dhikr, for we can never have enough of Allah’s remembrance. For dhikr to truly be the avenue for our nearness to Allah, it must be plentiful. It is for this reason that whenever Allah mentions dhikr in the Qur’an, He qualifies it with the word kathir or abundant. When Allah the All-Emcompassing counsels abundant dhikr, can we ever limit it? Indeed, no other religious injunction comes with such qualification. How can we seek any semblance of true happiness and spiritual freedom without reaching a level of abundant dhikr of Allah?
Dhikr is certainly genuine mindfulness, because it is mindfulness of the Divine, who is the One, the True Reality. It is through the struggle for abundant and plentiful dhikr that that heart or qalb gradually becomes fully involved in dhikr. And it is then that dhikr becomes our greatest delight, solace and intimacy with the Divine – a joy that will supercede any and all other joys. The true masters and teachers of Islamic spirituality have unanimously recorded this for us. In describing his dhikr, one of them stated:
My Paradise is in my chest; it is with me wherever I go.
What greater certainty do we need after reading and hearing Allah’s words when He emphasizes this integral link between dhikr and peace and happiness:
Truly, it is with Allah’s remembrance that hearts find their tranquillity (13:28)
It might further surprise us that mindfulness is very much an integral part of Islamic spirituality, but with a profound difference: Islam prescribes Divine-mindfulness. Allah is al-Raqib, the Ever-Watchful and the Ever-Vigilant. Divine-mindfulness in Islam translates as muraqabah, which is to be experientially aware of Allah watching you.
Certainly, Allah is Ever-Watchful over you (4:1)
Muraqabah is a verb that indicates a reciprocal action. When I am in muraqabah, I am in an intimate relationship with Allah. I know – at least intellectually – that He is near, that He sees me, hears me, and is aware of every aspect of me. Merely struggling to be in muraqabah of Allah is dhikr. In fact, muraqabah is one of the greatest and most beneficial forms of dhikr that will transform one from the inside out.
An obvious difference with modern mindfulness is that I am not vigilant of only what is in me, for me. That would be ghaflah as well.
Our spiritual teachers teach us that Muraqabah begins with me watching my external limbs and actions – the gateways to my heart – and then my heart itself, its thoughts, feelings, and subtle changes. As my experience of Allah’s infinite knowledge, majesty and beauty deepens, my muraqabah of Him deepens to penetrate into the deepest recesses of my heart. For the ultimate intent of my internal vigilance is to liberate my heart of all feelings, moods and sentiments that are ugly and immoral; and to adorn my heart with every virtue and quality that He deems beautiful and beloved. Our teachers mention us that our heart will purify gradually through the struggle of muraqabah and, with Allah’s solicitous grace, the periods of ghaflah will dwindle, to be replaced with the spiritual witnessing of Allah’s nearness at all times. May Allah not deprive us of this great gift.
Dhikr and muraqabah are the gifts of Allah’s love. They are the true and certain avenues for the purification, cleansing and embellishing of the spiritual heart, and they draw it ever nearer to Allah’s infinite beauty and majesty. With Divine nearness, the heart lives in never-ending peace, tranquility and joy. This is Allah’s promise. This is the essence and reality of Islam. And Allah’s promise is true for all times and all places.
In these times of increasing shades of grey, let us never doubt the clear light of Allah’s path. If I do not find the joy and happiness in Islam, I should impute my own deficiencies and summon greater sincerity, resolve and will.
More than ever, in our search for true happiness, we find ourselves in desperate need of the profound supplication of Allah’s Beloved, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him, that our knowledge is beneficial, heart-purifying and liberates us from the philosophical caprice and base desire of our lower self: O Allah, we seek refuge in You from four: from knowledge that does not benefit; from a heart that is not in awe of You; from a lower self that is never satiated; and from a prayer that is not answered. Amin.