Maintaining spiritual focus

I work in New York City in the frenetic world of advertising. After a two-hour early morning commute, I usually walk into the office with a couple of tight deadlines to make, two to three meetings to attend and an average of a crisis a day to handle. I work with people who approach their jobs with the same level of intensity you might associate with brain surgery.

Now I consider myself a spiritual guy and place the utmost importance on my relationship with God/the Divine. Which raises an important question:

Can a working professional in a high-stress job maintain a consistent spiritual focus—or are the stresses of work incompatible with the contemplative life?

One person who thought about this subject was the prolific American writer and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. When Merton joined the Trappists at the age of twenty-five, he was already a man of the world. He had graduated from Columbia University in Manhattan and travelled extensively throughout Europe. Even after becoming a monk, he retained his love for jazz clubs and drinking beer.

Merton, who clearly knew the joys of life beyond the monastery, had an interesting take on vocation and spirituality. It’s a subject he addressed head on in his book No Man is An Island, where he saw the difficulty in trying to live the spiritual life while working in a city setting:

Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops.

Yet that did not mean that Merton thought we should follow his lead and head off to a religious community in the hills of Kentucky or elsewhere. Having lived both inside and outside the monastery’s walls, Merton realized the monk’s life could present an even more difficult path for those truly interested in the contemplative life.

The mere fact that everything in a contemplative monastery is supposed to be geared for a life of prayer is precisely what makes it difficult…there is more working than praying in the daily round of duties. In a life where all is prayer, those who do not have a special contemplative vocation often end up by praying less than they would actually do in the active life.

Merton offers encouragement to those who seek to live “the active life” while engaging in contemplative living, realizing that the path he had chosen for himself was not for everybody. He explains:

There are some people who are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life but who would go crazy if they had to keep themselves still in absolute solitude and silence for any length of time…what a hopeless thing the spiritual life would be if it could only be lived under ideal conditions.

When Merton speaks of work, he does not differentiate between the daily chores and labor involved with monastic life and the responsibilities of the 9-to-5 world. He stresses the vital role work plays in our lives no matter where that work may take place.

Work occupies the body and the mind and is necessary for the health of the spirit. Work can help us to pray…and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance or order and spiritual understanding.

But later in life, Merton seemed to have a change of heart warning us about the perils of the active life. Writing in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he railed against the specter of overwork and hyperactivity. He took a forceful stance on the subject suggesting that working too much takes us away from inner peace and in fact causes us great harm. He preached that:

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence…to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence…it destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

So what is one to make of Merton’s seemingly contradictory advice?

Like all things in life, I suppose it’s about balance, about finding the happy medium between the working life and the contemplative life. It’s a fluid situation, with the demands of work ebbing and flowing—but then isn’t finding and defining our purpose in life fluid as well, a constantly moving target?

For me, this ongoing shaping of purpose is intertwined with managing the work and spirituality balance, the former always threatening to squeeze the latter out of existence. But with diligent effort, I do my best to see that the balance is maintained.

This morning, for instance, I dug deep into my bag of spirituality tricks. After rising at 5:30 am, I sipped a cup of freshly brewed coffee, then hit the floor and stretched. I meditated. Then, I put in a brisk three-mile run. And once on the bus for my long commute into the city, I silently recited a prayer of gratitude and did some spiritual reading.

I will walk the mile to my building with my eyes and senses wide open, to fully take in my surroundings. Then, once I enter the office, I’ll remind myself to be kind and generous in spirit to all I encounter during the day, no matter the circumstances. And should things get especially intense, I’ll remember to b-r-e-a-t-h-e deeply and possibly take a short walk. I’ll try to put my best foot forward, hopefully having a positive effect on all those I encounter.

But as the years tick by, and I enter my fourth decade in advertising, I feel the pull of the contemplative life even more. Its call grows stronger, its rewards grow richer, and I know it’s merely a matter of time before I abandon the working life, or at least the path I’m now on, and give in to it completely. This is what life will demand of me. And ultimately, it’s what I will demand of myself.

This post is an excerpt from a longer article written for Contemplative Journal and published November 4, 2013. You can see the full story here.

The Ramadan Zeal

Ramadan is no doubt a special time of the year. With the devils locked up and the gates of Paradise wide open, people are motivated to go the extra mile in doing good deeds and being our best selves. This high spiritual momentum is temporary and for many people, it is gone the day Ramadan ends.

Now, to expect to maintain the same level of spirituality outside of Ramadan is not realistic. Ramadan is a special environment and outside of it, we can’t be the same. However, this does not mean we should not try.

The key to maintaining spiritual momentum post-Ramadan is to set realistic ideas of what you can do and to focus on those few things. Here are a few steps to help you figure out what to focus on.

5 Steps for maintaining spiritual momentum post-Ramadan

To keep this as simple and as practical as possible, I will focus only on five steps. These are the five simplest steps to keep our Imaan strong after Ramadan, and also the most important.

1. Continue reciting Quran

The first step to maintaining momentum is to continue growing in your relationship with the Quran. If you were reading a Juz a day in Ramadan, continue reading at least 2 pages a day.

If you were listening to a one hour Tafseer a day during Ramadan, continue listening to 15 minute Tafseers after Ramadan.

Whatever you were doing, keep it going even if it is less. The key is to stay connected to the Quran. It doesn’t matter how little you are doing, what matters is that you are doing something on a daily basis, so you grow in your closeness to and understanding of the Quran with each day.

“The best of you are those who learn the Quran and teach it.” (Sahih Bukhari 4739)

2. Fast the six days of Shawwal

This is a tough one for many of us, but the rewards are great. Fasting is Ramadan is easier as everybody is doing it. Fasting so soon after Ramadan requires great will power and determination.

The reward of fasting the month of Ramadan plus the six days of Shawwal is equal to fasting an entire year. That alone is motivation. Add in the spiritual benefits of fasting and this will definitely help you stay on track after Ramadan.

“Whoever fasts the month of Ramadan and then follows it with six days of fasting in the month of Shawwal, it will be as if he had fasted the year through.” (Sahih Muslim 1163)

3. Be realistic is your self-expectations

Sometimes we expect too much from ourselves. We expect to be sinless and perfect from this Ramadan onward until the day we die. And when it doesn’t happen, we lose hope and fall back into our own lifestyles. The way to Paradise is not through being perfect. It is through sustained daily growth.

Be realistic and set high goals for yourself. But don’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t always attain those goals. You are human. You will err, you will make mistakes, and you will grow from each experience. Focus on being on your best, not on being perfect. At the end, if you sincerely try your best, Allah will forgive the rest.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Be deliberate in worship, draw near to Allah, and give glad tidings. Verily, none of you will enter Paradise because of his deeds alone.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet said, “Not even me, unless Allah grants me mercy from himself. Know that the most beloved deed to Allah is that which is done regularly even if it is small.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 6099, Sahih Muslim 2818)

4. Repent Often

We all make mistakes. We all fall into sins. We all have our faults. The difference between a righteous person and an open-sinner is not the lack of sin. It is the concealment of sins and consistent repentance. After Ramadan, you may fall back into some sin or another that you had before Ramadan.

When this happens, do not lose hope. When this happens, do not give up. When this happens, do not let Shaytaan win. Get back up and try again. Repent, and never lose hope. Because you worship Al-Ghafoor (The Most Forgiving), Ar-Raheem (the Most Merciful).

“I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin, Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them.” (Sahih Muslim 2687)

5. Prioritize the five daily Salah

I left this for last as it is the single most important piece of advice in this article. No matter what happens. No matter how spiritually low you feel. No matter how much you want to give up. Never, ever, abandon your five daily Salah!

These Salah are your connection to Allah. Your means of forgiveness. Your ticket to Paradise. Your daily conversation with your Creator. Your hope during tough days. Your peace during sad days. Your reminder during good days. And your evidence that you believe in Allah. If nothing else, at the very least remain firm in praying five time a day once Ramadan has passed.

“The first matter that the slave will be brought to account for on the Day of Judgment is the prayer. If it is sound, then the rest of his deeds will be sound. And if it is bad, then the rest of his deeds will be bad.”(Al-Tabarani)

These five tips will hopefully help you maintain your momentum throughout the year. May Allah forgive our faults and accept our deeds.

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The brain has roughly 86 billion brain cells and is estimated to generate 50,000 thoughts a day. A lot of noise exists in the mind before the call to prayer (adhan) is even made. The call to prayer begins with “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is greater) to help the mind cut through and rise above this mental noise.

For the mind, body, and soul to be attentive and focused in prayer, there are practical steps a person could perform- some before the prayer. Waiting to focus when the prayer has already started will prove to be ineffective.

1. Experience the Wudu (Ablution)

Water is the origin of life. It rejuvenates the body and soul. An ablution before prayer calms the muscles in the body and refreshes it. This makes the person focus better on what’s coming up next.

Ablution also has a spiritual side. When a person performs ablution their sins drop as the water drips off their limbs. The Prophet Muhammad said:

When a Muslim or a believer washes his face in ablution, then every sin which he committed with his eyes will be washed away with the last drop of water. When he washes his hands, then every sin which he committed with his hands will be washed away with the last drop of water. When he washes his feet, then every sin which he committed with his feet will be washed away with the last drop of water until he emerges purified from sin. (Muslim)

Believing that sins have shed during ablution motivates the worshiper to seek forgiveness in the upcoming prayer. If sins fall off by washing, how much more would be forgiven if the worshiper focuses and sincerely asks for forgiveness from his Lord in prayer?

2. Pray in the Mosque

Ever wondered why fasting in Ramadan seems easier than fasting any other time in the year? Acts of worship become easier to perform when people around you are also doing them. Their actions serve as an encouragement and social proof. Making salah at home tends to make one delay the prayer, risking its deadline. Having a fixed congregational time at the masjid is an appointment that one works to meet.

By going to the Mosque, the worshiper gets to put themselves into the right mindset before prayer. The worshiper realizes that they are actually visiting a House of Allah, a House of Worship. The worshiper enters this sacred place at the door with humility. The worshiper’s spiritual and emotional states begin to adjust for the prayer.

Praying in the congregation also brings about more rewards. The Prophet Muhammad said,

Prayer in congregation is twenty-seven times better than prayer prayed individually. (Al-Bukhari)

Looking forward to this greater reward brings the worshiper in the mood for seeking more rewards from Allah and His Mercy.

3. Standing Before Allah

“Straighten the Rows” is what the Imam usually says before the prayer begins. That is because Allah does not look at a crooked row. An unaligned row is an indication that the worshipers are not prepared to present themselves before the King of Kings.

These few moments before the takbir (saying Allahu Akbar to start the prayer) are instrumental for focusing in prayer. Straightening the rows is a message to not just focus on the physical alignment of prayer, but also for the spiritual and emotional engagement of prayer.

Hatim al-Asam was asked about his condition during the moments before prayer. He said:

“When I stand for the prayer, I envision the Ka’bah in front of me, the Sirat (the bridge over the hell-fire) beneath me, Paradise on my right, Hell on my left, and the Angel of Death behind me.”

4. Allah is Greater

Hearing the takbir, “Allah is Greater” (Allahu Akbar), which signals that the prayer has begun, makes everything else at that moment not worthy of attention because Allah is Greater. At every new posture in prayer, the same words are repeated, “Allahu Akbar”, to remind the worshiper that the movements should not cause a shift in focus.

5. The Words of Salah

What are you saying in prayer? Learn what Surah al-Fatihah means. Read up on its exegesis (tafsir) and deep meanings. Scholars have mentioned that if they wanted to, they could fill the backs of camels with the exegesis of Surah al-Fatihah.

These words make the conversation between the worshiper and Allah. Knowing what they mean, saying them with genuine intent, and feeling their meanings allows the worshiper to be engrossed in prayer.

Also, learn the rest of the words of the prayer for the different postures. When the worshiper sits on the floor in front of the Lord of the Worlds and says “at-Tahayatu lillahi”, what does that mean?

The prayer is not a monologue, but an actual conversation. The worshiper converses with Allah and anticipates His responses. When the worshiper says:

{In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.

praise is to Allah, Lord of the worlds –

The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Recompense.

It is You we worship and You we ask for help.}

The Creator responds by saying:

My Slave has praised Me, my slave continues to praise me, my slave declares me Majestic. This is between Me and my slave, and for My slave is whatever he asks for. (Muslim)

“Allahu Akbar” is what the worshiper said to begin prayer. However, the worshiper says, “Peace and God’s Mercy be upon you all” (As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullah) upon exiting the prayer indicating what the state of the worshiper should be at the end of prayer if it was done properly– a state of peace.

The five aforementioned steps can help one cut through noise and distraction that can exist before and during prayer. Being cognizant of the time, location, and reality that surround prayer is key to maintaining focus.

maintaining spiritual focus

James Redfield’s book, The Twelfth Insight, focuses not just on gaining spiritual understanding, but on how to live it day-to-day. This practical focus was very helpful for me as I find that consistently staying on track is not so easy. In the book, the character Wil addresses this issue when he says, “All you have to do is remember to remember.” This is good and simple advice that, if I can follow, brings so much to daily life. The question for me has always been how do I remember to remember? Let’s review 4 simple steps we can all adopt to keep us in the flow.

Step 1: Start The Day Off Right

First thing in the morning is the best time to bring goals for the day to mind. For many of us, waking up is an unpleasant process that includes feeling tired and rushed into the day’s activities. Over-responsibility can create stress and worry that starts as soon as we wake.

For me, it is tempting to grab my phone and start the day with emails, news, and an information overload. This early screen focus sets the stage for a lack of balance where my spiritual practice takes the back seat. With effort though, it is possible to start the day well and even become a morning person.

It can be helpful to make sure we are up early enough to get a peaceful start to the day. A routine of an early morning mindfulness meditation allows thoughts to settle. Taking a short time to sit quietly and notice everything we’re experiencing is often enough to emerge focused on how we want to move forward through the day.

Step 2: Remember That Intentions Matter

The sooner we remember our intention to be awake to synchronicities the better. It is amazing how easy it is to forget to approach each moment as the meaningful event that it is. For some, maintaining a focus on their spiritual life comes easily and naturally. I’m not one of those people.

For me, one way to avoid twisting aimlessly in the wind for the whole day is to incorporate an affirmation to be present and attentive. Another good habit is to bring our life questions to mind. The issues that are most intuitive and pressing provide a natural energy boost.

Recently, I’ve added intentions to my phone reminders. This way, at regular intervals, I get a buzz that brings my goals back to mind. It’s easier to make time for a few very small breaks like this rather than wait for a large chunk of time to regroup.

Step 3: Keep It Going

Having a plan to keep our spiritual lives in mind increases our chances of sustaining our efforts. While we can’t anticipate every kind of encounter we might face on any given day, we can be sure that challenges await. Whether we are at home or work, we can bring a beginners perspective to our tasks. This allows us freedom from mind numbing monotony that can pull us from our pursuits.

Interacting with others has the potential to either strain or enhance our spiritual efforts. One easy fix is to commit to consistently sharing our truth. If we take an attitude of authentically sharing our own path, we are likely to both give and receive help. We engage in conscious conversation when we bring an expectation of synchronicity. Committing to listening fully to others opens the door for us to receive important messages, to offer key information to others, and to avoid getting wrapped up in defending our points of view. This has the benefit of preventing us from forgetting what it is we are trying to do, as well as giving us the energy needed to keep going.

Step 4: Accept That Distractions Happen

As we move into each day, there are sure to be difficulties, distractions, and frustrations. Unwelcome thoughts, feelings, and events can dominate our consciousness. This often leads to lower energy, which might cause us to fall into control dramas and compete with others for energy. The result is that we forget to put our practice into action. In these moments, we have the greatest need for a way to remember to remember.

One of the best antidotes to negativity is practicing gratitude. Taking a moment to remember all that we have to be grateful for can lift us back to steadier footing. Trying to force gratitude is rarely ever successful. Creating a daily routine and focusing on things and people that elicit good emotions from us will help to cultivate gratitude until it becomes a way of life. If we are patient, we can remember a time we loved or felt loved and then we are ready to return to living life according to a deeper understanding.

Another practice that can bring us back to a more centered approach is non-judgement. Accepting ourselves and any situation we find ourselves in can free us from a cycle of internal dialogue that distracts from our purpose. Once we notice that judgement has taken over, we can try just letting go.

We Can Remember To Remember

Putting our spiritual understanding into practice is not always easy. Our attention is pulled in many directions and we lose the connections that give us energy. While sustaining the approach we want is as simple as remembering to remember, even that can be a challenge.

The good news is that there are so many practical methods we can use to help. Experiencing synchronicities gives us energy and the more we are able to tap into these events, the easier it becomes to keep it going. In the meantime, we can work to make mindfulness of synchronicity a habit.

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