The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It seems that as early as 1807, Wordsworth complained of the world and the fast pace of life as a source of discontentment. I wonder what he would think, if he were alive today. What has changed?
As someone who glides through life, moving from task to task, I have felt that the world is too much with me; and despite all my cleverness, I too, have been beset by discontentment.
The topic of discontentment has been kicked around by ancient philosophers and religious leaders since time immemorial. Taoists call it imbalance. For example, the Qur’an calls it “a sickness of the heart” (2:10).
In the following quote, the famous Christian monk, St. Augustine, proposed a remedy: “[true contentment] is felt only in the presence of God … Our whole business then, in life, is to restore the heart to health so that God can be seen or felt.”
I embraced Augustine’s remedy and plotted a modest course of spiritual paths that would restore my heart to health and lead me to be in the presence of God. At first, thinking I might be better off to want less from the world, in exchange for more happiness, I considered the path of asceticism. But, I realized that such a life wasn’t for me, and set out to find a different path.
Unfamiliar with contemplative practices, I imagined contentment on the faces of two familiar spiritual leaders. I pictured Buddha, seemingly detached from the world, sitting peacefully under a tree and wearing an expression of serenity and peace. The other face was that of Christ, suspended above the world on a cross, being crucified and wearing a similar expression of peace. Neither of them had betrayed the pain or suffering caused by the world around them.
I had some experience with the practice of Transcendental Meditation, which led me to examine the basic elements of meditation and my own capabilities. The first is the importance of being self-disciplined. Since meditation must be practiced with regularity, being self-disciplined is crucial for meditation to be effective in life. Another feature of meditation is its demands on one’s time. Stepping away from the world to sit in the lotus position for hours is a sacrifice. Thus, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice on the path of contemplative practice.
Wanting to learn more about contemplative practices in my own tradition, Islam, I chose to analyze four of the five pillars familiar to every practicing Muslim. The pillars of faith have always been described as “obligations,” so I had never before stopped to think of their contemplative features, or compare them to Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation.
The first pillar is the core belief in the Oneness of God− known as tawhid, in Arabic. Tawhid is the heightened awareness of God’s presence, in everything we do. To achieve that heightened awareness, tawhid demands that one enters into an exclusive relationship with Allah (God). The exclusive relationship blocks out anyone or anything, and prohibits any other relationship of similar importance. In other words, tawhid excludes what attracts us in the world and recognizes no other authority besides Allah−not parents, teachers, or friends.
In the hierarchy of contemplative practice in Islam this exclusive relationship with Allah is the foundation. In practice, being in that relationship, during prayer, or fasting, or acting with kindness and respect toward another living thing, can result in a deep sense of contentment.
The second pillar is praying five times a day. Islamic prayer is similar to meditation in defining the elements of contemplative practice. For instance, it demands your time. It requires that you disengage from the world around you −five times a day, every day. Similar to meditation, praying five times a day requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice.
How to pray five times a day? To begin the practice, I had to develop more self-discipline. But it was more complicated than that. I was paralyzed by my conflict of interests. Do I watch the rest of my favorite TV program? Do I end my phone conversation? Can I stop my work? Maybe, I should check my email or phone, one more time. Do I excuse myself from a fun-gathering of friends? Do I inform my boss that on my break, I will be praying? But then, these questions get to the heart of the spiritual quest for contentment. We must either stay the course, or stop the world I want to get off to commune with God.
At first, I tried and failed to pray five times a day because I was trying to squeeze my prayers into my busy, important life. At each intersection, my busy life would block me from crossing. My breakthrough came as a result of reading the oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I had read this phrase in passages many times, but this time, I was able to derive a new meaning. I realized that in order to go to work, I had to arrange my life around the established commuter train schedule. Understanding this key word, I identified the prayer schedule, which follows the movement of the sun from dawn to evening, as the established schedule for me to arrange my life around.
I also had to think of my secular life overall. I learned that I would have to intentionally carve out a sacred space and time. At first, I could only find time for one prayer a day; but eventually, I was able to arrange my life around the five daily prayers. Yes, it meant going out to lunch with my sister after prayer time. And yes, it took some sacrifice to leave an engagement. But taking time out to commune with God five times a day has given me a deep sense of contentment that I have never felt before. Moreover, I have discovered that time out is addictive; and, like any time-honored, life-consuming addiction, doing it is easier than not doing it.
But the biggest challenge remained: how to keep the demands of the world at bay, during prayer or meditation? When I studied Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s, the Yogi had devised a method to protect the meditation from worldly intrusions. He gave me a mantra (which cost $450) and warned me that the world would come as “thought bubbles,” and preoccupy the mind. To train my mind, I was told to repeat the mantra, and that would release the intruding thoughts into the air. I found this to be a constant battle that I never could win.
In Islamic prayer, it is also necessary to train the mind to protect it from worldly intrusions. The method is similar but different (and there is no charge for it). The method starts by reciting “Allah whoo Akbar” (god is great), at the beginning of the prayer. The gesture is a conscious effort to be in the exclusive relationship with God (tawhid). Next, the mind is kept engaged and busy, quietly reciting Arabic prayers from memory. The prayers are in Arabic because it is the language of the Qur’an. But for most people who do not understand Arabic, the sounds are really more like mantras than meaningful words. It is preferable to learn some translation of the prayer in English. Although, even with that, the flow of the Arabic recited from memory is still an effective barrier to the thought bubbles.
Performing prayer also requires a precise choreography, involving the body transitioning into three different positions. Keeping track of the physical movements and the flow of Arabic sounds, helps me to stay focused more often than not; the focus being, remembrance of God and keeping the world at bay. It is always a challenge. But when I have succeeded to pray five times in a day, I feel a sense of contentment and triumph. It’s not because I am praying for God’s sake. I am praying for my own sanity’s sake. And for that, there is no success in my life that holds a greater meaning.
When I asked myself if and when I had ever felt particularly close to God, I thought of the holy month of Ramadan, another pillar of Islam. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from before dawn to sunset. Christians and Jews are familiar with fasting and how it can change daily life. But for Muslims the fast is a long and difficult change. It lasts for a month and includes abstaining from food, water, and sex, during the daylight hours. Oftentimes, the person fasting is deprived of sleep as well.
In my experience, the suffering of extreme thirst and the depletion of energy sometimes overwhelms me in the late afternoon, when there are still 3 to 4 more hours left of daylight. When I feel this way, I can’t help but ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I know it is a test of my relationship with Allah. How deep is my commitment and love? To past the test, I remind myself that I have chosen to fast and promised God I would complete the fast on this day. Once I have consciously reiterated my intentions (purifying intentions was taught by Jesus in the Gospel) and renewed my relationship with God, I experience a gratifying sense of closeness to God.
As I once heard a Methodist minister explain, it’s not the suffering that gives an act meaning; it’s that the relationship with God holds up under the suffering. In fact, it is that suffering and its consequence that I miss most, when the month of Ramadan is over.
Hajj is another pillar of Islam. Prior to my departure for the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), I received a lot of advice. Experienced pilgrims told me, “It will be a test of your faith.” During an orientation program, our religious leader, the imam, said, “You will be out of your comfort zone.”
That was an understatement. Unlike Ramadan, when your life returns to normal each night, as you indulge in food and drink. On Hajj, there is no return to normal. The pilgrimage is two weeks of discomfort and relentless demands, both physical and mental. I compare it to a long-term illness that must be endured with incalculable patience and perseverance; one day at a time, and with no guarantees that it will heal you.
The Hajj was a prolonged test of leaving my loud, comfortable world and traveling to another loud but distant, foreign world. It was an adventure, where I awoke each day wondering, is this really me? I was challenged to relate to the land and the different people I met; and by the rituals that were beyond my mental comprehension and physical capacity; and, perhaps beyond my faith.
Every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways. We get up early to pray, we fast, hone our virtues, and purify our inner self, with the hope of achieving Divine union (taqwa). For the faithful, faith is diligence, without assurance; and such was the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Abraham, we were asked to perform unparalleled tests of faith, without any assurances.
Every day, all that was familiar to me receded further into the past, to insignificance. Inexplicably, the further removed I became from my life, the closer I came to Allah. The one thing I remembered was that a few years ago, I had made a conscious choice to complete this once-in-a-lifetime obligation. But while on the pilgrimage, I had only one motivation in my heart, to help me to put one foot in front of the other, and it was to keep my promise to Allah.
There is no easy explanation, but in many ways, the suffering, the self-discipline, and the separation from my world, made the pilgrimage to Mecca the quintessential contemplative practice. I see now that I had chosen to be in relationship with my Beloved Creator, above all else. And now, when I recall my pilgrimage, I derive contentment from remembering the magnitude of this relationship in my life.
Finally, no discussion of contemplation in Islam is complete without some mention of Sufism. Steeped in the Islamic tradition, Sufism is a spiritual science that sits at the far end of the contemplative-practice continuum. By means of ‘turning,’ ‘whirling,’ praying, chanting, and fasting, the ascetic Sufis reach the goal of profound union with the Divine. While we eschew suffering and sacrifice in life to pursue the path of contentment, the Sufis accept that the path will be a difficult one.
In the following quote, America’s most beloved 13th century Persian poet and Islamic mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, describes the path to contentment best:
“Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow the unusual road, for it is very long…. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…”