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Contemplative Practices: A Comparative Perspective On Different Faith Traditions
May 1, 2013

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;
“The World is too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth

Rapidly changing technology and an endless stream of entertainment and information are the trappings of modern life. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, an old favorite of mine, I was surprised to discover that life wasn’t so different in 1807 than it is now. It made me realize that in some universal sense, I can also say that the world is “too much with me.”

I drink coffee, listen to the news, buy new shoes, go to lunch with my sister, watch football on TV, and move trancelike from one “thing” to another. Understanding that these attractions of the world have always been a timeless trap, I went in search of a way to be free from this trap and sustain happiness.

I first examined Eastern philosophy, which reaffirmed what every good disciple of Zen Buddhism knows: you have to run away from what attracts you in the world. I have always associated the practice of contemplation with the picture of the Buddha sitting peacefully under a tree, detached from the world, wearing an expression of serenity on his face. This expression is also depicted on Christ’s face as he is suspended above the world on a cross.

While these pictures triggered a longing inside me for a modicum of peace, they also reminded me of the discontentment I experience when the world is too much with me. It turns out that discontentment has been referred to in many ways throughout time. The Taoists call it imbalance, Buddhists call it ignorance. The Qur’an calls it “a sickness/disease of the heart” (2:10). And the famous Christian monk, St. Augustine, describes its opposite, “true contentment,” in the following way:

“… [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.”

While our modern Western philosophy seduces us with the possibility that we can be happy by consuming and dominating the world, the appeal of Eastern philosophy is the promise that we can be happy by transcending it. Enviably, Buddha had found a way to sustain happiness, without having to buy a new set of clothes. I wanted to know if sustained happiness was possible for me, too. Since Islam is my religion, I set out to discover something about the contemplative practices in Islam, so I could connect with God through my own tradition.

I had never read or come across anyone who described the traditional practices in Islam as “contemplative.” They are called the five pillars of Islam, and they seem so different from other practices, such as meditation in Zen Buddhism. But Islamic contemplative practices, I discovered, are a blend of the best of both worlds, East and West.

I began by examining the first pillar of Islam: Belief in the Oneness of God, or tawhid in Arabic. Tawhid is the central tenet upon which all other beliefs can rest. It demands an exclusive relationship with God, excluding anyone or anything in any similar relationship. This is a relationship that does not recognize any authority besides God—whether it is one’s parents, teacher, or friend. In other words, it is a relationship that presupposes that humankind is liberated from everything in the material and physical world, in order to experience what is known in Islam as taqwa, or piety—the conscious performance of good and avoidance of evil.

Tawhid (liberation) is manifest in the Buddha seated under the tree, and taqwa (piety) is seen in his facial expression. In Islamic terms, the predisposition of liberation (tawhid) is the foundation of Islamic contemplative practice. It is the same as saying that to sustain happiness, you have to let go of what attracts you in the world.

How is this done in Islam? The quintessential example of “stepping outside” of the world is the disciple sitting for 18 hours in the lotus blossom position. This helped me to describe the two essential characteristics of contemplative practice as being: 1) a physical “stepping outside” of the world; and 2) something painful or difficult, or both.

Islamic prayer bears both these characteristics. The time-out is brief, but it also happens five times a day. In other words, it requires me to step outside of my life and let go (detach), for short periods of time throughout the day, every day. It may not be as difficult as sitting in the lotus position for 18 hours, but believe me the hardest part of this practice is making yourself stop what you’re doing in order to pray.

Meditation and Islamic prayer also share the imperative of self-discipline. Fully conscious of the pain and sacrifice associated with contemplative practices, the Hindus say, tears and prayers go hand-in-hand. I think the biggest challenge for Muslims is finding the time to pray each day. Given the demands of life on one hand and the schedule of five daily prayers on the other, self-discipline is tested in the constancy of personal choices: Do I watch the rest of my favorite TV program or turn it off in time to pray? At which point do I end my phone conversation? When do I stop working on my computer? And, how do I excuse myself from a fun gathering of family or friends just to say my prayers on time?

These choices get to the crux of the spiritual matter. Do I continue participating in the world, or do I stop and step outside of it at punctuated times? I failed miserably at my first attempts to pray five prayers a day. It took me years to realize that trying to squeeze my prayers into my busy life was a futile and backwards approach.

What helped me most was re-reading the oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I finally figured out that if I could establish my daily life around the commuter train schedule, as I did to get to work, then why couldn’t I establish my life around a prayer schedule?

When I took this approach, I was able to establish prayers in my life. First, it was just one prayer a day, then, two, until ultimately I was praying five times a day. In essence, I had “established” a sacred space and contemplative time in my busy life, creating a virtual sanctuary, with no trespassing. The result has been a virtuous circle of sustained happiness, nurtured by my sustained commitment.

In addition, to be successful in both prayer and meditation, a disciple has to have some effective way to keep the worries and demands of the world at bay. Otherwise, time-out quickly becomes time-wasted. I remember studying transcendental meditation in the early 1970s. The Yogi (practitioner of yoga) taught me to use my mantra (a sound, syllable or word considered capable of creating a spiritual transformation) as a way to focus (which cost me $450 at the time). He said “thought bubbles” of worldly concerns would rise to the surface but that I must release them in order to empty my mind repeatedly.

With Islamic prayer, it is no less challenging to keep focused. But the genius of prayer in Islam is that the prayers are in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. Learning and memorizing the Arabic language is challenging to all Muslims, whether Arabic-speaking or not (and most are not). But concentration on the Arabic words (which I vaguely understand) and recitation of memorized prayers, coupled with the physical requirements of performing prayer, play a significant role in keeping focused on the task of communion with God.

Next, I tried to determine the times when I had ever felt God’s presence (a sense of taqwa) in my life. The answer was easy. It was during the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting from dawn to dusk, another pillar of Islamic practice. Christians, Muslims or Jews who have fasted know that fasting changes your routine life, at the most critical and basic level. I found that even though I was standing in the middle of my life, fasting separated me from everything going on around me.

Analyzing the results of this alternative state (tawhid), I realized that fasting had liberated me from the most basic enslavements of our modern, secular world, allowing my spirit to soar freely above the din. Taking one step further, whenever my personal covenant with God was tested by an aching hunger or profound thirst, I would ask myself: Why am I doing this? And in that moment, when I am most conscious of the extreme sacrifice I am making, I am also acutely aware that I have a choice: I can keep my promise to God to fast, or break it. Thus, when I consciously choose my relationship with God above all else, I experience the pure sweetness of taqwa in the depths of my soul. Taqwa is my constant companion during Ramadan, for every time I make a conscious choice to fast, my heart fills with it.

Prior to making the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), I had experienced only fleeting moments of taqwa. But the journey to Mecca is like Alice going down the rabbit hole, leaving her life and traveling to another world for an extended period of time, which is sometimes very scary. Unlike Ramadan, when you resume the semblance of your normal life at the end of the day, nothing is normal during the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways, or give something up. We get up early to pray, we fast, we hone our virtues, purify our inner self, and treat our neighbors well, with the hope of achieving that Divine communion. We have learned that diligence without assurance is otherwise known as faith.

I know of no other journey that has tested or strengthened my faith as much as the Hajj. Mysteriously, I still cannot fully articulate why this is so. The imams warned us before we left, “You will be out of your comfort zone.” But that was an understatement. This was a journey to a world more foreign and exhilarating than I have ever seen or been. The rituals we had to perform were far beyond my physical capacity. Furthermore, everything about the world that I was familiar with was fading into the past, further and further into obscurity and insignificance.

Ironically, the further I stepped out of my world, the closer I felt to God (a deeper sense of taqwa). At the same time, I became more intimately in touch with myself in a way I had never experienced before. It was a time of self-renewal, and through it all, I held the unwavering belief that God, my Creator, was guiding me. I just humbly submit, and I do not know how or why. All I know is that I had made a choice long ago to fulfill this pillar of Islam, even though at times, I feared I might never be able to afford it. Yet, when I finally had the opportunity to go on the pilgrimage and things got tough along the way, I would always ask myself: Why am I doing this? And the answer always came from my heart: it was my choice and my promise.

“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…” Rumi

Mary Lahaj is a Muslim Chaplain to the community at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, MA.