meditation: the most under-utilized spiritual practice

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Why is mankind in constant turmoil? This is not just true at a global scale, but also at the individual level. We have so many desires and anxieties, and we project them openly, yet are often completely oblivious to our neurosis.  We fight and struggle to dominate and repress other people’s freedoms, and the level of misery we inflict on one another depends on the norms surrounding our social standing/status.  A country’s leader crushing his citizens of 10 million is very much like the mother or father dominating and controlling their 3 children well into adulthood.  It’s just that each person can only dominate and repress the number of people that they have  “jurisdiction” over.  Even though all relationships are built originally on trust and compassion, they can mutate  very fast when one or more parties start living from the dark world of their fantasies and fears instead of the truth of God’s warm and ever radiating light. Perhaps we fail to see the absurdity of our demands and daily strife because it is a shared reality for most of us and truly awakened humans are rare and even considered myths. But does it have to be that way?

We have so many examples from so many faith traditions of wonderful, enlightened men and women. We have pages and pages of holy scriptures detailing how to uplift ourselves and others out of our emotional suffering.  Why can’t we just pull ourselves together and become the kinds of people we really want to be.  Why can’t we become more like the beloved Prophets peace be upon them and their companions? Why can’t we become more like the great sages and teachers who have lived in every time period, including our present time?  What is stopping us from embodying the true spirit of our faith in our day to day life? We don’t have to necessarily live like monks, away from society. We can live in our present culture and bring light and joy to our and others’ lives. 

My contemplation and search has lead me to the conclusion that as long as we function strictly in our conceptual world of thoughts, we can never truly achieve lasting peace and joy.  Thoughts are simply ideas, and they could be right or wrong, or more right or more wrong, depending on the circumstances they are acted upon. Every thought is based on our past experiences and so we are operating from a very narrow field if we always take them seriously.

If we think about our life regrets, we realize that those regrettable actions we committed in the past were done when we believed some thoughts which were later revealed to be false. 

So how do we step outside of our petty world of thoughts  and emotionally coded memories?  The answer is: meditation.  Meditation is a highly encoruaged part of every major mainstream faith.  All the Prophets peace be upon them meditated in solitude at night.  The Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him is also recorded to meditate regularly in addition to completing the 5 daily ritual prayers. In fact, Prophet Muhammad pbuh was in a meditative state in the cave when he received the first revelations through the Angel Gabriel. There is something about meditation and the meditative state that allows the human mind to expand and receive true guidance, or at least clarity. 

From an Islamic perspective, there are both inner and outer dimensions to worship.  Salah (ritual prayer) would be considered the obligatory outward spiritual practice and meditation is an inward one.  One of the great scholars of Islam, Imam Malik (may God be pleased with him) stated the importance of both the inner and outward practices: “If one engages in formal Islamic practice (fiqh) yet fails to honor inner Islamic practice (tasawwuf), he or she will become a hypocrite. And if one engages in the inner but neglects the outer, he or she will become a sinner. Only by carrying both the inner and outer dimensions of Islam can one reach the goal, Truth.”

The methods of meditations may differ slightly from one faith to another, but the goal is the same: to shatter the false mirage of the ego and allow God’s true guidance to flow into every part of our being.

I hope to explore meditation further.  I know that if I want to break down my false beliefs and damaging circular thoughts/emotions, I must commit to meditating regularly.  I hope and pray that I can purify my heart every day.  Maybe if I include meditation in my daily spiritual repertoire, I can truly be awake and think, feel and act out of the truth instead of my personal, limited desires.

“Meditation is one of the most extraordinary things, and if you do not know what it is you are like the blind man in a world of bright color, shadows, and moving light.  It is not an intellectual affair, but  when the heart enters into the mind, the mind has quite a different quality; it is really, then limitless, not only in its capacity to think, to act efficiently, but also in its sense of living in a vast space where you are a part of everything.  Meditation is the movement of love. It isn’t the love of the one of of the many.  It is like water that anyone can drink out of any jar, whether golden or earthenware; it is inexhaustible. And a peculiar thing takes place which no drug or self-hypnosis can bring about: it is as though the mind enters into itself, beginning at the surface and penetrating ever more deeply, until depth and height have lost their meaning and every form of measurement ceases.  In this state there is complete peace – not contentment that has come through gratification – but a peace that has order, beauty, and insensity.  It can all be destroyed, as you can destroy a flower. and yet because of its vulnerability it is indestructible. 

This meditation cannot be learned from another.  You must begin without knowing anything about it, and move from innocence to innocence.

The soil in which the meditative mind can begin is the soil of every day life, the strife, the pain, and the fleeting joy.  It must begin there, and bring order, and from there move endlesly. But if you are concerned only with making order, then that very order will bring about its own limitation, and the mind will be its prisoner.  In all this movement you must somehow begin from the other end, from the other shore. and not always be concerned with this shore or how to cross the river.  You must take a plunge into the water not knowing how to swim. And the beauty of meditation is that you never know where you are, where you are going, what the end is.”

-Freedom, Love, and Action by J. Krishnamurti

nature: the lost connection

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“And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are]communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.” (Qur’an, 6:38)

“Of all the things we can and must do to create a healthier society, perhaps the easiest and most available step (even in the city) is to reintroduce children and teens – and adults, too – to the natural world.” Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

It’s odd how environmentalism has been delegated a special category; as if it’s ok to not  care about the very ingredients and mechanisms that sustain us in this earthly life.  Somehow it’s ok to look at a forest with dollar signs instead of eyeballs. In our present world, it’s also okay to stay confined to concrete havens where we pretend to be fulfilled with our anxiety riddled, unending thirst for more material satisfaction in a perpetual competition with our fellow human beings.  And perhaps one of the most tragic outcomes of such a toxic global culture is that there is no room for children to experience a healthy and full childhood where they can bond with nature and learn from mature and caring adults who are fully invested in the well being of the next generations and actively working on a sustainable community, society and world.  Why is this considered only an option for those “wishy washy granola crunching tree hugging hippy” type people?

I mostly grew up in suburban settings with limited green spaces and even more limited dense trees or wooded areas.  Most of my life, I have been uncomfortable with the idea of being near a forest or woods. I have become so accustomed to living in a paved and concrete “civilized” world that the words forest or woods bring about images of vicious beasts waiting to attack or murderers and other social deviants using the cover of trees as their safe haven or meeting point.

Last year, I walked over to the small section of natural green area close to my neighbourhood. It is mainly a walking trail bridging two residential zones, lined with bushes, some trees and a medium size pond. I told myself that I would use this opportunity to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings, but things didn’t go so well.  I started off relaxed and after a few moments I sat up suddenly upon hearing “strange” noises from nearby.  My heart pounded in my chest as I struggled to recognize the noises which would halt momentarily, then continue .  Being incapacitated with fear, I finally got up and investigated until I noticed a few small ducks paddling in the pond.  I assumed it was them quacking but wondered why they didn’t quack like “normal.”  I was so out of touch with the natural world and the creatures that called it home that I actually got angry at the ducks for not quaking how I expected them to based on my memory bank.  I sat back down and tried to relax but remained hyper vigilant and highly suspicious of the noises, which I was still not willing to attribute to the ducks.

I gave up on trying to connect with nature, thinking that it was too scary to try and make friends with nature at this point in my life.  What use did I have for it anyways?  I could always just try and meditate at home if I wanted to relax. 

Then destiny brought a book my way that changed everything.  Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin is a very heavy book, not by physical weight but by its messages and concepts.  I am still only almost halfway through it and have to stop periodically to try and assimilate the new found information into my fragile psyche.  Everything this author (who is a wilderness expert) says makes sense and hits the core of my heart. Pretty much all his ideas are in line with Islamic (and other faith traditions) values and teachings, and in a way, I find more and more of the Quran and sunnah (Prophetic traditions) coming to light in a beautiful and coherent manner. 

“And it is He who sends down rain from the sky, and We produce thereby the growth of all things. We produce from it greenery from which We produce grains arranged in layers. And from the palm trees – of its emerging fruit are clusters hanging low. And [We produce] gardens of grapevines and olives and pomegranates, similar yet varied. Look at [each of] its fruit when it yields and [at] its ripening. Indeed in that are signs for a people who believe.” (Qur’an, 6:99)

The main premise of the book is that humanity has developed and grown from the natural world with complete interdependence with it.  We have thrived as a species by learning to live and work with nature as our friend and ally, and it has been in the last thirty to forty years that we now have people who never grew up playing in the woods or the creek by their home.  The author states that nature and human beings are so deeply intertwined that having little or no regular contact with nature can and has caused great distress to our souls, minds and societies. 

“But one of the most potent allies we humans have always had in our emotional healing…is the natural world itself.  Time spent alone in nature, in which we offer our attention outward to the complex, mysterious, always fascinating wild, puts our troubles in perspective and allows us to re-root our awareness in self-sustaining and inspiring rhythms and cycles.

The contemporary American novelist and poet Jim Harrison tells a story from his teen years. Blinded in one eye at age seven, he underwent an operation in his senior year of high school to restore his sight. The operation failed and left him with terrible pain.  About the same time, his first love abandoned him. On a warm day in April ‘heavy with the scent of dogwood buds,’ he sat alone in a woodlot.

‘After a long time sitting on a log, perhaps an hour, my mind emptied out into the landscape and my preoccupations with the girl and other problems leaked away.  In the stillness garter snakes emerged to feed on flies that buzzed close to the ground among dead leaves and burgeoning greenery. Birds came very close because I had been so still in my sumpish reveries I had ceased to exist to the birds, and gradually to myself. I had become nature, and the brain that fueled my various torments had decided to take a rest by leaving my body and existing playfully in the landscape. The air became warmer and moister, so much so that it seemed densely palpable, swollen enough to touch. It did not so much begin to rain as the air quite suddenly became full of water. Given the circumstances the rain could not help but be a baptism.  The natural world would always be there to save me from suffocating in my human problems.’ “

Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

It’s strange and amazing how flexible we are as human beings.  We think we really want something and that we will never want anything different and then things happen and we go through unique experiences and somehow end up completely changing our minds and perspectives.  I remember how up until a few years ago, I dreamed of living in downtown Toronto. I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to live in a high rise condo overlooking the downtown core bustling with people and how I could run down the building and go grocery shopping or stop for coffee or lunch in one of the shops right below.  But since reading Bill Plotkin’s book, my fantasies of living in the paved and concrete jungle of downtown Toronto feels more like a terrible nightmare.  I suddenly have new awareness of the natural world around me. The area that I currently live in has many pockets of woods and natural trees and greenery that is being conserved by the local city (so far).   In the few years I have been here I never before paid attention to such areas.  I started taking my children to the conservation park nearby.  It’s interesting how children are more open to the natural world and how fast they befriend it compared to those adults who did not experience it deeply as children themselves. We walk down the trail to the pockets of evergreen pine trees and I sit down or stroll through the trees while the children run about exploring the natural surroundings.  I notice the soft and uneven ground littered with old crumbly leaves, pine cones of various sizes, twigs and fallen branches.  As I walk around and touch the rough exteriors of the tree trunks, a part of my mind is anticipating any potential dangers, and sadly, what gives me a measure of calm is the roar of traffic that can be heard from the distance. 

I wrote this post because I have a new found respect for the environment and see the preservation of natural green and forest areas as vital to a bright and positive future of our species.  The Muslims in the world must open their eyes and give the natural world the kind of respect and care that our Prophet peace be upon him and his companions (may God be pleased with them) gave in their times.  We have a rich tradition of caring for humanity and the environment. Even our laws for legitimate warfare are very stringent about caring for civilians and the trees and creatures of the area. People of all religions must turn to their faiths and embrace the call to love and care for the Earth we all contain in our scriptures and traditions. Why are most of us choosing to ignore that duty to honor the earth? Does it not sustain us through livelihood and as the playground to explore life and relationships?

“It is Allah who made for you the earth a place of settlement and the sky a ceiling and formed you and perfected your forms and provided you with good things. That is Allah, your Lord; then blessed is Allah , Lord of the worlds.” (Qur’an, 40:64)

I urge fellow Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other people of faith to come together in your faith communities as well as joining hands with each other to proactively nurture and promote natural and forest areas.  If there is one thing we can learn from the natural world, it is that everyone and everything is connected. Whatever good or ill we bring about touches everyone.  Perhaps the variety in nature and the interconnectedness of the different habitats and creatures can help us build stronger bridges with each other, and assist us to accept our religious and cultural diversity as divinely ordained beauty instead of an ugly curse or mistake to be rid of.

spiritual selfies

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If you ever want to know who you really are, then observe your thoughts, words, and actions during a time of distress or challenge.  Most of us would be surprised to realize that often times, we are not who we think we are.  But as unbearable as it can be, “spiritual selfies” as I like to call them, are imperative to our spiritual and personal growth, unlike the “traditional” selfies which promote narcissism and egoism.

Like most people, I am a bit weary of spiritual selfies, because of course I want to believe like everyone else, that “I am a good person” and I don’t need to look in the mirror to really see who I am. But lately, I feel like there is no way I can grow spiritually until I honestly examine my ideas and beliefs and begin to challenge some of them.  So I have been forcing myself to take out the spiritual mirror and examine my soul in it.

In the brief time I have been looking at my soul in the mirror, I came to realize that most of my life I have been an ungrateful wretch (you might want to check for this problem as well). The other bombshell I discovered about myself is that as much as I like to tell myself I trust God and know He wants the best for me, historically, I have almost always fallen into some form of despair, self-pity, and/or anger towards God for being put through a rough time.

A recent example of my unholy attitude towards God: I began feeling intense pain in my chest, which would come and go in waves throughout the day every day.  Heart problems got quickly ruled out, but I went in for tests to check whether I had acid reflux related ulcers in my esophagus and stomach.  While I waited for those test results for a few days, I watched in utter disgust, my natural thought process: What if I have cancer? I have some form of cancer! God, why are You doing this to me when I have been eating so healthy for the last few months? There are so many people eating unhealthy foods and they get to be totally fine, but You had to make me sick after I am trying to better myself for You!

A few things shocked me about my inappropriate response to a minor life challenge such as acid reflux:

  1. I normally get angry with other people when they have life challenges and feel depressed or negative about their future and here I was jumping to the most negative conclusions about my own life.
  2. Those few days where I waited for my test results, there was some strange automatic response whereby I binged on the most unhealthy foods even though I did not enjoy them and watched one movie after another every night even though I did not care for most of them. It was as if I was I was saying to God “You want to hurt me? Well I can hurt myself even more than You!” All this happened in a way where my psyche was split in two, where one part of me was the real me observing my blasphemous and self destructive thoughts/behavior and the other was my ego running the show. For some reason, I couldn’t get a grip over myself and had to just let myself come back to my senses when the time was right (which thank God I did eventually).

In the end it turned out that I had nothing wrong in my body and I simply took some antacids to help relieve my condition.  When the ordeal ended, I felt tremendously ashamed of how I had not just reacted, but over reacted to something so minor.  And even if I did have a serious medical condition, I should have been steadfast and patient. It was then that I realized how important it was for me to keep taking more spiritual selfies.

My humble advice to my human brothers and sisters would be to generously take spiritual selfies and examine all those warts, bumps and parasites that infest all our souls.  Treat all those ailments of the soul before they spread and destroy any chances of an authentic relationship between you and God and you and God’s creation.

You will be able to see a lot about yourself in the spiritual selfie. Observe the level of ease with which you make excuses for your poor behavior and the level of ease with which you make excuses for other people’s poor behavior.  Notice how much effort and resources you are willing to invest for improving your physical appearance and social status versus for improving your character and relationships with others.  Notice how many times you have wished someone died in a dirty ditch for bruising your ego or hurting you compared to how many times you prayed to God to forgive them and make them better.  Take note of your first thoughts when someone you know gets a big promotion at work or gets positively featured in a news article, or gets any sort of small or big happy moment in their life.  Do you wallow in bitter thoughts or do you genuinely feel joy for that person?

Then once you pick out the biggest warts and ugly marks on your soul, firstly, face the truth of the type of person you really are, and not the one you like to believe you are. Next, realize that only God can change you and that He has blessed you with the ability to turn to Him for help.  Understand and acknowledge that ultimately, only God is 100% of the time looking out for your (and everyone’s) good. Turn to God inwardly and open your mouth and speak to Him like you are speaking to your best friend and confidant.  Tell Him what type of person you really need Him to make you into.  And just for fun, notice how you talk to  Him and whether your tone and voice reminds you of your earthly relationships. My conversation with God sounded like I was whining to my mother.

Canadian Sufi Cultural Centre: a mystical experience

I had been contemplating visiting the Sufi Cultural Centre for many months.  I had emailed them and gotten an open invite for visiting several months ago, but since they only met together every Saturday night for dhikr (to remember God by calling on His names/attributes), it was difficult to actually end up there, since there were my own family get togethers, weddings, or dinner invitations to commit to.  But all along, I knew that I would end up there sooner or later, and for some reason that only God knows, it would be the right time and right experience.    

I finally found myself driving to the Sufi Cultural Centre one recent night.  Sitting next to me, was Rabia, one of my younger sisters, who had volunteered to share my experience at the centre.  On our forty minute car ride to the centre, we discussed how we needed to leave by 11pm at the latest that night because of the needs of our young children at home.  Then we mostly talked about heavy subjects: some of the lessons we had learned through our life experiences, the evolution of our relationship with God, and the mysteriousness of life.   

At times my thoughts would dive into fears.  What if they did not pray salah (compulsory ritual prayers)? What if they did strange rituals? What if they pray to someone else, other than God?  What if I feel so out of place there? I really had no idea what to expect.  I was both excited and nervous.  But in my heart, I kept praying for everything to be positive.

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As we stood in front of the door, I turned the door knob to find the door locked.  I knocked, and a man opened the door and let us in.  He had a kind smile.  We told him it was our first time there, and he courteously showed us the women’s seating area.  We walked over beautiful rugs surrounded by ornate walls with Quranic calligraphy and geometric patterns.  A few men sat along the benches lining the walls as we made our way to the women’s seating.  We greeted all the women with salaams, and they embraced us with big smiles.  Upon sitting on the couch, my sister and I quietly talked to each other about our first impressions of the centre.  We both loved the way the inside was designed.  Even the lighting was soft, which made the large hall seem warm and intimate.

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I was expecting some sort of dhikr to start soon, but instead, we were told that dinner was ready.  A bit in a daze at this new development, I walked in a steady stream with the other women towards a stairwell that led down to the basement level.  I had just eaten before coming, and had no idea there would be food.  We walked into an open space with two low, long lables set a few feet away from each other.  Men were seated on one table, and the women on the other one.  I saw down on a couch and had a few friendly conversations with the women at the table.  We introdoced ourselves and shared a few stories and good laughs.  I felt very much at ease, and even though most of the women were regulars at the centre, they all made my sister and I feel welcome and cared for. 

I was just blown away by what I was experiencing.  It felt too good to be true.  I held my plate, my mind still trying to process the level of hospitality at this centre. A sister offered to serve food on my plate, and without thinking, I held out my plate, as she scooped fresh cooked rice and hot kefta on it.  Only after she had placed it did I snap back to reality and wondered how I would finish all that food when I had already eaten before arriving.  Nevetheless, I dug in and ate as much as I could, feeling terribly guilty for wasting the rest of it.  As I asked God in my heart to forgive me for wasting the food, a man with a gentle face walked over to our table, serving Turkish tea.  Gratefully, I grabbed a small, hot glass, and began sipping.  I watched some young children play freely with one another, and was happy that no one stopped them from playing.  The children seemed totally at ease and at home there.

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I had just begun driking my tea, when we were told about the meghrib salah (sunset payers) being held on the main floor.  I sipped my tea a few more times and then headed to the kitchen where I handed my cup to a courteous, smiling young lady.  Feeling a little embarrassed about wasting my food, I quickly ran up the stairs, and joined in the prayers.  My heart felt joyous once again as I realized that the Muslims of the Jerrahi sufi order followed both, the legal and the spiritual aspects of Islam. This is one of the rumors made famous about sufi-inclined Muslims, that they don’t do the required prayers and do the extra worship instead.  I have enough knowledge to know that mainstream Islamic Sufism is mainly about teaching/spreading the inner dimensions and spirituality within Islam, rather than some separate sect or new teachings outside of Islam.  

suficentremeghrib        

After salah, we sat and talked amongst each other for a bit, as we waited for the main teacher, Tevfik Baba, to arrive at the centre.  Once he was there, everyone became quiet and turned their attention towards him.  I expected to go right into dhikr, but was pleasantly surprised to listen to a spiritually inspirational talk by the teacher. 

Tevfik Baba had an aura of kindness around him, and his manner of speaking was exceptionally relaxed and soft. I liked how despite being in the women’s section, the whole space was open, and so we could all clearly see the teacher as he talked.

suficentretalk

A fairly large chunk of his talk revolved around the importance of education in Islam.  He stressed the need to encourage our children to be well educated, and highlighted both worldly and spiritual education. He added that we need to make it easy for our children to like education and studying, and to make them understand in a gentle manner, how important academic education is for them.  His words, “…let’s educate with love, let’s make it sweet and appealing” resonated with me.

His reminders that “true love for Allah is loving His creation” and that “Islam is not for those who love money and worldly pleasures” filled my heart with peace.  I actively absorbed all his spiritual advice.  And as I listened to him talk, I realized that the whole time, I could have been listening to all this from an imam on a Friday prayers sermon.  There was nothing unusual or contradictory to Islam in the speech of Tevfik Baba.  The only difference appeared to be that the people at this sufi centre came together for extra worship and inspiring talks on Saturday nights.   

My sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful gathering was only heightened when Tevfik Baba’s talk was paused for a few moments as large platters of fresh cut fruits were brought out, one in the women’s section, and one in the men’s, and a gentelman walked around with a tray of Turkish tea for anyone wanting some.  I’m not much of a tea drinker, but I love fruits, so grabbed a few pineapple and canteloupe chunks.  I felt a bit surprised when one of the men came over to the women’s section to grab some fruit that was no longer at the men’s side.  There was no awkwardness from anyone.  In fact, I realized how neatly balanced their Islamic etiquettes for men and women interaction had been all along.  During dinner, even though the men were at the seperate table, everyone could clearly see one another, and everyone interacted with the utmost respect with each other.  This centre had a very different culture than mosques I had been to.  It was like a hidden gem.

suficentrewomen             suficentrewomen2 

My thoughts were interrupted by my sister, who pointed to the time and I realized we had to leave soon.  But I wanted to catch the first few minutes of dhikr, so we stayed another few minutes as the talk was wrapped up, isha (night) prayers were held, the lights were turned down, candles were lit, and everyone got ready for dhikr.

The men sat in a circle in the middle of the room.  The young children, one of them a girl, sat with the men.  The women sat in a line on floor stools, our legs folded under.  With our arms wrapped around the front of our bodies, I heard everyone start chanting in melodious tunes.  Various names of God were called out, and a few times, there were also salutations given to our beloved Prophet Mohammed pbuh. 

After a few minutes of dhikr, we realized how late we were running to get back home to the children, and so we quietly got up, walked around, waving to whomever looked our way, and made our way out of the centre.

On our way home, we talked about the beautiful decor and ambiance at the centre, the unbelieveable hospitality and etiquettes of everyone, and how comfortable and welcomed we felt being there.  But we also talked about the questions we had.  We wanted to know the differences in the various sufi orders, and the meanings and stories behind the various body movements coupled with the chants we witnessed in the few minutes of dhikr.  Perhaps, I will go back one day with my questions and wonderings, and share all that with my blog readers.  But until then, I am one with my Muslim brothers and sisters from the Jerrahi order. 

I would like to take this chance to thank each and every one of them for welcoming us and providing such a high quality spiritual and social experience.  May the peace and blessings of Allah swt be on each and every one of you, and all those reading my post.

love, pray, eat

Back in early spring 2009, I remember walking out of the NICU ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto, feeling unsure and worried over the future prospects for my newborn premature triplets who lay there naked and hooked up to various monitors and tubes in their incubators.  As I walked past the lobby, I saw a narrow hallway that lead to the in-hospital synagogue.  I remember standing at the entrance, wanting so badly to go in and pray and possibly talk to the rabbi in there, hoping for some comfort from a person of faith.  But I never ended up going in.  I was too afraid.  I was unsure whether it was even allowed for me as a non-Jew to go into a synagogue, especially uninvited.  I simply walked out of the hospital and on to the cold streets.  

I remembered that incident as I drove in the rain from my home to the home of Loretta and Roy Tanenbaum, who had kindly volunteered to accompany me to Sabbath service at a traditional conservative synagogue in Toronto.  I navigated through the rush hour gridlock to reach Toronto.  As I got off the highway ramp, I passed by a homeless man with a sign asking for monetary assistance. A little later, as I waited at a traffic light, a  disabled man and woman attempted to cross the uneven ground in their electric wheelchairs.  I couldn’t help but sigh.  The world was being the world, still going round despite being full to the brim with pain and hardships.  

It was still drizzling and chilly outside as I pulled on to the Tanenbaums’ driveway.  Loretta had previously emailed me, telling me to park on their driveway so we could walk over to the synagogue, which was just a few block away from their home.  But seeing that it was raining, I assumed we would just drive over, and once inside, I offered to take them in my car.  Loretta and Roy told me that they had to walk despite the rain, since they were keeping Sabbath.

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t
he candles lit for Sabbath

Feeling a little embarrassed at my ignorance about this Jewish observance, I wondered if I seemed insensitive to them.

I was a bit worried about walking in the cold rain, as I had forgotten my jacket in a rush when leaving from home.  But Loretta melted my heart with her kindness, insisting I borrow her rain coat for the walk. I probably would have gotten sick if she hadn’t lent me her coat for the walk. I gratefully accepted it and we made our way up the street to the synagogue.  At some point I asked Loretta if her and Roy walked to the synagogue even in the freezing temperatures of the frigid winters that just went by. She told me that they did indeed walk to the synagogue.  I found that unbelievable! Much of winter brought temperatures of minus thirty degrees celsius!  It was too cold to even step out of one’s house to get into one’s car.  I cannot imagine Roy and Loretta, especially at their age, braving the frigid temperatures to walk to the synagogue.  But at the same time, their commitment to their faith filled me with deep respect for them.  They must truly have a lot of love and respect for God to fully commit to keeping Sabbath.

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he walk in the rain

As we approached Beth Tzedec Congregation, I was surprised to see that it did not appear to be a Jewish or a religiously affiliated centre.  It looked like an ordinary community centre, but albeit a very big one.

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entrance to BethTzedec Synagogue

As we walked in, I noticed the small congregation walking into the chapel for prayers.  Loretta had already mentioned that Friday night sessions were always small, and held at the chapel, whereas the Saturday morning service was very big and held inside the sanctuary.  We walked into a neat room filled with pews, with the backs of the benches lined with religious texts and prayer books.  

We sat down in one of the middle pews, and I placed my scarf loosely around my head.   Loretta was wearing her hat to service while Roy had his Yarmulke on. Nobody stared at me, which was a definite plus and allowed me to relax.  Everyone seemed busy in greeting their friends and getting seated.  It was a relaxed atmosphere.  

The room had very high ceilings and the front of the room had a podium and curtains, along with a glass case with multiple stars of David.  There was also a large candle-like light above the glass case.      

The service was actually two services back to back.  It was a very different experience from praying at a mosque, because our prayer takes about 5 to 10 minutes (unless it’s the special night prayers at the mosque during Ramadan) and then we leave.  But at the synagogue, there were many prayers and hymns recited.  We stood up and sat down, and sometimes worshippers made bowing motions with their heads.  The prayers were recited strictly in Hebrew, but I was able to savor their meanings by following along the translations in the prayer-book.  The prayers were mostly glorifying God and asking for His help in being devout.  Then there were prayers for the Hebrew prophets (peace be upon them all), and then some more glorifying and praising God.  I remember a beautiful portion of prayer, where God is referred to as Soul Mate.  It really moved me, and I felt like it truly captured the essence of the relationship between human beings and God.  

At times, I got lost listening to the rhythmic recitation of the prayers, unable to concentrate on the translation, my vision blurring, and my mind would be somewhere mysterious, yet comforting.

There was a moment when everyone turned to the front door, as the door opened and a couple in mourning walked in.  A small lady held back her tears as she walked in.  She was mourning the death of her father.  I felt sad for her.  I am still blessed to have both my parents in my life, but I could only imagine how much pain she must have been in.  It is never easy losing one’s parents no matter how old we get.

The service concluded as the head rabbi made some announcements about upcoming events.  I liked how he seemed very relaxed and easy going. He even made some light jokes with the other rabbi at the service, and everyone laughed.  It was at that time that I wished that more imams could include some light humor in their service and when dealing with the congregants.  

As we walked out of the hall, Roy took me on a short tour of the main sanctuary.  Even though the lights were mostly turned off inside, I gasped with surprise at the humongous size of it.  It looked like a large concert hall with his endless rows of seating and extremely high ceilings.  Roy told me that it seated up to 3300 people!  It was a real marvelous sight.  

As we came out of the sanctuary we took a few minutes outside the prayer chapel to speak to the two rabbis presiding over the service.  They were very kind and friendly and asked me about my experience.  They also told me that I was always welcome to come visit when ever I wanted.  Their kind hospitality meant a lot to me.  It really added to the positive experience I had thus far.  Roy was super generous and gentlemanly, helping me put on my rain coat before we left the building.

Loretta and Roy were kind enough to invite me for dinner at their place, and I was happy to be heading back to enjoy a good meal with them.  They had also invited a couple who is one of their close friends to share the meal with us.

It was wonderful meeting David and Etta Nitkin at the Tanenbaum residence.  Everyone did a hand washing ritual in the kitchen.  There were also prayers recited before the meal.  I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and a bit of guilt, as Loretta had made a lot of food.  Roy and Loretta had just returned a day before from Boston after spending Passover with their daughter, and I was very amazed at how much work Loretta had put into the meal.  There was delicious challah bread, sparkling grape juice, squash, rice, roast chicken, an amazing gravy with carrots and lemon in it, and Etta had brought over an amazing broccoli salad and chocolate chip meringues for dessert. 

We had really good conversations over dinner.  We filled in each other on our latest projects, and some life stories.  They expressed their appreciation for the work that I am doing and for coming out to experience Jewish worship with them.  It felt great to be valued for my efforts.  After dinner and dessert, there were closing prayers, and we headed to the door to leave.  

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t
he Tanenbaums

I had one last moment of embarrassment as I asked to be photographed with the Tanenbaums, only to realize that they could not press the button on my phone camera.  Etta came up with the brilliant idea of taking a “selfie.” So I took a few selfies with Tanenbaums and one that also included the Nitkins.   As we stood at the front entrance, jokes were laughed at, handshakes were passed around, and all the ladies hugged each other before parting.  

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selfie with the Tanenbaums 🙂

That night I felt the love and care of my Jewish hosts.  But I also intuitively felt their own longing to be loved, to be understood, and to be accepted by others.  Well my Jewish brother and sisters, know that this Muslim woman fully loves and accepts you because we were created and are sustained by the same One loving God, and because our prophets (peace be upon them) were compassionate and kind people, so I have every reason to be compassionate and kind to you.  May God allow us all to see and treat each other as the family that we are. Ameen.  

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group picture with the Tanenbaums and Nitkins 🙂

I would like to say a special thank you to my friend David Schacht from the Facebook forum “Abraham’s Tent,” without whom I would not have met the Tanenbaums, nor had this amazing experience. So thank you David! Also, a big thank you to Miriam Spitzer for being kind enough to trust a complete stranger to connect me with her parents, the Tanenbaums. Thank you, Miriam! 🙂

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A Muslim’s visit to a Christian Monastery

I wondered if there were any Christian monasteries in the Toronto area, so I googled to quench my curiosity.  Surprised to find one in Toronto, I went on the website for the Holy Cross Priory.  I had no idea what happened in monasteries, so I clicked on the prayer tab and was really intrigued by the 6 prayers scheduled from morning till night.  I instantly thought of the 5 daily prayers I must perform as a Muslim.  Another interesting thing about the 6 prayers is that their names are difficult to remember since they are in Latin.  I got a taste of what a non-Muslim goes through when a Muslim tells them that they have to pray “fajr, duhr, asr, meghrib, isha.” Similarly, a Christian monk, or an ordinary Christian who joins the monks for prayers can tell everyone that they must pray “matins, eucharist, diurnum, vespers, eucharist, compline.” But being Muslim, I can also relate to the fact that life is being put on hold a few times a day to hold communion with God.

I got even more excited about visiting the monastery once I saw the words “visitors are welcome!” on the prayer section.  Not sure if the monastery was always in service, I decided to call and find out about the Diurnum prayers, which were scheduled for 11:30 am.  Also, I had no idea how long the prayer service was.  Father Richard picked up the phone and was very friendly.  I told him about myself and my blog.  He was very kind and welcoming and invited me to the Vespers prayer service at 5pm when a lot more people joined in the prayers and I could share a meal with everyone.  I would never say no to a free meal, but unfortunately, my “mom schedule” only allowed me to join in the prayers at 11:30 am when all the kids were at school.  He told me to knock on the door five minutes before the service, and someone would let me in.

When I got there, I was surprised to find that the monastery was in a residential area, and looked just like most of the other homes on the street.  The only way I could tell it was the monastery was by the small sign lodged in the front yard.  Thankful for the free street parking, I locked my car and walked up to the front door.  Someone saw me approaching, and opened the door before I knocked.

holyorder

It was one of the monks dressed in civilian clothes.  He welcomed me, as I stepped into an old, but clean, and well furnished cozy building.  I firstly felt overwhelmed at being addressed directly and welcomed to the monastery by a handful of monks, all dressed in civilian clothes.  I was a bit puzzled at the smallness of the monastery.  I kept imagining myself going into a huge building where I could blend in as an anonymous visitor, and nobody would know who I am.  But this was the exact opposite of what I expected.  It was as if I walked into someone’s home and the family members all noticed my arrival and came up to shake my hand, giving me a warm welcome.

The first room I noticed, was what looked like a living room. In the far corner of the living room was a built-in bench with red cushions lining the seats, a cross on the wall, and a portrait of the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her) holding the baby version of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) . I removed my jacket and stood in the hallway not sure where we would be praying.  I assumed we would be going to a large prayer hall of some sorts.  But again I was mistaken.  Father Richard welcomed me to step into what appeared to be the living room and make myself comfortable while a few more monks came in to join us for prayers.

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When it was time, we went over to the benched area, and everyone was given a prayer-book.  Although, I can’t recall whether it was a prayer-book or the Bible itself.  Father Richard began the prayer ceremony and everyone read from the assigned pages, sometimes all together, and sometimes the monks on one side of the bench would read aloud while the rest listened and this process went on for about ten to fifteen minutes.  I joined in during the passages that resonated with me, which usually pertained to praising God and asking Him for help in doing good and overcoming evil.

There were only five of us on that bench for that prayer, and at times everything felt so surreal.  I wondered in between what I was doing there. I told myself that I didn’t belong there.  But then I thought that this was someone else’s reality, that for all these men (and many others), this was their normal.  For the monks who shared that home and met together to pray six times a day, this was it.  I reminded myself to stay focused on my goal for my blog, which was to familiarize myself with other forms of spirituality and understand how others connected to God.

Once the prayers were done, Father Richard and I sat down across from each other on comfortable chairs  and chatted.  He inquired about my blog and I told him a bit more about why I came out to see them.  I told him how I felt like it was important to focus on what we all hold common and try to build trust through our similarities instead of getting bogged down in our differences.

He appreciated my efforts and shared with me his experiences from his youth when he travelled quite a bit.  He told me how the first time he ever came into contact with Muslims was during his travels in the sixties to Egypt and Syria.  He recalled going into the grand mosque in Damascus and being profoundly moved by a man sitting and reciting the Quran.  He was honest as he told me that growing up Christian, he was taught that Muslims were infidels, but actually seeing them in person he knew that was not the case at all.  He old me about a popular priest from Egypt who held Muslims and Islam in high regard, and wrote a book about Islam and Muslims, which helped Father Richard understand Islam from a more objective perspective.

One of the Islamic concepts he really connected with, was the term “Allahu Akbar.”  He  explained how that term doesn’t really mean God is Great, but that the more accurate translation would be that “God is Greater!”  He explained that anything great out there, God was always greater than that.  And this, he explained, was what they were trying to abide by in the monastery: no matter what great things they did, God would always be greater than that.  I felt deeply moved by his words, and could see he clearly was someone learned and someone deeply respectful of God.

We talked about his experiences living near Bethlehem in the Holy Land, about my experiences visiting other places of worship, about the vow of chastity, service, and obedience to the superiors the monks made in order to be initiated into the monastic life, and soon it was time for me to leave.  But before I left, I requested a photo with Father Richard, something for me to remember my  visit to this special place.

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As I drove home, I realized something I hadn’t paid attention to before deciding to visit the monastery.  The monastery I visited only had male monks!  And yet, the website allowed visitors to join in without saying only men.  Father Richard knew I was a woman, and yet did not even for a second found that problematic.  Considering these men had taken vows of chastity and lived amongst men only, it was astounding to realize that they were able to see prayer as something universal, and allowed women visitors to join in the prayers.  I was also the sole non-Christian in that prayer room, but nobody told me to sit separately or away from them.  I was told to join in with the other faithfuls, and perhaps that was part of the reason why it was so overwhelming for me to go through that experience.  I expected to be just a spectator, someone observing from the outside.  But instead, I was pulled into their world, and for a few moments, we were all calling out to God at the same time in the same manner, with all boundaries and lines erased.

 

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tragedy: the homogenization and loss of meaning

 Just recently, I realized how mechanical and meaningless some aspects of my spirituality have become.

parroting

Whenever I meet someone Muslim, I say “assalam alaikum.”  That person responds to me “walaikum salaam.”  Sometimes the other person says salaam first, and I respond to them.  Everything is good, until I realize that I don’t even know what I just said.  The words simply roll of my tongue.  I mean I don’t even think about the fact that I am asking God to bless the other person with His peace, and that the other person is asking God to bless me with peace!  I never actually feel much in my heart at hearing or saying salaam.  It has turned into an ordinary “hello.”  But there is nothing ordinary about saying the salaam.  It is meant to be a heartfelt prayer.  It is meant to have meaning.  It is supposed to make ripples in our existence every time we utter or hear it.  It’s purpose is to bring God’s peace on ourselves and others.  Think about that for a moment.  What is every human being searching for? Why do we put ourselves through so much in life?  What is our ultimate goal?  The end goal is always inner peace.  We are all in constant need of God’s peace.

assalamu-alaikum-in-arabic

What I love about our species is that we are really excellent at messing things up, and even better at not taking any responsibility for our messes.  So how is it that something as simple yet deep as SINCERELY wishing God’s inner peace on each other has turned into just a series of sounds put together to just say “hi.”  I have a theory about religion/faith.  The theory is the following: religion/faith is practiced and understood according to the dictates of popular culture.  So what does popular culture tell us?

PopCultureBlack512

It tells us that what matters is what is on the outside.  If you look hot and sexy, if you have the best wardrobe, if you make the most money, if you have the most number of fans, you have made it in life.  Not only should you have a big ego, but you should also flaunt it.  You are a role model for others because you are successful, and successful is basically everything that people can see, touch, feel, hear, and of course, purchase.

Just look at the problems facing faith communities of today.  You can immediately see how so many practicing faithfuls are trapped by the image driven, ego based version of faith/religion.  You are a good ____ (fill in with religious affilication) if you can successfully portray yourself as one to others.  If you can appear to be a good ___, and other faithfuls keep telling you how amazing you are then that automatically means that you are one of the “chosen ones,”  and so much holier than the rest of the herd.  This just seems crazy to me.  Of all things, why should spirituality and our personal connection to God  contain egoistic elements?

Another part of our present day pop culture norm, is to rob people of the ability to make their own meaning in life.  Meaning is imposed on others. Everything sacred and personal is processed and “packaged” for the ordinary person.  Similarly, only images that reinforce the pop culture version of religion are advertised, publicized, and approved.

How do you feel when you keep seeing ultra rich people with their multi million dollar mansions, and photoshopped, waxed men with chiseled abs, and super skinny women with flawless skin and big breasts on every commercial piece of property on the planet? You feel like a failure, right?  You feel terrible and you have implicit if not explicit body image and social class sensitivity issues. This is pretty much what has happened to mainstream religion these days (in my view).

I hear so many Muslims making jokes about the Friday prayer sermons.  But I know that behind those jokes is pain and feelings of worthlessness. People have said things like, “yeah I know I’m a bad person and I’m going to hell, so let’s talk about something new in the sermons.”  This just makes me feel sick.  What in the world are our religious leaders doing?  Why are imams (not all of them) putting people down in their sermons (not necessarily explicitly)?  Why is meaning and judgement imposed on us?  Why aren’t we allowed and encouraged to feel joy and happiness about our relationship with God, despite all our faults?  Why are we being told that “you do such and such, and this means xyz, and therefore, you are damned in the eyes of God?”  Why are we constantly robbed of our right to make meaning?

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I realize now why all scriptures and faiths warn against speculating on others’ prospect for salvation.  The reason is simple: meaning is personal.  Every word, every act has an intention(s), a meaning(s), that is instantly and constantly communicated to God, and God alone!  The same action or behavior means different to each individual.  Whatever a person says or does, only they (and God) understand the myriad of meanings their words/act holds for them.

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Even as you read this, you will not understand my words with a 100% of the same meaning that I intend to project. You will assign your own meaning to this which is perfectly natural. God gave you a mind of your own for a very good reason, and that is to make your own meaning.  It is through your own meaning that you have your own special spiritual relationship with God.  So let’s make meaning, not war.