Friday, September 25, 2015

Sacrificing the Ego

Attachment is a powerful thing for any human being. When we have build a strong attachment to something or someone, it is very difficult to let the attachment go. It hurts to let it go. But here in lies the real test: who is the priority in our life?

In the case of our attachments, the dilemma usually occurs when we have to choose between one of two: ourselves (the ego) or Allah. When a Muslim is asked who is number 1 in his or her life, he or she will most probably answer with confidence, “Well, Allah of course!”

Saying it is one thing, but practicing it is another thing entirely. It is easy to give the right answer when that question is asked. It is in the textbook after all. But actions speak louder than words. It is good that we say it, but do we do it? What do our actions “say”?

At the heat of the moment is when we are truly tested. It is effortless to say that we prioritize Allah over everything when there’s no hardship to put our foot where our mouth is. When hardship befalls us, then we can truly measure the weight of our words and see if we stay true to them.

The ego is tough to fight because it appeals to us. All it seeks is to increase pleasure and to decrease pain. Who wouldn’t want that? But making that the core of our existence signifies that we are Godless, or to be more precise, it entails that we are taking something else as God - our own self.

Not everything that is pleasing to us is good for us and not everything that is painful for us is bad for us. That is a tough message to comprehend, let alone internalize because the very essence of our survival depends on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

The ego lies in the mind, especially in the mind that thinks that it knows more than it really knows.

Sacrificing the ego doesn’t mean that we don’t use our minds at all. Sound reasoning is essential in Islam, as pointed out by Dr. Umar Faruq ‘Abd Allah in his paper “Living Islam with Purpose”. He dedicated the first section of his paper on sound reasoning alone, highlighting its importance in Islam.

So being Muslims doesn’t mean that we don’t think and that we don’t make sense of things. Quite the contrary, Allah encourages us to think and reflect. Allah even mentioned quite a few times in the Quran about Ulul Albab (the people of reflection).

Islam is about balance. Although we cherish our God-given intellect, it doesn’t mean that we worship it. Our mind is not our number one reference for what we should and should not do. This is hard to digest, especially in today’s era of increasing skepticism and over-reliance on the mind’s logic.

As amazing as the mind truly is, it must realize its place in the world. There will be things that the mind cannot comprehend and understand, but it doesn't make those things untrue. Maybe the mind is not well equipped yet, or it is not well equipped at all.

Even with the mind's limitations, it is a wonder how much that it can grasp about the reality of the world. We should marvel at its ability to do so, and we should take full advantage of it by using it to its full capacity. Having said all of that, there will be moments when we must choose between the revelation or the mind.

In those moments, we will see who we really worship.

Monday, September 21, 2015

When Bad Things Happen

How we see a situation makes a difference in how we feel about it.

Both Ahmed and Ali are practicing their English speaking. They both are in the same class, learning with the same teacher, and living in similar socioeconomic circumstance. They both speak English at a similar level.

Both of them had make mistakes and were laughed at by their peers. However, Ahmed was pretty happy about it, while Ali was disappointed. Ahmed intended to try again next time and do better. Ali simply gave up.

Isn't it interesting how two individuals experiencing the same bad situation can react to it in two opposite ways? Shouldn't they feel the same emotion, given that they experienced the same bad situation?

Similar events that happen to people should produce similar reactions from them. Right? That seems logical, like 2+2. But in our daily life, we don't consistently see that happening. Two people lost a leg, but one is living life normally and the other is spiralling down into deep depression.

I think we are looking at this the wrong way. We are focusing our attention of what happened. Emotion doesn't follow what happened. Rather, emotion follows our perception of what happened. How we see the event will determine how we feel - not the event itself.

Ahmed saw their friends laughing at him as a form of challenge, and he wanted to prove to them that he can improve in his English speaking. On top of that, Ahmed didn't take their laughter seriously and decided to laugh along with them. Why not? If they think he's funny, then he should laugh too.

Ali, on the other hand, saw their friends laughing as a sign that he is not worthy enough. He feels that he should not try something that he is not good at. He feels embarrassed by his actions and he decided to just stop trying in order to avoid further embarrassment.

Both Ahmed and Ali experienced the same situation, but both feel the opposite emotion. All because of how they perceived the situation in the beginning.

The process of forming a perception about a situation can be instantaneous and most probably unconscious. It follows the framework that we already built inside our minds. It is a framework of how to interpret the situation.

It's automatic and there's a good reason for it.

Having this framework means that we don't have to sweat out our brains thinking about the process every single time. Having it on automatic mode makes life easier for us, takes less time, and requires less energy. It is convenient and we love convenience.

But what if the framework is problematic to begin with? A problematic framework will produce a problematic emotional reaction when something bad happens. The framework will impede the individual's ability to recover from the event and to move on.

Our mind is a powerful thing. Though it can't change reality, but it surely can change how we perceive reality and how we feel about it. So we need to train the mind to perceive reality in a more positive light, even when bad things happened to us.

Having positive perceptions of life doesn't mean that we are in denial of the bad. We already established that what had happened was "bad". So we are not in denial. We are simply taking control of how we deal with the situation and making room for recovery.

It is doable to make this switch from positive to negative, by modifying our framework. But in order to do that, we have to first become aware of our current framework and assess the perceptions generated by it. We can intercept the process of generating the negative perceptions as it is happening and modify it so that it generates something more positive.

When Ali got laughed at, he saw it as a problem. When Ahmed got laughed at, he saw it as a challenge. It might seem like a simple change in words, but it's not the words that do the magic - it's the meaning behind those words.

The word "problem" carries with it the connotation of being burdensome and annoying. The word "challenge" carries with it the connotation that it is something exciting to try out. Ahmed modified his tendency to see the negative event negatively, and he found a way to spin it into something that would motivate him further and not drag him down.

If we are able to make this switch a regular practice, it would become easier and easier the next time around. Pretty soon, it becomes a habit. Before we know it, it becomes second nature to us. We have modified our framework from generating bad vibes into generating good vibes, ones that will help us face obstacles in life.

But be warned: the switch is not easy because it requires effort and it can be mentally exhausting, especially in the beginning when we are not used to it. We are essentially turning off the autopilot in our brain. But that is essentially the definition of taking control of our lives. If we want control, then we can't allow ourselves to become slaves to our automatic reactions.

It's about time that we switch to manual.