With the new year, my resolution is simple — be present. Whether at work, with my wife and kids, or most importantly, with God and His Messenger ﷺ, I intend to focus on being present.
In an age of distraction, being present is more challenging than ever. At any moment I have at my fingertips more information than previous generations could hope to access in a lifetime. Whatever I desire to read, listen or watch is in my pocket and simply a search away — giving me endless choices to stay “connected.” Unfortunately, that constant connection increases distraction, and decreases productivity. At work, the immediate task at hand is interrupted by texts and social media notifications. At home, the vibrations of my phone remind me that the number of unanswered work emails continues to increase. I can’t read a book, or even watch a movie, without seeking an interruption. Even in prayer — the time I’ve dedicated to focus on God and escape from the world, and am prevented from being distracted by technology — everything other than God suddenly comes to mind.
Even for those who are focused, life may simply be about completing tasks without any presence of heart. Get my kids ready, take them to school, get stuff done at work, return home and prepare dinner, put the kids to bed, repeat. Even our ritual prayers, reading of Qur’an and morning and evening invocations are at risk of being reduced to tasks we simply “check off” our task list.
Because it is so difficult, presence is incredibly gratifying. It’s perhaps for that reason we will always seek to experience presence in our lives, even for a moment. Those who play sports know the feeling of complete presence. When you are “in the zone” you simply forget everything, including yourself. It’s why people run for absurdly long distances — to experience “runner’s high.” A race car enthusiast friend laments that the only time he can truly forget the burdens of work is on the race track, where his adrenaline is so high, and the consequences of error are so great, he becomes so completely and utterly present such that no other concern comes to his heart. For me, it is racing down a mountain on a snowboard. For those few euphoric moments, there are no worries or burdens. My wife told me that giving birth to our children required a profound presence she had never experienced before. It is one of the rare moments in life where the pain and exhaustion is so great that one’s entire being turns to God for assistance (and in many cases, God’s gift of the epidural). After that experience, holding one’s child not only causes the mother to forget her exhaustion, but her entire being — she is gifted with embracing a life that she values more than her own. These experiences of losing oneself in the moment are priceless. They are so pleasurable that, unfortunately, most simply choose to induce these experiences through artificial means, like drugs or alcohol.
However, the most important presence one can experience is with God. It is said, “the Sufi is the child of the moment (ibn al-waqt).” Meaning, the one who is on the path to God is focused on what is most pleasing to God at that very moment. When one is focused solely on God, they forget everything other than God, including themselves. This was the experience of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. We have all heard the stories of the companions who had arrows removed from their bodies in prayer. Where we would use anesthesia to avoid the pain of surgery, the companions had their preoccupation with God.
But we are not the companions and even if we wanted to, we simply cannot disconnect ourselves from the responsibilities of life to focus solely on God. But one does not need to be divorced from society to experience presence with God. The knower (‘arif) is the one who observes spiritual retreat with God (khalwa) while being engaged in everyday activities within society (jalwa). The goal is to be engaged outwardly with our work or family, but our reality is completely present with God.
The Arabic word for presence is ḥuḍūr (حضور). Its root letters, ha'-dad-ra' are also found in words like, ḥaḍar (a settled population) and ḥaḍaara (civilization). In West Africa, the madrasah is called maḥḍara. Presence is required for a group of people to settle and develop civilization. The peak of civilization is the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge is required to know God.
In addition to the obligatory prayers, fasting, and charity, the spiritual masters have generally recommended two things to help seekers attain presence — remembrance (dhikr) and good company (suḥba). It is no wonder that the gatherings of dhikr are often called haḍra. Like the ritual prayer (salat), it is designed to preoccupy the seeker’s body, tongue, mind and heart with the remembrance of God. Most of us understand dhikr to be limited to the tongue. But even if our tongues are remembering God, the rest of our being may not be. Our limbs may still be disobeying God, even when we mention His name. Our minds and our hearts may be absent, though our tongues continue to move. It is through the constant practice of uniting the body, tongue, mind and heart with the remembrance of God that one’s whole being may be completely present before God, even for a moment. Since our reality is one of forgetfulness, it is inevitable that we will lose our presence in prayer. A teacher once told me that it is for that reason that we should put an extraordinary amount of effort and attention into being present for the takbiratul-iḥram (the opening Allahu Akbar). So even if we immediately lose focus for the rest of the prayer, our hope is that some semblance of presence at that first moment will make up for the deficiency in the rest.
But we cannot do it alone. Good companionship is essential to helping us overcome the distractions of this life and to focus on the next. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The example of a good companion in comparison with a bad one, is like that of the musk seller and the blacksmith's furnace; from the first you would either buy musk or enjoy its good smell while the furnace would either burn your clothes or your house, or you get a bad nasty smell.” Good company benefits even when you don’t do anything. It is easier to be present with good company — completely forgetting whatever preoccupations we have or worldly burdens we may carry. There is a story of two dervishes who met on the road very early one morning and each had a huge bale of firewood on his back. The sultan passed and saw them. Many hours later the sultan returned near this spot and saw that the two men were still standing, shouldering their heavy loads and talking. “Who are these men?” asked the sultan. “They are dervishes, O sultan,” said one of his attendants, “and when they are with one another the burdens of the world disappear.”1
But we’re not dervishes and this presence is so difficult that we may be tempted to abandon the effort altogether. But our path is not one of despair. Abandoning remembrance is worse than a lack of presence. A statement of Ibn ‘Ata'illah from his famous Book of Wisdoms (al-Hikam al-‘Ata'iyyah) is comforting and reminds us to be hopefully optimistic as we strive for this presence:
Do not abandon the Invocation because you do not feel the Presence of God therein. For your forgetfulness of the Invocation of Him is worse than your forgetfulness in the Invocation of Him. Perhaps He will take you from an Invocation with forgetfulness to one with vigilance, and from one with vigilance to one with the Presence of God, and from one with the Presence of God to one wherein everything but the Invoked is absent. “And that is not difficult for God.”
So, what are some practical steps we can take? Here are a few ideas for the new year if you are interested in increasing your presence.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not check your phone before the morning prayer.
- Focus on being present for each step in your morning wudu.
- Don’t pray in your pajamas. Put on a jubba or robe. Honor your prayer by honoring the One you stand before.
- Before you start your prayer, take 5-10 seconds to remind yourself that you are standing before the Lord of the worlds to facilitate presence of the heart.
- Sit in the remembrance of God after prayer for as long as you are able.
- Delay checking your phone for as long as possible after you wake up.
- Focus on your most difficult tasks of the day first.
- Simply drive the speed limit (I know, this is hard, but it’s worth trying at least once).
- When you arrive home at the end of the day, sit in the car for two minutes and make remembrance of Allah and salawat on the Prophet ﷺ before you enter your home. Release your anxieties, stresses and frustrations and enter your home to greet your family with joy and presence.
- Put your phone away in a drawer when you are home and eating dinner with your family.
- Drive to a park, lock your phone in the glove compartment and go for a walk by yourself. Observe the plants and the trees, listen attentively to the sounds around you — the wind, the birds, even the surrounding traffic.
- When you go to the masjid to pray, whether for daily congregational prayer or the weekly Friday prayer, leave your phone in the car.
- Go to lunch or coffee with a friend, phones in the car, and give one another complete attention.
- Call a relative you haven’t spoken with for a long time just to let them know you were thinking of them and wanted to see how they were doing. Call them at a time when you are at home and not doing anything else, giving them your undivided attention.
By Muizz Rafique , 03 Jan 2018