Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rain had made deep puddles on the street and she couldn't step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn't help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn't thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. "That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn't even thank you!"
"I set the woman down hours ago," the older monk replied. "Why are you still carrying her?"
So what was the older monk's secret? How was he able to selflessly spring into action caring so gracefully for a rude person while not even expecting a thank you? We all encounter situations in life thinking we were offended and those few moments can live with us for an eternity. Fifteen years ago he....Last week she....Yesterday they.....and the list goes on and on. In dwelling on emotions we allow them to fester within our hearts, growing stronger as the days pass. We try to convince ourselves feeling a certain way is unhealthy, or holding a grudge is getting us nowhere, but no matter how much we try to rationally remove our feelings we get nowhere.
Those lucky enough come to realize that our hearts are the seat of all emotions, and if we want to release all negative energy within it we have to take the arduous path of a spiritual cleansing. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ laid these foundational principles when he said “…There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart" (Bukhari and Muslim). He (peace be upon him and his family) correlated the soundness of our entire being to the state of our hearts (quloob) just as Allah has correlated our salvation in the afterlife to it—“The day when wealth and children will not avail you, except those that come with a sound heart.” If a heart is sound, like in the elder monk, then it acts and reacts effortlessly. If a heart is sullied, or still growing, then it acts and reacts like the younger monk.
Embarking on a path of spiritual fitness is a lot like getting physically fit. They are both built on foundational principles, that if followed, will yield results. Now, results may vary from person to person. Growing up my brother Mohammad and I used to be gym-partners. Three days a week we would do the exact same exercises together at the exact same time, yet he put on more muscle. I would often joke that he could look at a weight and his biceps would grow, while I would have to work much harder to get results. I quickly came to realize that we are all different, and instead of comparing my results to his I needed to compare my results to me. If I was getting in overall better health and shape compared to where I used to be, then I am on the right path. The laws of the spirit operate the same way. If I am spiritually healthier now compared to where I used to be, then I am moving in the right direction regardless of the results others around me are experiencing. So what are the building blocks to spiritual fitness?
1. Realize You Are Spiritually Out of Shape
I knew I was physically unfit when my favorite pants no longer fit and when I would have a hard time breathing after mild physical activity. Being spiritually out of shape has its own internal and external signs. If we are quick to anger, unwilling to accommodate, impatient and easily flustered, these are all internal and external signs of spiritual weakness. Ultimately this stage requires us to stop looking at everyone around us and focus our attention to ourselves. We can only get better if we admit we have a problem.
2. Commit To Change and Do The Work
Once we realize it’s time for a new “Me” we have to commit to making changes. When I wanted to shed a few pounds I traded in my favorite bag of chips for healthy fruits. Sure, it took time for me to get used to it and I had my share of ups and downs but my taste buds finally adjusted. I realized the processed food I was accustomed to eating was really junk, it may have tasted good for a few moments but it’s what got me into the physical mess I was in. Eating healthy made me feel and look better. The spiritual world operates in the same way. Once I stop feeding myself spiritual junk of backbiting and missing my prayers (or not praying at all) and start feeding myself the spiritual food of praying on time, keeping myself in the remembrance of God after my prayer, and trying to maintain a consciousness of God, I spiritually start to feel better. Sure, it takes time and I will need to get adjusted but once my heart starts to experience the internal results I quickly come to realize its worth.
3. Find a Mentor
I joined a gym and wanted someone to teach me how to work out. I read a bunch of online articles on how to do it but nothing could replace a real teacher. I started searching for a personal trainer and came across some amusing situations. One of the trainers I met really knew his stuff but he was really out of shape. I could tell that he once lived the glory days of having a six pack but those days were now long gone and he really let himself go. Another guy was in great shape, but he was a bit rough around the edges. Finally, I found a trainer who was practicing what he was preaching and was an all-around nice guy. I stuck with him for a while and learned a ton.
Finding a spiritual mentor is a lot like that. Instead of trying to figure things out on your own, look for someone who has already embarked on the path of spiritual purification and can teach you its ways. Remember it is a science, and you need someone who knows all the ins and outs. The mentor should be practicing what they preach—if that’s not there you haven’t found your mentor yet.
4. Don’t Look Back
Getting into better physical shape helped me see myself and the world around me in a different way. I was no longer interested in that extra slice of pizza, nor did I want to have another lazy day at home. I wanted to get outside, be active and enjoy the world around me. It was a new lease on life. Getting in better spiritual shape does the same. It makes you see yourself and the world around you in a completely different way. Your heart is more in tuned with the Creator of the heavens and earth and in a much more tranquil state. You no longer feel any religious obligation is a burden, but rather it’s an ultimate source of enjoyment (spiritual and physical). The key at this stage is to continuously build on what has been granted to you and not look back. We remember the old spiritual version of us as someone we never would like to be and we move on from here.
By Moutasem Atiya , 26 May 2015