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Mindfulness is found in Islam too

I feel very fortunate to have recently been asked to appear on the Breakfast Show on the Voice of Islam Radio and to be interviewed by two lovely presenters, Mr Sharjeel Ahmad and Mr Muhammad Ather. It was also a joy to have the opportunity to lead one minute of mindfulness practice for the thousands of listeners in the UK and internationally.

When I am teaching mindfulness, I often make the link between mindfulness and Buddhism, Hinduism and perhaps also mention that mindfulness can be found in most other religions, philosophies and traditions, being an innate human capacity after all. However, I rarely explicitly draw the link between mindfulness and Islam, so I was especially pleased to have an opportunity to give that some thought and to speak and write about it.

If you don’t know about the Voice of Islam radio station, it’s very popular both in the UK and overseas and includes many contemporary topics in the context of a peaceful, loving and compassionate faith.

At the end of this blog, you can listen to the 15 minute interview that I gave on 23rd November 2022. But before I get to that, here are some of the topics that I prepared for the interview, including a little research on the relationship between Mindfulness and Islam. However, if you’d rather just listen to the recording, feel free to skip ahead now.

1. What is stress and anxiety and why does our body go through these emotions?

The stress response is our body’s natural defence to any demand placed on it, whether that’s a major demand like a genuine life-threatening situation or a minor demand like someone just calling out our name.

Our amygdala in the limbic ancient part of our brain is constantly scanning for threats, when it perceives danger, it fires up the Hypothalamus, which you can think about as a control centre with lots of on and off switches.

This triggers the release of hormones and chemicals into our blood stream which change our physical body to prepare us for fight, flight or freeze.

Anxiety is a state of mind that is projecting/rehearsing ahead and becoming fearful of what may happen, which can trigger our stress response in advance of when we need it.

Important to note two things – the stress response is a normal and necessary human response – if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be stimulated to take action – but we can easily become overly stimulated; it’s not harmful in small measures but it can be very harmful if we experience prolonged stress, affecting us physically, emotionally, mentally and behaviourally.

Therefore, it’s really important that we understand our own anxiety and stress and develop ways to manage these proactively, not allowing them to take over, and this is where mindfulness can really help.

2. What is Mindfulness and why is this important in this this day and age?

Mindfulness is an innate ability that every human has to be fully present in this moment, without being distracted or taken off balance by our emotions, thoughts and physical sensations.

Mindfulness, as taught today, also has many beautiful attributes. It is not just a cold impersonal awareness, but an awareness that includes generosity, gratitude, love and compassion.

What’s wonderful about this is that, even though it’s a state that can naturally arise, it is also something we can cultivate more of through particular practices.

If we are fully present, it means our mind is not in the past or in the future, but living fully in the here and now, the only moments we have to live.

By being fully present, we can get all kinds of benefits:

  • A sense of openness, calmness and spacious awareness
  • A sense of being grounded, conscious and fully alive
  • The ability to think clearly, communicate well and stay focused
  • The ability to manage difficult emotions more easily and not be overwhelmed
  • The ability to accept difficulties in life and to let go of things we no longer need gracefully
  • Able to gain insight into what is happening within us and around us and to think, speak and act in ways that are helpful

3. Where does Mindfulness come from, what is its relationship to Islam?

The practice has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, but it can be found in virtually all religions, cultures and philosophies.

I’m not an Islamic scholar but I do know that in Islam, mindfulness is associated with the term “muraqabah”, which means in part “to watch, observe, carefully consider”.

A person in the state of ‘Muraqabah’ is constantly and fully aware that Allah knows him inside and out. It is a state of complete and vigilant self-awareness in the heart, soul and body.

Having said that, I want to emphasise that Mindfulness is a universal skill and therefore available and beneficial to everyone, no matter your background or belief.

4. How can we practice mindfulness and what type of mindfulness practice can we do daily and quickly ?

We can distinguish here between mindfulness meditation and everyday mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is any kind of meditation where we are fully present with an object of awareness, for example watching our breath, connecting with our body, focusing on sounds, and even aware of our internal thoughts and feelings. If it’s something happening in the here and now and we keep our attention on it, that’s mindfulness meditation. But we don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor for 30 minutes to do this. It can be as simple as waking up every morning and taking 2 minutes to observe the quality of our breath and perhaps doing the same before we go to sleep at night.

Everyday mindfulness involves bringing our awareness to things that we already do every day, but which we do mindlessly or on automatic pilot, for example, making a cup of tea, washing the dishes or brushing our teeth. Instead of allowing our mind to be elsewhere, we notice through our senses all there is to be observed. By doing so, we can discover more about our experience, our reactions and develop greater appreciation and gratitude for everyday things, which ultimately makes us happier people.

Practicing mindfulness meditation and everyday mindfulness each day will together give us the best possible results.

One Minute of Mindfulness

Don’t close your eyes if you’re driving or operating equipment right now.

Otherwise, let your eyes gently close or lower and soften your gaze.

For the next minute, there’s nothing you have to do, nowhere you need to be

Observe the physical sensation of your breath, whether in your nostrils or your chest or your belly.

You don’t have to try and change it in any way, simply notice your breath.

It’s always there for you, to help you connect with this present moment.

At the same time, when I say to do it, I’d like you to start counting your breaths.

A full in and out breath is a count of one, the next in and out is 2, and so on.

Keep observing and counting your breath until I say stop

If you find your mind wanders away, just lead it gently back to your breath and the count.

If you lose track of the count, just start again at 1.

OK, here we go, start counting.

[1 minute of silence]

Stop counting.

Now ask yourself, what happened during that practice and how do you feel in this moment?

This is obviously a very brief practice which will have limited effect, but the fundamentals of observing an object in the present moment and taming the wandering mind are two key aspects of mindfulness practice.

5. For our listeners out there, could you describe how you became a mindfulness teacher and what led you to help people for such a good cause ?

Discovered meditation more than 25 years ago and practiced it on and off for a long time.

Took an 8-week mindfulness course about 10 years ago and was amazed by the simplicity and yet the power of the practice. Started to practice more diligently.

About 5 years ago, having personally used mindfulness to deal with some of my own life challenges, including my mental health and to support my recovery from a serious accident, I decided to leave my career in higher education and to train as a mindfulness teacher. I trained with an organisation called Mindfulness Now. Since then, I have also become a tutor with Mindfulness Now and it’s a great joy for me to be able to train and support a new generation of teachers.

For me, teaching mindfulness is a great privilege.

6. What are common hurdles when one tries to maintain a habit on performing mindfulness and what can done in that regard?

There are so many I could talk about here. Perhaps I can just name the top 3 that I think arise for nearly everyone, especially when practicing mindfulness meditation:

  • Other things you have to do seem more important – Remind yourself that you won’t be able to fulfil other duties unless you are calm, happy and healthy; your peace of mind comes first; Ask yourself – what is the worst that can happen if you don’t get everything on your to-do list done today? And what is the best that could happen if you do some mindfulness practice?
  • Thinking/feeling that it’s not working and wanting to give up – Remind yourself, there is no right or wrong way – if you are sitting and focusing, then it is working at some level; Remind yourself of the intention you set yourself and keep going, even if just for a while longer; If you absolutely have to stop, don’t criticise yourself – tomorrow it may be easier, so try again
  • Interruption by others – Create a dedicated space for your meditation; Start early in the day when no-one else is up; Tell your family/others that you need some quiet time and will be available for them later; If interrupted accidentally, continue to practise without opening your eyes or getting up (unless a genuine emergency)

7. How can our listeners start to learn or learn more about mindfulness?

There are many good apps available – Headspace is the most popular, but there are other low cost and even free apps, so search ‘mindfulness’ in the app stores.

You can learn so much on your own, but the best way is to immerse yourself either 1-2-1 or learning in a group course with a qualified mindfulness teacher.

There’s a mindfulness teachers register where you can search and find a teacher near you.

I also have a YouTube channel, tonyosheapoon, and I share new meditations and practices on there from time to time.

Listen to the recording

Voice of Islam Breakfast Show interview with Tony O'Shea-Poon 23rd November 2022