The Better Path: Indulging in Gratitude

As I reflect on 2016 and God willing, prepare for 2017, I have tried to pay particular attention the what worked well for me and what served to impede my progress this year.

The most common factor of note was gratitude. A standard definition is “the act of being grateful.”

Some of you may ask, “to whom?” I will make it perfectly clear and state, to God!

Others may pose the question, “for what?” My response would simply be: for the air I breathe with the lungs He has given me, for the fact that I am alive today. It is acknowledges Him watching over me when l am not capable of doing a better job on my own.

He nurtures and sustains and I am a beneficiary. I seek to express gratitude all He has done for me. Shouldn’t we all?

People of different belief systems often thank God for the food before they eat their meals. Many Christians will say a grace or give acknowledgment of a virtue coming from God. I recall some of my Japanese and Kendo brethren saying, “itadakimasu” or “I humbly receive…,” before we would partake of a sumptuous meal together.  Muslims utter Bismillah (in God’s name).

At times I question whether people are really sincere and truly thankful but then I pause and remember that it is between them and God. I can only legitimately seek to control my own intentions and actions…

Gratitude is increasingly a topic in social media these days. Its links to happiness and better health are now being examined.

I learned to consider gratitude as an emotion while attending meetings with Sultan Abdulhameed, author of The Quran and The Life of Excellence, years ago. He teaches that “prayer is a comfort”and that “all progress happens through adversity.” While contemplating these thoughts, a phrase I had heard earlier in life came to mind, “Let go, let God…

These notions enabled me to find peace with the thoughts that I am not in control of everything in my life, but that my circumstances are intimately connected to how I think. Now, I always think positively about all matters, no matter how grim they may seem.

One of my Dominican friends and Kendo brothers has been trying to attain the rank of NanaDan or seventh degree Black Belt for longer than I can remember. Twice a year, he would make a pilgrimage to Japan to challenge for the rank. It takes a lot of determination and resoluteness to maintain this arduous discipline and stay focused in spite of circumstances. The pass rate on this examination has always been extremely low. He was finally successful last month.! Alhamdulillah (All praise is due to God)! I remember the words of the late Nishino sensei,”Never give up!” This is a timely reminder for me. I am also happy when my friends achieve success.

You may ask what does this have to do with being grateful?    Studies have shown that practicing gratitude can lead to a greater sense of well-being and reduced depression.

I recently had a personal problem which was driving me to wit’s end. I felt powerless. Reluctantly, I shared my dilemma  with some of my friends. Together, we came up with a solution and I was truly humbled by the positive outcome…  I am forever grateful for the friends that God had provided for me! Alhamdulillah!

There is a passage in the Quran which states, “If you are grateful, I will give you more (7:14)” I am only now beginning to grasp the meaning of this powerful statement.


I thank God for watching over me.

Thou has been with me throughout my entire life.

Please forgive me for my late acknowledgment.

Please continue to watch over me, my family and my friends…

The Words We Speak Shape Our Lives

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I have been attending a discussion series put on by Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. We met several years ago in New York City. Originally, I began following the series out of my general interest regarding aspects of Islam, but it ended up serving as something considerably more gratifying.

As many of my close friends and family are aware, I suffered a stroke during mid 2009. This was followed by a case of severe depression. It was a time in my life when I yielded to pessimistic thinking. It was truly unfortunate. One negative occurrence seemed to be followed by others. It caused me to doubt what I was capable of and almost cost me my life. Today, I can look back on those events as being “mere footnotes” in the broader scheme of things. I am sure there is a master plan, Allah-u-Alim (God knows best)!

This discussion series, where we would review various chapters of Abdulhameed’s book, The Quran and The Life of Excellence, has in many ways, been extremely therapeutic regarding my stroke after-effects as well as providing anti-depression remedies.

For example, while the results of my stroke left very little apparent physical damage, I noticed that I had developed difficulties trying to read aloud as my eyes raced across a page. Sultan remarked one day that he thought “I read at an easy to follow pace!” This later encouraged me to gain better control of my “mind-eye coordination.” Now a chore I once dreaded, no longer seems like a burden. I am actually beginning to enjoy it.

A chapter I recently read was entitled, The Words We Speak Shape Our Lives. I have never really given this much thought before. If we think of ourselves as having a “divine spirit” within each of us, the challenge we face is to channel that essence to make our lives better.

When I stop to think about my development from “cradle to present,” the impact of words is obvious. At first, as an infant, I could only utter sounds. As I grew, I learned words from parents, relatives and other sources. In time these words helped form my personality. Please think about this whenever you encounter an adult interacting with a child…

It can be said that these words compose the dictionary of our lives. “Everything that you believe is possible, or not possible, is contained in the words you have heard.”

I have had interactions with “downers” or “negative speaking” people in the past. These are people who habitually find only bad things to say. In some cases, I actually think it is a symptom of an illness. They tend to stress unhappy events, disease and the envy of others. The world appears to be a disappointing place to them. Those relationships were detrimental to my well-being. It has taken me years to recover and the process continues.

Today, I try to associate with people who are supportive of my efforts. They usually project positivity in their language and their actions. Their conversation conveys optimism, encouragement, confidence, happiness and gratitude. They give the impression that life is good and becoming better.

“God does not change a person’s condition until they make changes in themselves.”

When I think about all I have been through, I still feel the best is yet to come. The positive, reinforcing statements I heard as a child still resonate within me!

My family continues to grow. I am a grandfather. My circle of close friends continues to expand. There is so much to be grateful for.

“God is truly nurturing and most compassionate!”

Preparing for Ramadhan 2015…

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As the month of Ramadhan rapidly approaches this year (approximately June 18th- July 16th 2015), I have decided to share some of my thoughts on this blessed event. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia the daily duration will be about 15 hours per day, about 17 hours in Beijing, China, around 16 hours in New York City and around 13 hours in Jakarta, Indonesia. Current estimates of the world Muslim population are close to 1.5 billion people. In short, quite a few people will be performing some type of Ramadhan activity during this time period.

I shall preface my remarks by saying that my thoughts have been greatly inspired by Sultan Abdulhameed. He runs sessions entitled “The Quran Discussion Group,“ in New York. We examine and give our personal interpretations of what particular Surahs and Ayats mean to us. It is particularly mind expanding. We are encouraged to share our personal insights. While not widely followed in much of Muslim society, the approach does seem to be gathering traction. It has reinforced my faith and I always leave these discussions with an improved understanding of the role I can play in making for a better world.

I met Sultan about five years ago, when I was trying to recover from a low point in my life. He had just authored a book, The Quran and the Life of Excellence. I later read it and am continually transformed by its contents to this day.

Ramadhan commemorates the time when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) about 1400 years ago. It is considered a time to work on one’s Taqwa or self restraint, to be consciously aware in the worship of God (SWT) and attain nearness to Him and in so doing, seek to become more pious.

I have always used this event as a time to refocus my energies on the discipline (or lack there of) that has brought me this far on my journey. There have been good times as well as bad times. God (SWT) is praised for all of them! There were lessons to be taught and absorbed. I continue to cope and learn.

God (SWT) is the best teacher!

Ramadhan is the time when I especially try to work on my transformation process. Self-evaluating people learn to set goals for the future and map out a strategy for achieving them. “It is possible for everyone to move towards the life they want by making systematic changes month by month and year by year. A happy life is a balanced life and we can aim to succeed in all its aspects. Everyone’s life is different but some areas are important to most people”:

– Spiritual growth
– Happiness in personal relationships
– Quality of your health
– Financial freedom
– Professional success

 

Spiritual Growth

For some Muslims, prayer can be an empty ritual. One’s mind can get easily distracted. In many cases, people may be speaking words that they do not fully understand. How is this supposed to help transform anyone?

While English is my native language, my prayers are in Arabic and English. It takes a little extra effort but after 40 some odd years of reciting, my understanding is enhanced and my gesture is sincere.

The five disciplines in fasting, which Muslims try to work on during Ramadhan, are:

– Abstaining from food during daylight hours
– Abstaining from drink during daylight hours
– Abstaining from sexual activity during daylight hours
– Waking before dawn
– Self-evaluation or reflection

Admittedly, some of these disciplines are easier to adhere to than others, but think about it, none of these are really that life threatening for most people. This is about more than simply depriving oneself of the things that may give us pleasure or fulfillment. It has been said that the straight path leads directly to God (SWT). This in turn makes it less likely that one will succumb to assorted compulsive avoidances and addictions and will increase the likelihood that one will act wisely, ethically and humanely. We must not yield to the potential irritability, which may occur.

Fasting is a powerful method of learning to be patient in adversity. I tend to view it as attempt to gain better control over one’s nafs or ego. It is about trying to develop a softer heart and feeling compassion for those less fortunate. I recall a gentleman I met once from Syria. His “always cheerful” demeanor particularly struck me. He said that, “Ramadhan was like Christmas to Muslims!” He would smile and place holiday lights in his windows during that time of the year.

 

Happiness in Relationships

Have you ever had everything you could hope for and still felt something was missing? This was I in 2009. I thought I was a good person. I was in fairly good shape. I ate right. I was regularly mistaken for someone about ten years younger. I was very kind to my staff. I was generous in monetary contributions. My family life was not what I had expected it to be. I was in the process of changing it.

One day, while rising from my morning prayer, I became dizzy and passed out. I waited four days before seeking medical attention. I was later diagnosed with a stroke! My speech was slurred, my coordination skills were a bit off but I was lucky. I was told that the results could have been much worse had I not taken good care of my physical health. But matters did in fact continue to deteriorate. I was involved in a nasty divorce at the time. My mental health began to suffer. This jolly, happy go lucky fellow developed severe depression! It was a time when I could see nothing good happening out of my current situation. I could not sleep. All of my thoughts became very grim. It was as if all of my fighting spirit had been sapped from my body. I lost all sense of hope and things did eventually get progressively worse. There were points when I actually considered suicide. I was in this state for a year before I was determined to get help.

I was later treated for a serotonin deficiency and encouraged to attend therapy sessions for the depression. Finally, I had a scientific answer for what was affecting my moods. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter or hormone, which affects how you feel from a biochemical point of view. In its absence or lack of, you can experience loneliness and depression. Most antidepressants focus on the enhanced production of serotonin.

This was the beginning of a turning point in my life. It was at this time that I developed a greater sense of compassion for my fellow man and woman. Imagine a room full of people that were all more or less suffering from some form or type of depression. There was a New York City police officer, a Hasidic Jew, assorted people with chemical drug dependencies; adolescents with self inflicted cutting tendencies, abused housewives and me. We all shared our stories and our plights. All of a sudden my particular problems seemed less important. I listened to the stories of these individuals and wished there was something I could do for them but I was basically in the same boat.

I was able to survive this episode based in large part based on the acknowledgement of goodwill and support received from close friends, my children and other family members. I began to realize the importance of my role in other people’s lives. There is a verse in the Quran, which says, “God (SWT) does not burden a soul beyond its capacity (2:286)”and a similar Biblical verse, “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).” The fact that I was able to endure these things has only strengthened my belief in God (SWT) and the trials and tests He may put us through. They are all there to make us stronger.

One night while offering my prayers, I asked God (SWT) for aid in finding that special mate, someone “to love forever and always, here on Earth and in Jannah.” Years later, after a worldwide search, much patience and perseverance, I finally came across that special person, my “better-half.” Today my mind is sharp again. My spirit soars and I am truly grateful to God (SWT) for all that has happened. Alhamdulillah! (Praise God!)

 

Quality of Health

Ramadhan is the perfect time to start to get our health in order. An office assistant that once worked for me used say that “deprivation builds character.” She was referring to her approach to child-raising but the statement holds much merit beyond its original use.

Research has shown that the mental focus achieved during Ramadhan increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which cause the body to produce more brain cells, thus improving brain function. Furthermore, a distinct reduction in the amount of the hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland means that stress levels are greatly reduced both during and after Ramadhan.

I can think of no better a time to try and rid oneself of poor habits than Ramadhan. Many of the vices like smoking and sugary foods should be avoided or restricted during this time. As you abstain from them your body will gradually acclimate itself to their absence, until your addiction is kicked for good.

The reduction of food eaten throughout the Ramadhan period causes the stomach to gradually contract, meaning that you will have to consume less food before feeling full. By not eating during daylight hours you will also find that your metabolism becomes more efficient, meaning the amount of nutrients absorbed for your food improves. This is because on an increase in a hormone called adiponectin, which is produced by the combination of fasting and eating late at night. It allows your muscles to absorb more nutrients. If you want to get in the habit of healthy eating, Ramadhan is the perfect time to start.

I try to follow these suggestions in addition to pursuing a regular exercise routine. Ramadhan is not a time to become lax or lazy!

 

Financial Freedom

We live in a society where money and finance play an important role in determining the conditions of people’s well-being. In many instances, it can lead to increased stress. Differences in the approach to handling finances often lead to marital discord. Following simple rules related to budgeting and investing a part of your income to help create future security can alleviate some of these problems. Establishing a plan to take advantage of investment opportunities should be a part of your strategy to build wealth. Finally, being charitably generous may also help multiply your wealth. “You can thrive by regularly giving away a portion of your income to worthwhile causes. The Quran mandates 2.5% or more.”

Once you realize how easy it is to identify the sources of routine frivolous expenditures and begin to reduce them, it will be that much easier to work towards achieving your financial goals.

 

Professional Success

A lot of people are unhappy with the jobs they hold. This could be due to unclear choices made earlier in life. It could have been due to jobs taken out of necessity rather than choice. In either event, if you are not happy, develop a plan to change your situation.

As circumstances may change, some professions may disappear and others may thrive. You can take action by planning to change your conditions. There are books that you can read, workshops that you can attend and there is the Internet. Only those who pro-actively plan their careers continue to do well in changing circumstances.

Over the years, I have tended to view my work as love in action. I have a passion for what I do. I have been blessed with having benefited from a good education and have applied the skills learned in successfully having chosen a fairly good career. My thought process has changed. The challenge is in being motivated not by external rewards so much as by self-expression and service to humanity.

 

A Time to Recalibrate One’s GPS!

In summing up what Ramadhan means to me, it is a time of self-assessment, a time to check your GPS to determine if you have strayed too far off course and still have time to correct it. Some may view it as just another ritual, but it is far more than that. It is spiritual. It is scientific. It is beneficial to your health. It can provide a time in planning to improve one’s life and hopefully also move closer to God (SWT). As cited earlier: God (SWT) is the best teacher! (Allah-u-Alim!)

 

Sources of Inspiration

  1. Abdulhameed, Sultan. The Quran and the Life of Excellence. N.p: Outskirts, 2010. Print
  2. ‘Abd al-Haqq via Sufis Without Borders Yahoo Group
  3. “Finding “my Better Half,” the Other Half of My Deen…”This Is My Beloved. FencingPoet, 2 Dec. 2014. Web.
  4. “7 Surprising Health Benefits of Ramadan.”Realbuzz 4. N.p., 20 July 2012. Web.
  5. Bolt, Laurence G. Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design. Penguin Group, 1999. Print