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The Interplay of Formal and Informal Spirituality

Formal religious rituals are meant to discipline the soul, body and mind. They are not rites into which we move blindly. Regular meditation or spiritual exercises are meant to purify the heart and the soul. The heart is the nexus of the spiritual light that comes from the Maker and the universe.

Once the heart is purged of negative and toxic emotions as well as base desires, greed, vengeance and overweening pride and possessiveness, then the vacuum becomes filled with love, understanding, tolerance and faith. When darkness is dispelled, light comes in and things appear to us from a new perspective. We realize the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things in the universe.

Then conscious actions mimic the unconscious obedience of everything to natural laws from the flow of blood in the body to the geometry of time and space. Since man is given free will, he should consciously follow the dictates of the Almighty in a display of obedience just as the natural world is unconsciously bound to follow the pattern laid down by the Almighty. This obedience is immanent in all universal forms of existence. Except for slight aberrations, the whole universe is ordained by the Maker to follow natural laws and conform to an intelligent design. We are free, but we should choose to be unfree, as far as our obedience to Almighty Allah is concerned.

If our actions are shorn of the vestiges of humanity and goodness, then it is clear that our formal spirituality in prayer is devoid of the true spirit. We are conscious of the Almighty when we stand in prayer, and in the same way, we should be conscious in our everyday actions that the Maker is watching our every move and it is being recorded

Formal prayer is only five times a day but the efficacy of the prayer should be registered in the in-between timings and its glow should pervade our activities for the rest of the day. This is, in fact, establishing prayer. Just as a flower blooms in one place, but its perfume is wafted by the breeze everywhere, in the same way, the open and hidden effects of prayer should inform all our actions and reinvigorate our relationships with family, friends and society at large. This behaviour outside of formal prayer is informal spirituality.

If our actions are shorn of the vestiges of humanity and goodness, then it is clear that our formal spirituality in prayer is devoid of the true spirit. We are conscious of the Almighty when we stand in prayer, and in the same way, we should be conscious in our everyday actions that the Maker is watching our every move and it is being recorded. A heightened sense of consciousness in prayer results in a deep sense of accountability and restraint in our actions outside prayer.

When we discipline ourselves to a marked extent, we show our obedience to the Maker and the pattern of the universe fashioned according to natural laws. The acts of free will are not for personal licentiousness but to subjugate our will to the greater good, arriving at inclusivity rather than exclusivity. Exclusivity thrives on creating barriers of class, culture, nation, and ethnicity.

Does not the sunshine on rich and poor, white and black and coloured alike? Does not the rain benefit all plants, animals and human beings? So why does this egotistical and selfish exclusivity make us blind to the needs and feelings of all but our own selves, or at most, our kith and kin?

Some years back, I was working as a journalist in Saudi Arabia. I would meet people from India at some gatherings. Someone would ask “Oh, so you are from Mumbai?”. Then he would ask “Which part of Mumbai?” When he came to know that I had a house in one corner and that he was from another, his interest would flag a little. So, I used to think that if I told him “I stay in the building next to your house”, would his interest in me increase? Or if I told him that I was his long-lost brother, would he be perked up?

This shows the ridiculous extent to which we carry our personal and parochial leanings. We wear our regional and national colours on our sleeves. To what end? To fight and show off our jingoism and superiority in any way we can. But the nearest to the Maker is he who renders his full due and shows pure thanksgiving for the uncountable gifts He showers us with. We feel humbled and beggared by the bounties He bestows on us.

Formal spiritual discipline is for conditioning the heart and the soul to face the obstacle race that is life. Formal spiritual exercises, if done the right way, give meaning to life’s informal moments. When you think of the Almighty, say, several times in a day, formally, then in the intervening period its light is shed and suffuses those hours with radiance. If we do not have such a spiritual undertow, then we are swept away like flotsam and jetsam by every passing wind of whim and fancy.

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