Praying with focused attention and concentration has always been a persistent and demoralizing struggle. We all understand the importance of concentration in prayer. To pray with a focused consciousness on what we recite and the awesomeness of standing before Allah is the ultimate goal. How to achieve that state, however, has always eluded me. The many khutbahs that counsel us to pray with khushu‘ and not a single one talks about how to get there! You start prayer and think, “I need to pray with khushu‘.” Then “but how do I get there…get there? How would I even know that I’m there?!” “Oh yeah, khushu‘…ok, again, concentrate!” The more I tried, the more it escaped my grasp. Eventually, I find myself “thinking” a lot about khushu‘ but never quite feeling/experiencing it. Then, a couple of years ago, I attended a Buddhist meditation circle and it all started making a lot more sense. Not quite what I expected attending that circle, but Allah has a beautiful way of leading us down unexpected paths.
Our first session, my (not-then) husband and I walked into a small room. We pulled some floor cushions and joined others in the circle. Before we began the light was dimmed and I immediately noticed the silence and calm descend in the room. Our lives are so inundated with bright lights and constant noise that we do not notice the light – and sound – pollution that crowds our minds. It is not until we are ready to sleep that we switch everything off; a slowing down of the mind and body that is associated with sleep. It had never quite struck me before that slowing down the processes of the brain is greatly facilitated by silence and dimmed lights; such a small measure and such calming effects.
Before we began, the meditation leader gave brief instructions for those of us attending for the first time: “find a spot on your body, the tip of your fingers or the tip of your nose and focus on it…if you find your mind wandering, return to this spot to focus yourself.” That’s helpful…but what to do with the thoughts?? “Just notice them, observe them and let them pass…don’t focus on them, don’t get engrossed in them.” Perfect! Now to begin meditation…find the spot, tip of my nose seems good enough…focus! The next fifteen minutes were spent in an agonizing effort to focus and re-focus. I would get lost in my thoughts without even realizing it and only catch myself after the stress induced by my thoughts would kick in: “oh my God, so much work to do…I need to go to the library right after this…no food in the house…final papers due in 2 months!!!” I finally heard the dong and the meditation session ended. Phew! This meditation business is hard. Why is everything that is good for you so hard??
I left frustrated that first week. Damned brain! There’s no end to the thoughts! Over the course of the week I contemplated often on my “meditation.” I felt less defeated knowing that there was a method to controlling my thoughts and all I had to do was practice. We started by sitting in meditations for brief moments and I practiced holding my concentration for a minute at a time. Pretty quickly I was able to focus for a minute or two at a time; now I just had to increase my stamina!
Returning to meditation the next week, the circle leader repeated the same instructions. This time I found myself able to focus longer. I felt myself, for brief moments, sinking into a deeper state. In and out of focus…watch the thoughts, let them pass, like a powerpoint slide of the thoughts in my head! As I sat in meditation, having lost focus, consumed by my thoughts, it struck me suddenly: this is how to achieve khushu‘! I need to practice focusing and train myself to disengage from my thoughts. We are so in the habit of always listening to the chirpings of our minds that we don’t know how to switch it off. I also learnt that my years of obsessively focusing on focusing was a distraction of its own!
And so, that day, I decided to try my newly acquired Buddhist meditation skills in prayer. I realized that that my stamina had not yet reached the stage where I could concentrate for a 5-10minute period, so I decided to set a small, achievable goal: one rakat. As I stood on the jai namaz (prayer mat) I decided on the spot to which I could return to re-focus and reminded myself to let the thoughts roll. Allahu Akbar. I took a brief moment to empty my mind and focus before beginning. I felt my body calm down as the name of Allah came upon my tongue. As I came up from sajda I was overwhelmed by the intensity of a prayer that was not plagued by the thoughts in my mind. For a short period of time I felt like my prayer had taken me away from this world. Losing focus felt more like a “return” than a “loss.”
Khushu‘ in prayer, I learnt, is not about some miraculous “getting there.” The meditation skills taught me what no khutbah or book was ever able to convey before: focusing in prayer is about habit-formation. It’s about our minds learning a new skill of being able stop, being able to leave behind the preoccupations of this world (our never-ending thoughts). If we can learn this skill, then for brief moments the life of this world ceases to consume us and we are able to let go of our thoughts. Zoning out in this way allows us to enter into another state of connection and intimacy with Allah…a state in which you pray as though you are in Allah’s presence. It all begins, however, with mundane and basic skill formation: focus on the spot…let your thoughts pass you by, notice them, acknowledge them, but don’t engage them.
Most importantly focusing in prayer is a process. Once I had learnt how to focus, I needed time to build my stamina to be able to concentrate for sustained periods. My brain was learning a new skill and it needed time to get a hang of it. Initially I only attempted focusing a rakat at a time, however, as I continued practicing the skills of focusing and zoning out, I found myself being able to do so for the entire prayer.
Of course, I still struggle to pray with focus and concentration. Falling into a state of meditation is not easy. It still requires effort on my part, mostly because I do not practice the skills as often as I should. But it has made a big difference. I no longer feel defeated by my thoughts and sometimes I find myself able to get into that state, though it doesn’t last too long. Those few moments, however, are pure ecstasy. Prayer becomes not just worship or obligation but intimate conversation. I feel lifted from the mundaneness of existence, embraced in Divine presence. They are fleeting moments, blessings from Allah. But, like all things of this world, they are ephemeral, and go as quickly as they come.