It is clear that there is a growing trend of mindfulness extending beyond spiritual communities and into mainstream culture. How do we understand mindfulness from within the Islamic tradition? Is there a place for it in Islam? Is there an Islamic version of mindfulness?
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At first when you hear this term "mindful" you think 'full of mind'. The last thing we need is to be more in our minds. We're already so locked into this thinking consciousness where we define ourselves by our thoughts. You could think "well, I don't want to be 'full of mind' I'm already stuck in my thoughts." But really mindfulness is about being conscious. It's about slowing down. It's a contemplative way of being. It's not really about being more connected to thoughts in the sense of identifying with the mind. It's not necessarily about thinking, but meta-thinking: thinking about thinking. It's slowing down and being conscious of what you think and what you do. The core of mindfulness is about being present. And this concept of being present is absolutely an Islamic principle. It's something that we find in the Islamic tradition and is a key factor in everything from ibadah (worship) to akhlaq (manners). Presence is indeed a very islamic principle.
However, this term mindfulness can tend to shift our awareness from the reality of the self, which is a much more holistic picture than what we have come to conceive of as ourselves in contemporary times. To a certain extent the entire modern world has been influenced by the Cartesian assertion, "I think therefore I am". It's taken root in society where people over identify with their thoughts. So that people's entire notion of self is about what and how they think and everything related to the self is based in the mind. And this in particular is really not an Islamic concept.
Within Islam there is a notion of the self that is much more holistic, it includes the whole being, of which cognition is just one aspect. This thinking or "intellecting" is not secluded to the mind. In the Qur'an it says "do they not have hearts with which they perceive?" (Qur'an 22:46). The Arabic word used is yaqiluna which is an active form of "minding", "intellecting" or "understanding"... with the heart, not with the mind. This concept of the mind being located in the brain is not necessarily one that is shared by the majority of scholars within the Islamic tradition. From an Islamic perspective being "full of mind", is not just being aware of thoughts but having the minding, the "intellecting", understanding or awareness happening throughout the whole self, not just what we have perceived of as the mind being located in the brain. The concept of aql in the Islamic tradition is not the same as cognition as understood in the West, as a function of the brain. Yaqiluna is a process of actively intellecting and is conceived of as not being located in any one aspect of the self because Islam recognizes the self as one integral being- one whole. So you could even conceive of there being an aql of nafs, an aql of the ruh, an aql of the body even. We're told that our limbs on the Day of Judgement will speak to what we did with them (Qur'an 36:65). So there is this notion of there actually being a consciousness within our entire being.
It's important that we recognize this distinction and that we see our consciousness as not limited to the mind, that it's throughout the whole being. So therefore it's helpful to make an effort to stay away from this concept of mindfulness. Really what that would be in an Islamic context, mindfulness, would be being "full of mind" in that your entire being is full of consciousness. This consciousness is something that you can tap into in an experiential way of being present. So the more present you are in your being, the more conscious awareness you will have. And from an Islamic perspective, of the experience of the human as an integral being, if there is a center of this being it is the heart, not the mind per se as we incorrectly conceive of as being located entirely in the brain.
So perhaps, from an Islamic perspective it would be better to use the term heartfulness rather than mindfulness. Of course this can be just a matter of semantics, however, this may key us into what we should be focusing on: having this conscious awareness that is located in the center of our being, which is in the heart. And so being heartful is being full of awareness from the center of our self. And it's not just about self awareness. The goal in Islamic heartfulness should not end at just awareness of the self. Because the self, in the way we often conceive of it, is this construct of who we think we are. and it's not necessarily the core of our fitrah, of our true self, or soul, that exists underneath our perception of our self that we project to the world as our self.
The key of why we would want to have self awareness is only as a vehicle of opening up to a broader conscious awareness that leads to an awareness of God. So the self awareness is a doorway to witnessing God. Therefore the goal of Islamic heartfulness is the witnessing of God. The object of Islamic contemplation is this witnessing, and it's about going beyond the self. In order to go beyond the self you have to reflect on the self and be with what is in your consciousness. Paying attention and being mindful or heartful, or consciously aware of your being, of your self. This can start with being aware of your thoughts, but then should lead to being aware of your body, being aware of the sensations that exist in your body, being aware of what is the emotional content in your heart, and trying to, on a subtle level, perceive from this deeper part of your self. The more you go into these deeper levels of awareness, of real awareness of your true self, its as if you're peeling away the layers of the onion to get to this deeper witnessing of tawhid (Oneness). It's as if in order to access that tawhid, and this witnessing of it, is through the experience of the separateness of the self, or self individuation. But we have to be careful not to stop with that self. Not just only being aware of our separate self or our individual self, because this essentially becomes a veil to witnessing God. The key to really accessing and "seeing" God truly, and worshipping God truly, is by reflecting on the self so that you can get beyond that separation and separateness. Within the path of Islam, this self reflection is used only as a tool to get closer to God.