The Choice of Change: Practical Steps for Self-Transformation (Part 1 of 2)

The Choice of Change. Practical Steps for Self-Transformation (Part 1 of 2)

EARTHLY LIFE BURDENS people. Yet there is an argument to make that the weight of the world now presses even heavier upon us than it did our predecessors. Natural and man-made political and social disasters abound. Their effect on mind, body, and spirit can be overwhelming. By the millions we now seek out counseling in search of relief from anxiety, depression, or addiction—often for all three. At the base of most maladaptive behaviors is a single, urgent desire: To escape the world’s intensity and one’s own life challenges.

We are ‘Mukallaf’As Muslims, we know and accept that the life of this world is an ongoing test, and how we respond to its travails either makes the heart pure and sound or corrupts and hardens it. Yet how many of us fail to realize that the things that determine the suppleness of the heart are not just the outward religious duties, such as salah and fasting, but also the myriad details of one’s everyday regimen of living. At any given moment, we are, in fact, choosing to purify –or harden– our hearts. Such is the trust conferred upon the human creature, for he accepted the divine amânah of volitional faith and will and the burdens of obligation and accountability –as well as the risk of Hellfire that comes with this– when other creations refused the trust (Sûrat Al-Sajdah, 32:13, Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:72). We are each one of us, as the scholars say, mukallaf, burdened with the obligation to choose right action and divinely accountable for the choices we make. Thus each time we practice, for example, empathic listening with spouse or child, or friend or co-worker, we are choosing. Each time we refuse to indulge in negative and self-defeating thoughts, we are choosing. Each time we act out in anger, pray mechanically and without focus, allow resentment to build, reprimand our child with hostility, we are, likewise, choosing.

Purity or corruption. Purity or corruption. Purity or corruption. On and on our choices tally.

Yet some say: “I feel like I don’t have the strength or the will to choose.” Or: “If it were a simple matter to choose a smaller portion so as to control my blood sugar and not have to use medication or inject myself with insulin, I would do it. My problem is that I can’t control myself.” The issue of self-control or self-restraint is a crucial one. Consider the following verse:

And do you realize what is the steep road? It is the freeing of a human being from bondage, or offering food on a day of starvation to an orphan who is a relative, or to an indigent person who is down in the dust—all the while, being of those who believe—and who exhort one another to [persevere in faith with] patience, and who exhort one another to mercifulness. [Sûrat Al-Balad, 90:12-17]

In this verse, “freeing the human being from bondage” is literally in Arabic “freeing a neck.” This phrase holds the general meaning of liberating a human being from any sort of bondage. Bondage, by extension, can be any type of servitude or captivity. One can be captive to addiction, to any sort of self-destructive habit, to ignorance, to poverty, and so on. To “free a neck” of another human being is thus to help him when he is in need, protect him from harm, contribute to his healing, or to intervene on his behalf in any other benevolent endeavor. So in accordance with this verse, we can say that beyond the core level of belief the steep path entails three obligations:

  1. ENSURING SOCIAL JUSTICE:

Represented in the verse as feeding the needy.

  1. ENGAGING IN THE PRACTICE OF SELF-MASTERY:

Represented as promoting and practicing ‘ṣabr,’ or patience and perseverance.

  1. CULTIVATING THE QUALITY OF MERCY:

Represented as promoting and practicing loving-kindness and compassion.

In this short verse, Allah reminds us of the foundational place of belief in our lives, of the duty of helping others, and of actively working to bring about justice and mercy. Yet at the pivot of all of this resides the quest for self-mastery.

This brings to mind the teaching story of the old man sitting with two friends at a coffee shop. One asked him what he considered the most important thing he had learned in his long life. He answered:

As a young man, I was self-assured, full of enthusiasm, and used to pray to God to help me change the world. Then when I became 40, I realized that my life was already half over, and I was honest enough with myself to admit that I had influenced no one and changed nothing. So I prayed to God to help me change the people closest to me, all of whom had many imperfections and harmful habits. Still no one listened to me, and my relationships became even more difficult. Now I’m an old man and my prayer is simple indeed. I ask God to give me the strength and determination to change myself.

The Gauntlet of Life

This anecdote, of course, sums up life’s central question. How to change ourselves? Two of the most popular and effective types of counseling or therapy that are used to help a person address issues such as anxiety, depression, phobias, and so on, are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). These therapy approaches propose that it is the belief we hold about an event rather than the event itself that causes us to become depressed, anxious, angry, and so forth. For example, a child misbehaves because of some normal factor such as fatigue or childish selfishness, but the parent thinks: “How dare he behave that way in front of me, his father!” The father’s dismay impels him to scream at the child and spank him. It is not really the child’s behavior that has triggered the father’s dismay, but rather the father’s belief about the behavior and what he thinks should be considered proper respect for a father.

Studies using CBT and REBT have examined the most effective techniques or mechanisms of change. What they show is that keeping thought records to observe and challenge automatic negative, irrational, or fallacious thoughts and beliefs are very effective. They provide an individual with greater clarity to better put things in perspective and to logically examine such thoughts and assess the evidence for or against their validity. But the participants in this study (and more generally people who strive to make a positive change in their lives) had far greater success when they also engaged in “behavior experiments”—an experiment designed to provide an individual with an experience in real life to test out whether a particular thought or belief is valid or true.

For example, consider an individual who believes and has persistent fearful thoughts that if she speaks up in class, everyone will judge her as being stupid. The “experiment” is designed, undertaken, and then the individual evaluates the result. In the case of a female college student who hesitates to participate in class, she and the counselor might design the experiment to be one instance during her next class session when she will volunteer to answer a question asked by the teacher —even if it be a very brief answer like a “yes” or a “no.” In evaluating the experience, she might determine that “none of the students even looked at me. It was like the flow of the class just continued without break…I didn’t get the expected ‘some kind of disaster.’ It felt great!”

In these studies, the behavior experiments extended the change-producing experience from being primarily intellectual, in the head, to a deeper level, that of “sensefelt,” which was more globally convincing. In other words, the behavior experiment involved not just the intellect, but also feelings, the gut-level experience of greater confidence, or that “something just felt right.”

These behavior experiments are successful because they go beyond the solely rational. The student might say to herself: “Don’t’ be silly. Of course you’re not stupid.” And she knows intellectually that the other students don’t perceive her as stupid. But that rational awareness, although correct, is not sufficient to shift her physical and emotional experience of doubting herself and lacking the confidence to speak out.

Similarly, when an individual practices feeling gratitude or appreciation for the good things in his life in order to self-generate a regular and healthy heart rhythm (referred to as “heart rhythm coherence”), he is instructed to recall a past positive memory that elicits warm, pleasant feelings. Over time and with practice, most are able to self-generate feelings of gratitude or appreciation through this biofeedback training without reference to the originative memory. Note what we said above, that the memory must elicit a “feeling” that is warm and pleasant. This is the mainspring. Dr. Rollin McCraty, director of research for the Institute of HeartMath, [1]  says:

It’s important to emphasize that it is not a mental image of a memory that creates a shift in our heart rhythm, but rather the emotions associated with the memory. Mental images alone usually do not produce the same significant results that we’ve observed when someone focuses on a positive feeling.

The Quran verifies this observation:

[God] guides to Himself whomever turns [to Him] in penitence. These are the ones who [truly] believe and whose hearts grow calm [with assurance] at the remembrance of God. Most assuredly, it is by the remembrance of God that hearts grow calm. [Sûrat Al-Ra¢d, 13:27-28]

Here, the emotional event of repentance, and specifically the uttered recollection of Allah as the Accepter of Repentance suffuses the heart with tranquility.

The common sense approach to understanding ourselves as thinking, feeling beings obligates us to see both brain and heart as essential in any attempts to change ourselves for the better…which brings us back to the central challenge of life—how to change ourselves. Have you ever tried to lose weight, be more patient, or stop yelling at your kids? These and countless other attempts to improve the quality of our daily lives often come up against a brick wall.

We try and try again, over and over—new diet, greater determination to avoid feeling in a hurry at a slow checkout line at the store, wanting so much to find ways that work better and don’t leave us feeling guilty about how we deal with our children when they are loud and annoying but just being kids. What keeps us from being able to change negative behavior patterns when we know that they are making us miserable and compromising our efforts to purify our hearts and souls?

Reading, Talking, Dreaming…But No Action

Some people who desire to change something in their behavior, character, or daily habits of living spend considerable time reading books, attending seminars, and looking for insight from self-help sources of information. They consume endless amounts of information and knowledge and still do not experience any genuine change. Vernon Howard, author and teacher, says of this dilemma:

Many of us knock on the door but remain outside, because knocking and entering are entirely different actions. Knocking is necessary, consisting of reading books, attending meetings, asking questions. But entrance requires much bolder action. It requires one to enter into himself, to uncover (his own) hidden motives, to see (his own) contradictions, and to realize his actual power for self-change.

There is a relevant story (perhaps apocryphal) in our literature attributed to various scholars but commonly to Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (d. 505 h/1111 c.e.). He used to travel from village to village, his donkey loaded with the books he proudly collected –evidence, so he thought, of his vast knowledge. One day, robbers accosted him and stole his donkey and all his books. He was grateful they had spared his life but begged the chief brigand to return to him his books. The chief asked him why he needed them. Al-Ghazali responded that they contained his knowledge, to which the astute robber replied: “If, when I take your books, I steal your knowledge, then truly you possess no knowledge at all.” Al-Ghazali realized that he had never taken to heart the knowledge in the volumes of books he had carried from village to village. He vowed from that moment forward to acquire only one book and when he had mastered and put into practice the knowledge in that one book, only then would he acquire another. This story illustrates the importance of “taking to heart” and putting into practice the knowledge we acquire.

At Julliard, the world-renowned performing arts conservatory in New York City, the amount of time dedicated to practice is approximately 80 percent of a student’s learning time. Academic learning through lectures accounts for about 5 to 15 percent of the time, and the other 5 to 15 percent is devoted to “decision training,” such as improvisational skill and ability in music performance. Think about that—80 percent of the student’s time dedicated to practice! Yet there are too many people who say: “I want to lose weight –or be more patient, or stop yelling at my kids”— but they go no further than reading material related to their goal, thinking about it, dwelling on it, dreaming about it, engaging in endless mental chatter about it—but who take no action. Prophet Muhammad œ used to seek refuge in Allah from this:

O Allah! I seek refuge in You from useless knowledge. (Ibn Mâjah)

A part of useless knowledge is knowledge of the intellect and the tongue, knowledge that is not taken to heart and acted upon.

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…


Leslie Schaffer and Kamal Shaarawy provide counseling for individuals, couples, and families. More information is available at LivingEman.com. They also have a matching website, SalaamHearts.com. Contact info: leslie@salaamhearts.com; kamal@salaamhearts.com.

[1]    http://www.heartmath.com/institute-of-heartmath/

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."

18 Comments

Leave a Reply