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Some years ago, I was at a gathering and a friend of mine was telling us that she’d recently taken up yoga. She was telling us about the different benefits she gets from practicing yoga; things like focus, relaxation, rejuvenation, and so on. Then she mentioned something along the lines of ‘we’re supposed to get all that from salah but I don’t so I found this as a good alternative’. She wasn’t implying that she would stop praying, but more that she had lost hope in finding personal benefit beyond whatever salah was already giving her. I remember feeling sad but also at a loss for what to say. I also wanted all those things she found in yoga, and wasn’t finding them in my prayer.
The fact of the matter is that many of us, when we pray, feel nothing. This is despite the fact that we may have been praying for years, being diligent in our timeliness, and even trying to add extra prayers to our day. Prayer becomes burdensome and loathsome: something to fit into your schedule out of obligation rather than pleasure. How can it be that so much practice has yielded so little progress?
Upon reflection, what my friend said provided me with immense guidance. Yoga is a ‘practice’ and, like so many other physical fitness endeavors, requires building of stamina over time to achieve noticeable progress. Being able to lift 300 pounds doesn’t happen the first day you go to the gym. It doesn’t happen the tenth or even the fiftieth time either. The same applies to running many miles or doing amazing backbends. To be able to see results physically, intentional practice is necessary . This means maintaining a regular regiment of practice. Not only that, but you also need to watch what you eat, research methods of progressing, refine your form constantly, consider taking supplements, and so on. The diligence necessary to achieve a physical fitness goal is not just at the gym, it’s beyond that and can take over your life. The more you want to achieve, the more committed you need to be.
I can’t say I’ve applied the same attitude to my salah. Mostly I’ve done the physical equivalent of showing up to the gym on time for class. Salah isn’t a beginner spiritual act. It’s heavy lifting. You are asking your body, mind, and heart to simultaneously align in lifting up your soul so that it can seek out the Creator. It’s not reasonable to expect that I can show up to prayer, without any prior work, and expect immediate connection. I spend much of my time outside of prayer enlarging all the parts of me that need quieting in salah. Even if I am able to achieve this quieting, my soul itself doesn’t seem to have any stamina to stay connected to Allah throughout the prayer.
But, let’s push this idea further. Physical fitness isn’t achieved best through intense workouts at the gym. Our modern lifestyle has duped many of us into thinking that a compartmentalized system of living is ideal. We have a time for working, a time for exercising, a time for family, and so on. What’s more conducive to growth however, is infusing all parts of our day with all the parts of our development. Instead of spending an hour at the gym working on flexibility, we can spend 5 minutes here and there sitting on the floor with our children and playing a game. This allows for more constant physical activity to be incorporated into our day (which is better for our health) while also developing our relationship with our families. The more physically active we are throughout our day, the better our physical fitness will be and the more we can handle that moment when we have to lift something heavy or do hours of garden work.
Even more, compartmentalization isn’t just counterproductive, it’s an illusion.Consider how much time you spend using your phone, or even watching a movie. You tell yourself that this is ‘me time’ that you need to reset and then it’s done. But the fact of the matter is that whatever you did on your phone stays with you afterwards. You think about the characters in a film or the article you read. Later you talk about these things with friends, and go back and look for similar information to expand your ideas. Our lives are not meant to be cut up into distinct parts. Turn that concept on itself and make your worship the thread that travels throughout your days, not entertainment, work, or whatever else overwhelms your thoughts currently.
Allah ﷻ tells us in the Quran (translated here): I did not create jinn or humankind except to worship me (51:56). We often pay lip service to the idea that all our actions should be a form of worship. Our work, our eating, our sleeping, etc are all meant to be for Allah swt. But, if we really are intending them as worship, each of the actions we do is supposed to feel spiritual. When we go to pray, this should be an elevated and more intense version of what we are already doing throughout our day. If we are not doing the work of building our spirituality throughout our day, then we can’t go to prayer and expect suddenly that worship will lift us up.
To have elevated salah experiences, you need to engage your physical, emotional, and mental capacities to tuning themselves to Allah. You need to build your spiritual stamina so that when that moment comes in salah where you need to be present with Allah, the soul isn’t unfamiliar with turning to Allah. The following are some things we can do to better prepare for ‘feeling’ salah.
Thikr: There is a remembrance of Allah recorded on behalf of the Prophet ﷺ for almost every action of the day. To make yourself feel connected to Allah, remind yourself of Him. Begin in His Name, eat in His Name, speak in His Name, and so forth. This allows you to connect your physical activities to Allah and doing ‘something’ becomes worship more easily.
Duaa: The Prophet ﷺ taught us that duaa is the essence of worship. Duaa is taking time to talk to Allah, asking Him for your needs, and unloading your worries. When we are in prayer, the work we have done during duaa helps us feel emotionally tied in to the prayer. If you spend time asking Him for your needs, you won’t be able to just halfheartedly tune into your conversation with Him.
Tadabur: Tadabur is taking time to ponder about Allah. It’s stopping and taking the time to notice creation all around us and connect what we see with our knowledge of Him. Whether you live in a concrete jungle or the countryside, there is so much to witness and ponder around you. Instead of skimming headlines or watching videos, take some spare time to just think about Allah and connect your mind to Him.
The Prophet ﷺ once asked his companions whether a person would remain unclean if he bathed daily 5 times in a river right outside his home. Of course not, they responded. He then told them that that is how prayer works to cleanse us. For many of us, we are showing up to the river. Let’s do the work and learn be able to wash ourselves when we get there.