Unveiling the heart from fear
What deters the sufi from attaining closeness to Allah? The ego. The ego presents with veils over the heart in a variety of manners for each person. One veil is that of fear. The dictionary definition of fear is “a distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat”. As sufis we are trying to get close to Allah by purifying our ego/nafs. If our nafs are entrenched with the perception of being threatened, how can we love Allah? This business of loving ourselves and being ruled by our fears is an unnecessary use of time. The human spirit is like a tender pod about to open to the essence of Allah. We can not fully taste this essence through our mind, our emotions, our thoughts, or our status. It’s not that we give up having, or doing, or feeling, it’s that we give up our attachments to them. This giving up of attachments is possible, and the ways in which we do so are limitless.
I would like to share how fear can inhibit one’s spiritual growth toward the Creator and how to shed the attachment of fear on the heart. In order to share this we must understand what fear is. First of all, fear is a construct of the mind. As I once read on a bumper sticker, ‘you don’t always have to believe what you think.’ A thought is just that; a thought. It’s what we do with this thought that makes it appear real. Fear begins in the brain. The area called the amygdala is the place where emotion is derived, the hippocampus triggers the memory of such fear or emotion from a past experience, and the hypothalamus delivers chemicals such as cortisol that triggers fight or flight–which can manifest negatively as a panic attack or instigate physical action in order to survive (i.e. moving out of the way of an oncoming bus). This cascade of effects is based on the memory of that emotion; that emotion of FEAR. So when we are riddled with emotional upset and we are given the advise that it’s all in your head – this is not far from the truth. It starts in the brain and becomes very physical and seemingly real. Yet, if it begins with a thought, couldn’t it be retrained? Responses to emotions such as fear can be heightened due to past traumatic experiences, genetics, or damage to this part of the brain. I believe that emotionally charged responses can be altered not only by changing the thoughts per se but by creating a space for mental hygeine. This hygiene is not just counseling alone, but includes deep practices routed in the connection to the Divine. For the route of all fear is just that: a disconnection to the Divine.
To see that fear is the state of being disconnected to the Divine, it must be truly realized that we are apart of a Whole. This Universe manifests all the elements of the Divine, it’s up to us to see them. We can witness the beautiful aspects of Allah in people; in our spouses/partners, kids, neighbors, friends and even the guy who pumps our gas. When we work on cleansing the heart/purifying the ego we need room to see and experience Truth/God/Divine/Allah in everything, in every moment. This requires and open mind, something that is not fully attainable when charged with fear. It’s when our heart is not polished of the ego’s tricky ways, and we are busy with ourselves; regretting, pondering what we’ve said or done in the past, worrying about our kids, our folks, or the state of the world that keeps us in this place of detachment to Divine and rooted in fear.
In order to shed this attachment of fear, or to stop it before it begins this cascade into a mental, chemical and physical abyss there are spiritual prescriptions to follow, actions to take, and new ways of thinking to adopt. In the practice of Sufism, we begin with Biat and La ilaha Illallah. Biat is the taking of the hand of a Shaykh, and spiritually his Shaykh’s, all the way back to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). This link to the tariqa’s sisla (sufi school’s lineage) is important because all guidance comes through this lineage from Allah to the living Shaykh/a. He/she never works alone. In taking his/her hand we are making a promise, a promise to Allah that everything we will do is for His sake. The Shaykh/Shaykha promises to take us to Allah and we promise to do the work in order to go to Allah. This is done with the understanding that the Shaykh/Shaykha represents the Prophet and acts as a spiritual parent always pointing to Allah and never to him/herself. We in turn, must learn the adab or manners of being in the presence of our Shaykh/Shaykha as they are our door to Allah. Adab alone has much benefit for the sufi’s ascension toward Divine, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The words; La ilaha Illallah; there is no God but Allah is the first zikr a sufi recites. In adopting this phrase, the sufi confirms inwardly that he/she will turn to Allah and away from the ego/nafs. So right from the get go we have a commitment to Allah that means we will do whatever it takes to cleanse our hearts of all that is not Allah. Sufi students are given assignments that are prescriptions for the heart, for what is needed. The Shaykh has walked the path to Allah with guidance and is then given permission from his Shaykh to show others the way. The Shaykh sees the heart of his students better than the student himself. The Shaykh can see fear for what it is in the student, something that the student may never see on his own objectively. Because, remember the fear itself is triggered from a memory or a thought. The relationship between Shaykh and dervish (student) is one of trust, and in this trust the student understands that the guide will help to illuminate the Truth. What may be revealed is that the student is afraid of letting go of control, afraid of surrendering because once surrendered, what is left? There may also be a fear of becoming close to Allah. The Shaykh’s job is to reveal or reflect what the student needs to learn and also help the student once realizations begin to occur. This is done in a myriad of ways. The Shaykh may use storytelling to open the student’s mind to contemplation. As well as guide and teacher, the Shaykh, is also a spiritual doctor and prescribes accordingly. These prescriptions are given in the form of personal zikr or repetitions of the names of Allah to jump start the heart and cleanse it of it’s impurities. There is a set zikr that all students recite daily and then the Shaykh/a may alter them according to what each student needs. Someone whose affliction is fear may recieve the zikr or recitation from the Quran–”Wa laa khawfun ‘alayhim wa laa hum yahzanuun: And there shall no fear come upon them and neither shall they grieve.” Another section of the Quran may be prescribed; the Throne verse: Surah II:255; The Cow: ayat 255. The assignments work deeply especially when done daily. In addition to what the Shaykh prescribes to the student he is praying and inculcating (talking to the heart and body of the student) through spiritual means in order to alter the person’s DNA. This is especially useful if the fear affliction is of a genetic nature.
The effects of fear show up in the physical body. Think of what happens when you become fearful; you hold your breath and your muscles tighten, becoming rigid and guarded. This happens in response to a threat, you physically are prepared to battle whatever has frightened you. This is natural if the impending threat is real. When fear is a constant state, this build up of tension and lack of oxygen is detrimental and unhealthy to tissues, organs as well as the energy centers of the body. In addition to the spiritual work that is done to aleviate fear we must recognize and pay attention to what the body needs in order to come back to balance and to help reduce the build up of physical fear. First of all, notice where in the body you hold fear. If you are holding your breath perhaps your abdomen is tense. This may result in stomache upset, GERD, or other afflictions in the organ of the stomache. Gripping in the core of your physical center you are making the abdominal muscles work overtime, thereby the stomache organ becomes overactive. You may notice that you have acid reflux and you pop alot of antacids. It may not be what foods you are eating that create this excess acid but instead what thoughts you are holding onto and therefore not able to digest. An exercise aimed at relieving this type of tension is abdominal breathing. Not only does this relax the muscles but deep breathing exercises regulate the nervous system. Here is a simple, yet effective belly breathing exercise. Lie down on your back and close your eyes. First, notice your breath moving in and out of your lungs. Gradually and gently take an inhalation through your nose and allow your belly to soften and rise. After a full inhale pause for the count of two. Then gradually and very, very slowly exhale through your nose. Allow your abdomen to softly press the air up and out of your lungs. Repeat this breath for 10 repetitions. When completed notice any differences in your body, your breathing and your thoughts. I must say here that if while doing this or any breath exercise you become dizzy or uncomfortable in any way, do not push or exert. Let go of the exercise and breath in a normal pattern for you.
Tension from fear may also manifest as back pain. The number one reason people call out of sick from work is back pain. Again the grip of fear holds onto us. In turn, we hold on for dear life. By doing so, we move throughout our days in a shield of armor. The body is beautifully designed to hold us upright and move fluidly, if we allow it to do so. The spine, bones, and joints move harmoniously in conjunction with the musculature, ligaments and connective tissue. Of course, trauma and age can alter the ability for the spine or other joints to go out of place or wear down, but we needn’t add to the damage by restricting movements with the effects from fear. To help the spine and musculature of the back become strong, yet supple, it is imperetive that we move it through all the possible ways in which the spine can move; flexing it, extending it, twisting it, and moving it from side to side. This can be done with simple yoga movements. Yoga that focuses on joint mobility such as Structural Yoga Therapy or Viniyoga would be the gentlest and most therapeutic for a person who is afflicted by the physical restrictions caused by fear. These styles of yoga are beneficial due to the teachings and how they combine fluidity between movement and breath. It’s not necessarily healthy for a person who is so bound up to jump into a hard-core yoga regime that consists of postures that are held for a length of time in order to stretch the tissue. First, one must pay attention to the full range of motion of the joints and depth and regularity of the breath. By moving the joints and exploring their range of motion over time, there will be a nice balance of release and strength in the muscles and tissues that support them.
Fear also alters balance in the flow of energy throughout the body. Energy channels, much like the network of nerves that help us interpret the outer world through our senses, help to keep the connection between the subtle bodies and organs working smoothly, in an uninterupted fashion. Just as the physical body can become tight, so too can the energy become stuck or move sluggishly. Fear can immobilize the energy and create feelings of fatigue, pain, sadness, lack of energy, or a sence of being overwhelmed. Massage, accupuncture, cranio-sacral therapy and quiet mindfulness meditations are all ways to manipulate the energy to move freely. When the energy is moving in this way the brain and heart can better communicate.
Another way to free the mind of fear is to be in the world. As sufis, we are of service and always learning. When serving, working together, being tolerant, and being peace, Allah is giving us the opportunity to look at life from another angle, not that of our own, thereby opening our mind to new possibilities. Changing the groove in our record so to speak. In this way, we are retraining thought processes which is a form of mental hygiene; cleansing out old ways and creating new ways of thinking and acting.
To be fear-less, to be surrendered, and to love Allah is to be free of obstructions in the mental, the emotional, the physical, and the spiritual bodies. The veils of the ego once removed, reveal the heart where we take refuge in Allah, to be present in the moment without fear. How that manifests for you is individual, as it is your secret between you and Allah. Swim in this vast ocean and be free from fear.