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  • Writer's pictureMyra Shaikh

First, attend to the divine.

Moment of honesty-

I’ve been going through a bit of a slump lately. It’s been harder to find the motivation to practice yoga and go the gym regularly like I used to. I feel less fit and healthy than I have in a long time… and even when I try to be more strict with my diet, the results are slower and my self-control is lower than I’d like.

I find myself feeling guilty a lot.

I’m feeling guilty about eating all those damn Girl Scout cookies…

I feel guilty about not being more present, engaging and playful with the kids.

I feel guilty for not spending more quality time with Kamran.

I feel guilty for not keeping in touch with my friends and family as often as I should.

I feel guilty for not remembering students names, for not showing up a little earlier before my class starts so I can leisurely chat and greet people as they walk in, for constantly running late to various appointments, for forgetting to remind my kids to return their library books and complete their homework and projects on time, for letting them walk out of the house in shorts and short sleeves when it’s 40 degrees outside, and not forcing them to wear a jacket even when they resisted… for not walking my dog every morning and not playing more and giving her the attention she wants and deserves, and for not meditating every day like I said I would.

The list goes on and on… and then I begin to worry that perhaps I am not worthy of being a yoga teacher.

Am I a fraud, if I can’t practice what I preach? How can I tell others to let go, when I can’t stop holding on to all this guilt?

It becomes a vicious cycle of insecurity, and then I begin to further isolate myself and second guess everything I do…

But then… in a moment of clarity during my self-imposed pity party, I remember to do the only thing that I can during times like these: I turn to God.

Call it a Higher Power, Allah, Divine Creator, the Universe - whatever you want to call it, I don’t think it really matters.

I send my silent prayer, and a silent answer always comes back to me without fail when I’m ready to receive it.

It usually comes in the form of a realization, as I make sense of certain “chance” encounters, conversations and events in my life.

Let me back up a bit, so I can explain what I mean.

I am the firstborn daughter of Pakistani newlywed immigrants, and my mother was only 20 when I was born in Texas. I grew up in a Muslim household within a predominantly Christian American culture. In Houston, I had the privilege to be surrounded by all different races, religions and ethnicities… and as I grew older, I found human behavior and beliefs complex and intriguing. When I was a child, everyone showered me with love and attention. Strangers smiled, and the world seemed like a friendly and exciting place. But as the years went by, people became less kind and less patient. The world began to darken, and the friendly smiles were reserved for the children younger than me… and I discovered that maybe growing up isn’t so fun after all. I preferred to play with the younger kids because they were usually nice, genuine and uncomplicated. My peers on the other hand, began to form cliques and groups, and started establishing their place to feel a sense of belonging. Most people had no qualms about putting others down to elevate their own status. Superficiality was something I was not accustomed to, and so I struggled to fit in. I saw that in order to be popular, you had to look a certain way, dress a certain way, hang out with certain people, listen to certain music, be into certain sports, etc… and even when I tried to do all of those things, there were some things I just couldn’t fake. And I didn’t understand why it was so hard to be liked by others…

So I hated myself too.

I hated all the things that made me different, all the things that made me stand out and be a target of criticism, ridicule and hate. During those years, I struggled to find any redeeming quality within myself. I had no obvious talent or skill that I knew of. I had no passion, there was nothing I could think of that I wanted to be when I grew up - other than that I wanted to help ease pain in this world full of suffering...

But I had to learn how to deal with my own first.

Life was an absolute struggle, and I slept most of those years away.

What carried me though those difficult years was my faith in God. I prayed for better days, although I had no idea how that would happen when the world seemed so bleak, judgmental and unkind. But I still clung to hope, because it was all I had.

I understand now, that I was being tested. Those years were vital in order for me to comprehend certain things and see the world in the way that I do now.

And yet I still have so much more to learn.

My own despair and trauma drove my desire to understand why people behaved the way that they did, so that my understanding could help me find a way to live with less pain.

I just wanted the suffering to stop.

I wanted to be happy.

And so I did the only thing I could besides pray- I studied.

No, not in school…

Academics tend to take the back burner when a person is dealing with overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

Instead, I became a student of life.

I realized that religion itself fell short of satisfying my logical brain. I studied different social sciences, philosophies and theologies, until I was even more confused than when I began. I found myself surrendering to the fact that there are some questions which we will never know the answers to, and that’s where faith comes in. I surrendered myself to whatever or whomever created us… and I sent my silent prayers:

“If there truly is more to this life after death, if we truly are here for a reason, please help me realize it and make sense of it. Please help me find the Truth and my purpose, without a shred of doubt.”

I asked for a sign, and boy - did I get them. They eventually started pouring in, and it was a matter of time before it hit me that my prayers have always been answered and I have always been guided and protected… even when I didn’t realize it, and even during my darkest days.

Everything was just how it was meant to be, as part of a grander plan. My challenges were gifts in disguise, because they made me stronger and helped me gain a deeper level of understanding, awareness and empathy for others.

My path of spiritual inquiry led me to question all the things that we are taught to believe through our families, religions, cultures, society- and even our own egos.

WHY do I believe what I believe? Where did this belief come from? What basis does it have? Is there any proof? How do I know my belief is correct, and others are incorrect or less correct? Why do we all hold on to our conflicting beliefs with such strong convictions? What do our beliefs have in common? What are the differences? Would God, the way I imagine God to be, have qualities such as arrogance, vengeance or jealousy?

The answer that came from my intuition (something that I learned to pay closer attention to) was a resounding NO.

It’s God, for God’s sake!

My own experience and research has taught me that arrogance, vengeance and jealously are ego driven qualities that increase suffering.

And I believe that God is above that. To realize Divine nature within ourselves, we must also learn how to rise above the ego.

God is Love.

God is Grace.

Divine qualities include humility, forgiveness and compassion… and Unity.

Any group or philosophies that create separation, division and hierarchies among humankind are questionable in my mind, whether the underlying intention is to worship God, or to worship the Ego.

Because if there is a “right” way to pray, there must be a wrong way… if there is a “right” way to live, there must be a wrong way… and if we think we have figured out the right way, then we also know the wrong way, and therefore WE are right and THEY are wrong and God loves us but not them, and I am superior and will go to Heaven and THEY will perish in Hell and THEY won’t receive God’s mercy, so why should they receive mine?

That’s why its ok to overlook them. That leaves more resources for me anyway…

I’m glad I don’t have to feel guilty about it. They did this to themselves. They had a choice. Oh well… God knows best.

Furthermore, I don’t have to face my own traumas, insecurities, flaws and shortcomings if I’m busy putting others down in order to lift myself up.

AKA Spiritual Bypass.

And that, my friends, is how “Othering” begins. Ego driven fear and separation (often found in many religions) is also the origin of suffering… which is one of the main reasons why I ended up separating myself from the confines of organized religion.

Though I have come to certain realizations over the years, I also am beginning to realize that I still have so much more left to learn.

One of those realizations is how much I miss the structure, ritual and community that religious practices offer. I miss gathering in the house of God, praying with a congregation and being led in sermon. I miss the consistent dialogue I had with God, even if it was due to a sense of religious obligation and guilt. Although the relationship was shaky, fear based and misunderstood… it was the compass of my life, and it helped me feel a sense of direction and security during my most lost and insecure moments.

I abandoned the pretense of how God was packaged and introduced to me, and I decided to search for the real God on my own.

My search was not in vain.

My faith has been rekindled minus the dogma, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to realize the importance of the structure and ritual too.

I attended a yoga class with one of my beloved teachers 4 or 5 years ago, and she passed out cards to the students with mantras on them. Mine said “First, attend to the divine”. I still have that card displayed in my bathroom where I see it everyday. But I am just now starting to realize what that means. I was trying to decipher it as some spiritual or metaphorical way of reminding me to be authentic, or practice self-care, or stay connected to nature… all of which are good and true. But now I’m starting to feel that this message was meant to be taken much more literally and simply.

Put God first.

I realize that I have been resisting anything that remotely resembles religiosity or dogma.

I’ve been jaded.

Put God first.

My mother, God bless her soul… she’s always trying to preach to me and the kids whenever we speak. She reminds us to say “Bismillah” (in the name of God) before we do anything, and “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to God), and “Mashallah” (by the will of God) to the point where it becomes exhausting to have a normal conversation without the mention of Allah every 2 seconds.

I find myself feeling annoyed and avoiding her phone call altogether.

*Cue the guilt.*

But you know what… I think I’m finally starting to get it.

Perhaps these customs and rituals are only there to serve as a reminder that we are meant to live our lives with the intention of serving God through all that we do. When we eat, when we speak, when we breathe, when we think, when we gather, when we sleep… all by the glory of God, are we able to do these things. And if we were sent here to serve our Creator, then it is in our best interest to do everything with a heart full of gratitude and love, for the sake of who created us.

Those words are merely an aspect of mindfulness.

Intention setting.

The word “Islam” literally means “submission to God”.

It’s a beautiful intention.

But somewhere along the way, the intention to submit to God often becomes forgotten or confused, and devotees mistakenly begin to submit to the ego instead.

People can tend to focus more on superficial actions and less on intention… they go through the motions robotically while forgetting the true meaning of why they were doing it in the first place. We become more concerned with how we are seen in the eyes of others in our community, and less about how we are seen in the eyes of God.

I think the problem is that we never truly understood the force that we were asked to submit to. Dogma was instilled into us through our family’s belief systems, and we didn’t dare question or disobey for the fear of being shunned from our community, or worse - thrown into eternal Hellfire.

It’s a bit like going to school and cheating your way through, so that you wouldn’t fail and be humiliated or let your family down. You may be able to trick everyone around you and pass, but because of the pressure to keep up with (or surpass) your peers - you never truly benefitted from the material that was meant to help you in life.

School is supposed to be a privilege. It’s a resource to help us acquire knowledge and gain wisdom…. but often, it feels more like an obligation, where it seems like the priorities are more about achieving high scores and gaining popularity in order to find validation, increase our sense of self worth and feel a sense of belonging, rather than learning and understanding the material being offered to help us in life.

I didn’t do well within the confines of school, but I have a thirst for knowledge and I love learning in my own way.

That doesn’t mean I’m lacking in intelligence.

I didn’t do well within the confines of religion, but I have a thirst for spirituality and I am devoted to God in my own way.

That doesn’t mean I’m lacking in faith.

Our connection and devotion to our creator is most reflected through our actions and words. It’s expressed in the way that we live and how we treat one another. We must have the courage to be authentic and find our own way… and all paths lead to the same source.

What matters the most is that we understand the context of the material and never lose sight of our higher purpose, no matter what people say or how distracting life becomes.

I know this is a challenge that will continue to sneak up on me, and some days will feel tougher than others. My ego will never stop trying to make me forget, but I will continue to work on remembering the divinity within me and let go of the guilt and the illusion of unworthiness...

I was created to be of service, to love and to uplift this world, and I thrive by fulfilling my purpose. I truly believe this applies to us all.

First, attend to the divine.

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