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This post was written by Guest Contributor Rawiya, who is a university professor and a musician.
“He who knows himself knows His Lord.”
As an academic, my initial impulse is to authenticate my sources. Who uttered these words? Can we find a source to validate this phrase as “Islamic?” The above saying is disputed, attributed to various sources, including the Prophet Muhammad, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Ibn Arabi, and others. Regardless of my inability to properly “cite” the phrase, it has become the cornerstone of my goals this Ramadan, and beyond.
During previous Ramadans, in addition to daily fasts, I’ve set goals to be consistent in required prayers, to add extra devotional prayers, to increase my dhikr, and to memorize a surah or two of the Qur’an, in addition to other fairly “orthodox” manifestations of increased worship. Maybe somewhat more unorthodox is my tradition of attributing a “theme” to each Ramadan—“Forgiveness,” for example, “Love,” or even “the Beautiful Names of God.” Each year, I’ll focus my worship on that particular topic, orienting my spiritual journey along the qibla of that year’s theme. Ramadan has therefore always been for me a time where I extend my hand to God, with whatever time and energy I have, to reflect, renew, and recommit myself to my relationship with the Most Merciful.
The last few years, however, my reach of my hand towards God has slackened both during Ramadan and outside of the blessed month. I have felt my previously thriving religious life dry up like a lake during a drought. I’ve never wanted to disappoint God, but these past few years, I’ve watched and felt helpless as one of the most beautiful parts of my life felt like it was turning into an empty husk. Hand in hand, Shame and Indifference grew together as powerful partners inside my heart.
It’s not without reason that my spiritual life has suffered. Two major cross-country moves, being uprooted from friends and family, the stress and anxiety of dissertation-writing, relationship traumas, a major car accident, and financial anxiety have all taken a significant toll on me. “We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property, lives, and crops.” (Qur’an 2:155). With each of these perpetually mounting stresses, it feels like I’ve been failing this test profoundly.
Things came to a head about a year ago. My depression had reached a point where I was breaking down nearly every day, driven by fits of tears and panic attacks. Thankfully, after a period of being in between jobs, I regained health insurance and could seek medical and therapeutic help. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication somewhat stabilized me. My work with my therapist, however, marked a real turning point for me in this downward spiral.
I have been in and out of therapy for years, with both positive and negative results. But one of the major realizations I’m coming to in therapy this time around is a pattern to numb myself during times of pain and conflict. When I was sexually abused as a teenager by an uncle, I didn’t actually “realize” what had happened until years later. I’ve dealt with “milder” bouts of depression by completely immersing myself in sci-fi television series or fantasy novels, or obsessing about my favorite bands. And quite destructively, over the past few years, during this most intense period of depression and anxiety, I unconsciously developed binge-eating disorder. All of these behaviors were survival techniques that numbed me from pain and unhappiness. Granted, they’re not the most efficient or healthiest techniques, but I’m trying to avoid focusing on shame by acknowledging them as proof of my will to endure.
The origins of my development of my pattern of self-numbing is complicated. Let’s just say that it has a lot to do with perfectionism, feelings of insecurity and shame, and a lack of self-compassion. Part of the product of this technique, however, is that it mutes the good along with the bad. Dr. Brené Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, that “we cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Confronting this idea suddenly made the last few years of my life make a great deal of sense. As my depression increased, I lost excitement in the things that I had previously given me so much joy: music, writing, cultivating relationships with my friends, physical activity, and yes- my religious life. The things that I felt made me who I am faded into the background until I could no longer recognize myself. I recall vividly during one of my more violent panic attacks, hot tears streaming down my face and choking out the words to my husband, “I don’t even know who I am anymore.” In full identification with my depression, with my darkness, and my fear I had to mute the positive in order to survive the negative. In short, I lost myself.
Thankfully, working with my therapist is teaching me how to slowly and gently begin finding myself again. One of her recommendations was to develop practice of journaling. The cynic in me rolled my eyes at this piece of advice, recalling how easily and effusively I used to journal, write poetry, and compose music. But after these years of silence, I’ve realized that I need to re-establish a basic conversation with myself before letting my creativity fly again. The first words in my new journal are not even my own. They are lines from a poem by William Wordsworth that I first read and fell in love with in university. The hope is to tap into that joy in order to prime the pump of my own pen. Building this relationship with myself, my voice, my creativity, is all part of the journey of dismantling perfectionism, resisting shame, and accepting myself as is. And when I am in dialogue with myself, then I can feel once again. I can develop the tools to experience (but not be overwhelmed by) pain, and along with that, to experience joy and happiness.
Which brings me back to Ramadan. Instead of focusing on taraweeh or memorizing Qur’anic surahs, my “theme” for this blessed month is simply to redevelop a relationship with myself. My goal is to listen to myself and to my needs. I hope to journal more. I hope to sit down at the piano and at least let my fingers remember how to play some of my old favorite compositions. I hope to call my friends who live far away, and I hope to work on building new relationships in my new city. If my depression overwhelms me, or if my anxiety triggers a panic attack, I hope to listen to my body and go easy on myself, even if that means that I miss a day of fasting in order to recover. And while these goals seem relatively bereft of “traditional” God-centered acts of worship, I’ve realized that they are a necessity should I wish to rekindle my relationship with my Creator. What is there to “submit” if one has no sense of self? Who is the beloved without a lover? Some Sufis aim to annihilate their egos in God, a process known as fana’, but I’ve come to realize that before you can lose yourself in God, you must have a self to lose.
This Ramadan, I intend to rediscover myself, for myself, but also so that I may know my Lord. I work to hear the quiet voice inside of me so that I can reach out again to my Lord with a stronger grasp, in the coming years, God willing.
 Brown, Brené. 2010. The Gifts of Imperfection, 70.