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FaithSpirituality

A Conversation on Growth-Focused Relationships (Part Two)

The quality of our relationship with ourselves depends on how well we can control our nafs. The second part of the series on growth-focused relationships examines this inner relationship.

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The quality of our relationship with ourselves depends on how well we can control our nafs. The second part of the series on growth-focused relationships examines this inner relationship.

Samira’s three-part series examines three dimensions of relationships and personal growth. The first part is on our relationship with God and can be found here, and the third part on our relationship with people can be found here. The articles are taken from different chapters of the book Nur – How to Live a Life Worth  Living!”

Relationship With The Self

Understanding and working on the self does not happen in a vacuum. Muslims use Islamic concepts such as nafs or ego, qalb or spiritual heart, and ruh or spirit as important organizing principles in understanding this deep inner world or dimension of humans.

The qalb or spiritual heart is where true belief or faith resides. Nur, I encourage you to learn and reflect deeply on these concepts and try to understand how they impact the quality of your psychological and spiritual growth. My limited understanding of this self, which resides in the physical body, also has a purpose of developing in order to reach its full potential to witness the Oneness of God. So, terms like true self, authentic self, conscious self, and higher self are synonymous with the concept of a complete human being or insan kamil. A complete human being is a spiritually and psychologically mature person. Whereas, in most western or mainstream secular psychology, or the recently created self-help industry, the organizing principle is based on individualism. The notions ‘who am I’ and ‘feel good about myself’ are mostly man-made rather than based on holy scripture or ancient traditions. You will see happiness branded everywhere, i.e., how to be happy with your job or marriage; there is so much focus on individual happiness rather than contentment. When the lens is on attaining happiness or spiritual maturity in an expedited way, like a Mcdonald’s drive-thru, growth will often be overlooked and underrated. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, you either go through life believing your nafs/ego knows best or God/Higher Power knows best. These two different orientations will govern the type of relationships you experience in life. The nafs/ego is me or I centric by nature and so really believes in its specialness to the point where God or a Higher Order does not really fit into the equation when it comes to how to operate in this world. In an effort to decipher this inner voice, many people confuse the nafs/ego with intuition and deep human instincts, also understood as fitrah. The nafs/ego is the quantifiable identity of ‘I’ essentially consisting of self-concept, your personality traits, and other people’s opinion of you. Whereas the inner voice of intuition and deep instincts has certainty and transcendental peace about it. It is a combination of how you see yourself and how others see you; and how your personal experiences, worldview, or orientation in the world enters all your other human relationships, i.e., siblings, school, marriage, friendship, and workplace performance. The growing presence of intuition, deep instincts, and spiritual awakening in guiding yourself is usually an outcome of a quietened and humbled nafs/ego.

Nur, as a Muslimah, you are well aware of the dialogue between God and Iblis or the devil. The nafs/ego self has learnt to adapt and evolve cleverly and to its advantage in keeping a veil between you and God-consciousness. What better divine story to show how highly ego-centric or narcissistic Iblis was and that today the nafs/ego has essentially evolved to mimic Iblis:

It is We Who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels prostrate to Adam, and they prostrate; not so Iblis; He refused to be of those who prostrate. (Allah) said: ‘What prevented thee from prostrating when I commanded thee?’ He said: ‘I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, and him from clay’. (Allah) said: ‘Get thee down from this: it is not for thee to be arrogant here: get out, for thou art of the meanest (of creatures)’. He said: ‘Give me respite till the day they are raised up’. (Allah) said: ‘Be thou among those who have respite’. He said: ‘Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way’: ‘Then will I assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt thou find, in most of them, gratitude (for thy mercies)’. (Allah) said: ‘Get out from this, disgraced and expelled. If any of them follow thee, – Hell will fill with you all.”

[7:11-18]

Growth-focused self is the moving away from the darkness of human nature, where Iblis or devil whispers to our self to corrupt it (114:1-6), to a place where goodness and truth reside.

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Human suffering is real and experienced by all in a range of forms, such as illness, loss of livelihood, death of a loved one, homelessness, imprisonment etc. Unless you believe you belong in the category of angels, then every human will taste suffering so long as you are alive. It is truly fascinating to reflect on how people react to suffering from different times or generations, different cultures, and under different major world or natural events such as wars/conflicts, earthquakes, and droughts. The verse from the Holy Quran, ‘Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear’ (2:286), has given me comfort throughout my life. The beauty of this verse has given me the strength to move forward through life’s vicissitudes to seek meaning. The ability to absorb and integrate these lived experiences in relation to the self and my relationship with God or Higher Order which eventually creates a life worth living. A life worth living is an existence where truth overpowers falsehood, where we are preparing for our own death and able to transform the self. Without conflict, internal and external, there is no progress, accept we are all capable of dark thoughts, fantasies, and actions. Face these truths of human nature then growth occurs inshallah/God willing.

In psychological terms, this would, in part, involve emotional regulation, a state of equanimity, spiritual protection resulting from acts of worship, healing past traumas, psychological insights, cognitive dissonance, psychological blind spots, and overcoming dysfunctional beliefs and behaviours from a place of understanding and compassion. All this encapsulates a growth-focused view of self. In terms of psychological modalities, a growth-focused model involves testable outcomes such as increased personal strengths, solutions to problems, positivity, increased state of calmness, corrected cognitive and emotional responses, increased acts of divine worship and spiritual practices, better human relationships, and an ability to create meaning and purpose. The ability to find meaning is also generated from taking responsibility in your relationship with God, the self, and other people. There is a relationship with our self, experienced as inner dialogue or the inner voice. This relationship with ourselves is not a separate entity from all your other relationships or even the Oneness of our Creator and creation. A psychologically mature self feels a connection with God, a Higher Power, and nature.

Nur, I already see many beautiful traits and behaviours about you that will serve you well in adulthood inshallah/God willing. You are empathic, open, curious, caring, and generous in showing love, joy, and concern. Be wary of how your nafs/ego, and people can take advantage of and abuse these traits in your relationships. I also see the nafs/ego also trying to exert itself in upsetting and stressful moments. You need to continue to strengthen your ability to quieten strong reactions, especially when your parents are trying to correct your behavior. The societal pressure for you to always perform excellently at school and later in university is unrealistic and damages your self-worth. Learn to cultivate inspiration in your educational pursuits instead of the intense need to win and be the best. Your quality of life needs to include sitting with uncomfortable emotions, hurt, contradictory views and needs. So, what seems to be a situation that annoys, irritates, inconveniences, is unpleasant or triggers you can become an opportunity to learn about your conditioning and psychological defence mechanisms. Once you can sit with uncomfortable emotions and experiences, then you can observe them, understand them, name them, and act on them appropriately. Observing your inner world usually involves your nafs/ego unrelentingly having you falsely believe that your inner world, i.e., thoughts and feelings, is all that matters and is always right. The more you take control and quieten your nafs/ego, similar to training a pet dog, the more your spiritual heart expands, and you can see in front of you with clarity. This realignment, in turn, strengthens your relationship with God, or Higher Order, and nature. In a well-known hadith qudsi God declared, ‘Neither my Heavens nor my earth contains Me, but the heart of my believing servant contains Me’.

Integrating your nafs/ego or the inner world in human relationships is key to maturity, whether it be psychologically or religiously/spiritually. As a Muslimah or person of faith, I believe you need a combination of integrated psychotherapy to transform the nafs/ego, religious acts of worship like prayers and service, Islamic meditation or tafakkur, religious/spiritual guidance, and solitude. It is your nafs/ego that is the ultimate obstacle to growth and maturity. Psychotherapy must go beyond symptom reduction and look at a growth-focused approach to relationships that is inclusive of religious/spiritual beliefs and practices.

Samira’s three-part series examines three dimensions of relationships and personal growth. The first part is on our relationship with God and can be found here, and the third part on our relationship with people can be found here. The articles are taken from different chapters of the book Nur – How to Live a Life Worth  Living!”

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