woman sipping tea in lounge overlooking sea

Exploring my spirituality

Your spirituality and mental health go hand in hand. 

‘Spirituality’ is another way of describing how you access the part of you that manifests truth, beauty, goodness and pure love. Like the current of a river flowing to the sea, a spiritual practice, or a spiritual path, will lead you towards finding your purpose, life’s meaning and peace. 

Spirituality animates us, transforming our faith and religious rituals into tools with the power to not only change our character, but also change the world. 

If faith is like oxygen, and Islam is the heartbeat, then spirituality is our breath.

There’s no better time to start exploring what spirituality means to you than now. It’s always time to water the seeds planted in your heart so that you can grow.

O Allah, place light in my heart and light on my tongue. Place light in my hearing and light in my seeing. Place light behind me and light in front of me. Place light above me and light below me. O Allah, grant me light!” — Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Your journey is as unique as you are. There are as many routes to Allah as there are people on this earth. But remember, Allah did not leave you without guidance – your life is filled with personal, tailor-made signs all around you, if you’re paying close enough attention to notice.

Although your path may include challenges, may it also be filled with light and wonderment, ameen. 

Image credit @talesofkhayaal

Eight keys to spiritual growth

1. Love

Love is the most natural thing in the world. You were born to share your love, and to be loved. It is that simple… and also it isn’t. There’s a saying: you can only love others as deeply as you love yourself. And according to Al-Ghazali and so many other spiritual masters, the highest spiritual pleasure is love of God. But one cannot reach that level of loving God without first knowing and loving oneself.

Many of us believe love is something we have to chase after, and that the only way we can be loved is by pleasing other people even if it hurts us. But love is easier than that:   

To love a thing, first we must witness it. To love this thing more deeply we must give it our time and attention. The more we learn about and understand the thing, the deeper we can appreciate it, and so our love increases. This applies to your relationship with yourself, your partner, your friends, and with Allah.

“Learning to accept (or you could say un-learning to reject) the messy, complicated, uncomfortable parts of me felt wildly liberating. Once I embraced them I could work with them, instead of wasting my energy in a battle I couldn’t seem to win fighting against them.”

“Investing in yourself is an act of love. But also defiance against everything and everyone who ever taught you not to be true to yourself. It’s love for the sake of love, not for the sake of gain. It’s my spiritual rebellion. I’ve heard people call it ‘radical love’ and I love it!”

None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

There are different types of love and different levels of love: 

  • Laith loves the mountain by reading about it. 
  • Oz loves the mountain by looking at it in the distance from his balcony. 
  • Violet likes the mountain by travelling through it. 
  • Elias loves the mountain by collecting and studying its natural resources. 
  • Ruhana loves the mountain by climbing to the very top of it. 
  • Salma loves the mountain by leading the conservation effort to protect it from pollution and damage by governments and corporations. 

Each has their own loving connection with the mountain. But each has made a different level of effort and commitment to manifesting this love in their lives. 

Think about who and what you love. How do you demonstrate this love in your daily life? 

  • How do you love your body?
  • How do you love your life?
  • How do you love the poor, the weak, and the marginalised? 
  • How do you love God?

“I trust Allah, Al-Rahman (The All Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All Merciful), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Latif (The Subtle), to be my guide.”

2. Sincerity 

“When you do things from your soul you feel a river moving in you – a joy!” – Rumi

Sincerity is tied to authenticity. Authenticity is tied to truth. Truth is tied to beauty. And beauty is tied to ihsan (excellence/beautiful character). 

In the Qur’an, Allah invites us over and over again to reflect on the natural world around us – the beauty, the balance, the interconnectedness and the mercy of creation. Surely then, everything around us contains within it a lesson about life, and Allah? 

If our intentions are pure, humble and sincere, then the doors to wisdom are open. 

“No soul is aware of what it will achieve tomorrow and no soul knows in which land it will die. God is All-knowing and All-aware.” — Qur’an 31:34

If you’re seeking spiritual growth and expansion, opportunities can come from unexpected sources. But we can’t experience special moments of inspiration if we’re closed off to their possibility because we already believe we have the answers.

The more you know, the more you realise you do not know.

And the more sincere you are in your search for meaning, and the more content you are with your limitations, the more open-minded you can be when it comes to seeing truth – even if it is different to what you once imagined, or comes from a surprising source. As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

“The two seas are not alike. One is fresh and sweet to drink, the other is salty and bitter. Yet from each you can obtain fresh meat you eat and ornaments you wear.” — Qur’an 35:12

But remember, often insincerity can creep in when we least expect it and often it can be difficult to detect. For example: 

  • The urge to show off 
  • The belief that we already know how events will unfold
  • The urge to put someone down 
  • The belief that something/someone has power over our destiny, instead of God 
  • Taking a slightly less principled approach to avoid discomfort, or for personal gain
  • Dismissing lessons, signs and advice that don’t match up with our desires  

Any spiritual path requires your soul to wrestle with these instincts. So take inspiration from the experiences of seekers who walked this path before you. You are not alone.

“Sincerity is a secret between Allah and His servant which not even the angels know so as to record it, nor does Satan know so as to corrupt it, nor is the desire aware so as to influence it.” — Junayd al-Baghdadi (d.910)

3. Gratitude

The more we love, the more grateful we feel. Gratitude is not only a scientifically proven mood-booster, but an essential ingredient to a fulfilled and happy life.  

Spirituality without gratitude is like summer without the sunlight. Even in our toughest times, we still have plenty to be grateful for. But, when we’re going through difficulties, it can be hard to see the positives. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or mean what you’re going through is your fault. It just means you need extra love and support with your mental health, alongside any gratitude practice you try. 

Remember, being grateful doesn’t mean you won’t experience difficult emotions. It is perfectly possible to feel grateful and sad, hurt, frustrated, disappointed and stressed. 

Gratitude goes hand in hand with humility.   

“Whoever has not thanked people, has not thanked Allah.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) 

Explore ways you can deepen your feelings of gratitude.

4. Commitment to emotional healing and self-knowledge 

Mind, body and soul are intricately connected. A spiritual practice should help you to understand your true self, not escape from your true self. Otherwise any healthy spiritual practice can function similar to an addiction – as a way to mask pain and avoid confronting the things that are really going on inside. 

When a particular emotion or pattern of circumstances keeps showing up it can be the sign of an emotional wound we need to heal. If we’re using spirituality as a sticking plaster to help us when we feel the symptoms, it means we might need to bring our focus and intention to finding the root of the problem.

We all carry emotional wounds from different events in our lives, often from early childhood as well as in adulthood – and that’s normal. And it’s also normal for those wounds to affect our mental health and thought and behaviour patterns.

Read more about healing from trauma.

Find mental health resources practical tools that can help.

A two minute reflection on the saying: if you want to know God, know yourself

5. Boundaries

Developing boundaries – along with things like our self-worth – can prevent you from being guilted and shamed into doing things in the name of religion, God, or spirituality, that you don’t want to do. Being spiritual doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to say ‘no’ or have needs. It doesn’t mean being submissive. It doesn’t mean sitting on a cloud all day far above the suffering of the world.

In fact, being spiritual demands boundaries.

Because surrendering to nothing but truth means protecting your ability to pursue that truth. To do this we need to be comfortable saying ‘no’ to what isn’t for us and doesn’t serve us, or our purpose. 

Many of us learn religious values of generosity and selflessness in a way that conditioned us early on not to speak up for ourselves, or to say ‘no’ when we don’t want to do something. It can make you feel like you’re only supposed to do what other people say, instead of what you want. Misunderstanding the meaning of healthy boundaries leaves us exposed to overwhelm, burnout, and predatory people who prey on our willingness to please them even if it means we suffer. 

In fact, almost all of us have at some point been shamed by someone telling us we’re not a good enough Muslim. Or we might have had parents/carers who only really taught us Islam as a big list of harsh rules, forbidden acts and threatened us constantly with hellfire and punishment. And this can make having wants and needs, or enforcing boundaries feel wrong, but you are not selfish for accepting nothing less than you need and deserve.

If you can relate to this, these experiences could have a big impact on your mental health. But with the right support, you can heal from this trauma and reconnect with your spirituality. Implementing boundaries is an essential form of self-care and helpful safety-net for spiritual growth, especially if you’ve experienced spiritual abuse.   

6. Sacrifice

Our life is built on transactions. In order to take a new breath in, we must give away one breath out. Sacrifice is about offering something we love, even though it is painful, in order to achieve something better. To learn, we give up recreation time. To grow, we give up comfort. To make time, we give up some sleep. To share our blessings, we give up luxuries or money.  

Every success is built on sacrifice. 

The sacrifices we are prepared to make reflect the strength of our values. If we are a slave to our desires, we will find it particularly hard to give up things that bring us comfort and pleasure. 

Reaching new levels of spiritual insight might demand many different types of sacrifices from us, whether foreseeable and joyous, or unexpected and difficult. For example: 

  • Time – learning, praying, pursuing good causes, listening to others 
  • Money – giving in charity, helping out loved ones, investing in knowledge, supporting just causes  
  • Sleep / rest – staying up praying, making time to pursue studies, finding time for spiritual pursuits amongst your hectic schedule and commitments  
  • Comfort / familiar things – physically relocating, seeking new experiences, career-change, giving up luxuries and distractions so you have more time and money to dedicate to a higher purpose
  • Relationships / friendships – ditching bad influences, stepping out of abusive situations, honouring your boundaries, outgrowing your situation  

Remember, you don’t have to give away all your possessions and live alone in a tent to be a spiritual person. In fact, for most people, such extreme levels of sacrifice would not lead to increased feelings of love, serenity and joy, but rather the opposite!    

A sacrifice guided by dignity, self-worth and optimism will probably have a different effect on your emotions than a sacrifice made because of low self-esteem, inferiority, or hopelessness. Knowing where to draw the line between having dignified boundaries and selflessly giving up your ‘ego’, and negatively fuelling self-punishment/shame/guilt, can be difficult to navigate. That’s why it’s important to make space for honest self-reflection, study, and private conversations between you and Allah. 

Making any kind of sacrifice must be your choice.

But remember, once you’ve made your decision it is healthier to let go of the idea that you can control the outcome. 

“When his son was old enough to work with him, he said, My son, I have had a dream that I must sacrifice you. What do you think of this?” He replied, Father, fulfil whatever you are commanded to do and, God willing, you will find me patient.””— Qur’an 37:102

Remember, if we confuse religious principles with simply not being allowed to have nice things, we can start to feel guilty about enjoying life and end up in all kinds of negative shame cycles which are bad for our mental health. But Allah did not create you for misery.

Any spiritual sacrifice is always about bringing your awareness closer to the Truth: everything in your possession, everything in the seen and the Unseen, belongs to Allah.

“Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.” – Qur’an 2:156

Our sacrifices demonstrates our trust that Allah’s abundant mercy is coded into the universe. Giving reflects Allah’s generosity, not our own – but it does demonstrate our faith in the promise that although death will end our material life, we will only carry the faithfulness of our good deeds into the next. Without this awareness, sacrifice for its own sake can feel like a punishing, guilt-tripping experience which we could do without.    

It might help to think of it a bit like joining a gym. Making sacrifices is how you build your spiritual muscles, but you have to start at your level and progress gradually, or you’ll collapse under the weight and give up.

Small sacrifices could look something like:  

  • Spend an hour a week volunteering for a charity/cause
  • Research ethical brands you could switch to
  • Write a letter to your local representative about an issue you care about
  • Set your alarm a little early for fajr for some extra dhikr time (remembrance of Allah) 
  • Fasting in Ramadan    

7. Turn belief into action

“Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” — Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

“Be like the flower that gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it.” – Imam Ali abi Talib

Our existence is entirely interconnected with everything in our universe. Spirituality gives us a way of treading lightly on this earth and leaving a beautiful imprint on everything we hold and everything we leave behind. And while many spiritual practices teach the art of letting go, we may want to gently remind ourselves that the aim is not to escape from reality, but become more comfortable with facing it head on. 

We learn by doing. And if our spirituality isn’t changing the way we show up in the world and embody our values, it is worth asking: what is really moving my spirit – love or ego? It’s ok you’re not Batman – just start where you’re at, with whatever you can manage. There are so many ways to make your impact.  

“There is none amongst the Muslims who plants a tree or sows a seed, and then a bird, person or animal eats from it, but it is regarded as a charitable gift from him.” — Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

You could try connecting what is in your heart with your skills and passions by:

  • writing to your government representative about issues you care about in your community
  • implementing the things you learn on topics that fascinate you, and share that knowledge with others
  • using your skills to mentor someone
  • checking in on your neighbours, relatives and those who you think are in extra need of feeling love and connection
  • volunteering – for example: helping a neighbour with their shopping, holding a bake-sale for a charity, helping out at a soup kitchen, running a kids sports club, litter-picking on your street…
  • express your spirituality through art, movement, music, gardening, or beautifying a community space
  • engaging in activism for a cause or community you care about

“A few people I know say things like: ‘I’m all about love and light so I can’t get involved.’ But what’s the good in praying etc when you point blank refuse to help people when things are messy? Or don’t put your neck on the line for what’s right in case it comes back on you?”

“I feel like the more I know myself, the more community-spirited I feel. I am way more comfortable with myself, which makes it easier for me to feel safe being connected to others.”  

@a.helwa

I have loved this spiritual story forever! It’s been passed down for countless years orally. I paraphrased it and included it in my book “Secrets of Divine Love.” It’s a wonderful story that reminds us “to be the change we want to see in the world.” #ramadan2023 #ahelwa #secretsofdivinelove

♬ original sound – A. Helwa

8. Consistency

“The acts most pleasing to Allah are those which are done continuously, even if they are small.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

We could think of our relationship with our religion, faith and spirituality similar to a relationship one might have to the gym, or to study. We might go through periods of time when we’re super engaged and motivated, and other times when we just cannot be bothered. You will go through phases where certain things feel more important and urgent than others, and exploring your spirituality might be one of them. 

But the difficult truth about success in any area of life, is that reaching a new level requires effort, and the discipline of consistency.

Here are some healthy habits you could try adding to, or increasing in, your lifestyle:

  • regular du’a (personal prayer) 
  • praying tahajjud (the night prayer) 
  • giving regularly to charity if you can
  • meditating
  • dhikr (remembrance of God)
  • journaling about your feelings, or keeping a dream diary
  • studying the Qur’an, sunnah or Islamic history
  • spending time in nature
  • listening to different style Qur’an recitations
  • reading or writing poetry / making art
  • joining a spiritually focused group – at the mosque, at uni or in the community
  • Fasting beyond Ramadan (two days a week is the sunnah)

But remember, this is not an invitation to punish yourself, or push yourself to dangerous limits. 

What seems like a great deal of exercise for you might look very little to an Olympic athlete – and that’s ok! For you to make progress, you don’t have to follow the same training regime as anyone else. You just have to keep showing up, doing your best and being consistent, even when it starts to get tough. Go at your pace and remember all good things take time.

Often discomfort is a sign of growth. But it’s important to learn the difference between embracing healthy discomfort and avoiding or ignoring emotional distress which will have a negative impact on your mental health.

Talking to people you trust about your experiences and voicing any worries can help you to keep on track and avoid sliding into self-punishment.

Get exploring!

You don’t know what you don’t know and there’s a whole universe out there to explore! With an open mind and an open heart who knows what can happen next! Whatever path you are guided to, and however you pursue it – in the end the fruits of your striving will be proportionate to your effort. So keep going, learning and remember you’re doing this for you, in the cause of Allah.  

If you’re not sure where to start try taking the spiritual health check

“for them awaits a known provision; fruits; and they will be honoured. In gardens of Bliss…” — Qur’an 37:44 

Allah has sent you signs and clear guidance, and given you the freedom to explore. It’s your life, what how will you choose to reflect the Light of Allah?

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though no fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah sets forth metaphors for mankind: and Allah doth know all things.” – Qur’an 24:35

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Listen to stunning example of where art and spirituality collide in a beautiful musical celebration of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)