In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Dealing with unpleasant emotions is a challenge every human being has to face. We sometimes feel like we have no control over our emotions, rather the environment around us provokes our emotions. Thinking this way makes us feel helpless to what is happening around us, victims of fate as it were. However, we do have a greater measure of control over our emotions than we might expect. The key to mastering our emotions is to appreciate that thoughts, especially unconscious, automatic, and habitual thinking patterns, precede our emotional responses.
When something bad happens to us, our minds interpret the events according to our past experiences. If we lose our job, for instance, our thoughts might immediately rush to anxiety over poverty, sadness at loss, or anger at injustice. These thoughts are usually the result of thinking patterns we learned as children, patterns which are rooted in delusions of the worldly life. In order to escape from these negative patterns, we have to put deliberate and consistent effort into rewiring the neurological pathways in our brain.
Instead of lamenting over a job loss, there are a number of beneficial cognitions available to us that are rooted in Islamic theology. We know Allah Almighty is the Most Wise and everything He decrees is good for the believer, whether as patience in hardship or gratitude in ease. We could look at the job loss as an opportunity Allah is giving us to be patient and reliant upon Him, for which we will be generously rewarded. We could think of it as Allah closing a door to something that was bad for us, which we might not have realized was bad for us, and opening another door down the line that will be better for us. We could remember that Allah has already apportioned our provision by His eternal decree, so the job loss has no effect on what will come to us anyway. There are many other ways to put forth a positive interpretation of these negative events.
And this is the essential insight: we interpret events that occur to us. We experience negative emotions when bad things happen to us because we understand them according to worldly patterns we learned as children. We need to unlearn these thinking patterns by constant remembrance of Allah Almighty and the Hereafter, until these theological cognitions become automatic habits that replace the old ways of thinking. It is impossible to remove all discomforting feelings, of course, as the Prophet ﷺ himself was saddened, angered, or anxious about current events, but rewiring our brains with positive self-talk can allow us to master our emotions instead of being mastered by them.
On this basis, mindfulness mediation can greatly assist us in increasing awareness of our thinking patterns. The state of mindfulness expands our cognizance of the spaces between thought, emotion, and reaction, giving us just enough time to respond positively to an emotional trigger before it takes us along a train of negative thinking. When you close your eyes in quiet mediation, silence your internal self-talk, and focus on observing your involuntary thoughts, you will eventually notice the types of automatic concerns that appear in your mind. Are you worried about work? Are you depressed about some loss? Are you mad at someone or something? You will find that these discomforting thoughts are almost always related to worldly concerns. Once you recognize this pattern of habitual worldly thinking, you can develop a script of voluntary counter-thoughts that you repeat in your mind again and again until they replace this bad habit with cognitions from the perspective of Islam and the Hereafter.
In this regard, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Whoever focuses on only one concern — the Hereafter — Allah will suffice him for his concerns in the world.” When we turn away from the worldly life and towards the Hereafter, our day-to-day concerns begin to seem rather petty and unimportant in the grand scheme of existence. This realization has a healing effect upon the soul, because depression, anxiety, frustration, and all other negative emotions are usually rooted in automatic thinking patterns based upon worldly concerns.
Rewiring our thoughts is not an easy task, to be sure. It requires the sustained maintenance of inward mindfulness and insistent repetition of beneficial theological cognitions. Old habits die hard, as they say, especially the kind that are so embedded within us at a visceral level. Nevertheless, change is certainly possible and Islam gives us the spiritual tools to do so. The Quran, in particular, is full of reminders about the Hereafter that can reorient our concerns around what is really most important in life, which is achieving the pleasure of Allah.
Here is the practical takeaway for you: Identify the subconscious, automatic, and habitual thinking patterns that are causing you distress and limiting your ability to grow spiritually. Anxiety? Depression? Anger? Frustration? Whatever that negative pattern is, you can write a positive self-talk script for yourself to repeat every time you are confronted by such an emotional trigger. We should construct our own personal scripts from the Quran and Sunnah. Are you suffering though hardship? You might want to say to yourself over and over, “Allah generously rewards the believers for every difficulty and Allah has decreed this trial for me out of His wisdom,” and so on. And this is a subtle point in our religion, the prophetic supplications and remembrances are the script. We just might want to adapt them slightly to our own personal circumstances, perhaps in our own native language.
If you do come up with your own self-talk script that is beneficial to you and you would like to share it, please do not hesitate to let me know.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.