Before Ramadan you put together plans to make Ramadan this year the best ever. Your spirit is high and
your hopes reach a climax. You are optimistic and the achievement seems realistic. You plan to pray an x number of Taraweeh and Qiyam and read a specific number of pages from the Quran. You plan and plan and feel good about your plans.
A few days into Ramadan you realize you are too tired and what was once a beautiful momentum of spiritual growth is now an empty act of dragging yourself through the motions. You just carry your self through the Prayers without feeling them. You read through the pages of the Quran and each page is heavier than Mount Uhud. You miss your daily routine before Ramadan: your breakfast, morning coffee, workout in the gym, getting enough night sleep and so forth. Now you feel crushed under the inability to glide peacefully through your Ramadan plans and the insatiability of your normal style of living. It is a bitter feeling. On the one hand, you wanted to feel a better Muslim in this month but the sweetness is not there. The acts of worship you do seem to have lost their spirit and turned into a burden with no or little satisfaction. You start to feel guilty “maybe I don’t deserve to feel the beauty of Ramadan…maybe Allah doesn’t want me to be a better person…maybe I am too evil to be given a sweetness of Iman..” and on and on goes this litany of negative thoughts about yourself and Allah.
The puzzle is that you are truly willing to offer acts of devotion, but they don’t seem to enjoy your company! Why can’t you do more good deeds and enjoy the spirit of the month more? Why isn’t it as simple as “you get what you want”?
Here are 5 reasons why this happens. It is my hope that these will give you a better understanding of why you go through this experience one Ramadan after the other.
One: Ramadan is like a marathon.
Have you even tried to run a marathon or do you know of someone who did? We all know you can’t just decide to go and run a marathon. You need months and sometimes years of preparation to run a marathon. It requires a lot of stamina and a high level of physical fitness to run a marathon and this takes a lot of preparation. If you just decide to run a marathon without preparation, there are two possible outcomes: a couple of miles into the race, your body will give up on you and you will have to pull out. Simply the demands of a marathon are way beyond what your body is currently capable of offering. Your body can take a small stretch but not a big shot like this. The other possibility is that you will not listen to your body and will push yourself. In such a case you will very likely end up with an injury or more serious complications to your health.
In both cases, the marathon will be a bitter experience and a source of disappointment.
Ramadan is more like a marathon. But most of us have it the other way around. We think Ramadan is a stations that gives us energy to go through the whole year. Well, this meaning is really there but it is not on offer unless you are fit for the marathon first.
We humans can take one or two bouts of stretch beyond our comfort zone. Whether we are speaking in physical terms, intellectual, emotional, spirituals, etc. With exercise and training we can expand our comfort zone and push it higher to a point where what we can do with minimal effort cannot be done by an untrained person with a great effort. This is what we call growth.
When you train for a marathon, you build your stamina and enhance your fitness that you are comfortable running 10 or 20 miles. In such a case running 25 miles is an achievable stretch that will give you a sense of challenge and mastery at the same time. This expansion of the comfort zone is what give most achievers the sense of euphoria and fulfillment that comes with success.
Ramadan is no difference in this respect. If you prepare yourself for Ramadan through the year by increasing your spiritual fitness and expanding your capacity for Prayer, Quran, and charity you will arrive at Ramadan with much momentum. You have learned to enjoy the night Prayer, you can read a few pages of the Quran without feeling mentally fatigued, and can fast without feeling fully drained and disoriented. And when you push yourself a little bit in these beautiful acts of worship, you experience the euphoria that comes with longer Prayers, more Quran pages, longer du’aa, and daily fasting. You have expanded your comfort zone to a point that the new stretch Ramadan demands from you is a welcomed opportunity for growth and an experience of more mastery in your journey to Allah.
It is only then that Ramadan will give you energy enough to empower you throughout the year to move on to higher levels in your spiritual growth.
Therefore, don’t approach Ramadan without preparation or you will be disappointed. Your Ramadan resolutions will break like the waves at the rocks of your lack of spiritual fitness and limited stamina.
Two: Overly Focus on the External Aspects of Worship Vs. the Internal Aspects
Write down your “Ramadas resolutions” for this year and check if they have any aspects that pertain directly to the heart. Chances are most, if not all, of them state numbers of Rak’as or pages, etc. They are all about quantity rather than quality. They pertain merely to the external act of worship and leave the heart neglected.
We should know that the essence of any external act of worship is in the heart. Actually worship runs through two parallel lines: the heart and the limbs. Being overly weighted in the external line will kill the spirit of devotion and keep your heart deprived. You can only do this by using sheer willpower to discipline your body to do what has no or little meaning to your heart. This is the reason acts of worship feel burdensome to many. If the heart doesn’t get its share in the process of worship, the physical act will become heavy, dry, empty and will require a lot of pushing. Not even a super human being can sustain worship in this way.
The energy to excel in worship and expand your spiritual stamina comes from the heart. So if the acts of worship you do are not feeding into your heart, you will soon be running on empty. This is why a few days into Ramadan, you have no energy.
It is time we have achieved a balance between these two tracks: the heart and the body. Sustainable growth and spiritual development comes mainly from the heart. A one-sided approach to worship Allah will keep you limping in your spiritual journey.
Three: Lack of Alone Time with Allah
Most of our religious practice in Ramadan tends to be in congregation and among others. Taraweeh and for many people opening the fast is also done at the masjid in congregation. Nothing is essential wrong with this. However many of us don’t seem to have secured some time where they only relate to Allah without having to worry about other human beings. It is a fact in the social sciences that among others who don’t be, thing, feel, perceive, and do the same as when we are by ourselves.
The presence of others, albeit a great part of our experience in life, should not overtake our life to a point where we don’t observe time where we are alone. We need this khalwa with Allah. We need time to build this personal relationship with Allah and feel His presence at a personal level.
The Messenger PBUH looked forward to the night Prayer as he spent a lot of time standing in the presence of his Lord.
This is a time when your relationship with Allah takes shape and you gain more clarity as to what Allah means to you. It is unimaginable that you love someone yet you don’t make an effort to have alone time with them! Actually those would be the best times!
So make a point to secure some time from your day or night to have khalwa with Allah. Open your heart to Him, speak to Him, feel His nearness, thank Him and build that personal relationship with Him.
Four: Limiting the Concept of Worship to a Handful of Actions
Often times Ramadan is associated with Fasting, reciting Quran, and Taraweeh. And rightly so. However, we should not forget that Allah has offered us a wide spectrum of worship that could possibly include every human action that is inherently good or neutral. This point will be helpful mainly to those who are frustrated as their busy schedule does not leave them with enough energy or time to engage in more Taraweeh or Quran. Many mothers, fathers, workers are frustrated as they see their daily obligations and engagements are detrimental to their Ramadan worship! I have the audacity to say if you are feeling this way, you are not having good thoughts about Allah! And I will explain why.
Take for example a full-time mother. Often mothers feel they are disadvantaged and are deprived the opportunity and sweetness of Ramadan due to their mundane tasks. However, it is these seemingly mundane tasks that Allah rewards greatly for. Just look at the famous hadith where a man approached the Messenger PBUH and asked who was more worthy of his good treatment and company. The Messenger PBUH answered: “your mother” three times before saying: “then your father.” This only goes to show how valuable what a mother does and sacrifices in the sight of Allah.
We can’t see Ramadan and the special rewards Allah offer in it in isolation of these insights. The notion that a lot of what a mother (or any other capacity) does is mundane and empty is such a grand folly. If Allah appreciates such action to that extent they cannot be mundane and meaningless or boring. If you find them boring, for sure the boredom comes not from the actions but from your view of them. Every spoonful of food you put in your child’s mouth is a step in the great journey of preparing a young soul to handle this life. Every nappy or diaper you change is a great gift as you are offering your time and sharing your life with a valuable human being that will hopefully grow to be “someone”. It is a great act of devotion and contribution in the sight of Allah even when humans don’t seem to acknowledge it or celebrate it and share it on social media.
Whatever work you do, look at it as a contribution an act of devotion and you will see how the sweetness of Ramadan will seep into it. And as a result your heart will flourish and your soul will grow.
Five: Being Hard on Oneself
Some of us hold themselves to high standards at an early state and they end up judging themselves so negatively. They keep reminding themselves of their sins and shortcomings until they poison their spiritual life and feel bad about themselves. They do this in good faith but this ends up killing their faith and alienating them from Allah SW.
One of the most important skills you need on your journey to Allah is to accept where you are now without judgment. You can’t get ahead of yourself in this regards or you will end up burning yourself out and losing hope in Allah. The Prophet PBUH said: ((Indeed this Deen is powerful so progress in it gently and incrementally)).
Accept who you are and where you are now so you can take steps forward. Many however tend to overestimate where they should be and they equate this misunderstanding with progress. If you don’t identify where you are on your journey, your spiritual life will be a mess. You will relapse and turn back on your heels because you expect more from yourself that you are actually capable of. Frustration and guilt will mark your relationship with Allah and in the case of Ramadan you will out on the beauty and the opportunities it offers.
How to Salvage your Ramadan?
First: define with courage where you are in your spiritual growth journey.
It is not rocket science and don’t start looking outside for answers. Only you can figure out. Notice how much devotion you are comfortable with on a daily basis even if it is as little as fasting and praying your five daily prayers or whatever your case may seem to suggest. By “comfortable” here I mean you approach these deeds with enthusiasm and high levels of energy and you enjoy them when you engage in them.
When you have defined this clearly, get yourself emotionally comfortable with where you are and give up pretending to yourself and others that you are at a higher level. Pretending will not help you. It is a game destroyer.
When you have defined your actual level, be happy with it. Give up on beating yourself for not being better as this will not help. Proactive acceptance of your current level will help you get grounded and build on a strong foundation. If you settle well in this state, you are ready for the second thing:
Second: Give yourself a little stretch by doing a bit more than you are comfortable with.
This is your growth factor. This is where a lot of sweetness comes into your acts of worship. Most likely you were attempting bigger stretches but they ended up more frustrating. Therefore, always take small stretches.
Third: The little you do and the stretch you add on top of it should come from your heart.
You should act from your heart not from your body. The Prayers are mainly done by the heart and the body just follows the lead. Fast should come from your heart not merely from your willpower. Reciting Quran should be done in joy of reciting the words of Allah, not as a chore. The experience is mainly in the heart. Try your best to do things this way. You can do this by placing your attention on your hears when you engage in acts of worship.
Fourth: Find ways to turn your daily routines into acts of worship.
Whether you are in the capacity of a mother, accountant, social worker, doctor, etc there is always a way to see the value you are offering in your work. The old adage of three workers being asked about their work, ones says I am laying brick, the second: I am constructing a building, and the third: I am building a school to educate future generations is a clear example of how we can view simple tasks differently.
Find meaning in what you do instead of resisting it or seeing your tasks as a barrier to your spiritual growth in Ramadan. Remember Allah is Generous and Kind. Don’t be limited in your understanding of Allah blessings and opportunities. Don’t even think Allah will not reward you form the good you do if it doesn’t fall within the category of Prayer, fast, and reciting Quran.
Fifth: Spend time with Allah alone.
This should be your best time. Open your heart to Allah and speak with Him. Express yourself fully to Him. Ask Him to help you, strengthen you, increase your Iman, increase your wealth, and anything you want from Him.
Finally, make a resolution to spend the whole year as an incremental preparation for the marathon in Ramadan. Build your spiritual stamina and increase your spiritual fitness so your next Ramadan will be better.