Defeating negative thoughts
INsights 032, Friday 13th January 2023
Defeating negative thoughts
INsights 032, Friday 13th January 2023
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Assalamu-alaikum. Peace be upon you.
Estimates of how many thoughts we have per day seem to range from 6,000 up to 60,000.
Whatever the actual figure is, I’m sure you’ll agree from your own experience that a lot goes on inside our heads. Sometimes it can feel like an unstoppable flow of ideas, inclinations, temptations, judgements and opinions.
God Himself acknowledges our internal whisperings in this commonly cited verse:
We created the human being and We know what their soul whispers to them: We are closer to them than their jugular vein. (Chapter 50, Qaf, Verse 16)
One of the major factors behind our success in this life and the next is our ability to notice and manage our thoughts.
Noticing our thoughts means separating ourselves from them and paying close attention to them.
Managing our thoughts means identifying their source, categorising them according to their benefit or harm, then nurturing or discarding them accordingly.
Doing all this successfully is no easy task. Even if we take the low end of the range of estimates for how many thoughts we have every day, that’s a lot of noticing and managing to do.
But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. When it comes to tackling our negative and harmful thoughts in particular, our vigilance becomes vital.
A problem with many symptoms
So much of our personal suffering is simply a result of losing our internal battles which we could easily have won if we simply paid attention.
Here are some common examples of behaviours involving the kinds of thoughts which, if left unnoticed and unmanaged, can result in personal sorrow, relationship woes, and a greater distance between us and our Lord:
- our fixation for things we may not need, without even knowing whether the object of our desire is beneficial or harmful for us.
- our selfishness and our attitude of indifference towards important issues, simply because we don’t think they are in our material interests.
- comparing ourselves to others and considering ourselves to be less or more fortunate than someone else.
- judging others too quickly and spending too much time speculating about what someone else’s motivations really are.
- dissatisfaction with God’s decree and resenting the situation we find ourselves in, without taking responsibility for how we are going to move forward.
The list is endless.
So what’s the solution?
Thankfully, revelation is a healing for our internal ailments. It is full of prescriptions to help occupy the mind and heart with what really matters. If we follow its guidance, we should become calmer, more discerning human beings.
Chief amongst the recommendations in revelation to help us with this issue are the following:
- taking refuge in God from the devil
- remembering God very often
Let’s see what our Lord tells us:
If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God; He is all hearing, all knowing. Those who are aware of God think of Him when Satan prompts them to do something and immediately they can see; the associates of devils are led relentlessly into error by them and cannot stop. (Chapter 7, The Heights, al-A’raf, Verses 200-202)
The ‘associates of devils’ just can’t help themselves. The gap between their demonic thoughts and their speech or action is so small that they give themselves no time to heed their Lord. Bad habits form until it feels uncontrollable.
On the other hand, the one who is ‘aware of God’, the muttaqi, is able to identify when it is that a thought is a devilish one. It might be funny, it might be tempting, it might even feel irresistible… but because they sense the presence of something dark, they quickly turn to God and get their perspective in order.
In fact, they don’t want the devils to be anywhere near them, and so they supplicate frequently:
And say, ‘Lord, I take refuge in You from the temptations of the devils; I take refuge in you, Lord, so that they may not come near me.’ (Chapter 23, The Believers, al-Mu’minun, Verses 97-98)
Or they keep uttering the famous words of the final chapter in revelation:
Say, ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of people, the King of people, the God of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer, who whispers into the hearts of people, whether they be jinn or people.’ (Chapter 114, People, an-Nas, Verses 1-6)
They also that know that filling themselves with the remembrance of God is what will lower the number of negative inclinations in the first place.
They don’t take their faith for granted nor do they see themselves above the possibility of falling back into darkness, and so their remembrance is proactive and constant:
You who believe, remember God very often and exalt Him morning and evening. It is He who blesses you, as do His angels, to lead you out of the depths of darkness into light. He is ever merciful towards the believers. (Chapter 33, The Confederates, al-Ahzab, Verses 41-2)
“But all this is nothing new,” you might say, and I’d have to agree with you.
But what we need to reflect on is the extent to which we consciously seek God’s protection from our greatest enemy, and the extent to which we consciously remember Him as an intentional strategy for repelling unwanted, evil ideas.
What if much of our saying a’udhu billah and phrases like subhanAllah and alhamdulilllah happens either too mindlessly or infrequently?
If so, then it’s no wonder that they don’t have their desired effect in strengthening our mental fortress against the constant attacks we face every day, let alone helping to undo our bad habits and recurring negative thought patterns.
What does this mean in practice?
What you need to do is make your engagement with your Lord much more conscious and frequent.
Taking refuge with Him and remembering Him aren’t just to be reserved for specific rituals or particular times of day or night...
It’s precisely in the moment that you catch yourself thinking something that you know is unbecoming or impure that you quickly ward it off by connecting with God, i.e. remembering Him or specifically taking refuge in Him.
Whether it’s verbalised or just within yourself, whether it’s extensive or momentary, these conscious connections with your Lord need to happen as much as, if not more than, the number of negative thoughts that come your way.
That could be thousands of times per day. But that’s what may be required to stay in control and defeat negative thoughts.
Remember your Lord inwardly, in all humility and awe, without raising your voice, in the mornings and in the evenings; do not be one of the heedless. Those who live in the presence of your Lord are not too proud to worship Him: they glorify Him and to Him they prostrate. (Chapter 7, The Heights, al-A’raf, Verses 205-206)
You must be unwavering in what is the central battle of your life. The ultimate victory isn't far away.
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Have a blessed fortnight. I'll see you in two Fridays, God willing.