We have two ways of using our attention. The one is expressed in the statement, “He’s looking at me” and the other one is expressed in the statement, “He’s listening to me.” I’d like you to just feel: is there any difference to the feeling in the statements, “He’s looking at me” and “He’s listening to me”? For most people there’s a difference.
Why are the lion’s eyes in the front of its head?
If you say, “He’s looking at me” it feels aggressive… In my youth, before I became a Muslim, this is how bar fights started – “What are you looking at?” It’s because it’s predatory. It’s predatory.
You see, if you think about how a lion’s eyes work, they’re in the front of its head. Why are the lion’s eyes in the front of its head? Because it is binocular vision that allows you to have depth perception. Depth perception allows goal directed attention. It allows you to behave like a predator. It allows you to go and get things that you want.
So there’s one way of the use of our attention: which is about looking, being like a lion, being goal directed, pursuing things that we want. And what keeps this attention operative is our internal dialogue because our internal dialogue keeps telling us – “it’s not good enough. I want more.” So then we go around literally like lions.
The second way of using attention is receptive. It is borne in the statement, not “He’s looking at me” but in “He’s listening to me”. The difference between the two is that when he’s looking at me he’s kind of penetrating me. Whereas when he’s listening to me, I’m penetrating him. He’s allowing me into him. So your attention can work in these two ways – predatory or receptive.
Dhikr of Allah isn’t a noise you make in Arabic.
Dhikr is about cultivating the second way of being, because dhikr is the essence of Islam. The word Islam means submission. Submission is not predatory. Submission is what the buck does rather than what the lion does. If you think about where the buck’s eyes sit relative to its head, they’re not in the front of the head, they’re on the side of the head. Why are the buck’s eyes on the side of its head? So that the buck can see what’s coming towards it, not what it is going towards.
So then you have these two sweets, we have two ways to use our attention – predatory and receptive. The character of receptive attention is silence. I mean, just as you sit there, just give attention to that noise of the coffee grinder. Just listen to it for a minute – and the voices in the background. How much are you thinking right now? Probably very little! You see, you’re hearing it. So when you give attention to something that’s actually going on you can’t think. Giving attention to what’s going on is the essence of dhikr. People say you’re getting this focus in dhikr. It’s not the way to do dhikr. You don’t focus on dhikr. You give attention to the dhikr, like you’re listening to the thing – the difference between looking at and listening to. Focus is not useful in terms of what we’re trying to do.
So this is a little trick and it has occurred to me now, in any situation that you’re in dhikr means that in that moment you give attention to things that are actually going on and be deliberate about it. Choose a couple of colours, choose a couple of sounds and you’ll find there’s a calmer person at the end of that because with the dhikr of Allah the heart becomes tranquil. Dhikr of Allah isn’t a noise you make in Arabic. Dhikr of Allah is to give attention to your Rabb. Where is your Rabb? Where’s Allah? He is in front of you right now. He’s wherever you turn your face, so give attention to Him and you’re doing dhikr. You can make all sorts of noises in Arabic and still have a noisy head. It’s not to say don’t do the noise in Arabic. It’s pleasant to do. But understand it’s a tool to achieve something.
..withdraw attention by putting attention on what’s going on around you.
The achievement is something that happens with your attention once you understand that you can use your attention like that all the time. All the punctuation points in the day. I mean, not just salah, over and above salah. And whenever you have a meeting, before you start talking to the person just give attention to a couple of sounds in the room and give attention to a couple of colours in the room so that you’re quiet and you’re in the room. As you get into your car when you’re about to drive, don’t just … brrrrr … you know! Spend a minute. Just feel the car. Get a couple of scents out of the car. What does the car smell like? What are a couple of colours in the car? What are the sounds you can hear around you? Once you know – I’m in this car now, I’m present – listen. This is a trick to help you with this thing of just dropping out of it as frequently as you can and use the punctuation points in the day to do that.
What’s keeping the story going is that there’s a tape recorder that’s running in the back of your head. So how do you switch off the tape recorder? Well, you just withdraw attention from it because it takes some attention for it to carry on. You withdraw attention by putting attention on what’s going on around you. Alhamdulillah.
May Allah Grant us success of this Path.
May Allah Grant us nearness to Him.
May Allah Grant us annihilation in Him.
May Allah Grant us death before we die.
This discourse was given by Shaykh Ebrahim after during the gathering in George on 28th September 2010.