Play Like Roy Rogers and Slow Down

The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said: “do not become angry/لا تغضب.” While we’re often given prophetic advice, we’re seldom given practical steps on how we might achieve it. Here’s a small exercise that I have been working on myself: slow breathing.

Slow your breathing down. See if you can attain somewhere between four to six breaths per minute. Start out with a 5-minute exercise and slowly increase the time (10 minutes, 20 minutes). This will be much slower than how you normally breathe. You should, with practice, feel your adrenaline rush curb and start to gain control over your actions and emotions. As Kelly McGonigal says,

“Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.”

As a matter of fact, you can apply this technique to any number of situations in which you need to master your impulses and urges. As God says in the Qur’an,

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَى

فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى

“But as for him who feared the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge.” Qur’an, 79: 40-41.

Recommended reading: Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.

Nafs Ammarah

As a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country, I am always on the lookout for things in popular culture from which I might derive a reminder [dhikr ذكر] of Islam, of Reality, and perhaps of the Life To Come. I have found this to be an increasingly important exercise, both for me personally, as well as for the students of classes I teach on Islamic studies. What I mean here is not attempting to ascribe any certain thing with a level of “Islamicity” or Muslim’ness that is not there, but rather, looking at stories and narratives that remind me of that which Allah has written in His Book. One such instance happened yesterday.

The words nafs ammarah, or the commanding self, are found in the Qur’an, in surah Yusuf [Joseph], in which Allah says:

وما أبرئ نفسي إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“And nor was I [Joseph] completely free of blame. The self commands to evil acts, save that which my Lord has mercy upon me. Surely, my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Q 12: 53]

This passage in the Qur’ān on the nafs ammārah relates to us part of the story of Prophet Yusuf [Joseph], and his test when the king’s wife attempted to seduce him.  Yusuf relates that the temptation was there, that his soul wished to entice him to evils deeds.  It was only through God’s mercy and grace that he was able to resist.

The above passage came to me as I recently chanced upon a film I watched as a kid entitled, They Live!, by John Carpenter. In summary, the film is about a man, a drifter, who by happenstance, stumbles upon the stunning reality that the human race has been subdued by a group of space aliens that have enslaved humans through advanced subliminal techniques. When the main character dons a pair of special sunglasses, he is able to see the Unseen: billboards are really devices that command humans to consume, have sex, or to obey, as well as being able to see the aliens for who they really are [ghoulish, lizard like beings]. Even money, when viewed through the sunglasses, have the words “this is your god” written on them. To be sure, the movie is quite comical and the dialog stiff. Nonetheless, I found it to be an intriguing visual example of how the nafs ammārah works. And while the nafs is an internal phenomenon, it still commands us to act upon things in the external world, making the film a worthwhile glance at a Qur’ānic principle on human psychology.

They Live! is based on the short story, Eight O’clock In The Morning, by renowned science-fiction author, Ray Nelson. I have posted the short story here as well as a link to the film They Live! for your B-movie enjoyment.

Note: if you have the opportunity to see Dr. Sherman Jackson speak, ask him to relate to you how Terminator 2 moved him to tears, as it reminded him of how the Prophet [s] had to deliver a message, one in which many people refused to believe him because they could not see what he saw, similar in the way no one believe Sarah Connor. A worthwhile treat!

Note 2: The last part of the movie features some nudity and may be avoided. You’ll get the gist of it by then and can skip the final scene.

Note 3: See this piece on Salon.com about Jonathen Lethem’s film analysis of Carpenter’s film, They Live, A Novel Approach to Cinema. Hat tip to Stephen for the link.

Note 4: A khutbah that pertains to similar aspects of the soul.