Around the world, many of us are living like kings. We can indulge in sweets and entertainment at any hour of the day, cross continents, and live in homes with wall-to-wall carpeting. Increasingly, people seem to be dissatisfied and unhappy despite all of these comforts, luxuries, and immense blessings. America is a first-world nation, yet it is one of the most depressed countries in the world. It also ranks high in alcohol and drug abuse. Perhaps this is why Azrael (a demon played by Jason Lee in the 1999 comedy Dogma) muses that there’s “no pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater… than central air.” Convenience and comfort seem to deaden the heart, just as abject poverty crushes the spirit.
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ advised his companions to take advantage of 5 before 5. That is the blessings of youth, health, wealth, free time, and life before old age, illness, poverty, obligations, and death. Now, you may be reading this and thinking my youth is gone. Or is it? Jim Kwik reminds us that “today is the oldest you’ve ever been, yet the youngest you’ll ever be. Enjoy this day while it lasts.” Have you ever looked back on life and wondered what you did with your time? Or wished you had appreciated what you had while you had it?
I’ve heard many older women lament body-shaming themselves in their youth because with age they came to realize just how beautiful they were, and how challenging it is to get back into shape. However, so long as we have breath, we have time. I know we’ve all grown up, but I hope and pray that our child-like innocence is never lost. That we maintain that sense of wonder, awe, curiosity, and freshness (vitality), which is the flower of youth! Reclaim the blessings of your youth by realizing that today is the youngest you’ll ever be. And even though we can’t turn back time, we can appreciate this moment and what it means.
Health follows youth in this tradition because the two are related, as we age it’s important to take better care of ourselves. Illnesses are debilitating. Many of the leading causes of premature death can be prevented through simple changes in diet and lifestyle (How Not to Die). It’s easy to be negligent of our health at an early age. We’re fit and active, our metabolism is on fire, and we feel invincible. I remember reading a post about fitness influencers in their 20s lecturing people in their mid to late thirties and early forties. It was a little profane, but the gist of it was “don’t lecture me I looked like that too at your age and could eat anything!” Whole foods and a pure diet are simple blessings that we overlook. That’s why in many traditions there has always been a practice of pausing before feasting to give thanks. Before meals, the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan would say: “O Thou, the Sustainer of our bodies, hearts, and souls, Bless all that we receive in thankfulness.”
It may be fair to say that millions of people living in underdeveloped countries are far happier than those of us who eat beyond our fill and don’t have to worry about the bare necessities. What’s their secret? Perhaps it’s that they don’t take life for granted, and they still count their blessings. Poverty engenders gratitude for the most mundane things like clean water, fresh air, sunshine, and good company.
Wealth is of two types: one is material and the other spiritual. In terms of material wealth, the Prophet ﷺ said to look at the person who has less rather than the individual with more. There’s a story about a man who had no shoes, who was dejected until he met a man with no feet. This is an extreme example, but whenever we suffer an injury or any kind of physical alignment we suddenly appreciate how extremely fortunate we were to have had all our faculties in working order. Are we working for money, or is our money working for us? Wealth is of little use if it makes us miserly, insecure, greedy, and elitist.
“Wealth does not lie in an abundance of worldly goods,” said Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, “Rather, true wealth is the richness of the soul.” Do we feel content? Is our heart overflowing? In one of the most beautiful chapters of the Quran, Allah asks: “Have we not opened up your breast and removed your burden which had left you devoid of hope, and exalted your fame? Surely with hardship, there is ease. With hardship indeed there is ease. So when you are free work diligently, and turn to your Lord with all your love” (Al-Inshirah:1-8). Wealth can free up our time so that we might be employed fully in serving a Higher Purpose, and true wealth is evidenced by the state of our hearts.
It’s fascinating how each of these points builds upon the other. “So when you are free work diligently” because our responsibilities only increase with time. Our duties toward family, society, and this world become greater, heavier. Time contracts and we are no longer shielded from the realities of life and death. In Hinduism, it is believed that this world is Maya (literally, “that which is not,” or illusion). It’s also termed a Lila or Divine Play. Again signifying its transitory and unreal nature. But what a powerful play. One that confounds the mind and ensnares the senses. Most spiritual traditions remind us to use our time wisely. They further enjoin seeking a Divine Ideal or learning to be in the present moment. There is probably no blessing greater than presence. Time is our greatest commodity, “By the declining day, verily humanity is in loss” (Quran, 103).
Why are we in a state of loss? Because with the passage of time we come closer to death. Life is precious. None of us know how long we have to live. Nevertheless, we take life as a given and forget until someone’s passing reminds us of our mortality. “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls,” wrote John Donne, “it tolls for thee.” When we value the sanctity of life, along with its fragility, we become more conscious of the life force that animates all things and the air we breathe. On Saturday, January 22, 2022, the venerable Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh took his last breath, but he left us with his wisdom: “Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source.”
So how do we get used to the blessings of Allah until they become useless? By forgetting, we forget to breathe. Sufis, yogis, and spiritual adepts the world over have focused on the breath because it makes us aware. It’s grounding. All other blessings flow in and out from this most precious and natural gift. Mindfulness is the art of being attentive. Bringing more of our attention to the moment, to our meals, to one another, to our bodies, to everything we do. When we remember and give one-pointed attention to the present, we open ourselves up to appreciating the miracle of being.
From one needy of your dua,