Just Breathe: Hanan Dover

Hanan Dover

Australian Forensic Psychologist Hanan Dover speaks to Mspiration about how mindful  awareness leads to a more psychologically balanced  and spiritual existence.

A simple proposition: Mind awareness means paying more attention.

It is deeper than that. A lot of the times we respond to our minds in an automatic fashion. So in a way we can be on automatic pilot and be very instinctive and reactive to the way we respond to our environment. That requires no conscious concentration of one’s brain capacity and activity. We have to understand that our brain is neuroplastic, so that means we have the capacity as human beings to arrange our brain to respond in a positive or negative way to a variety of events. Our brains continuously changes in mass and capacity and as human beings we have the ability to perceive and understand the mind’s internal workings, the self talk that takes place in our minds, and also the ability to understand our inner and outer lives with more clarity. Now that requires conscious, focused, and sustained attention. Of spiritual importance as well, we are encouraged  to be sincere in what we do and that requires one to self reflect and understand what and why we do things.

What are the immediate benefits of being mindful?

It will not only help us understand ourselves but also our relationship with others. More importantly, by doing this we can attach and re-orient ourselves back to Allah SWT because the popular saying of early Muslim generation scholars – and it is also consistent with other religious traditions – to know yourself is to know your Lord.

With such flexible brains is it then just a matter reshuffling our thoughts and memories till we feel more positive about a particular situation?

Actually, it can work both ways. We can either use our brain capacity to our benefit – which means shifting our perspective or frame of reference to a more positive, constructive and optimistic thinking pattern – or we can do the exact opposite which is to ruminate. By that I mean dwelling on worries, focusing on distressing events and looking at the problem itself without solutions. When we do that we directly effect our emotions and develop negative thoughts that can lead to sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy and resentment. The idea is to consciously make the effort to refrain from such negative thinking styles to more helpful thinking patterns.

I am reminded of many hadiths and supplications of the Prophet PBUH counselling us on ways to decrease negative emotions. From dealing with anger to depression and anxiety.

The Prophet PBUH said when we become angry or upset at somebody to give them 70 excuses as why we should not be angry or upset with that person. Often, by the time we get to the 3rd excuse we do not need to go beyond that number and we would have felt better having given the benefit of the doubt, or we would have chosen a more helpful explanation to give for that person.
In modern psychological therapy, we advise our clients to restructure their unhelping thinking patterns, to give alternative solutions that are more constructive, helpful and realistic. SubhanAllah, this is already embedded in our religion where we are instructed to come up with alternative ways of reframing our negative assumptions of what may unnecessarily upset us.

Is it becoming more challenging to be aware of our thoughts in a fast paced world?

Yes, we have a lot of unhelpful distractions in our environments. When we are not conscious, and instead operating on auto-pilot in terms of what we are doing day to day, we tend to make rash decisions and we commit societal ills such as discrimination, sexism and racism. A lot of that lack of awareness is a product of the society that we actually live in because we conform to this fast-paced life that lacks social compassion. Other distractions include social networking sites. I also read somewhere that people check their Facebook before they go to work first thing in the morning. Or in the workplace they have to respond to so many emails, reading twitters or keeping up with fashion. We also, unfortunately, have so much entertainment now with no cognitive or spiritual value to enrich our lives.

What’s the end result of such an existence?

It numbs us, it makes us desensitised to tragedies. Things that used to be very important to us naturally at the human compassionate level years ago, now we just brush over. “Oh, it’s just another war. It’s just another death.” What I am a saying is with all that is going on and happening in our society what it is doing is that it is conditioning us to be socially degraded.

You mentioned the effect that it has on a societal level. When it comes to us personally, what are some of the negative repercussions of an unregulated mind?

Rumination is a big one that comes up in therapy because, as I said earlier, often people don’t know how to manage their thinking or regulate their emotions. It is so easy for us to fall back on unhelpful and negative-type thought processes. It takes more mental effort to be optimistic and to be positive especially when people are weakened by the influence of their external environments. It could be something that you see that you don’t like or something that someone says to you that immediately goes to the primitive, emotional side of the brain and once it’s hits there if we are not using our rational side of our brain potential, which is able to regulate our thoughts then we fall into ruminations. We focus on our distress and it’s consequences and we forget to use our spiritual intellect to rely on God to assist us whilst we are struggling. We are not focusing on solutions and this is unhealthy because it can only nurture more negative thinking. You spiral out of control until you reach rock bottom and it takes a huge mental shift to bring you back.

Many of us hit rock-bottom. Once we are down there, what steps can we take to begin the recovery.

The key to that, and this directly relates to mindful awareness, is to start  attending to your own breathing. I would say 90 percent of my clients, when I ask them to breath deeply and I look at their breathing patterns, it is always done incorrectly. A lot of people breath through their chest as opposed to through their gut region. When you breath through you chest you can actually create more anxiety and distress. You have to ensure that when you are breathing your gut region is moving and minimise any movement of your chest.

Can ruminating be addictive?

I wouldn’t say that because it is a disruptive thought process, and not an addictive behaviour. The thing about rumination is it is not part of our original human nature, because our natural inclination, our fitrah, is more positive and it is the conscious ability to understand and know Allah SWT. Rumination is alien and external to our original nature as human beings,  but we entertain this internally via our thought processes. We have the natural tendency to have negative thoughts (or waswas) but the challenge is what we do with it in order that we do not entertain them because they can be destructive to our overall wellbeing.

Is there anything that we can do physically to counter ruminating?

Yes, being mindful of activities that do not include dwelling on your negativity. For example, walking an hour a day is beneficial, but actively engaging in noticing and appreciating the environment around you is an important part of that process. In this way, you are seeing a different environment, the pleasantness of nature, all this conscious awareness stimulates the brain in a positive and beneficial manner. That is important because in extreme cases people who ruminate isolate themselves and confirm and reconfirm their pessimistic thought patterns. Even the right food is important too because the ingredients of our gut influences what goes to our brain. Even not brushing our teeth can have a negative effect, because swallowing bacteria that is built in our mouth travels to our stomach and also effects our moods.

I suppose junk food is a no-no.

Well with junk food you are simply not getting the nutrients that healthy foods can provide obviously and this directly effects your brain. You will remain ‘stuck in a rut’ because you need to have a healthy fed brain in order to process information properly. You have to realise that you need to feed the brain and the brain needs good food. But going back to the previous question, the most potent antidepressant is actually exercise and I mean rigorous exercise and not just walking. As Muslims we say Taqwa (God consciousness) is very important, but we cant expect to have Taqwa if we don’t feed our bodies healthy food, keep our thoughts mentally healthy, or actively move our physical bodies.

The spiritual benefits you are listing shows how Islam is not simply a spiritual and mental pursuit.

Islam doesn’t look at the mind and body separately. Instead Islam informs us that we are a biological, social, psychological and spiritual entity. They are all depended on each other and they work together to make us who we are as human beings. islam integrates these entities in a holistic, and not a reductionist manner.

I would like, if you don’t mind, to go back to tackling rumination as it is something plaguing a lot of us. Is there a strategy to combat it?

The first key to stopping rumination is to be aware you are ruminating in the first place. This is where mindful awareness comes in. You need to practice being mindful of your thoughts every day. For example, during your prayer, be conscious of every word that your are uttering. What you can do to sustain attention is to mentally print out every letter of what you are saying and think about the meaning of the words you are reciting. Another example, when you are walking, consciously look at the steps that you take, notice the people around you and what is changing in your body. When you make coffee, consciously notice how you make it, where you are seated to drink it and how it tastes. You need that sustained and focused attention, but unfortunately in today’s fast-paced and distracting world, we are not slowing down to be mindful of our thoughts and actions. We are mentally numb.

Hence the importance of the prayers, it acts as a dunya circuit breaker I suppose.

Five time a day we are told to put everything aside to pray to Allah and be mindful of his presence. That breaks this fast-paced and distractive cycle to remind us of our relationship with Him. That is also meant to be a stepping stone to be more mindful of Allah between the prayers so that the spiritual cognitions are at work.

SubhanAllah everything we are talking about here, all the roads does lead back to Allah SWT. If there is one thing that we can do right now to begin regaining control of our thoughts, what would you recommend?

Honestly, attend mindfully to your breathing. When you can regulate your breathing, you can manage your thoughts and regulate your emotions to keep your body in check and your mind focused. If your breathing is not regulated and managed, you can’t process mentally effectively, or maximise being spiritually aware. So start to develop a rhythm of regulated breathing, inhale for four seconds (gut expanding), hold it for two seconds, exhale for six seconds (gut contracting).

I am bad with numbers.

Then replace numbers with dhikr, when you breath in say ‘Allah’, hold it for two seconds, when you breath out say ‘Alhamdulilah’ or’ MashaAllah’ but nothing too long as it has to be consistent with breathing patterns. It is important that you focus on what you are saying and the meaning as well and to try and reduce external distractions. This way you are bringing spirituality and consciousness of Allah into regulated breathing patterns at the same time and you are accessing your mental, physical, and spiritual capacities. I normally start people off by doing  this exercise five times a day for about ten minutes each time, and spread it across the day, preferably including the first thing you do when you wake up and last thing you do before you sleep because that has its own psychological benefits. This breathing exercise will build sustained attention. Now there is no doubt your mind will drift and become distracted, but it is all about bringing your awareness back to the breathing and the dhikr recitation. Eventually, you will be able to step back and think before reacting in your day to day affairs.

The fact that we are constantly trying to  focus and refocus means this is an ongoing process. There is no guaranteed way to keep our mind in a permanent state of awareness.

I have never heard of being in a state of permanent awareness for human being, except that our spirit is permanently connected to God.  We need to use our human faculties such as the senses,  the brain and the aql (spiritual intellect) to work together to actualise our fitrah. It requires constant effort, and that’s what makes us who we are. Allah SWT gives us constant reminders in our scripture, our environment, our relationships with others, whilst accessing knowledge, and so on. The Arabic word for human, ‘insaan’, comes from the root world ‘nasyaan’, which means forgetting. This struggle of trying to remember our place on this earth does keep us humble, and it does help us understand who we are and acknowledges that we are prone to making mistakes because we are forgetful. This also motivates us to keep trying to remember our place, to re-orient ourselves back to our original human nature, Taqwa – God Consciousness – because at the end it of it all who are we trying to obey and please out of love? Allah SWT. That’s it. Nobody else. That is our journey of life.

Hanan Dover is a Forensic Psychologist and Managing Director of PsychCentral

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