Ramadan: A Time Of Critical Reflection And Courageous Truth Telling

Terry* readers, yesterday I began a month long journey through a mental, physical and emotional detox program. Not to worry, I’ll still be online chatting and posting reflections, but I will be on a bit of a technology diet over the next little while. I’ll be disconnecting from social networking, taking a break from email, and decreasing my love of my cellphone. My iPod will be relegated to a drawer, my television will go ignored, and in all ways, I’ll strive to dial down the background noise of daily existence.

And with the space that opens up as a result, I’ll be examining myself with a magnifying glass, clearing away mental clutter, and shining and polishing myself up for the year ahead. The detox program that I describe is the month of Ramadan, a month where Muslims worldwide fast.  (If you’re intrigued about this looks like, do check out this seriously stunning set of photos by the Boston Big Picture on Ramadan in different countries. The photo collection is from last year, but is still well worth a peruse. Or check out Obama’s Ramadan message here-the first few minutes are a good intro to the month).

(Editor’s note: Post publication of this piece, the 2009 Ramadan photo collection was released, and can be found here.)

For me, Ramadan is about two things (well really about lots of things, but two things for sure). It’s about the act of fasting itself, (going without food and drink between sunrise and sunset), and it’s about critical self analysis and reflection as well. It’s about exerting oneself to eliminate negative habits and strengthen positive ones.

This first aspect of the month widens your understanding of what it’s like to go without, and encourages you to help those who experience hunger all year long, and not simply during four weeks of the year. It helps you to stand in solidarity with others, and on a deeper level, reminds you of your own fragility and that the natural environment that sustains you is to be respected.  Once you’ve experienced the joy of drinking your first sip of water of the day, it becomes difficult to be passive about the health of our planet.

This component of Ramadan, the actual act of abstaining from food and drink, is a compelling call to social involvement and active awareness of daily blessings.  Your gratitude for access to clean water, nutritious food, shelter from the sun, and other essentials acts as a catalyst to wake up and engage with the world.

Beyond sharpening one’s awareness of the realities of hunger though, Ramadan is also about increasing in the self understanding necessary to successfully engage with others. The month provides an opportunity to look deeply inward and answer honestly: what do I need to improve about myself? Do I like the way my life is going? Am I doing what is personally meaningful? What is the state of my relationships with others?

It is a time of quietening down and listening. A time of critical reflection and courageous truth telling.

Which isn’t to say that Ramadan is about being a hermit. An angry fast is not meaningful; it is imperative to refrain from getting angry, gossiping, becoming frustrated, feeling envious..(conjure up a negative behaviour, and the fast is an exercise in ceasing that habit and strengthening your personal character muscles). The difficulties one encounters when actively focusing on ‘being good’ so to speak, provide important indicators about areas that need work.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, at the same time as focusing on eliminating negative habits, Ramadan is about concentrating on increasing positive ones such as being generous, spending time with family, feeding others, reviving community ties and of course, increasing in prayer, among other positive qualities and habits.

The goal is that after a month of focusing intently on personal development and reflection, you’ve developed strong habits to carry you through the year till the next Ramadan comes around. (I love the way Zafar Nomani described Ramadan in a recent piece in the Washington Post when he said: “Ramadan is like an annual continuing education workshop on how becoming a better citizen of the world.” I couldn’t agree more.)

In fact, reading the above I am reminded of a keynote lecture by Severn Suzuki at the UBC Student Leadership Conference a few years ago. In her talk, Severn spoke about how beginnings are precious because they give us permission and space to reflect, and how in our struggles for social change, it is vital to be “joyful warriors”. To be at peace with peace itself, and at war with war itself.  For before we can create peace in the world, we must have inner peace, and have our own houses in order.

And that indeed is a sentiment you’ll find at the heart of Ramadan as well.

I’ll still be blogging and may post Ramadan reflections from time to time as the days and weeks progress, but for now, to all engaging in the month or perhaps experiencing a day or two, sincere wishes for a beautiful month of tranquility and truth and beauty, and sincere wishes for a month that helps our planet to be a healthier place for all.

And a broader question to all terry* readers: how do you create space for reflection in your own daily life?

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at http://seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.