Practical Spirituality: Using The 4 Stages Of Behavioural Change To Transform Our Souls08 May 2020
For thirty days during Ramadan, we place ourselves in the shoes of millions of people in the world who experience hunger on a daily basis. One of the intended purposes behind abstaining from food and drinking from dawn to sunset is to build compassion for the less fortunate and instill humility in our hearts.
Though, on a more profound level, Ramadan is not merely about abstinence from physical needs and pursuits. Rather, it is a time to build our spirituality and refine our manners. When we fast, it must be a fast for the mind, body, and soul. Hence, this month presents the best time to strengthen our spirit on the quest of our inner struggle (jihad al-nafs).
In the Arabic language jihad al-nafs means struggles against the inner self. Through this struggle, the human being is taught self-control, and purification through abstinence from one’s desires, powers of lust, anger, and insatiable imagination. In the struggle against the self, one has to learn how to understand, process and take control of the “darkness” that lies deep inside of him.
In light of the above, we will explore in this article a practical, step-by-step guide on how to change unwanted behaviours in order to tame our nafs (lower self) and gain closeness to the Divine.
Self reflection is the process by which we build our understanding of who we are, what our values are, and why we think and act the way we do. Observe your thoughts and emotions and look inwards with curiosity to derive an understanding of what is serving your growth and what is hindering it. Take time to analyse your beliefs – about yourself and others – as well as behaviours in order to gain a true insight and do the inner work to evolve as a person.
Start your days with gratitude and end them with self-reflection. Be sure to write your thoughts down. This will give you a clearer view on what needs to be practically addressed and changed.
An example of this is someone who’s been noticing his tendency to run his mouth about other people in their absence. He starts by asking himself “why did I say that about this person?”, “where is this coming from?”, “why am I only talking about this particular individual?”, “how is this making me feel?”, “am I a backbiter?”, coupled with thoughts like “this doesn’t feel right, maybe I need to do something about it.”
2. Prepare and Plan
Thought precedes action. Hence, being aware of our thoughts is the stepping stone to manifesting better behaviours. Practicing self-reflection regularly will uncover our unconscious false beliefs, distortions in our thoughts and prejudices. This in turn will highlight the steps we need to take on the journey from who we are now to who we’d like to become.
Make an intention to treat your emerging thoughts as data rather than facts. Then, analyse this data to come up with an action plan to change unproductive behaviours. Focus on shifting your mindset as this will ensure that whatever actions you take will have lasting effects.
Using the previous example, the man with the backbiting habit introspectively seeks answers to his questions and realises that he has some underlying unpleasant feelings (prejudice, jealousy, or envy) towards the person he keeps gossiping about. He then decides to be more mindful of his reaction during conversations about that particular person and to hold his tongue and remind himself of his own shortcomings when he has the urge to backbite.
3. Condition and Resolve
Maintaining a new behaviour is the most challenging part of any change. Relapsing, on the other hand, is a natural part of this process. When we view relapse as an additional stage rather than a failure, we’ll be much more likely to quickly get back on track.
Integrate the new behaviour into your daily routine. Recruit some form of support; having an accountability buddy can be a great way to stay on track. Avoid triggers and temptations. Be kind to yourself if you do relapse.
After being consistent for a couple of months, the man with the backbiting habit falls off of the wagon and repeats his old behaviour. This makes him realise that in order to be successful, he needs to avoid the company of certain people and maybe have a heart-to-heart conversation with that person he’s been backbiting.
Now that we’ve introduced a new conscious practice into our daily routine, it’s crucial that we constantly evaluate our performance and how effectivene this intervention has been, so we can build on and improve our experience.
Remember this is a process and not a quick fix, so be patient. Tweak your plan as you go. Judge your performance, but don’t be too hard on yourself. It is vital that you practice self-compassion when you relapse. In addition, learn to take a break when you’ve reached your limit. This will decrease the chances of you quitting out of frustration.
Keeping with the above example, when our friend relapses, he takes a step back and reminds himself that he’s not a “backbiter”, but rather he’s a good person with a bad habit. He speaks softly and with compassion to himself “I had a fall back, its okay. I will try harder.” and stays away from destructive self-criticism, such as “I am a failure. I can’t seem to get this right. It’s hopeless.” He makes the necessary tweaks (avoids bad influence, and speaks to the person directly) and keeps moving forward.
The stages of the change model, which the above steps are a loose adaptation of, is a model of intentional change. It suggests that in order for any change to be potent and long-lasting, it needs to come from a place of consciousness and continuous self-care, which reflects the spiritual and material manifestations of the month of Ramadan.
The magnitude of the holy month of Ramadan lies in the mercy and forgiveness that is bestowed upon us by the Almighty during this time; coupled with our innate desire for self-improvement. Hence, using this month to do our inner work can provide healing for the ailments of our souls and, in turn, bring us closer to living a more authentic and connected life.