Thanking Big

I’d just finished getting my hair cut and styled at the one salon in London that specializes in curls only to walk out the door to find it was pouring rain. The nearest Tube station was shut that Saturday for engineering works, so I scurried down the side streets of the West London neighborhood to the closest alternative, about a 20-minute walk away.

Determined to protect my neatly defined coils from unravelling into a mass of frizz, I huddled under the red umbrella with a duck-head handle I carry with me every day.

 Google Maps recommended I walk through Portobello Market, where merchants selling vintage clothing, handbags and antiques seemed as unperturbed by the rain and near-zero January temperatures as the hundreds of would-be shoppers crowding the length of the road.

With no interest in shopping, my entire focus was to protect my hair from the rain. I tried carefully to navigate my way through the sea of umbrellas without poking anyone in the eye with the exposed metal spike that never failed to come undone from the nylon canopy at inconvenient moments like that one.

Before entering the final stretch of the street market, I came to an intersection. The pedestrian signal had just turned red, so I waited at the corner of the sidewalk, oblivious to the large puddle of water that had accumulated at the curb beneath my feet. Before I had a moment to look down or back away, a car sped through the pool of rainwater, which splashed up and left me totally drenched from the waist down.

I paused for a moment from the shock.

But I didn’t get angry.

I didn’t feel moved to curse out loud at the driver or complain bitterly to whoever was close enough to hear.

Nor did I feel embarrassed at being the only pedestrian at the intersection who seemed to lack the foresight to leave a little distance from the curb.

I felt — grateful.

Alhamdulillah,” I mumbled to myself as I looked down at my skirt and tights that were soaked through to the skin. “Ashukrlillah.”

“Splash” by WS Squared Photography

The reaction surprised me. Not that long ago, a similar sequence of events would have sent me spinning into feelings of self pity, self-consciousness and whining at how unfair the universe was.

But something is shifting in me now. I hear Dede’s voice in my head urging us, as an important first step to spiritual transformation, to stop complaining and seeing the problems in everything. Each moment contains a reason to be grateful, he says. Gratitude to be alive, conscious, breathing. Even when we’re irritated and dissatisfied, we can be thankful for whatever the Divine Reality, Allah, has in store for us each day.

The sufi way encourages us to do a lot of self-reckoning in order to allow God to flow through every moment and circumstance of life. For me, the most profound breakthroughs in spiritual maturity have happened during those everyday moments when the impulse to complain is most palpable. Instead of grumbling, I can make a conscious choice to be patient and grateful.

Sure, my ankle-length water-proof boots were now dripping wet, but the torrent had just missed the bag hanging off my shoulder in which I’d been carrying around a couple of precious books. They managed to stay dry, Alhamdulillah. My hands and legs felt icy, yet I imagined the cozy apartment awaiting me and the cup of herbal tea I would make to warm up my frozen fingers. It’s a comfort I often take for granted.

Even my newly highlighted hair somehow managed to stay dry. The unforeseen splash was a reminder of how much I appreciate the shifting of the seasons. Just a few years ago, I’d yearned for spring, autumn and winter after living for eight years in the desert climate of the Arabian Gulf.

One of the 99 Names of God is Ash-Shakur, the Rewarder of Thankfulness. We learn that this name — as all the others — is manifest in the Divine Reality and latent in humans. By invoking a name repeatedly and meditating on it, we can activate the quality within ourselves to the point that, over time, it becomes second nature. Doing so is helping to make me more aware of abundance and less fixated on lack, as Rumi captures beautifully in the poem, The Net of Gratitude:

Giving thanks for abundance
is sweeter than the abundance itself.

Should one who is absorbed
with the Generous One
be distracted by the gift?

Thankfulness is the soul of beneficence;
abundance is but the husk,
for thankfulness brings you to the place
where the Beloved lives.
– Rumi, Mathnawi III, 2895-2897

(Translation by Camille and Kabir Helminski)

I recently became re-acquainted with a story of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. It describes him awake in the wee hours of the morning, weeping as he reads the Quran. He’s been standing for so long that his feet are swollen. His wife Aisha inquires why he is putting himself through such hardship when Allah has already forgiven him for his faults, past and future.

In a response that is equally powerful and humbling, he asks: “Shall I not be a thankful servant?”

I can see now that complaining is a choice, one that I spent a lifetime mastering. I understand that I am my own obstacle on the way to grace. So instead of complaining in a big way, I’m striving to be radically grateful. To express my thanks for even the smallest of blessings by the measure of all the stars in the sky … all the leaves on the trees … all the cells in my body … even all the raindrops on a cold winter’s day.

Somehow, thanking big is widening my consciousness and perspective. It’s not that difficult thoughts, feelings of being dealt a short hand, “poor me” impulses, or the urge to blame someone else go away. Yet I’m getting better at witnessing the arrival of these feelings and acknowledging their presence without being pulled into them in a heated reaction.

After the big splash on that Saturday afternoon, the crossing light turned green. As I made my way to the subway station in my soaking-wet clothes, I was struck by a strange sensation of being grateful for Gratitude itself. What a blessing it is to realize it resides within. Alhamdulillah.

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