1. A Lesson on Repentance, Mercy, and Compassion
I know a man who is a convicted felon. We will call him Mr. Z. He is the only felon I know. I rarely hang with that particular crowd.
Mr. Z did four years in a medium security prison. When the cell door slammed, the hard clap of steel on steel was oddly comforting, he told me. He desired a reprieve from the monstrous crime he had committed and a release from the maladaptive coping mechanisms that had defined his life. Mr. Z longed to be unburdened from his self-destructive cycles. Based on the nature of his conviction, the only way out of his toxic wheel was through the legal system.
He realized that once behind bars, there was nowhere to go for four years except towards his inner core. It was a journey he desperately wanted to take.
Mr. Z went into solitary confinement for three months and he cried every day. The cell became saturated with his remorse and sorrow. Yet, in this lamented deluge, an old toxic self started to subside.
There was silence. Then, there was stillness. He read books like Be Here Now from Ram Dass, The Bible, and The Qu’ran. He eventually adopted Buddhist meditative spiritual practice and embraced bodhicitta (compassion) as a personal philosophy. What was once a man who spread hurt, he consciously decided to become a vessel of compassion for the benefit of all beings.
His bodhicitta landed on me. Mr. Z came into my life just as I had left my marriage. I was high of the fumes of self-authenticity, consumed with letting go of labels and recalibrating my life in order to be my best self. Yet, despite these Oprah Winfrey-esqe assertions, fear bordered every breath I took. What a heavy weight to exhale virulence into the world.
When I met him, I faced a month on food stamps, the fear of homelessness, and eventually a low wage job at a mental health facility. Thankfully, there was the magic of writing, and yet, I struggled to resuscitate an Islamic identity, any identity, outside of marriage. Ironically, I left my marriage, in part, to be free to define my faith. Imagine when I felt that I was no longer worthy of God at all.
If self-loathing and shame came as narcotic-laced confectionary, I would have overdosed while trying to swallow. All of my perceived bad parts seemed to trip me at every step. Mr. Z took the toxic candy box from my hands and steered me forward.
He showed me the possibilities that emerged when one let go of labels, when one greeted personal fears with a hello and then shooed them off. He had fallen to the very bottom of American society and then resurfaced with an operating system focused on purposeful enlightenment. Mr. Z personified self-compassion as a required life skill. He demonstrated that I must be patient with my path, for even during my worst moments, I can remain in joyful motion towards a better self.
In his example, I witnessed the living embodiment of repentance, mercy and compassion.
The other lesson he provided was that sometimes, in the moving forward, we have to take time to stand still.
2. On Love and The Forgiver and Hider of Faults
All good stories must include love and loss.
The Prof is a man I loved so profoundly that my bone marrow vibrated at the sound of his name. He was the first person who could see the all of me and found it to be something good. The Prof followed my media appearances and promoted my writing. We emailed almost daily and discoursed on divergent, philosophical matters. I found in him a mirror soul. He was my witness: my shahid, after a long drought of invisibility.
If you can imagine, every insecurity in all dimensions emerged in my relationship with him: he doesn’t like me because I’m fat, Muslim, ugly, stupid, divorced, I have a kid. Sometimes, I felt like he did care about me, indeed, but somehow struggled with it. I had to swallow myself whole when I told him I loved him. His response was kind but sad.
“All I can offer is friendship,” he said, “because my life journey is to be alone.”
My interpretation of his statement suggested that I had a metaphysical defect that made me unworthy of his affection. After all, he took time to see my being deeper than others and yet he still did not want me. If he could witness the all of me and not care, then I must be horrible, disgusting, cosmically flawed.
My bone marrow wept at his departure from my life. I recalled Mr. Z who said that things fall apart to regrow stronger. I grew an exoskeleton that sang praises of how the Prof broke me in all the right places. In my experience with him, I witnessed my capacity and strength to love. I unfurled this new self-awareness into thankfulness.
Despite my pain and disappointment, I put out bodhicitta for the Prof. In every prayer that passes, I ask God to gift my love to him, even if it must arrive through someone else.
What a wonderful attribute to know about myself.
3. Notes on The Preserver, The Resurrector
I left my marriage a year and a half ago and I have not rested since. There was a life to rebuild, an internal operating system to update, a felon to illuminate my path and a professor to break my heart.
This Ramadan will not be communal for me. This time will be my own solitary confinement where I will weep when I need, I will seek forgiveness as appropriate, I will reflect upon bodhicitta towards humanity and for myself. This month arrives at the cusp of even more personal transformation. Mr. Z reminded me that wherever we are on our path, it is the exact place we are meant to be. And now, I am here greeting Ramadan, and I shall be still.
Stillness and solitude will be my spiritual practice during the next month. There will be no rush to define relationships, to fall in love with someone new, to worry about my weight, or to ruminate over what is next for me.
I shall be still.
There was a time during Mr. Z’s solitary confinement, when a new self was starting to throw light out of the broken spots, that he looked up and uttered,
“OK God, I am ready. Now, just show me what to do.”
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Love, Inshallah contributor, a www.patheos.com/blogs/loveinshallah editor, and author of Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits. She has also contributed to altmuslimah.com and Muslimah Media Watch. Deonna is currently working on a memoir. To learn more, visit her website, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.