Reflections on Stillness: Learning from Shaykh Mendes

By Abu Sofian Eunos

Solitude

I once asked Shaykh Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes (Shaykh Mendes) how he was so peaceful all the time. I told him that despite working in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I didn’t have the tranquillity which he had. Shaykh Mendes replied with a serene smile, “Everywhere you go, bring the Garden with you”. His answer helped to shed light on my understanding of what it meant to be at peace with oneself. How does one become still even though there are so many distractions and irritants in this world? What practices should one follow in order to nurture such a virtue?

The virtue of being still, or being at peace with oneself is not separate from the virtue of mindfulness. If mindfulness can be described as “doing only one thing at any given time”, then I have been guilty of being hasty too many times. Shaykh Mendes expounded on his advice and told us to find someplace in nature truly wild and sit there in contemplation. Could this be the very reason why history is filled with stories of saints and scholars who are surrounded with beautiful nature? Is there a link between the physical landscape, its harsh climate or need for resourcefulness just to survive? After all, the renowned scholar Habib Ahmad Mashur al-Haddad called people to Islam in Tanzania, the “Owner of the Flood”, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse invited people to the religion in Senegal, West Africa and even the “Proof of Islam”, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali went out on a journey of self-discovery in the wilderness.

There lies a humbling lesson whenever one sits in nature. One such place that I’ve did contemplation in is the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This place, rich with history that spans across World War 2 during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore might seem like an odd place for spiritual healing. Yet, I wanted to know what Shaykh Mendes meant by his advice. It turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences in my entire life.

I once did a similar activity called a Sacred Walk, where you take a walk somewhere in nature, be conscious of your breathing and with each step, be grateful for something. In other words, it was another way of counting your blessings. That exercise was spurred on by the Quranic injunction in Surah Ibrahim, Verse 7, “..Surely if you are grateful, I will increase you..”. This time round, it seems that upon finding a place to do contemplation, my mind went blank. I didn’t know what to think about or what to say. Should I close my eyes or should I leave them open? Then there was the distraction of everything else going around me, from the crickets that cling onto you to the squirrels moving on the branches and even the thought of horror movies coming to life. It might sound easy, but learning to calm the mind is not an easy feat.

With one’s eyes closed, the mind starts its incessant chatter. I recall what Shaykh Zachary Wright said about his Hindu roommate who told him to sit and repeat a two-syllable word again and again. Shaykh Zachary Wright mentioned that what came to his mind was to repeat “Allah” again and again. I realized that contemplation can be of God’s Divine Names and Attributes through the repetition of them. In some traditions, it’s deeply emphasized that the number of repetitions are significant in the process too.

Once you begin, you no longer return the same person. Repetition of the Divine Names, Divine Attributes and sending salutations upon the noble Prophet Muhammad sallAllahu alayhi wasalam was no mere movement of the tongue. For the person who is truly sincere in reciting them, it is not about lip service or parroting. For those who have sincerity (ikhlas) and truthfulness (sidq) the recitation can evoke certain spiritual states of ecstasy. Such a state can only be through discipleship with a Spiritual Master, who are like doctors of the spiritual heart. These are sages who can diagnose your spiritual illnesses and who give you prescriptions on what to recite on a daily basis based on the barriers that you have built around your truest self.

Imagine being someplace in nature with the most breath-taking sceneries, how would you feel? Picture being in Norway with the Aurora Borealis across the night sky, what kind of impact would that have on your spirituality? Visualize yourself on top of a mountain overlooking valleys, rivers and streams, what would that bring to your mind? How about sitting underneath a small waterfall as the water gushes on you, cleansing you of every impurity? Just the mention of these situations and a little bit of imagination can make one feel much more relaxed. But the virtues of contemplation and meditation extend beyond the need to feel ‘relaxed’ or to have one’s problems solved. The centrality of contemplation and meditation is to recognize the Kingdom of God that lies within you and to manifest the Muhammadan words, deeds and state into your everyday life. In other words, follow the footsteps of the Best of Creation, Prophet Muhammad sallAllahu alayhi wasalam. Perhaps, when Shaykh Mendes told me to bring the garden with me wherever I went, he meant just that.

Bring the garden in you wherever you go and go back to the place where nature and your natural state of being (fitrah) converges in a Harmonic Convergence of the Divine Kingdom. Perhaps, that’s the lesson for us all.