How to let compassion flow in your religious & spiritual life...Dr. Rose Aslan & Samia Bano...

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SAMIA: Hello, Salam, Shalom, Namaste, Aloha, Sat Sri Akal, Holah, Aloha... did I say that already? But it's always good to say another Aloha. And Ciao and Bonjour!

It's so good to be with you again today. And I'm sure you'll be very, very happy you're joining me today too because we have a very special guest, Dr. Rose Aslan, who is a Transformational Life Coach and Academic. And I'm so excited you are here with us today, please jump in Sister Rose and tell us more about who you are and what you do.

DR. ROSE: Assalamualaikum Samia, lovely to be here and thank you for having me. Maybe I can request that we just take a breath together before we start anything. So we can just take one deep breath, this is what I love to start with, (breath)… Okay, that's good… Something I always remind people I work with, and everyone around me, is that “lets breathe”. So who am I, what do I do? You invited me in my capacity as a Transformational Life Coach, so I think I'll focus on that. And in this path I've chosen to take, I work with women, primarily spiritually oriented women, and often Muslim women but not always, who would like to create transformation in their life. They feel they might be at a point where they're stuck, they're burnt out, especially after nearly two years of this pandemic lifestyle. They don't know where to go, but they know they want to go somewhere better and somewhere different. They're tired of the patriarchy in whatever religion they're from. They want to often stay or grapple with their religious tradition. They're not looking to leave it usually, but they don't want to adhere to it according to mainstream practice and conservative approaches which are primarily the ones that dominate our landscape. And so they want to explore their spirituality, they want to explore their beliefs, their values, their goals, their life vision, and to start a fresh approach to their life.

SAMIA: That is really amazing. I'm so glad that you do this work because there are a lot of us who are in that kind of position. And you know, talking about helping people in these positions, one of the things that I love the most about you and your approach, is how grounded you are in compassion. Can you tell me more about what compassion means to you, and how you think about it, and how you utilize it in your work?

DR. ROSE: Yeah, sure. So first of all, I think we didn't mention the name of my coaching practice is "Compassion Flow Coaching". And so the reason why I named it… I was trying to think of a name for my business and I was like, “what is the word I use the most?” And then I was speaking to some friends, everyone said, “it's compassion -- that's the word you use all the time”. And I thought of the word flow, because I wanted compassion to flow in my life as well as the life of my clients. And so compassion really is this pivotal concept that I embrace in my life and then share with others. I embrace compassion both from my perspective of being a Westerner, whatever that means. You know, I've been inspired by scholars and speakers such as Dr. Kristin Neff, who's an academic, who studies self-compassion and self-love. She has a number of books that are on this topic. She... When I read her work I was quite inspired because she said that self-love, self-compassion is a huge motivator that will help us seek out a better life. Whereas fear is actually a really bad way to motivate ourselves. It's not going to get us to the height of our life that we are really looking for. So on once... one end, I'm really invested in compassion as a Westerner…looking at evidence-based practices. But then on the other end, I'm also a Muslim and I think about the world, I try to think about the world, from a Qur'anic framework. So when I think about this phrase that Muslims always say, it's a prayer, “Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim”. “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate”. This is something that Muslims... most Muslims, I don't know how many times they say this a day. They say it countless times a day. Most Muslims wouldn't be able to tell you how many times a day they say this prayer because they say it in their regular prayers, they say before they eat, before they drive, before, really, any activity whatsoever. It's a way to start anything new.

And so this prayer, this phrase contained within it, acknowledgement of God and starting everything with the acknowledgement and awareness of God. But primarily God in terms of God's feminine attributes. When we say Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim, we're referring to the “Jamali” attributes of God, which are the beautiful attributes of God, in contrast to the “Jalali” or the majestic attributes of God. And the Jamali, or the beautiful attributes of God, are attributes that are really going back to the feminine qualities of our divine Creator… so God as a Merciful, Compassionate, All-Forgiving being.

And then we can't forget that in the Arabic word we have, “Rahman and Raheem”, both of them go back to the root “Ra-H-Ma”... and the word “rahma” in Arabic actually refers to “womb”. And so the concept of compassion and mercy and closeness and bonding and this attribute of God goes back to this very feminine attribute of going back to the womb. So for me, compassion is a very feminine aspect of our lives. And I believe that there exists feminine-masculine energy in the world. And we all have both types of energy in ourselves. It's just that in this world masculine energy tends to dominate us and tends to dominate our society. And so I'm of the belief that we need to bring back more of these feminine energies and qualities into our lives, so that we can live a more holistic life. So compassion is living a life that's based on kindness to others, not on competing with others, that's based on considering what others need as well as what we need as well. And then we can talk more about self-compassion which is part of this bigger concept of compassion.

SAMIA: Yes, I just love it. You just shared so many amazing pearls of wisdom right there. You know, one of the questions that's really coming to my mind right now is, you were just talking about how central this concept of compassion is in the Quranic concepts and in the Islamic framework if you look at it from this kind of Qur'anic perspective. And I'm a Muslim, you know, I love the Quran, it's my Holy Scripture, my source of guidance and all of that good stuff, you know. And so I hear what you're saying, I love what you're saying, I'm on the same page with you. And I also recognize that there are so many people in our community who don't see it that way, who don't relate to the Quran, to Islamic teachings, from this kind of compassionate perspective. Can you talk a little bit more about why that is?

DR. ROSE: Yeah, sure. So the reason why there's so many people in the world who don't seem to have much compassion, for themselves or for others -- and this is beyond Muslims, this is just individuals around the world -- is because they weren't raised with it, you know. And so many individuals around the world have a history of trauma, intergenerational trauma… and it's really hard to foster a sense of compassion within yourself if you have no idea what that even means, what that looks like, what it feels like. So you've been raised in a household that is unsafe, that has a lot of hostility, or anger, or violence, you're going to think of compassion as a foreign concept. It might just be a word that has no meaning to you, even the word love might have no meaning to you, if you've never received it, it's an abstract concept. And so the issue with Islam, or any other tradition, is that the tradition itself does not promote violence. But unfortunately, there's people within the tradition who do use the Qur'anic texts and other parts of Islamic doctrine in order to justify their acts of violence. Now their acts of violence are on them and usually are not carried out for the right reasons. And so in this context we have to understand what is it that led them to be violent, what is it that led them to run away from compassion?

And you know, I've been studying a lot of psychology lately, and understanding things like “polyvagal theory” and studying the work of Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote “The Body Keeps the Score"... I was lucky enough to attend some seminars of his. And what I discovered is that most of us have trauma, most of us have unprocessed trauma. And most of us are living disembodied, completely disconnected from our bodies, and we're passing that on to our children as well. And so if we're unable to live a healthy life, that we feel grounded and connected and loved and safe, it's gonna be really hard to feel the sense of compassion that I'm talking about and to understand it and to embody it. So we think about people, and Muslims for example, and why often Islam appears to be a fear-based religion. It's not because it is, it's because that people have trauma, people need support. People need to receive support from within their communities. Beyond religious scholars they need help from mental health professionals, from therapists… And so they need help coming into themselves, to come... to return home to themselves, everyone is just so disembodied in this world.

SAMIA: Yeah.

DR. ROSE: And so I attribute a lot of this to trauma, and to the fact that if you have a traumatic life and you look out in the world with that perspective… and so that's why you're going to see a lot of people with this very harsh perspective and interpretation of Islam… That explains this partly, of course. I'm not able to give a blanket analysis of every single Muslim in the world and why they might have an outlook that's harsher than it is loving. But it's just a sense of understanding more generally why there are people who do present Islam as a very harsh, violent, and misogynistic religion.

SAMIA: Yes. Now, I think whatever other factors might play into why people practice Islam in a fear-based way, this is certainly one of the root causes. You know, one of the sayings that was, like, really popping into my mind as you are speaking is, "hurt people, hurt people". And that is something that I have come to recognize very, very deeply in my life also. I'm a trauma survivor myself. And I know... I not only was hurt, but when I was hurting, I hurt a lot of people. And oftentimes it was the people who were closest to me. And especially in my case, you know, my little sister… because she was one of the few people in my life that I felt I had power over, and I felt free to treat her in any way I wanted in terms of... if I was feeling angry, she was probably one of the only people in my life I felt free to be angry with, or be angry at, you know. And so unfortunately, you know, I certainly have experienced this for myself. And I hear very much what you're saying, and I appreciate what you're saying because, you know, your understanding of this issue, in this context, in these terms, is actually a very compassionate lens through which to look at it. So thank you, thank you for that.

DR. ROSE: Well, thank you Samia for being vulnerable in this space, because it's not easy to talk about these sorts of things. And people might say, "oh, she's… it’s so easy for her to talk about compassion". Well, actually, compassion is more of a newer thing in my life as well. I was not raised in a household where compassion was a concept that was understood. I was raised in an unsafe home where I felt very insecure, I wasn't being witnessed, I wasn't being… I had love, but love through... how would you say it, love through... lack of security, really. Love that doesn't come, that is not shared freely...

SAMIA: Yeah.

DR. ROSE: ...and so, the way I was raised I didn't understand compassion. Growing up I had very strange relationships with people, mainly because of how I was isolated from a lot of people due to living with an unmedicated parent who had a very serious mental illness. And so I stayed away from people because I was scared of them. I didn't know how they would act if they met my mother for example. And so I wasn’t raised with a lot of compassion, and this was only something I learned much later on in life. And it came through a lot of hurt and pain and a lot of realizing that I didn't like where I was and I wanted to change it. And it was when people showed me compassion, I was like, “this is compassion”… and it wasn't that long ago. It was really a revelation to discover that there's something called compassion. And when I discovered it, I was like, “I'm hungry for this and I want more and more”. And when I discovered how beautiful it could be, I was like I want to share this with other people because it turns out a lot of us do not embody… understand compassion in our lives.

SAMIA: Yeah. And actually compassion is one of the keys to healing. It's like we need to be able to experience compassion in order to heal. My gosh, compassion… I can say so much more, but I want to hear more from you! And one of the questions that's popping up in my mind now is… could you give us an example of a practice or something that we do, and sort of compare and contrast our doing it from a fear-based perspective versus a compassion-based perspective?

DR. ROSE: Yeah, sure. One practice I would like to talk about is prayer. And prayer in the context of Islam, because I'm actually... my academic… when I'm wearing my academic hat… I'm finishing up a book about American Muslims practice of prayer in post 9/11 United States. And so this is a topic I think a lot about because I surveyed hundreds of American Muslims about their experiences and difficulties praying outside of the home, outside the mosque, the legal aspects, the aspects that… the fact that the media portrays prayer in such despicable and scary ways.

And so Muslims in America to start with, when they pray in public, they're very anxious. They're often very scared that a non-Mulsim will site them and think that they're up to something…something insidious, while really they're just praying. And so we have the layer of that… but then we have the layer of Muslims within the context of Islam and what prayer means to them. And based on my survey, and based on my own practice, based on speaking to many Muslims about their experiences, not just the United States but in other countries, such as in Turkey where I now live… I've discovered that a lot of Muslims feel that they're praying as a mechanical practice.

They have lost their sense of awe and love when they pray. And a lot of people have told me that when they pray, it's really because the word of the consequences of what would happen if they don't pray. And so they're praying out of a sense of obligation. And yes, prayer is seen as a pillar of Islam and an obligation, if you want to term it that way… we can also label it something else from a compassion-based perspective… But when you do a practice because you're worried about what will happen if you don't, that's a fear motivated approach to prayer. And it means that people are praying because they're scared. They're scared that Allah will, God will, punish them if they don't. This is the perspective of many people I've spoken to.

And to be contrasted to a compassion-based approach to prayer, it's very different. If it's a fear-based motivation you say, “I have to pray”. And you pray, and maybe you'll feel something beautiful when you do it, maybe you won't… you might feel nothing at all. When you approach prayer from a compassion-based practice, you approach it and you say, “I get to pray, this was a gift given to me by God as a mindfulness practice”. And it's a mindfulness practice that's punctuated throughout people's days, five times a day, starting very early, then happening in the middle of the day, happening in the mid-afternoon, sunset time and evening time. And so it's a way that people can seek a few minutes of quiet time where they just get to speak to God and think of nothing else.

God describes prayer as a gift, as something that humans were given so they may know God. And so if you think about it like that, it's a very beautiful act, it's profound, and it's deeply compassionate as a gift that Muslims received. And if a Muslim is able to say, "I get to pray, I'm so excited to pray, because when I pray I feel alive, I feel in my body, I feel connected to the Divine and to all the world…”, whatever they feel in that moment is something beautiful and they look forward to renewing that feeling with every prayer. Now the problem that… the reason why a lot of Muslims don't feel that way is because they weren't introduced to prayer that way.

Some young Muslims for example, their parents might beat them so that they pray, or threaten them so that they pray. So many Muslims I speak to do not have good memories of being taught prayer. But the Muslims I do know who love to pray is because their parents taught them prayer in a beautiful way. And they have memories that are loving and compassionate about their parents teaching them the benefits and the connection that you receive from prayer. And so it's two very contrasting ideas of prayer based on someone's upbringing, on who is teaching them about it, and how they think about it. It's really about mindset practice… And as coaches of course one of the big things we work on is mindset. And really it's an issue of mindset, and is prayer something we get to do or we have to do.

SAMIA: Yes, yes. I... again, you're bringing up a lot of memories for me. I remember I was taught to pray when I was a little child… I mean, maybe three, four years old. And you know, I would, you know, stand in prayer next to my mom and other people in my family who were praying… And over time, you know, it was primarily my mom who taught me the proper ritual aspect of it, and the ritual supplications that we recite during the prayer process. And actually my mom was very cool about it. Like she... and she always presented it in a very positive light… and yet I felt there was something missing. Because so much of the focus was on just doing things correctly in terms of the actions, in terms of the way we speak the words. And although I think my mom made her best effort to help me go deeper and understand things more deeply, I just... for some reason didn't get it. And so for me, for many, many, years prayer was fairly mechanical. I remember me and my sister having competitions on who could get through a prayer fastest because, I mean, we just wanted to get through it, you know, and get back to watching tv, and so, you know, that kind of a thing.

And/but I also had a very, very, very strong feeling that I had too… like, I couldn't miss a prayer because if I did I would go to hell. And actually it wasn't so much that I was worried about myself, but my mom was really worried that we would be punished, that we would be doing… that if we're not praying we're doing something wrong. And I took that in, and her worry for me... actually worried me, concerned me more than if I'd been thinking just for myself. And so I actually took it very seriously... Yeah... And yeah, it wasn't until much later in life… and I had to sort of go through a process of almost rediscovering and re-learning what prayer is and how to pray, that I was able to figure out how to connect with it more deeply and more compassionately and more lovingly. And… and now I do. I really love prayer in all different forms. Because oftentimes we talk about it just in the context of ritual prayer for Muslims. But it's not just about ritual prayer...

DR. ROSE: Well, definitely... I mean, I can relate to that. I was not raised Muslim, but when I became Muslim at the age of 19… I became Muslim because I was searching for God, for the truth. And I found it within Islam, and I loved prayer. I would stay up all night praying. And it was a beautiful practice that I had all to myself, I didn't share with anyone else. But when I married my now ex-husband, he had quite a bit of OCD. He came from the Middle East, and his approach to prayer is very much fear based. And so even though I had become Muslim with this beautiful, loving, approach to prayer, I lived with him a long time, and through that time I absorbed his understanding of Islam and his thoughts about ritual practice and why we do them, the consequences about them… So I realized over the years, I slowly lost my love of prayer, my… the feelings I had with prayer. I became very numb during prayers. So when I was able to leave him I actually also had to reinvent my approach to prayer. And it's in development, it's in progress at the moment. And what's really interesting about prayer in Islam versus other mindfulness practices -- because I also do things like breath work, somatic experiencing, meditation, yoga… and it's funny… I often find them much easier to do than Islamic prayer. And it's funny because I know other Muslims who have the same thing. It's very easy to go set up for yoga, but for some reason Islam and prayer is a lot harder. And it's because when you have certain negative triggers attached to a practice, even if it's a beautiful practice, you have to do a lot of work to unpack what is triggering for you about this practice, and to redefine it from your own perspective. If someone else has defined it for you, it's been tainted. And it's a lot of work and it takes a lot of time and support from other people to redefine it, reapproach it, and make it mean something special to you again, that is your own definition.

SAMIA: So what you were just sharing, makes me think about the idea of religious trauma. And I know that's something you have thought about and looked into very deeply. Can you tell us a little bit more about what religious trauma is?

DR. ROSE: Yeah, sure. So there's religious and/or spiritual trauma. Those seem to be interchangeable… I approach them from a slightly different perspective. But overall… religious trauma happens more within a mainstream religious context, or a spiritual trauma might happen with more of a fringe group or within a spirit... a group that identifies more as spiritual than religious. So religious trauma and abuse really happens when religion is held up to someone as a form of power and exploitation. So you can take… a good example would be... for example within the context of “Sufism”, which is “Islamic mysticism”. And it's a really beautiful side of Islam, unfortunately there are some communities, some Sufi orders, where there's leaders and guides who do abuse some of their, some of their devotees, some of their followers. And almost always these are men, not always, but almost always they're men. And they... it could be for example promising salvation, promising repentance if a person gives money, if a woman sleeps with him. It could be creating their own individualized theology within the context that's often different from mainstream religious traditions. So often, in these Sufi communities that are abusive, the “sheikh” will be asking the followers to do things, to think things, that are very different than mainstream Islam. They're very unorthodox and often very unhealthy. Often they'll be asked to see the sheikh, the guide, as someone who is akin to the Prophet, for example, who should be obeyed at all times, who knows everything, because he has the ultimate connection to God that other people don't have. So this is one kind… this is more like spiritual abuse of someone who is essentially brainwashed into abusive community. Now most Sufi communities don't/aren't like this, but there are communities like this. I've had some experience with that unfortunately. And then within mainstream religious abuse you have, for example within the United States, we've been uncovering a number of religious leaders who have been abusing young girls, for example. So some religious scholars have been grooming young girls and when they turn 18, they invite them into a secret marriage.

This is of course really, really against Islam, against civil law, and they've been exposed. And so when these leaders do this, what they're doing is they use religion to justify their acts. So for example, there's a number of religious leaders within the United States or elsewhere, who will engage in things like secret marriages. And they tell the women, and they justify to themselves as permitted, because the Quran says, “men are allowed to marry more than one wife”. They're cherry-picking and they're interpreting the Quran selectively to justify marrying a woman in secret where she doesn't get her rights, and where his actual wife is being lied to... And so these sorts of abuses, we don't know how common they are, but they're probably more common than we think. And it's very unfortunate that people who are exposed to this are then going to be turned away from Islam.

Another more, kind of common religious abuse you might experience is, someone who grows up in a very conservative Muslim family… and I'm just talking/speaking about Islam in this context… who again is told that everything they do has a consequence, a very negative consequence. And so they live their entire lives in fear. Especially young women are told that their bodies are a source of shame, they must cover from head to foot, their virginity, if they lose it, they have no worth, for example.

But the idea that a woman, her intrinsic merit, her intrinsic soul, essentially, is tied to her body, is really damaging, when in Islam a woman is equal to a man in all ways, spiritually and physically. And she should be treated with love and compassion. And so if a young girl is raised that her body, herself, her voice, is considered to be shameful to be heard, to be seen by men outside her family, it's really quite damaging for a lot of young women, especially if they're also forbidden from having friends who aren't Muslim, from… forbidding to have a normal social life… if they're forbidden just to do whatever they'd like to do as young people.

SAMIA: Yeah.

DR. ROSE: A lot of these young people end up leaving the communities. And so more and more we see these people leaving either becoming Muslims on their own terms, or else leaving Islam altogether. Because it's just too much for them and they're not able to handle the abuse that they've experienced within the tradition. The things that they've been told growing up is just too much for them.

SAMIA: Yeah, that is so true. And you know in these kinds of situations, when you've been experiencing religious trauma and you end up leaving the religion or the community, I say, good for you. It's a good thing because this is not what God wants for us, it's not how God means for us to live. And even if someone else is saying, no, this is what God wants, it's not, you know. And so when you leave this kind of a situation behind you, you divorce yourself from it, you're actually moving closer to what God wants for you. And so I say, bravo, bravo. And God willing, you know, after you have left this kind of abusive situation of religious... experiencing religious trauma, God willing, you know, you are able to find a more healthy spirituality, whether it's in the context of Islam, you know, or outside… You know, I really have come to this perspective that, you know, labels don't matter, and certainly don't matter to God. And this is something very clearly… it's talked about in the Quran itself, you know. There's literally verses like, “...whether you're a Sabean or a Christian or a Jew -- anyone, anyone who believes in God and does good work has nothing to fear”. Like this is a verse in the Quran itself, and it's telling us, to God, the labels don't matter. It's about, you know, your practice, your belief... So to me, the message is very loud and clear.

Do you have any last words of Islam that you would like to share with us around how we can begin to shift from the... if we are currently struggling or we know someone who's currently struggling with being stuck in this fear-based kind of approach… how can they begin to shift themselves to a more compassion-based approach?

DR. ROSE: That's a great question. That's a big question… You know, I start really simply. I start by just asking that you learn to ground yourself in whatever way works for you. For example, if you're not able to pray, well, you can sit and breathe a few moments, you can try some kind of bodily movement, be it yoga, tai chi, chi-gong, martial arts… whatever you appreciate, whatever you like doing. Make sure that you do something that you do with your body, it's really important to stay connected to our bodies, to stay mindful. And that will help us be more aware of every moment, of every breath. One thing I also want to stress about compassion -- and you notice I use the word compassion, there's also self-compassion, self-love, which is a very trendy term these days, and they're really one and the same. But they're often misused, I think, by mainstream kind of culture. It makes me a little uncomfortable and cringe a little the way I hear them talking, because from an Islamic perspective, you have to first have self-love/self-compassion in order to love other people. We often forget that though.

For example, people serve others, and we all love serving, we are givers, we want to serve… but we do it to the point of burnout, and that's not actually loving yourself. That's actually a transgression against yourself if you serve others to the point of burning yourself out. And that's... that means serving your family, serving your employer, serving your community… First you have to make sure to serve yourself, and that means… in Arabic we call it “Jihad al-Nafs”, the struggle of the self… Get to know yourself, help yourself along the way, figure out who you are, and what you want, and what works for you, whatever practices work for you, then apply them in your life. Don't do things that don't work for you. Do things that make you feel joy. And if it's yoga or if it's walking in the park, do more of that before you do things that you have to do. Do things that you get to do, whatever that is. And make sure you do that regularly, because as you begin to fill your own cup, as you have more compassion for yourself, it's so much easier to help other people fill their cup. And they feel the compassion exuding from you, and they feel it and they want more of it. And then you can better serve other people. But I do want to highlight this because a lot of people think that compassion is purely serving other people, and you can't do it if you're empty.

SAMIA: Yes...

DR. ROSE: Okay, so it's really important that we first make sure that we have what we need because we are so much more efficient… if you want to use that word, which also is a capitalist word, so I don't know if it's the best word… But we're so much better at doing it, and we do it with love and compassion and empathy… and we want to do it, and we can do it, and we do it gladly.

SAMIA: Yes. Thank you, that is such a beautiful message to wrap up for today. And I have so much more that I want to talk with you. So maybe we'll have you come back and have an amazing conversation. And in the meantime, for our listeners, please know that we will be including Dr. Rose's links in our show notes so you can get in touch with her. I'll also include my links so you can get in touch with me. Please reach out. We'll be so happy to help and support in any way we can. And... yeah, so until we connect next time, I wish you lots of peace and joy. :)

DR. ROSE: Thank you. :)


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