The to-and-fro movement that we undertake to drive off the distractions of our minds all our life will never make us progress. It rather manifests stagnation and stillness. On the contrary, if we were to uproot the causes of distraction, we would easily be able to soar towards the proximity of Allah.
Scholars of ethics and gnosis mention in their books two fundamental categories of elements that can distract one's attention in prayer:
- The External Elements
- The Internal Elements
These are external elements that divert the attention of the worshipper- (musalli). They mainly concern his sight and hearing perceptions. Places where a conversation is going on, or the television happens to be switched on, for example, would quickly distract the attention of one who is easily vulnerable to such stimuli.
Praying on a beautifully decorated velvet prayer mat or an open place where people tend to pass by can also serve as a source of diversion of attention for some. For this very reason some scholars of ethics advise people whose attention is easily diverted by auditories and visibilities to seek seclusion in a dark place when praying.
In his commentary to al-Kafi, Sadru'l Muta'allihin informs us of what the wayfarers to Allah's proximity practiced after having sought forgiveness from Allah. One of these, he says, is al-khalwa (seclusion), which of course does not imply, as some may tend to surmise, the total abandonment of the society for the sake of worship. He says:
وفائدتها دفع الشواغل وضبط السمع والبصر, فانهما دهليزا القلب يدخل منهما اليه من الشواغل و المفاسد والوساوس ما يزعجه ويغيره عما هو عليه من قصده, فلا بد من ضبطها, وليس يمكن ذلك الا بالخلوة في مكان مظلم...
The benefit of seclusion is that it frees oneself from preoccupations and enables one to control his hearing and sight. For verily these two are the vestibules of the heart; it is through them that things like distractions, evil thoughts and Satanic insinuations that disturb the human being and divert him from his intention, enter the heart. Hence they must be bridled; and that cannot be realized save by means of seclusion in a dark place...1
Seclusion is recommended in supererogatory prayers. Otherwise, congregational prayer has ample benefits and one should strive to always attend the congregation so that he may be spiritually uplifted.
The internal elements act as the closest and most dangerous of the above two categories to the musalli. Resembling a magnetic force, they attract innumerable kinds of imaginations related to them. So long as they subsist, man should never dream of attaining even some of the rudimentary kinds of concentration in prayer, let alone attaining the higher levels.
It is useless to suppose that continual forceful repulsion of stray thoughts can easily enable one to achieve the state of concentration he aspires. In his expurgation (tahdhib) of the voluminous ethical work of Ihya, Mawla Fayd Kashani quotes a beautiful example Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali mentions to illustrate the reality of the matter. He says:
Its example is that of a man under a tree who wanted his thoughts to be clear (from distractions), while the noise of the sparrows on the tree (above) disturbed him. Whenever he chased them off by a stick in his hand to resume his state of contemplation, he found them return again. The following, thus, was said to him: 'Surely this kind of movement is like that of sawani (the camel that is used to draw water from the well and carry the same (سير السوائي); and (such circular movement) shall not change. 2
Therefore if you would like to free yourself (from this state of continual distraction) chop off the tree altogether. Likewise is the tree of material desires: when its branches multiply it attracts various thoughts the way the sparrows were attracted to the branches of the tree and the way a fly is attracted to dirt; it would take a long time to chase it off, for indeed whenever the fly is chased away it returns back (kullama dhabba aba).
That is why it was called dhubab (that which returns whenever it is chased). Similar is the case with imagination. And these material passions are numerous and hardly does the supplicant lack in having them. And one origin unites them: love for the world, which is the root cause of every misdeed'. 3
Hence the solution to eliminate the magnetic force within, is to demagnetize it through the process of continual struggle against one's vain inclinations and the process of detachment (zuhd) from the pleasures of the material world.
This should not be mistaken for 'abstinence', since Islam does not teach us to abandon the 'material means' that Almighty Allah has provided us with. The real meaning of zuhd is 'detachment' (qat'ul `al'aiq) and not 'abandonment of the material means' as conjectured by some.
Only when the human being understands that the material needs of the world are 'the means' and not 'the goal', and practices accordingly can the process of demagnetization transpire.