Islam: Day 18 and 19 – Campground Mysticism


This weekend I went camping with a few friends at the Shenandoah National Park.  I considered attempting a number of pseudo-spiritual exercises like fasting the entire weekend, reading religious texts and reflecting, meditating, taking solo walks, etc.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do any of those things.

Most of the time, I was doing something with the group, whether it was eating, hiking, or just sitting around and chatting. There wasn’t much “me time.”

This also meant that I wasn’t able to do all my prayers.

Friday night, I attempted to do my evening prayer, but I was anxious that my camp companions would see me and wonder WTF I was doing.  For example, while I was prostrate, one of my friends was coming back from the bathroom and I pretended I was just looking for something on the ground.

This probably means I should start practicing Stoicism again to eliminate the feeling of self-consciousness.

I then decided to try to do my prayer inside my tent. It was private, and it looked like there was enough room to pray.

Nope. I tried to do the prayer hunched over, but then I literally fell over when transitioning between positions.

I hope Allah judges people on their intention, and not how dignified they look when they are praying…

Not a good prayer tent....
Not a good prayer tent….

After the tent prayer failure, I figured I would just do the morning prayer as no one would be up and I could do it outside.

I’m glad I did.

I woke up around 4:45 AM on both mornings when it was still dark-ish out. I headed to the campsite bathroom to do Wudu (purification). It got me out of the “completely groggy” state to “mildly” groggy

I walked back to my campsite and set up my travel prayer mat next to my tent (pointed towards Mecca, of course).

Because it was still dark and I haven’t memorized the prayer recitations, I used my headlamp to read my Salat guide as I was doing my prayer.

Both mornings after I finished, I just stood outside to enjoy the silence. It was a bit cold but not uncomfortably so, and the sun was just starting to rise.

Having just finished my prayer, my thoughts inevitably turned to God and what it means to see “God in all things.”

I borrowed that phrase from my Catholic month, but there is a verse in the Quran that implies something similar:

“And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.”

The verse conveys the feeling that God is not only everywhere, but also close to you. The verse also indicates God’s importance by referring to your jugular vein, which, if severed, will quickly lead to death.

It’s something that is easy to dismiss or pay little attention to do if you’re just reading it from the comfort of your living room.

But when you have just prayed and you’re alone and surrounded by natural beauty, you really do feel like there is a God, that there is something divine and wonderful that is both expansive and close to you.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book the Happiness Hypothesis, cites the work of the evolutionary biologist, David Wilson, who believes that mystical experience (associated with awe), is about leaving the “self.”

From Wilson’s perspective, mystical experience is an “off” button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive. It is no wonder that the after effects of mystical experience are predictable; people usually feel a stronger commitment to God or to helping others, often by bringing them to God.

Haidt also describes the conditions for achieving this mystical experience of “awe.”

Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence… the emotion of awe happens when two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory; or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be  person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion.

What is particularly intriguing is the idea that “awe” or mystical experiences leave a person open to change.

I think everyone, whether religious or not, has experienced “awe” several times in their lives, but I believe religion does a better job of not only inducing awe, but also helping people take advantage of that state.

I haven’t talked about it much on this blog, but for Islam month, I decided to give up alcohol.

I did this during Lent, and to be honest, it was difficult. The desire to drink in social situations is incredibly strong.

But during my camping trip, I had very few urges to drink, even though the group brought tons of beer and other alcoholic beverages along.

I believe this is due to my morning prayer, which put me in a sort of mystical state; it gave me that sense of “awe” that is difficult to describe in words.

This feeling was so pleasant and wonderful that I didn’t really feel the need to drink. It made it easy to refuse the offers of beer and just enjoy the experience of being in nature.

If I hadn’t forced myself to wake up for my morning prayer, I probably wouldn’t have had this experience and would have found myself more tempted to drink. I would have just slept in and denied myself the opportunity to be alone with the silence and nature.

I’m not Muslim and I’m not religious, but just by performing Salat I was able to achieve a mystical experience.

This is further evidence that there is a wisdom to all these crazy religious rituals that can’t be understood intellectually. More importantly, it doesn’t need to be understood intellectually. To benefit, you just need to do it.

I’ll leave you with this Islamic saying about the Sufis:

“The Sufis understand with the heart what cannot be understood with the head.”