• Killing Time Series Part 1: Getting Started

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    I used to be a sentimental pack rat.  Anything that had some vague pleasant memory attached to it would be kept.  Actually, I think even items that came from not-so-pleasant times were also held on to.  Maybe it’s because the rawness of the emotion has its own flavor it becomes an acquired taste to revel in it.  I’m guessing that’s why we like sappy depressing love songs when a relationship ends.

    But a thought occurred to me that swung the pendulum the other way for me and turned me into a strategic minimalist, and it’s this – everything shall perish.  Nothing remains behind, and even if it remains past your time, you won’t know or care about it afterwards.  I’m sure others will say protect things for posterity, but I decided to be a little selfish and be in this world like a traveler rather than a settler, as advised by the Prophet (SAW).

    So out went all the trinkets, garbage, love letters from spurned high school crushes (did I just say that out loud?), old clothes, and more.  Apartment living helped drive this mentality, and thus I’m not a paper person.  I used to be a person who liked physically writing things out, but no longer.

    This takes me to the tools I use – I don’t use paper tools at all.  I like to use tools that are integrated and easily accessible at any time – namely via my cellphone, a tablet, or laptop connected to the internet.  If you want, you can use analogous tools on paper or from other services, but my approach (which I think, btw, is greener for those concerned with no wasting paper) will be to use electronic tools to help keep my life priorities in front of me.

    So what’s needed?

    1. Goal Planner

    A goal planner will be needed for taking care of the high level stuff.  What would you like to accomplish in the coming months and years ahead.  What is your mission and vision for yourself and family, questions of this nature are recorded and tracked in your goal planner.

    2. Task Manager

    Your task manager is where all the nitty-gritty details of life that you need to get done should be recorded.  You should have something portable and easily accessible that you can record whatever pops in your head at any time.

    3. Calendar

    Your calendar is where you’ll lock down either appointments or time blocks – things that have to happen at a specific time and none other.  If you have flexibility in moving something around, it doesn’t belong in the calendar.

    4. Project Planner

    Whoa, this is a bit of a departure, but don’t worry – the planner can be as something as simple as a tool that can do outlining like MS Word or Google Document, or as sophisticated as MS Project.

    5. Finances Tracker

    You should know how your money flows in and out regularly.  There are paid tools to do this, and there are free tools.  I’ll mention what I use below.  But in a nutshell. You should have a good idea of your money-in and money-out at all times and be ready to take corrective actions as needed.

    In my case, I use the following tools

    1. Toodledo.com

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    Toodledo.com is an online planning tool with a lot of flexibility and sophistication.  It can be used for goal planning, project planning, and task management.  There are also numerous 3rd party apps designed to access and manage tasks and goals from your Android or Apple mobile phone.

    2. Google Calendar

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    I use this for my appointments as well as timeblocks for certain types of activities I want to do.  What’s really good about google calendar is it’s supported on numerous browsers and as a native app for a bunch of device types.

    3. Mint.com

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    Mint is a free tool that can be used for tracking your money flow.  You just add all your accounts (bank, credit card, investment, etc) and mint tracks in real time how your money is moving, trends, budgeting, and a bunch more.  If you’re like me and you have no intent of ever intending to attempt to balance a check book, this is it.

    Action Steps

    You should do the following:

    1. Pick the Best Tools for You

    Although I’ve provided some suggestions, the best tools are the ones that you feel the most comfortable with, and which you’ll consistently maintain.  Whether it’s paper or not is irrelevant – what matters is that you use regularly and successfully.

    2. Go Get ‘em

    Ok, so we said pick, but now set them up and get them ready for the next phase of your training.

    3. Play Around with Them

    It’s always good to experiment and play around with new tools (obviously only the safe tools!).  Add tasks to your planner, sync accounts to mint, get your hands dirty (or your feet wet) and become accustomed to the interfaces you’ll be playing around with.

  • Killing Time Series: Introduction

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    Muslim Identity Crisis: Much Ado About Nothing

    I really hate the Muslim identity crisis brouhaha that’s plagued the national conferences  for many  years now, hated it with a passion because as much as i’m told we’re confused and trying to reconcile different cultural identities and blah blah blah, I never cared because I’ve always been happy with me.  Call me ABCD or whatever, you may think I’m confused, but I’ve always known I’m Muslim and I’m here to live and die in a state that God wants from me.  Not much confusion there.

    At  least there wasn’t until my grades in college dropped like an anvil on Wile E Coyote (and with similar effect, I might add).   I wasn’t facing an identity crisis, but a productivity crisis. I was a lanky video gaming, comic book reading nerd who could loved but could barely play a game of basketball.  Sure, I made the National Honor Society in high school, but  only so my mom wouldn’t get mad at me and i could go back to doing whatever slackerific activity i was into at the time.  Watching late night movies on hbo til 2am, waking up and catching a 6:30am bus and  sleeping through classes was my daily routine.  I had batman-like hours without actually doing anything heroic, let alone useful.

    The Piper Must Eventually Receive Payment

    I’m not exactly making much of a testimonial for the American K-12 educational system circa 1992 – 1996, but that’s ok because where the schools failed to shape me up, Purdue University’s engineering and computer science curriculums were happy enough to make up the difference and kick my rear end.  Eventually, the price had to be paid and my obnoxiously bad habits caught up with me and my grades plummeted.  Badly.

    But all wasn’t lost, as the university still was trying to help schleps like me somehow pull through.  During one semester, we had a weekly career class where someone from industry would meet with students and tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The first seminar was given by this guy who, for whatever reason, struck me as having everything together.  He was probably in his late 30s, spoke with a certain command of self that was somehow both down-to-earth yet still demanding of respect without actually asking for it.  He was an engineer from Motorola (where I would eventually find myself years later post-graduation), dressed well, articulate, approachable…let’s just say he hit me as someone who I could see myself wanting to become.  He said something that stuck with me – if you want to do really well in life, you must read, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

    When the doggy-doo hit the fan, I bought the book and read.  He was right – the book was lifechanging.  In a nutshell, it helped me understand how to prioritize what was most important over what was least important, not just in terms of day-to-day task management, but in terms of life principles and paradigm as well.  It helped me really hone in and focus on centering myself around my faith, Islam, and making that the cornerstone of my existence, although it didn’t directly call on me to do so.

    LifeHacker Immersion Period

    I’d like to say I fell into productivity nirvana, after reading through the book, but the reality was that making my own life goals rather than having someone do it for me was all brand new.  Making a plan and pursuing them was also new.  You can imagine I fell down many times.  The book was a gateway drug of sorts and I began turning my fiction book reading habits into a personal development book reading habit.  I read a lot of books on leadership, time management, personal development, my faith Islam, and much more.  Much of it was the same, although “Getting Things Done” was less life philosophy and more of a down and dirty task management system.

    Eventually I came upon “The 4 Hour Work Week” which on the surface looks like the slacker’s guide to getting away with murder.  That really wasn’t the case – the true value in this book was not so much the time management techniques – the DEAL system was good, don’t get me wrong, I especially benefit from AUTOMATE – but the absolute rejection of doing anything that doesn’t allow you to live life on your own terms.  Where Habits was more about ultimately building stronger and better relationships, 4HWW was about rebelling against the crowd.  This again resonated with my own values as a Muslim because were I to take the standard approach laid out for living, I would have bought a house and dropped my excess cash into some type of investment fund and put myself into further debt for a better lifestyle because that’s just what everyone does.

    Wait, Where Are We Again?

    So what does this have to do with my identity crisis? Just this – there’s a part of me that recognizes the value of being a responsible worshiper of Allah (swt), of being a dutiful son, a committed and loving spouse and parent, responsibly executing my work duties and relationships with ihsan (excellence), and giving back to the community in a meaningful way with whatever time or money can be spared.

    On the other hand, there’s a part of me that wants to rebel, to reject the status quo, to kick back and go Naughty-by-Nature and hey-ho while flashing a pair of middle fingers at Wall Street for not buying into their propaganda machine.  There’s a part of me that wants to go back to being the slacker I used to be, to break from the system that makes us all cogs in an industrial age wheel where workers are churned out at the behest of corporate America and its shareholders needs.  To go back to hanging out with friends like I did in high school, to stay up late nights and surf the web, read a book, and not care when I wake except to get fajr in and get back to sleep and wake whenever.

    And the reality is that if I’m honest with myself, I’m able to do both more often than not, and I’m fairly successful at it.  So while I do sometimes find my two “selves” at odds with one another in their priorities, together they form a beautiful synergy that makes me who I am, keeps me excelling in everything as I get older and grow more experienced while keeping me young, happy, and far away from the monotone existences of “adult” life I dreaded in my high school years.

    Results are all that Matter

    I’ve been happily married for 10 years now, I have 3 kids with a forth on the way, I have a nice 3500 sq ft 5 bedroom house, and I own two cars.  All of this is essentially debt-free, and most assuredly interest-free.  I’m in the best shape of my life, taking classes in Arabic and Tajweed and progressing rapidly, and working a lucrative job in Silicon Valley.  I have a lot of happiness in my life, and I wish I could convince people there’s a better way than the default path society puts on them, but I honestly don’t have time to convince people because I’m having too good a time to do something like that.

    Instead, I’m writing these posts.  I’m writing out my methods for thinking through problems, managing life, difficulties, and more.  It’s not perfect – no man made system ever is – and it may not be 100% applicable in your life, and that’s ok.  It doesn’t have to be – all I ask is that you take what benefits you, and leave what doesn’t.  This series will be both high level at times and down and dirty nitty gritty at other.  I believe that you need both the high-level and low-level approaches to life and time management to get the best out of your life as there is value in both.

    And perhaps most importantly, as life changes and new insights come along, I tend to incorporate those.  A key I believe to growth is to never stop learning, adapting, and getting that much stronger and better in whatever you do.  The same will be true of how you handle the challenges life throws your way.

    Finally, I’m not writing this in “optimal blogging” style.  I’m writing free-form because I just want to write in my own voice.  You may or may not see sub-headers which I understand can be frustrating, but I want to write each post in one go.  If I ever convert this to a book, I’ll do massive amounts of editing to make it more reader friendly, but for now, whatever comes to mind, I’m writing it down and there will be far less editing.  That can be both good and bad.

    That’s it for now, see you in the next post =)

    Siraaj

  • Holiday Fitness Plan: Eat, Drink, and Train

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    While I love the Bay Area for it’s daily clear blue skies and temperate weather as compared to my hometown Chicago, there’s no way the Bay can compete with Chi-town when it comes to restaurants.  As I was preparing our itinerary for our Chicago / Indiana vacation, I realized the majority of our favorite spots to visit were our favorite restaurants, and that’s without even considering Mom’s home cooking.  Add that in, and I’m guaranteed to add 5 – 10 lbs in a 2 week period, no exaggeration.

    Putting that aside, I have no health club memberships, and while I might get in for free once or twice via a guest pass with a friend, that time certainly isn’t guaranteed and even if I got in twice, that would in no way compensate for 14 days worth of eating.

    So what’s a dude with the munchies to do?  I’m normally both picky and paranoid about my food choices, but I simply don’t want to be on this trip because I visit so rarely.  So I devised a plan of action that I’m hoping will allow me to gorge a bit and minimize holiday fat gain.  I’m sharing it here and the results as it’s happening live =)  The basic plan is as follows:

    Eat

    The basic formula for fat loss is calories in should be less than calories out.  For fat gain, if you guessed calories in should be greater than calories out, you win a vegan organic chocolate chip cookie (just kidding!).  Dig deeper, and you’ll find it’s more complicated than that.  There are some people who are so meticulous about their eating habits that they’ve planned out all their vacation / holiday eating down to the last calorie and the time that the calorie was eaten.

    Myself, I don’t have the mental bandwidth to process all that and it’s really not my idea of a vacation.  Therefore, I’m keeping two simple rules for eating in lieu of calorie counting, nutrient timing, and other dietary optimizations:

    1. Eating events:  Enjoy whatever is put out on the table in reasonable quantities, even if the total quantity is unreasonable under normal circumstances.  So if there are multiple items on the table, I’m not sorting the healthy from the healthy, I’m sorting by “want” and “don’t want”.  I’m taking what I like and just enjoying, but I’m not gorging on everything.  So if I see a bowl full of samosas, while I could consume 6 of them, and additionally gorge on whatever else is on the table, I’ll have 1 or 2 and eat a bit of everything else as well.
    2. Non-eating events: Overall calorie consumption should be low, and whatever I consume will be lean proteins as available and miniscule amounts of everything else, if at all.

    Drink

    For the most part, I avoid drinks containing calories like those originating from Starbucks.  However, there are exceptions and they are the following:

    1. Body Fortress Whey Protein: When lean protein sources are not available, one scoop of this does the job.
    2. MHP Dark Rage:  This drink is meant to be taken as a pre-workout stimulant.  What I’ve found is it not only does that, but it also does wonders for waking me up and giving me focus.  It’s meant to be taken 30 – 45 minutes before training, but I take it sometime in the morning.
    3. MHP Dark Matter:  This drink is taken post-workout.  It helps with recovery so there is little or no soreness the next day.  It also helps the nervous system recover as well which in turn helps prevent burnout.

    With each serving of those supplements (which are taken daily), I will have 16 – 20 oz of water per serving.  Outside of these drinks, I may have tea or coffee with no creamer.

    Finally, I keep two portable mixers on hand (one at work and one at home [which is now with me while I travel]) to make shakes easily.

    Train

    At home my training is almost exclusively barbell and dumbbell training.  Without my equipment, I could simply say I have nothing I can work with and not work out, but this is not true.  I’ve downloaded the You Are Your Own Gym training app (link I provide is to the book) for my android phone along with all the videos that explain each exercise.  The training programs on this app call for different bodyweight workouts for 30 minutes, 4 times a week.  The great thing about this app is that it allows you to get a great workout that will tax your muscles, anaerobic system, and if you want to sweat, it will definitely do that for you.  I started with the Basic Training Program (there is also Intermediate, Advanced, and Elite) and instead of going 4 times / week, I’ll train everyday, which means I’ll get 3 and a half week’s worth of workouts in 2 weeks, insha’allah.

    The other side thing I’ll do is Ab Ripper X from p90x everyday following the YAYOG app workout.  It’s 15 minutes and it’s available on Youtube for free.  I already own the P90x CD set so there are no ethical issues for me on that front.  One issue I dealt with on this CD is that of the dress of the women.  I recommend learning the exercises once, and then running the video while hiding the screen or turning away from it while listening to Tony Horton’s cues which keeps you on pace.

    In Ab Ripper X, the trainer does 25 of each abdominal / core exercise which is beyond me, so I’m starting with 10 reps / exercise and increasing it daily, insha’allah.

    Finally, if I see that the workout program is helping relative to my eating, I will add a tabata set, which is essentially a 3 min set of one exercise where the person picks one exercise (like pushups) and does As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) of pushups as they can for 20 seconds, then rests 10 seconds, and then repeats the 20 seconds AMRAP / 10 second rest scheme until they hit 4 minutes (8 sets).  The amount on the last set is what you record as what you completed.  So if you did 4 pushups on the final set, you’d record that and try to improve your final rep set in the next Tabata workout.

    Results

    So the past two weeks, I ate whatever I wanted in evening every day.  Sometimes it was a Fuddrucker’s 1lb burger with chili cheese fries, other times it was a full-on desi meal assault.  Throughout the day, I did YAYOG and Ab Ripper X daily while keeping calories with either lean proteins or none at all.  Post workout I took in Dark Matter and then ate.  The results were an amazing 3 lbs of weight gain and more (rather than less) stomach definition (that’s right, my abs were popping).

    All in all, there was some weight gain, but not as much as could have been taken with a 2 week binge.  I achieved my goal of enjoying different menus while keeping in shape and even getting more definition in the process.  Give this plan a try next time you’re away without gym.

  • Agile Practices for Personal Time Management: What’s Your (User) Story?

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    Since becoming a Certified Scrum Master, I’ve been able to work in an Agile Scrum environment on the job and use the techniques of the methodology in my private life.  The next few posts will break down its concepts for non-software folks with the intent of providing tools for personal use.

    Converting Goals to User Stories

    In the software world, a user story is essentially a feature of the software.  You would phrase the story like so:

    “As a <type of user>, I want <feature>, so that I can <value derived from feature>.”

    An example would be, “As an iPhone user, I want Flash support so that I can view the rest of the internet without worrying about whether website is HTML5 compliant.”

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    In your personal life, you might try enhancing yourself with new features, like so:

    “As a Muslim, I want to obtain an ‘ijazah in tajweed so that I can recite the Qur’an correctly”.

    What’s great about user stories is they conceptualize the role that will get the best use out of the feature, the feature itself, and then the value, the why-should-I-do-this? behind the feature / goal.

    The same feature can benefit different people and have other values.  For example:

    “As a Qur’an teacher, I want to obtain an ‘ijazah in tajweed so that I can be of those who protect the Qur’an and teach others proper recitiation.”

    Same goal, different roles and values.  The key is that you choose the one that is most meaningful and motivating for you – which of these is giving you the most motivational bang-for-your-buck?

    Complete Your User Story in One Sprint

    Sprints are essentially short blocks of time, anywhere between 3 – 6 weeks.  Let’s say you want to make your sprint interval 4 weeks.  Your goal should be to either complete your user story within that 4 week interval.  If you don’t complete it within that 4 week interval, you’ll assess why you didn’t complete it, take the lessons learned, and then you may or may not continue working on that user story, depending on your priorities at the beginning of the next sprint.

    But what if you know the user story you’ve chosen will take longer than 4 weeks?  What if you know it’ll take two years?  The answer is you break it down into smaller user stories, and if those are too big, then you break them down further until they’re down to a level where you can complete the user story within four weeks.

    Going back to your tajweed ‘ijazah example, you’ll focus breaking down the work until you have something you’re confident can be completed in four weeks, like so:

    “As a Muslim, I want to obtain an ‘ijazah in tajweed so that I can recite Qur’an correctly.”

    “As a student of tajweed, I want to complete juz ‘amma in 3 months, so that I can recite the most commonly recited surahs immediately.”

    “As a student of tajweed, I want to complete the last 1/3rd of juz ‘amma so that I can get started with my juz ‘amma goal.”

    As mentioned earlier, at the end of the month, you’ll find you may or may not have completed the sprint goal.  In future posts insha’Allah we can talk about sprint assessments, sprint reviews, and more to decide how to proceed once a sprint is completed.

    Write Your Own Story

    What enhancements would you like for yourself?  Take a shot at writing your own user stories below.

  • When Obnoxious People Keep You From Admitting You’re Wrong

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    Years ago, I gave advice to a da’wah worker in a very obnoxious manner, and understandably, he returned the favor in the same manner.

    The truth was both of us needed the advice given. The advice I received was about my character flaws while the advice I gave was about some work he was doing that could have used improvement.

    Putting aside the manner of his words while putting his advice into practice proved to create a valuable turning point for my spiritual and intellectual development.

    It is often the case people receive the right advice, but they don’t receive it in the right manner.  When this occurs, the person receiving the advice, even when they realize that they are wrong, will not take act on it because doing so means they admit the other person (the obnoxious one) was right while they were wrong.  Or, a person might take a position in some matter too strongly and then find it embarrassing to admit they were wrong.

    If you’re somebody giving advice to others then be sure to give it with mercy – don’t be the person that makes it hard for people to accept what you have to say.  Don’t call them out, call them names, or put them down.  Allah (SWT) said to the Prophet (SAW) in the Qur’an [3:159]:

    So by mercy from Allah , [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah . Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].

    If you’re the person receiving the advice, no matter how obnoxious the other person is, do your best to strip away the personality and attitude from the discussion and focus on the content of what was said and ask yourself for your own benefit, “Was what the person said about me true?”  In the case of positions, was my position wrong, and does the other position make more sense?

    If it is, irrespective of where that advice or position came from, then act on it even if it stings your pride.  It is often the case that someone who doesn’t like you attacks you for a flaw you truly have, and attacks you on it because they can, not because they want to see you grow or because they care about you.  That doesn’t change that you have the flaw, so don’t let pride keep you from changing, or embarrassment at having to admit, even internally, that that person is right about you or some position you’ve taken.

    May Allah (SWT) make us among those who both give advice well with good manners and mercy, and may He (SWT) make us among those who act on good advice as well.  May He (SWT) also make us of those who can change whatever positions we follow to those that are correct and pleasing to Him (SWT).  Ameen.

  • Breaking Weak Links

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    There’s a difference between the person who pays lip service to the idea that he has a weakness and the person who actually believes it – the former will simply acknowledge the idea in theory while the latter actively works to fix the problem.

    If you’re in the second group, what follows are some suggestions which help me continually improve and better myself daily:

    1. Listen Carefully

    Pay attention to be criticism (constructive or otherwise) that others give you – pay particular attention if you keep hearing the same criticism repeatedly from different sources. Chances are an area for improvement has been identified.

    2. Take it in Stride

    Don’t be the person that intimidates or sarcastically denigrates others when they provide feedback.  While it is true in some cases people who don’t like you will give you feedback because they don’t like you and other cases people give you incorrect feedback, you still should not be the type of person who attacks them – if people see this they won’t want to speak up around you.

    Generally speaking, you should learn to disagree with people without being disagreeable.  If nothing else you should thank the person for their feedback and make a mental note of what they said to you and then go back to other friends / mentors you trust and ask them if they think you have that the flaw mentioned.

    3. Solicit Trustworthy Feedback

    When looking for feedback, be sure to ask somebody who will give you honest answers, not somebody who will simply tell you what you want to hear because they don’t want to hurt their relationship with you.

    4.  Learn

    Start researching from different resources how you can overcome the problem – sometimes it might be a Google search, reading books, or watching videos online – whatever the case, find different resources from experts of various stripes and try to understand the different solutions that are out there for your problem.

    5. Be Prepared to Fail Often

    On the path to change, expect to fail many times. It could take days, weeks, maybe even months, but the more actively did you pursue improvement, the faster you’ll get to your destination and what could have taken years can take weeks insteaed. Take each failure as a learning experience and a point of reflection.

    6. Make Du’aa

    Ask Allah (swt) regularly to overcome this weakness. If you receive feedback about some weakness and you’re not sure if you have it or not then just make the du’aa anyway, just in case.

    Conclusion

    Personal improvement is a lifelong endeavor.  Always remember you’ll have character defects to rectify.  Rather than believing they’ll never be overcome, be persistent and resourceful, and insha’Allah you’ll become your best self ;)

  • Beautiful Opposition

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    Its easy to minimize the successes of people who opposed you or what you opposed on some non-faith matter.

    More often than not, try to be genuinely happy for them when they do well.  Not only does hatred lead to the Dark Side, its a cancer on one’s iman ;)

  • That’s Not Practical – You’re Too Naive

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    Don’t make personal failure to live up to principle cause you to call something impractical, or tell others, “one day you’ll see like I did” – it is both condescending and narrow minded to make your shortcoming the yardstick all must follow.

    if you fail, then look around for those succeeding and try to replicate their success in your life until you get it.  no one said living according to principle or doing the right thing was easy, or that you may not fail a few times along the way while learning from those failures.

  • Backbiting and the Need to Vent

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    Oftentimes we become aware of sharp criticism made by others about ourselves.  The built-up emotional anguish many times needs release in the form of venting to a confidante and reciprocated comfort.

    To take advantage of the therapeutic side of confession without falling into backbiting:

    1. Talk directly to Allah (swt) first about it.  Make duaa asking for peace / relief from negative emotions and help in not letting the other person get to you.

    2. Find someone to speak with who doesn’t know the person or situation.

    3. Speak without using names or hinting at who the person is.

    4. If no one is available, write it out in an anonymous journal.

    Keep to beneficial discussion and don’t rob the barakah from your own speech due to others’ ignorance.

  • Spiritual Clubbing

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    Amputate your hands and feet, gouge out your eyes, and cut out your tongue – your wrongdoing count will likely drop well over 90%, but is there any virtue in physical mutilation?

    Likewise you’ve been created with intelligence, with natural desires, and more. There is no virtue in mutilating the mind with alcohol or self-induced spiritual states, nor is there any in obliterating one’s desires for synthetic piety.

    The example of the Prophet (saw) demonstrates the fully realized potential of a person – a devoted worshiper of Allah (swt), well-mannered, always lucid, and always fulfilling both his responsibilities to his family AND the community.

    That he was the Prophet (saw) is not an excuse for us, it is the yardstick we are judged against and must strive towards. Keep all parts of yourself in tact, and learn to control how and when the proper use of each faculty is done.