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What this holiday of sacrifice teaches us about mindfulness

<i>Jes Aznar/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Displaced families prepare food after attending prayer service to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Mamasapano
Jes Aznar/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource
Displaced families prepare food after attending prayer service to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Mamasapano

By Monica Haider, CNN

(CNN) — While holidays are often marked by parties, shared meals, gift-giving and special outfits, experts say there’s health benefits to remembering the meaning behind the celebration.

The three-day holiday of Eid-al-Adha commemorates the story in the Quran of God appearing to Ibrahim, or Abraham, in a dream and commanding him to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience. The holiday, which starts on Sunday this year, is determined by the lunar calendar, and Saudi Arabia announces the dates according to its time zone.

Muslims believe that as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, an angel of God stopped him and gave him a ram to sacrifice in place of his son. A version of the story also appears in both Christian and Jewish scriptures.

Many people kick off the holiday by calling and texting Muslims they know throughout the world with “Eid Mubarak,” which means blessed feast or festival. Families typically attend a special morning prayer at the local mosque and then gather with loved ones to feast over a holiday meal and exchange money or gifts. Others may make a obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca — the Hajj pilgrimage — to visit the holiest sites in Islam, including the mountainous region where Abraham’s feted act took place.

Muslims also honor Abraham’s sacrifice with udhiya or qurbani — sacrificing a cow, sheep or goat and then sharing the meat with friends and family and offering it to those in need. Many people also send donations to or place qurbani orders in Muslim countries to feed disadvantaged people.

These traditions are reminders that letting go, having faith and doing good deeds will be rewarded, said Dr. Yasmine Saad, a clinical psychologist and author in New York City. This message and the pious and social acts of Eid, such as celebrating with friends and family and spreading acts of charity exemplify mindfulness and can be helpful when implemented regularly.

“Eid is a reminder that we should strive to add more of this balance in our day-to-day,” said Dr. Rania Awaad, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology lab.

Here are some mindful takeaways from the Eid holiday that you can include in your routine – no matter what you believe in. At its core, mindfulness is staying in the present, focusing on one’s thoughts, feelings and surroundings without judgment. The practice of mindfulness carries multiple health and wellness benefits such as decreasing pain, reducing stress and easing feelings of depression.

Stay hopeful and look for silver linings

The story of Abraham is not easily transferable to everyday life as it was an example of an extreme hurdle, but the lesson of pushing through a hardship and carrying on with resilience is relatable. 

“Islam really develops this notion of faithfulness and patience in the face of a trial,” said Dr. Gabriel Reynolds, professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at University of Notre Dame. In Islamic spirituality, this mindset “becomes a real important way for Muslims to carry on through trials, suffering, oppression, evil that they suffer in life.”

Reynolds describes this mindset as a “sustaining force” for Muslims. And it’s not limited to Islam — anyone can reflect on one’s current circumstances and look for positivity as a way to get through the hard parts.

Do your part and trust the process

During Abraham’s challenging ordeal, his wife was also being tested. According to Islamic narrative, she was left alone in the desert in present-day Mecca with their son so that Abraham could follow God’s command. In this story, the baby was in desperate need of nourishment, so the mother ran between two hills seven times to try to procure water for the baby. Eventually water — of which the well has become the source of holy water for Muslims — sprung up from the ground where the baby’s feet lay.

It sounds like a miraculous happening, but when applied to daily life, one can view it as doing one’s work and trusting that things fall into place. Abraham’s wife did her part by trying her best to search for nourishment for her child.

Feeding others ‘feeds the soul’

Muslims commemorate the day with the sacrifice of an animal, and they take it a step further by making a meal of it for their own families and for people less fortunate. In this way they venerate Abraham while underscoring sharing and giving. At the root of qurbani is creating a shared experience while giving to others.

“A lot of people are feeling purposeless, and they feel that what they do in their life doesn’t hit home,” Saad said. “Giving to others, giving to poor (people), sharing, making an impact in other people’s lives always feeds the soul.”

You can make cooking for others, volunteering at a soup kitchen and donating your money, time or goods a regular — but impactful — part of your routine.

Giving can “realign people so their mind will be different, they will think more positive thoughts, their bodies will feel better, they will have a smile on their face,” Saad said. By stepping out of one’s routine and giving to others, it can help make “you feel you have an impact, you help, you have significance.”

This sense of purpose and meaning contributes to living a happier and longer life, according to an expert. In a larger sense, kindness contributes to one’s sense of community and belonging, and donating to others has proven to reduce blood pressure and improve heart health, according to studies.

It takes a village

Humans are inherently social creatures, and loneliness and social isolationa are not good for one’s brain, body or spirit, according to research. Even the size of a person’s social network can impact health. Smaller networks are linked to larger feelings of isolation and loneliness, which can impact disease and death rates. Further, more positive experiences in social relationships is generally linked to better coping and lower stress.

Because Eid is celebrated over a period of three days, the holiday emphasizes socializing and connecting with others for longer than just an afternoon or a day.

These kinds of “social ceremonies” can be helpful, said Dr. David Spiegel, psychiatrist and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford Medicine.

People have survived because “we’ve formed communities, and support one another, and protect one another,” he said. “Having a community act that gives you a sense of doing something and doing something together with other people does help people to manage stress better.”

Connecting with one’s community and expanding that circle, or even in smaller ways such as making time for a friend can be healthy.

Fill your cup

While going on the Hajj pilgrimage might be spiritually fulfilling for some Muslims, it may not be practical for everyone to take that journey. But creating space that brings in any sort of fulfillment can usher in new, exciting energy.

Whether it’s reading a good book or going on a yoga retreat for example, it can be something you do for your growth and gratification. Even a hike can do it for some, Awaad explained.

“It could be something that just fills your cup to where you’re able to then ground yourself and be much more attuned to the people around you and to the work that you’re doing.”

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