Reclaiming the Heart of Creativity

Yasmin Mogahed

Psychologist, Author, Academic, & Globally-loved Speaker

In this series, Peter Gould explores design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here he interviews psychologist, author, academic, and globally-loved speaker, Yasmin Mogahed
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There aren’t many people who can seamlessly weave the Qur’an, Elizabeth Gilbert and Mixed Martial Arts into a conversation about designing with heart, but it should come as no surprise that Yasmin Mogahed is one of them. Having learned from the author and speaker over a number of years, I knew she was an ideal person to ask about the role of humility, integrity and surrender in our life and work.

In the first few years of Facebook I was an active user, and enjoyed meeting and connecting with creative communities around the globe. One day someone thoughtfully tagged my name and added me to a thread that was calling for help to design a book cover.

The new book was to be called Reclaim Your Heart, written by Yasmin Mogahed, whose publisher was looking for designers. As it turned out, I had come across some of her talks and was keen to connect and help.

We had a call and I was able to read some of the chapters, which really resonated with me. Yasmin had been able to capture and articulate a beautiful set of wisdoms that felt fresh, relevant, timely and yet deeply rooted in spiritual wisdoms from centuries before. The challenge was to design a cover that expressed and communicated this idea, with some vibrancy and colour.

As we worked through the concept process, she selected a beautiful sunlit golden tree photograph with light streaming through the leaves. It has been a joy to see that book reprinted many times, translated into many languages and appear everywhere from airports in Kuala Lumpur to high streets in London. It’s a testament to how her beautiful words and wisdoms inspire millions of hearts around the globe, and have helped many through turbulent times.

We’ve stayed connected since, with follow-up book design projects and her visits to Australia, and even a chance meeting in the city of Medina. Now, some years after that first connection, I called Yasmin for a long overdue catch-up and discussion on her thoughts about work, life, design and spirituality.

We start to explore the role of the creative practitioner, and the idea that our strengths, talents and abilities do not come from us, but from a higher source. Yasmin brings up a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert that illustrates this point well.

“She said the concept of genius wasn't that someone is a genius but that someone has genius,” says Yasmin.

“The difference is that when you say someone is a genius, it's like that individual is the source. That individual becomes the source of whatever it is that they're expressing, or whatever amazing thing that they're creating. They're the source of it. She's like, “That actually wasn't the original idea or the understanding”. It was that someone has genius, where they're just a conduit for this creativity, this concept or this idea. Whether it's in design or as a writer, as a speaker, as an artist, you're just a conduit, you're not the source.

“Whether it's in design or as a writer, as a speaker, as an artist, you're just a conduit, you're not the source.”

“She said something so interesting, which is that once people started to change and to believe that they are the source of this genius, and it's coming from them, that's when they started to go crazy. From an Islamic spiritual perspective, that's essentially taking on almost God-like attributes and giving them to yourself. The fact is the human psyche and the human heart cannot handle that, and is not compatible with human design. It's not compatible with the human heart.”

Let the career choose you

This is a topic that Yasmin covers beautifully in Reclaim Your Heart, in which she discusses the concept of ‘holding the world in your hand, but not in your heart’. We go deeper into the idea from a more spiritual viewpoint.

“It’s important to understand the source of things, the source of strengths” she explains, using the Arabic phrase, la hawla wala quwwata illa billah – roughly translated as ‘there is no power and no strength except with God’.

“That's a very, very important spiritual practice in any project that you're going to undertake. That there is no change in state and there is no power or strength except by God. That nothing happens, there's no ability without God, and outside of God.”

This understanding that you are gifted with unique talents, abilities and opportunities plays a key role in the professional world – both in our own appreciation of our work, and the type of output we can create.

When you see your skills as gifts that have been given to you, then you can start to understand them as a trust – a responsibility to use them wisely and for good rather than harm.

As designers, for example, we can use our design capabilities to solve community and global challenges, rather than create products that are designed for addiction.

But as Yasmin explains, there’s a certain level of ‘surrender’ that needs to take place before you can expect to feel on the right track professionally.

“A lot of people choose their career, but I think careers should choose you,” she says.

“What I mean by that in a spiritual sense is that God is placing you in the role that he wants you to play. When that happens He sustains you, He gives you barakah (‘blessings’), and he protects you. Because there are a lot of pitfalls in life in general, but specifically in having a public role, and in business. So when a person is not grounded and doesn’t have the right compass, intention, focus and priority, you can really lose your way.”

“When a person is not grounded and doesn’t have the right compass, intention, focus and priority, you can really lose your way.”

The notion of having the wrong compass immediately brings to mind the dangers of material attachment. When the pursuit of money, fame, power or objects becomes a primary focus, your work no longer serves to benefit others. Instead it can have severely detrimental effects to individuals, communities or the planet.

An extreme example might be the arms industry, which purposefully creates harmful products in order to receive copious amounts of money. A more subtle example might be the practice of ‘planned obsolescence’, whereby consumer goods are designed to rapidly become obsolete and therefore require replacing – ensuring continual income. Not only does this create frustration and financial strain for customers, it also contributes to the growing issues of excess waste and pollution.

Detaching from material things can give a greater sense of perspective – diverting you away from the pursuit of money and power, and allowing you to focus on meaningful work. This is something my team and I try to apply through Heart-Centrered Design – a set of spiritual aspirations that influence and inspire our thinking and our work.

Heart-Centered Design helps us to ask different questions and reframe our use of design in order to do meaningful work that benefits hearts around the world, as well as fulfilling our clients’ aims. By having a degree of detachment from material considerations, design becomes a spiritual practice.

Spirituality in unexpected places

As we near the end of our conversation, I ask Yasmin if she has any examples of people or organisations she admires who have put this detachment and humility into practice. Her answer is beautiful, if somewhat surprising.

“Something I found really inspiring on an individual level – related to spirituality and when we find ourselves in a position of power, leadership or fame, and how we react to it – was the MMA fighter, Khabib,” she tells me.

Former Mixed Martial Arts fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from the sport in 2020 with a perfect record of 29 wins and zero losses, announcing his decision in the ring minutes after defending for the third time the UFC lightweight title he won in 2018.

He had promised his mother that this would be his last professional bout, following the death of his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who had died just three months before the fight.

“I don’t watch cage fighting – it’s not my thing – but the reason I was so moved was for one reason: When he won and announced that he’s retiring. What I found so deeply moving from a spiritual perspective is that, when you look at it from a psychological lens, the amount of addiction that fame and power bring about is intense.

“The day he announced his retirement, his name was the number one most Googled term in the world, or something. That’s the level of fame he got to – everybody’s talking about him. You have the money, the power, the fame, all of that. And to walk away from that basically because of a promise you made your mother? I saw that, and that moved me. It showed something that is very rare.

“He let all of that go out of principle - really for the sake of his parents. He said I don’t want to do that without my father, and I made a promise to my mother. And I have a lot of respect for that.

“That’s an example of what you’re talking about, but in his case it’s cage fighting as a spiritual practice - it’s another manifestation of ihsan (‘excellence’) in a field you wouldn’t necessarily think of as spiritual, but that’s what it looks like.”

These parting words hit home. Principles such as integrity, humility, surrender and excellence aren’t only found in what we might view as ‘noble’ or ‘spiritual’ jobs or activities. Rather, nobility is a quality that you bring to the table no matter what it is you’re doing. My teachers over the years, including Yasmin, have consistently shared how spirituality can be aligned in just about every action, every experience, when intentions are sincere.

It’s a timely reminder to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re ‘holding the world in our hands but not in our hearts’, as Yasmin discusses in Reclaim Your Heart. If we can sincerely say that we are, and that our hearts are reserved for something greater than this world, then we truly have the potential to excel in whatever role is given to us.


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