by Omid Safi
When I was going through the rigor of university, there was a beautiful forest close to the school — a place I would go to periodically for a hike. I tended to go there when it felt like the world was crashing down around me, when I felt overwhelmed. The woods were my escape, my get-away place of sanity. Walking under the shade of tall trees and listening to the sound of running water from rivers and waterfalls, I always had the same thought: I feel so whole when I am here. Why don’t I do this more often?
I know what makes me feel more. Why isn’t this an everyday practice for me?
In these days, it seems like we are living on the brink. Pomp and bluster seem to rule the day. There is conflict here, at home and around the world. Our very home, this tiny third rock from the sun, is in real danger.
One of the truths we know is that we live in an enchanted universe. The up-there and down-here mingle, the earthly and the heavenly mirror each other. We have no choice but to continue to redeem the world, to save the world from our own selves. We are, ironically, the cause of the breaking and just might be the channel of healing. To make the world whole, we ourselves have to become healed, become whole. Our well-being and the world being well are linked together.
To tend to our own inner lives is not selfishness; it is wisdom, it is essential, and it is unavoidable.
There is self-care that turns towards narcissism. And there is also a different self-care that posits a self that is harmonious with fellow human beings, with the natural cosmos, and every sentient being.
One of the fiercest revolutionaries of our time, that African-American giant of a warrior, Audre Lorde, says it best:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,
it is self-preservation,
and that is an act of political warfare.”
So, friends, how do you care for yourself?
Here are some simple thoughts. None of us can provide answers for each other about how to nurture one another’s souls. But perhaps we can share questions that we must each seek to answer:
We have to get to know our own selves.
The oracles of old told us: “know thyself.” The Prophet Muhammad pointed to the same wisdom by saying: “To know God intimately, know yourself intimately.” There is no way to know God well unless we know our own selves well. We have to know what makes us tick, what brings joy to us, and where our own demons are. That kind of inner work is hard, patient, slow, and rewarding.
I’ve been fond of quoting W. B. Yeats:
“It takes more courage
to examine the dark corners of your own soul
than it does for a soldier
to fight on a battlefield.”
Let us go beyond Yeats. Yes, let us examine the dark corners of our souls and let us illuminate them. Let’s see the broken spaces, the wounds, which become the openings for the light to pour through us.
Read our hearts.
We are so attentive to our devices, making sure they are charged. Do we show the same care and concern for our hearts? Do we wait until we are running on fumes? How lovely and wise to make sure that the recharging is not through being a “weekend warrior” or even once-every-few-years vacations (both are lovely), but rather a matter of daily practice.
What works for you?
We are different from one another. Some of us are rejuvenated through prayer and meditation. Some through a run in the woods. Some need quality time with friends and family for beautiful conversation. Some benefit from solitude. Some need to be in that place that is home. Some might grow the most from exotic vacations around the world. Get to know yourself, know what nourishes you and sustains you, and make it into a practice. Do what works for you.
What works now?
It is not merely that we are each nourished and sustained differently from one another. No one of us stays constant. Who we are now is not the same person we were a few years ago. There may have been nourishing at one point in our life. There may no longer be nourishing at this phase. What sustains us now may evolve a few years down the road. That task of self-care will grow and evolve.
Beware of self-care capitalism.
There are, of course, experts and masters — those who tap into on the timeless wisdom of ancients and the most timely of expressions. But there is also a whole industry that preys on our need for sustenance and fulfillment. If it promises to “feel good” without the need for transformation, sacrifice, discipline, and community, it might be good and wise to exercise some caution.
Self-care and community love must be linked.
The task of self-care is one that we have to carry out by our own selves, yet our well-being is linked to the well-being of fellow human beings. We are wrapped up in one another. I cannot do well until and unless we are all well. So do be on the lookout for self-care sliding into a kind of glorified spiritual narcissism.
Let us, you and I, friends, find what sustains our soul. Let us find what nurtures our heart, who nurtures our heart, where our heart is nurtured.
Let us go there
And make a habit of it.
If we may paraphrase the great Rumi:
Out beyond the realms of this faith
and that faith
There is a field of goodness and beauty
where hearts our nourished
With each breath
I’ll meet you there