By Mona S.
If you’ve been to a circus, you’ve seen that performer who’s on a unicycle, or even a tightrope, with a bunch of flowers in his mouth, and juggling what seems like an impossible number of tiny, colorful balls. Isn’t this what life feels like to us, most of the time? A struggle to find that perfect balance between the many demands on our time and attention.
Now, imagine that same performer having to continue like that, with no end in sight, no breaks and no rest. At some point, he will tire, lose his balance, drop everything and end up hurting himself. That is what happens to us too when we don’t take the time to rest and rejuvenate, relax and refuel. This is where self-care comes in.
What is Self-Care?
To many people, self-care is a bubble bath or a manicure appointment, or maybe a massage. But in fact, it is much bigger than that; it is any activity performed deliberately to care for yourself, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. It includes taking care of your mind and body with diet and exercise, ensuring that you get a good amount of sleep, doing things that bring you joy, being in the company of people you love, and so on and so forth – basically, it is any activity that adds to your well-being.
Regular self-care ensures that you’re happy, healthy and functioning to the best of your abilities. If you’re ignoring your own needs as you rush to fulfill the needs of your family, friends, job or society in general, it will eventually affect your well-being and the tasks/people in your care. This is why the safety brochures on airplanes around the world state that in the event of an emergency, each person put on his or her oxygen mask first, before assisting others.
Studies have shown that self-care promotes psychological and physical health and well-being, and prevents as well as manages disease, injury and trauma. It decreases stress and depression; increases capacity for empathy while also improving immunologic functioning. Unfortunately though, self-care now has earned a negative reputation and is seen as selfish, needy or weak. This is because we’ve always been told that it is noble and right to put others’ needs before our own. In reality though, we are best able to serve others when we care for ourselves first. In an increasingly overstimulating world, it is imperative to take the time for self-care, in order to continue to function optimally in all the relevant spheres of our lives.
Self-Care in Islam
In Islam, our duties and priorities have clearly been specified via the Quran, hadeeth and sunnah. Our first duty – and the very purpose of our creation – is of course to worship Allah.
Allah says in the Quran,
Here, Allah reminds us that He creates everything with perfection and then in the following two ayaat, explains the fashioning of man. He is, in essence, telling us that we were created perfectly, in the best possible form by the Most Perfect of Creators. This is a great favor from our Lord, one that we should be thankful for and show our gratitude by taking good care of it. This is reiterated in a hadeeth where the Prophet said that our bodies have rights over us. They are, after all, vessels that Allah has blessed us with in order to fulfill our duties.
In yet another hadeeth, the Prophet Muhammad said that a strong believer is more beloved to Allah SWT than a weak believer and it is understood that strength here refers to physical strength. This is proof that we are required to care for our bodies physically and ensure that we are strong and healthy, by way of diet and exercise and preventive steps against illnesses and self-harm.
This is corroborated in the many sunan that we practise today. There are ahadeeth on the etiquettes of eating, how much to eat, and even what kinds of food to eat. As for the rest that our bodies need, there are both Quranic ayaat as well as ahadeeth, on sleep.
Science is only now proving that intermittent fasting has numerous health benefits and this has been in our sunnah for hundreds of years. The Prophet Muhammad was known to fast at least three days of the month, and encouraged fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, whereas the best type of fasting is considered to be that of Prophet Dawud (peace be upon him), i.e. fasting every alternate day.
Emotionally, as well, we are reminded often in the Quran and ahadeeth on the importance of a sound heart, and of caring for the state of the heart. One of the many ways to do this is to reflect and contemplate Allah’s signs. This is part of prophetic tradition as well; our beloved Prophet Muhammad often retreated to the Cave of Hira to reflect and remember Allah. This is a great reminder that we all need a break from our daily routines and lives to rejuvenate mentally and emotionally.
Spiritual self-care is just as essential to our well-being. As practising Muslims, we are all aware that imaan does not remain steady, that there are crests and troughs, that we have to strive to worship Allah as best as we can anyway. When we feel a dip in our imaan, when we feel a disconnect from our spiritual selves, we should strive to increase our ibadah to get back on track. Allah tells us that we draw closer to Him when we perform the obligatory acts but if we want to draw even closer, then we should increase our nafl (supererogatory) deeds and this will gain for us Allah’s Love.
Mindfulness is another way to practise spiritual self-care. Mindfulness is the mental state of awareness, focus and openness allowing you to engage fully in what you are doing at any moment. While being touted as a ‘new’ way to look at and live your life, mindfulness has been encouraged by our deen for centuries. As people of taqwa, we are required to always be present in and fully aware of everything around us, and about us. We will, after all, be held accountable for even the tiniest of our deeds. We are encouraged to purify and renew our intention before everything we do, and isn’t this is just one way to practise mindfulness?
When we explore mindfulness with Islamic teachings in mind, we realize that it is an inherent part of self-care in every aspect of life, not just spiritually. Mindfulness is encouraged, by our deen, in physical, emotional, mental as well as spiritual self-care. It is beautiful to see a hint of the Infinite Wisdom of Allah when you see these components fit together so perfectly, subhanAllah!
Start Self-Care Now
Now that we’ve learned the importance of self-care, we should look at ways to implement it in our lives. We are advised to hasten towards good, after all so here are some tips to start implementing self-care in your life today.
Because self-care is such a personal thing, it varies from person to person, depending on their lifestyle, interests and other commitments. To be able to care for and nurture yourself in a way that suits you best, you have to take the time to understand yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and your physical and emotional needs as well.
Physically you could start with thinking about your diet and fitness levels in relation to your current lifestyle. Are you eating the foods you need to be able to function at your best or are you skipping meals or eating junk? Are you ensuring that your body is getting the exercise it needs? What about sleep?
Emotionally, you could start by recognizing what triggers your stress, and how much is too much for you. Spiritually, you can start by analyzing what it is that gives you imaan-highs and how often you need them – regular dhikr, fasting, learning something new, listening to short islamic lectures, etc.
2. Take Twenty
Once you’ve determined what it is that helps you relax and refuel, actively make twenty minutes for it as often as you can. It could be something as simple as a cup of tea by yourself before you take on the day, or a walk at the end of the day, or making the time to read something that interests you, or even a spot of gardening or coloring if that is the sort of thing that calms and re-energizes you. Do it regularly, make time for you and your interests!
3. Ask for Help
When you’ve understood your limits, don’t feel shy about asking for help when you need it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s no shame in asking for help so you don’t end up only half-heartedly handling your responsibilities or taxing yourself and end up ill, or worse.
4. Say No
Another important skill to develop to self care-effectively, is the ability to say ‘no’, i. to people when you already feel like you have to much on your plate, and ii. to any guilt you might feel when you take time to nurture yourself, in any way.
5. Implement the Sunnah
One of the most fail-safe ways to start implementing self-care in your life is to introduce more sunnah practices into your daily routine. Reciting the morning and evening adhkaar is the simplest way to take a few minutes to center yourself at the beginning and end of the day. Start small, and with the basics – hygiene, rest, food and drink, activity levels, prescribed dhikr – and move up as you feel like you can make more of these beneficial changes in your life.
To tie it all up, we’ve often heard that Islam is a complete way of life, and the more we reflect and absorb its teachings, we discover that this is nothing short of the truth.