Tending Our Inner Life to Make the World Whole

Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 5:00 am

Tending Our Inner Life to Make the World Whole

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

     of no-faith
There is a field of goodness and beauty

where hearts our nourished

     With each breath
I’ll meet you there

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Ayisha Ni’mat

    Omid: I will admit, on this late Thursday in May, that there may be nothing more delightful than opening the OnBeing website late Wednesday night, or first thing Thursday morning, and being graced with your latest blogpost. They are amazing. Thank you for delivering, with beautiful preaching, week after week after week!

    • Omid Safi

      Alhamdulilah my dear sister. I am so grateful to have you as a friend and a fellow seeker on this path towards our Beloved Almighty. may God bless you, and all those whom you hold dear in your heart.

  • Gabby

    This column very much hits the right note. We do need to learn how to take effective care of ourselves in ways that work for us. I favor daily practices, as you do, but I know some people have a different way. We need to be cautious about those selling methodologies, or what you call “self-help capitalism.” It breaks my heart when people in strife get lured into purchasing a path toward the elusive calm they seek, or community, or love from this industry that preys on people’s needs. (“Come be calm and healthy with us for $20 an hour or $1000 a year- all are welcome”) We need to be honest with ourselves about the difference between self-care and a narcissistic retreat into the safe spaces privilege affords. People are on a spectrum, from entirely selfless to entirely narcissistic, and when we consider self-care, we need to recognize whether we are the ones already focusing too much on ourselves or not enough. We cannot make self care and self love an excuse for letting people less privileged people fend largely for themselves.

    • Omid Safi

      Thank you Gabby. May we pursue what is healing, nurturing, and sustainable.

  • seb

    This is a wonderfully written, lovely piece. I only wish it had been better edited. Multiple spelling and grammar errors, which seems the norm in today’s world. As a writer and editor, this is dismaying. Thanks for a beautiful article, content-wise.

  • Amor Fati

    Mr. Safi, thank you so much for you inspiring article. It is so true that we often forget to care for ourselves, and burnout, in whatever form it may occur, is a real possibility and threat. In these anxiety provoking times I often forget to breathe! Yes, let us all meet in that field of goodness and beauty beyond duality and faiths and hold each other up.

    • Omid Safi

      Amen, Amen. thank you Amor!

  • Pingback: С любовью к людям!()

  • Omid Safi

    Thank you friends, if you do find spelling errors, always feel free to point them out and we’ll try to fix them. I do often write in a stream of consciousness style, without always pausing to edit and re-edit. 🙂 <3

  • CrummyVerses

    Yes, daily. For me getting quiet & still are important…which inspire humility…eventually…so critical in our world of selfies, techo-gadgets that coax us into surrounding our selves with ourselves. Opportunity happens: my personal recommendation for anyone with perhaps an ounce of courage to try a retreat. I recently participated in a 5-day silent retreat with wisdom talks interspersed. I’m still appreciating its respond-instead-of-react that was strengthened by giving it my best shot, my very human best shot, “warts and all” as is said. Thank you. I always appreciate your essays.

  • Carrie Craig

    A friend of mine directed me to this blog. The paraphrase of Rumi quote is refreshing and much-needed. Thank you.

  • Pingback: An Abundance of Thoughtful and Complex Listening | On Being()

  • Maikel

    Mr. Safi, thank you for your kind, gentle, beautiful, truthful words. In these times, when it seems we are constantly bombarded with frightening things, these simple truths you’ve stated help remind me that peace (if only inner peace) is attainable. Not only attainable, but essential. I do hope that cultivating a self care practice may help the world heal, if only a little.
    Thank you! May peace and love and grace be with you always!