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From Self-Care to Soul-Care



It is considered almost a given in movement work that activists experience burnout. In many of my own networks, that badge of martyrdom was regarded as proof of commitment to The Cause, whatever the cause might be. “Self-care” (if it was discussed at all) was viewed as self indulgent and weak. How could anyone be concerned about self-restorative practices when there was so much injustice and suffering in the world? In some activist circles, spirituality was viewed with the same skepticism, as frivolous and self-centered.


This mindset led many people to become casualties of their activism, dropping out of the movement — sometimes embittered, sometimes feeling guilty, often wounded. The more benign version — of wanting to take time for renewal but having it constantly preempted by the never-ending stream of crises — has a similar impact. Physical and mental illness, exhaustion, addictions, and disruption of relationships are common “side effects” of activist life. The attrition this creates can lead to a kind of collective amnesia — a loss of the learnings and insight that come through decades of lived movement experience and multi-generational collaboration.


I am encouraged to see more people talking about self-care and seeing it as an essential part of movement work. However, those conversations don’t always go deep enough. Too often I hear “self-care” used to refer to things that help us deal with stress or take the edge off our pain — a glass of wine or a beer (or a blunt) after a hard day, getting a manicure or massage, or zoning out in front of the television with your favorite comfort food. These may at times provide needed relief, but it takes more than a spa day and a bowl of ice cream to sustain us in these times of upheaval. Please don’t get me wrong, stress relieving and physically nurturing activities are important. Just don’t stop there.

We need something more meaningful, more transformative, to stay connected to the place within that inspires us to do the work of our calling, and that allows us to bring our wisest, truest, best selves to it on an ongoing basis. This is essential for all of us, not just self-identified activists. We are, all of us, engaged in the struggle of these times.


Genuine sustainability is not simply about employing enough self-care practices to keep-on-keeping-on, often working in the same dysfunctional and abusive ways. There is nothing transformational about that — for ourselves individually, for our strategies as activists and leaders, for our organizations, our movements, or the world.


So how do we move beyond the resuscitation model of self-care to rooting ourselves in something substantial and life-giving enough to support our flourishing? How do we sustain the soul — the spiritual center, the higher vision, the inmost heart — that can inspire and guide our work, and every aspect of our lives, as we embody our commitments to personal and social transformation. In this way all that we do can emerge from, and be sustained by, a sense of connection to something greater, something larger than we are from which we can draw strength — whether that is one another, our ancestors or cultural heritage, Nature, a Higher Power, God — the Sacred, however each of us may understand it.

This means going beyond self-care to “soul-care,” engaging the practices that help us establish, maintain, and grow that inner connection.


During my years at OneLife Institute, we developed a curriculum called Sustaining the Soul of Activism. Through that work, we began using the term soul-care to highlight this distinction between what is commonly meant by self-care, and what might be considered transformational self-care.

In our workshops we described it as “the growth, development, and preservation of inner resources that allow you to meet whatever life throws at you with ______ and ______.” What goes in those blanks is unique to each person, and may even shift from time to time. For me it’s love and wisdom. Those are the qualities that I most hope and strive to embody. We can take those words, those qualities, and set them as sacred intentions — allowing them to be our anchors, our touchstones. Indeed, they are already within us waiting to be given full expression.


You may want to take a moment now and reflect on what those qualities are for you.


Soul-care asks what practices and choices allow us to live from that place of connection to the Sacred, to cultivate our spiritual qualities, and meet whatever life brings with the best that is within us. What if we centered those practices collectively and integrated them into our activist movements? Communal spiritual practice — of singing, prayer and shared worship — was central to the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 60s. And we see it today, for example, in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and in the Movement for Black Lives. By bringing spiritual practice into our activism, and embracing activism as a spiritual practice, we are transformed as we transform our world.


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Please join me and harpist Destiny Muhammad for some good soul care on Saturday, January 28, 2023 at Spirit, Sound & Silence, a half-day healing retreat via zoom. Info & registration: bit.ly/SSS-retreat-jan2023


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Note: Parts of this post are adapted from my essay, “Mysticism & Social Action: The Ethical Demands of Oneness” in Gregory C. Ellison II, ed, Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.


[photo of Oakland, Ca street art "Beautiful Struggle" by Liza Rankow]

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