Last week I made what might look like a reverse-resolution: to aim to go to the gym just twice a week instead of three times a week. I’m not a compulsive calorie-burner; in fact, my relationship with exercise is quite healthy and positive. I enjoy working out because it feels good and helps disperse mental stress and physical tension. I just don’t have time for all the self-care routines I’ve taken on to balance my life and keep myself happy, healthy and whole. At this point I’m managing stress that’s partly caused by the stress of stress-management routines.

The notion of self-care – that it is not just OK, but radical to take time to look after your own physical, mental and emotional needs in a world that is not always built for human well-being – originates in activist and mental health communities. The message was originally espoused by and directed at individuals most at risk of burn-out: people who daily navigate and resist heteropatriarchal, white supremacist , capitalist social structures designed to oppress, marginalize and stigmatize them. In the hands of white feminist social media personalities, self-care has morphed into a trendy aesthetic: a variety of the performative vulnerability that is so often rewarded on Instagram. Crying selfies, face masks, hydration, and unapologetically cancelling plans in favour of staying in bed are all #selfcare.

I don’t want to suggest that white privilege precludes the need for self-care or that selfies, face masks and napping are not legitimate tools of self-care. At its heart, self-care is about making a more loving world by starting with self-love and that is a worthy message for everyone. But as is its nature, social media has both contributed to the propagation of a positive idea and blunted its critical edge. Self-care contains an implied critique of the capitalist imperative of productivity, but it has been easily subverted to sell Band-Aid solutions for the symptoms of burn-out without addressing their root causes. It is a way to market everything from $5 face masks at the drugstore to expensive yoga retreats in Costa Rica.  Self-care is no longer about surviving and thriving despite capitalism, it is about maximizing one’s use of capitalism by maintaining productive functionality. And that is problematic for so many reasons.

Like a lot of millennials, I’m an overworked non-profit employee doing creative work on the side, but I’m also healthy, childless, dog-less and have a 15 minute commute to work. I have no reason to be as tired as I am, but maintaining an exercise routine to keep myself energized and relaxed, meal planning and packing lunch every night to stay healthy and on budget, tidying clutter to keep a pleasant space to come home to, pursuing hobbies for the satisfaction of making something, keeping a journal for mental clarity, etc., etc. is too much to fit in alongside a full-time job and basic domestic chores, let alone real leisure. When I inevitably fail to keep up with my checklist of self-care because I’ve been actually resting I get… stressed out! I’m driven by the feeling that if I don’t keep up on all these good habits, things will be much worse down the road. I’ll turn into one big knotted muscle or something. Worst of all, my time and energy for more fulfilling creative work dwindles as it is repeatedly postponed to the end of the night, and then the next day and the next.

Consumerist self-care is marketed at women (it meshes well with existing gendered complexes that marketing capitalizes on, such as body image) and women have been at the forefront of espousing self-care in all its varieties. There’s good reason for this. Women have historically been care givers, and that legacy continues to inform the expectations placed on women by themselves and others. Self-care can be an antidote to the toll of all that other-care. Real self-care as it was originally conceived is not pretty or cute. It can look like taking medication, or setting boundaries in relationships, or making genuinely difficult and rewarding life changes. But it is always work and the mainstreaming of #selfcare obscures the work and the mess and conflict that come when people who are routinely and systematically expected to care for or accommodate others center their own needs in a meaningful way.

As self-care eats into my leisure hours, becoming a source of pressure itself, I wonder if #selfcare is just another way that women are pressured to have it all, and be it all. As delayed (or foregone) parenthood, house ownership and career stability are increasingly accepted parts of millennial adulthood, perhaps the balanced lifestyle promised by self-care is just a new form of unrealistic feminine perfection that conveniently keeps us busy and keeps us buying.

In comparison “Treat yo’self”, a motto popularized by characters on Parks and Recreation, so transparently invites indulgence and consumption that it resists the same insidious subversion of message.  If not taken in moderation, “Treat yo’self” may lead to debt before balance but at least it promotes a self-love based on giving yourself permission to enjoy life, rather on grimly doing things for your own good.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

“Self-care” has become a popular term in the last few years, and with good reason. The Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” resonates with many who have popularized the doctrine of self-care. Femininity and femaleness bear care-giving and nurturing associations, which often become expectations (both internal and external) and demands.  “Self-care” is a reminder to prioritize our own well-being amongst the other emotional labour we do, whether that is parenting, being a good partner and friend, working in a profession such as teaching or counseling, or social activism. Self-care reminds us to set emotional boundaries, and boundaries on our time and outward productivity. Time spent nurturing our own well-being is just as legitimate as time spent at work or on other “productive” tasks, but we often feel anxious or guilty for taking that time.

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The problem with the popularity of “self-care”, is that it risks being conflated with the Parks and Recreation-coined phrase “treat yo self.” Now, I am not here to condemn “treat yo self”! Far be it for me and my thirty-six lipsticks to judge anyone for enjoying some retail therapy… or Netflix binges, or dessert for no reason, or sleeping until noon…. But, reducing self-care to various acts of consumption removes the nurturing, and radical core, of the concept.  A holistic understanding of self-care ultimately has to focus on the care portion – instead of being a moment to stop caring because you’re overburdened, it should be a moment to turn your caring and nurturing energy inward to rebuild.

To help me maintain a good balance of tough (self)love and more gentle nurturing, I use what I call the Maternal Theory of Self-Care, which is that sometimes you have to be your own mom and sometimes you have to be your own grandma.* Being your own mom entails things like making yourself do your chores when you don’t feel like it, making sure you’re eating balanced meals and going outside to play enough, sitting yourself down and having an honest talk about “what’s bothering you?”, and sometimes even putting yourself in a time out when you’re not playing well with others. The strict, but caring “for your own good” stuff, in other words. Being your own grandma, on the other hand, involves treats and sympathy.

*Speaking archetypally, of course. You may not want to model your self-care after your own particular mother or grandmother, or may have other figures who fill these roles better.

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 10 ways to be your own mom

  • Clean your space. It’s a pigsty. Do the laundry while you’re at it.
  • Cook a proper meal with all the food groups. Maybe even cook something that isn’t cooked all in one pan! Or even go full mom and write a meal plan for the week.
  • Go for a walk/run/work out. Play outside.
  • Wash your face every day (and don’t pick at that pimple). Take your make up off before bed, too.
  • Make that appointment; doctor, therapist, hairdresser, whatever. And then go.
  • Don’t skip that party. You know you’ll have fun once you’re there!!
  • Take your meds, if you have them.
  • Do the damn dishes and clean the kitchen counters. How do you think you’ll feel coming home from a long day at work to that, hm?
  • Purge your closet. Are you really going to wear that again? It’s just taking up space…
  • Why don’t you ever use that musical instrument/bicycle/art supplies/etc? You paid for that and used to love using it…. (in other words, make/do something fun! Return to an old hobby or start a new one.)

 10 ways to be your own grandma

  • Make (order) your favourite meal. Have seconds!
  • And save room for dessert….
  • Take the day off and go on a nice outing.
  • Or stay in and spend quality time with yourself.
  • Cozy up and have a nap.
  • You don’t have to go to that party. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, dear!
  • Make yourself some tea.
  • Tell yourself you look beautiful.
  • Let yourself get away with being fussy, angry, and sad. Be sympathetic to yourself and validate your feelings, even if you know you’re being a bit of a baby.
  • And, of course, buy yourself a present for no reason.

lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.

In Theravadan Buddhism, there’s a form of meditation wherein practitioners allow thoughts to enter their minds and dwell there free of judgement. The thought – no matter how potentially upsetting or disturbing – may be calmly turned over, investigated, and conversed with. It may go, or it may stay – either way, the thought is not understood as threatening. It is a part of the learning process.

It is amazing how effective this style of meditation is for untangling webs of anxiety and processing complex emotional issues. Removing the cloud of judgement, and all the fear that accompanies it, allows for the freedom necessary to properly work through difficult issues.

Maybe it should be unsurprising, then, that writing often has the same effect.

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I have found myself, countless times, writing about feelings I didn’t know I had. Thoughts I didn’t know I thought. I have watched, in semi-disembodied disbelief, as my hands seemed to work on their own accord, giving shape to my unconscious.

It is an unsettling experience to sit down intending to write about a specific thing and instead find yourself scribbling unstoppably about things you’ve never thought about. There’s a strange conflict, where your conscious brain struggles to take back control but your bodily unconscious – perhaps because of the writing muscle’s refusal to leave a sentence unfinished, perhaps because your conscious brain is so mesmerized by the novelty of what it is reading – remains in control.

It is a special thing. We so often try to ignore our unconscious. But in the face of a pen that doesn’t judge and a blank sheet of paper, we can engage with ourselves. Our truths can come spilling out and we can read them back.

There is more to the human experience than reason and restraint. Writing has always allowed people to create new worlds; discovering them is not always just for the reader.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Implicit Islamophobia is a type of prejudice that results from subtle cognitive processes which operate at a level below that of conscious awareness. The bias refers to stereotypes and an overall ethos (set of attitudes subscribed to) that initiate behavioural patterns and thereby effect how we understand others, our actions towards them and decisions about them. Normally spoken about in the context of sexism and racism, one underexplored area that implicit bias manifests strongly in is interactions with and among Muslims.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity points out the following:

  • Implicit associations harboured in our subconscious develop over the course of a lifetime, beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messaging.
  • Biases associated with these subconscious associations are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even if we are dealing with individuals who have taken a vow of impartiality
  • Implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our consciously declared beliefs and can often contradict them
  • Our implicit biases favour our own group
  • Biases are malleable – associations we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of purposeful de-biasing techniques

So what kinds of associations are we talking about here?

There are quite a few common stereotypes associated with Muslims through overt messaging or more subtextual associations in media and writing that affect our unconscious biases towards them. Some of these associations are internalized by Muslims as well and can affect how they think of themselves and one another. Recognizing that these associations exist and might be operating at the level of implicit bias is just the beginning of your journey in cleansing one’s self of these harmful associations.

The following associations are quite common and actually have a historical lineage in terms of being connected with anti-Muslim propaganda all the way back to the Middle Ages:

Muslims are naturally inclined to violence. This one has been around since the beginning and goes hand in hand with lies that Islam was spread by the sword (ask any credible historian: it wasn’t.) and that Muslims are inclined to be terrorists. The idea of the terminology “moderate Muslims” plays into this stereotype because it implies that the deeper one goes into Islam, the more violent one becomes. This simply isn’t true. Violence is a practice adopted by people who are part of many different cultural systems around the world – it is an unfortunate political tool for some and a symptom of trauma for others. The choice to engage with violence is justified differently by all cultural systems around the world from Judaism to secularism, and is not unique to one system over another. If anything, violence is a universal human trait that is either used or resisted by interpreters of particular cultural groups, sometimes identifying as the same thing but understanding and using (or not using) violence differently. Since, contrary to what many bigots think, Muslims are humans too, it is no surprise that some of them are violent. However, to state that violence is intrinsic to Islam or even condoned by its laws is categorically false.

Muslim women are oppressed and have no rights. It seems that ever since Christian women started de-veiling and the secularists took over, the veil itself (which is often associated with the stereotype of the non-liberated, oppressed Muslim woman) has come to be the symbol of the perceived oppression of Muslim women. Even when Muslim women are not veiled, they can still be seen as cloistered away in their homes, at the behest of their man’s will, without rights and even weak. While it is true that in many countries, the rights of women are limited and that these sometimes happen to be Muslim countries, it is also true that they are often not Muslim countries. Misogyny has no religious or geographical boundaries and remains a global problem. Interestingly, those who hinge this stereotype on Muslim women are usually ignorant of the incredible rights afforded to them in Islam (even over and above the rights held by modern Western, non-Muslim women) and the fact that many, if not most, Muslim women choose to obey Islamic laws including around veiling. The right to choose and to practice one’s religious way of life as one chooses never seems to factor into the Western savior complex though.

Muslim men are sex-crazed. This stereotype goes all the way back to the insults hurled at Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself by his contemporaries and has continued to be associated with Muslim men to this day. While street harassment remains a pervasive issue in many Muslim countries, problems related to sexual assault and harassment are not limited to Muslims if global numbers are any indication. Additionally, even in the confines of a consensual sexual relationship, there is no indication that Muslim men are more aroused or arousable than any other demographic.

How do these associations manifest as behavioural outcomes of implicit bias?

According to the research on racial implicit bias compiled by the Open Society Foundation, it was shown that negative associations can affect people’s decisions and their behavior toward people of other demographics than themselves. For example, a doctor with implicit racial bias will be less likely to recommend black patients to specialists or may recommend surgery rather than a less invasive treatment. Managers will be less likely to invite a black candidate in for a job interview or to provide a positive performance evaluation. Judges have been found to grant darker-skinned defendants sentences up to 8 months longer for identical offenses.

Implicit bias also affects how people act with people of another race. In spite of their conscious feelings, white people with high levels of implicit racial bias show less warmth and welcoming behavior toward black people. They will sit further away, and their facial expressions will be cold and withdrawn. These same implicitly biased white people are also are more apt to view black people as angry or threatening and to predict that a black partner would perform poorly on a joint academic task. White people with stronger implicit bias against black people actually do perform poorly on a difficult task after interacting with a black person—suggesting that, without knowing it, they were challenged mentally by the effort of appearing non-biased. While the studies on implicit bias and Islamophobia are still an emerging research area, it should be noted that often the findings with implicit bias and racial associations overlaps with Islamophobia, particularly when Muslims subscribe to certain racial identities such as being black or Arab. Compounded biases have yet to be explored in any real depth.

So now that you know these unconscious cognitive processes are happening, the next question of any regular, concerned individual should be:

How can I de-bias myself?

This sounds a bit strange but there are processes and programs developed for people to consciously decouple certain associations in their mind. Such programs tend to be based on the principles of Behavioural Conditioning Therapy but not always.

In a booklet put out by the National Center for State Courts (American) and Race & Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Organization, the following steps can be taken by individuals and organizations to reduce implicit bias:

  • Raise awareness of it: Individuals can only work to correct for sources of bias that they are aware exist (Wilson & Brekke, 1994). Simply knowing about implicit bias and its potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior may prompt individuals to pursue corrective action (cf. Green, Carney, Pallin, Ngo, Raymond, Iezzoni, & Banaji, 2007). Although awareness of implicit bias in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that effective debiasing efforts take place (Kim, 2003), it is a crucial starting point that may prompt individuals to seek out and implement the types of strategies listed throughout this document.
  • Identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences (and know that that is OK!): The popular “color blind” approach to egalitarianism (i.e., avoiding or ignoring race; lack of awareness of and sensitivity to differences between social groups) fails as an implicit bias intervention strategy. “Color blindness” actually produces greater implicit bias than strategies that acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). Cultivating greater awareness of and sensitivity to group and individual differences appears to be a more effective tactic: Training seminars that acknowledge and promote an appreciation of group differences and multi-cultural viewpoints can help reduce implicit bias (Rudman, Ashmore, & Gary, 2001; Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004). In addition to considering and acknowledging group differences, individuals should purposely compare and individuate stigmatized group members. By defining individuals in multiple ways other than in terms of race, implicit bias may be reduced (e.g., Djikic, Langer, & Stapleton, 2008; Lebrecht, Pierce, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009; Corcoran, Hundhammer, & Mussweiler, 2009).
  • Routinely check thought processes and decisions for possible bias: Individuals interested in minimizing the impact of implicit bias on their own judgment and behaviors should actively engage in more thoughtful, deliberative information processing. When sufficient effort is exerted to limit the effects of implicit biases on judgment, attempts to consciously control implicit bias can be successful (Payne, 2005; Stewart & Payne, 2008). To do this, however, individuals must possess a certain degree of self-awareness. They must be mindful of their decision-making processes rather than just the results of decision making (Seamone, 2006) to eliminate distractions, to minimize emotional decision making, and to objectively and deliberatively consider the facts at hand instead of relying on schemas, stereotypes, and/or intuition. Instructions on how to correct for implicit bias may be effective at mitigating the influence of implicit bias on judgment if the instructions implement research-based techniques. Instructions should detail a clear, specific, concrete strategy that individuals can use to debias judgment or action instead of, for example, simply warning individuals to protect their decisions from implicit bias (e.g., Mendoza, Gollwitzer, & Amodio, 2010; Kim, 2003). It should be noted (as it was above) that some seemingly intuitive strategies for counteracting bias can, in actuality, produce some unintended negative consequences. Instructions to simply suppress existing stereotypes (e.g., adopt the “color blindness” approach) have been known to produce a “rebound effect” that may increase implicit bias (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994). Others also perceive individuals instructed to implement the “color blindness” approach as more biased (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). For these reasons, decision makers should apply tested intervention techniques that are supported by empirical research rather than relying on intuitive guesses about how to mitigate implicit bias.
  • Identify distractions and sources of stress in your environment and remove or reduce them: If one is distracted or particularly stressed in one’s environment when interacting with people from different groups, including Muslims, their tendency is to revert back to typical associations and therefore behavioural tendencies. The reduction of both distractions and stress can contribute to clarity and consciousness of one’s thoughts and rationale process in governing your own behaviour.
  • Institute feedback mechanisms: Actively seeking feedback from others and articulating one’s reasoning process with regards to behavioural decisions made with and among Muslims is crucial. This involves a willingness to improve and be vulnerable to others – something that will likely be much appreciated. Pick people you feel safe with but who will also provide you with honest feedback.

Finally, if you are interested in kick-starting your journey in eliminating implicit racial or gender bias or Islamophobia, you might want to consider signing up for this 7-day online cleanse which provide you with daily tasks to de-bias yourself.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

This blog is an op-ed piece written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

I don’t think I need to explain the importance of critical thinking – every teacher you’ve come across since you were six years old has probably asked you to do it, and nearly every blog post floating around your Facebook feed is probably telling you why to do it. So instead, here are some ways you can learn how to do it, do it more frequently, or get better at doing something you already do all the time.

Make Up Alternate Stories: This is my personal favourite thing to do with pop songs. Remember that “Rude” song by Magick? Well, listen to that song and imagine that the man singing is brutally abusive to his partner. Now, erase that story, and imagine that he’s actually part of an interracial relationship. Are you finding your opinion about the song changing as you go along? Good.

Be aware of power language: Have you ever heard of “THE feminists”? As if there is only one type of feminist? Have you ever heard people make big blanket statements, saying that “Organic food is better” without allowing for nuance, exceptions, or different experiences? How about claims of things being ancient, or being first? What about subtle ways of discrediting someone, such as mentioning their age, appearance, or their hygiene? These things are important to notice, because they are tiny ways that voices can be eliminated, people can be silenced, and audiences can be convinced. This is also a really excellent way to look at your own biases. Change the person in the news story to a different gender, a different age, a different race. Does your opinion change? If it does, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might be fruitful to examine why it changes.thinking-science-3-e1377719468944

Look for what’s not necessary. I recently saw a post saying that a 12-year old girl had scored higher on a Mensa test than Albert Einstein. Does it matter that she’s a girl? I think, to be totally honest, that I would be impressed just that any human could score that well on a Mensa test, because I can’t figure out those little flash cards to save my life. If that person is particularly young, then perhaps that adds to the impressiveness of the achievement. But the gender? I don’t think so. If men and women are expected to perform equally on tests, then that shouldn’t matter at all

Put yourself in their shoes. Something I see a lot when people discuss children is that the perspectives presented are often those of the parents, or the adults, but not often of the children themselves. Try to think about these issues from all angles – what if you were the child? What if you were the parent? What if you were the teacher? What if you were a casual observer?

ZA'ATARI, JORDAN - FEBRUARY 01: Children pose for a picture as Syrian refugees go about their daily business in the Za'atari refugee camp on February 1, 2013 in Za'atari, Jordan. Record numbers of refugees are fleeing the violence and bombings in Syria to cross the borders to safety in northern Jordan and overwhelming the Za'atari camp. The Jordanian government are appealing for help with the influx of refugees as they struggle to cope with the sheer numbers arriving in the country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 160600686

In the case of the Syrian refugees, put yourself in their shoes and think about the decisions they are making in incremental steps. What would it take for you to sell your home and move to another country? Probably a solid job, at least, and the reassurance that you could come back for frequent visits. Now what would it take for you to move to a non-English speaking country and learn the new language? What would they have to pay you? What demands would you have? Now think about what would cause you to leave your home and most of your belongings to pack yourself and your children onto a tiny boat to sail for the first available country with no reassurance that you’ll arrive alive, let alone cross the border, get a job, and learn the language. How would you feel if you had managed to grab and keep track of your iPhone, only to be penalized for owning such a piece of luxury when you’re supposedly in need? How would it feel to have someone scorn your child for having a DS when it’s their one comfort in their new life of sleeping on mats in school gymnasiums?

Look for differing opinions. It doesn’t do anything to just talk to people you agree with all the time, and you can easily get only one side of the story when you only read one article. When you feel strongly about something, learn all that you can about it. Read the work of people that disagree with you. Try to find holes in your own argument and then try to fill those holes. Look for reliable sources and then challenge them.Critical-Thinking-Skills-Tuition-and-Courses-London

Give credit where credit is due. Being critical can cause a lot of stress, so it’s important to appreciate good work and solid opinions when you find them. Stay skeptical but be careful not to fall into cynicism – it’s not good for your own well being to doubt integrity regardless of any evidence presented. shutterstock_208347706

Be willing to change your mind. If you love science, or love debate, or love learning, or just want to be a conscientious individual, this is crucial. If someone presents you with good evidence, or if you’re shown how your views are hypocritical, you have to be able to admit you’re wrong, and change your mind. I’m not saying go out without a fight – challenging views and debating things is a wonderful way to learn – but there’s a point where that fight ends, and you say, “Oops. I’m completely wrong.”

I know it’s hard at first, and it can feel humiliating, but just keep picturing it from the other side – if you convinced someone to reconsider, you wouldn’t be embarrassed for that person, you’d probably respect them for being open-minded. Plus, the more often you change your mind, admit you’re wrong, and ask people to teach you more, the easier it gets, and the more it feels graceful and enlightening.

The Islamic Holy month of Ramadan starts after sunset tonight so at the Drawing Board, we thought we’d compile a few articles we have written for clients over the years about this special time. Enjoy!

Food For Heaven: Nutrition Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Ramadan Fast (2012)

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is upon us: a time when Muslims all over the world engage in the practice of fasting and activities that deepen their spirituality. With 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, and therefore almost 2 out of 7 people on earth fasting simultaneously, it is most certainly a topic that needs to be addressed. Firstly, most religions or spiritual practices all over the world include some form or practice of fasting in order to achieve a higher level of consciousness and depth of gratitude to the world around us. Whether or not you are Muslim, you may be thinking of taking part in (at least part of) Ramadan in order to test the waters, try a fast, or engage in spiritual awakening. In this article, we will cover what Islamic fasting actually entails, nutrition tips to keep you healthy, and recommendations to strengthen your body in order to get the most out of this special month.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar. Because the lunar calendar is approximately 11 days shorter than the Gregorian or solar calendar, it is possible to fast Ramadan every single day of the year over a 34 year period. During this month, Muslims are called on to abstain from food, drink and other physical needs in order to purify the soul, focus their attention on God, and practice submission.

How do Muslims fast?

Abstinence from food and drink occurs from the very beginning of dawn until the sun sets for the duration of the month, which is usually 29 to 30 days long. Each morning a meal is eaten before dawn (suhoor) and each night an iftar meal (break fast) is had after the sun goes down. Fasting also includes abstaining from sexual intercourse, as well as evil thoughts, words and deeds. Fasting is not merely nutritional but a complete commitment of the mind, body and soul.

The nutritional benefits of fasting

Though Muslims require no other reason than the Pleasure of God  in order to commit to fasting, there have been countless studies examining the effects of caloric restriction in increasing longevity and lifespan. Dramatic reductions in food over longer periods of time have shown again and again to increase the length of life in mice, rats and worms, and there is some evidence that this applies to human beings also. Other benefits include neuro-protection, increased insulin sensitivity, stronger resistance to stress, as well as powerful effects on blood lipid levels. Fasting also induces the secretion of growth hormone in the average person, which can contribute to anti-aging and healing. Fasting also induces autophagy which is the process by which cells recycle waste material, eliminate or downgrade wasteful processes and repair themselves. This  is surprisingly important in that it is required to maintain lean muscle mass, particularly of skeletal muscles. Detoxification occurs at the cellular level because the body is not expending energy at the eternal behest of the digestive organs.  Because of its protective processes induced on the cellular level, many also theorize that fasting helps the body to repair damaged genetic markers that could otherwise develop into cancer. Ultimately, fasting reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the body as well, leading to a positive effect on every single disease known to mankind.

Nutrition for Heaven

All of that being said, there are ways to optimize your fast so that you can not only achieve greater spiritual awareness, but also maximize on the health benefits of fasting. For Muslims, the most important part of Ramadan is the opportunity for salvation. These are some suggestions to make the process easier, and make you more likely to commit to fasting with not only the body, but the heart and soul as well.

Suhoor: The morning meal before dawn is surprisingly important. Not only is it recommended by the Prophet Muhammad as a way to achieve blessings, but it is also sound nutritional advice to help support you throughout the rest of the day sans food and drink! But eating is not only the most important thing; rather, what you eat can make a world of difference! In the tradition of the Prophet, it is recommended to consume a small meal of mainly dates. The wisdom of this cannot be overemphasized for a single nutritional ingredient contained in dates that will make ALL fasts significantly easier: fiber. Dates contain fiber that slows down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, thereby slowing down the secretion of insulin and limiting reactive hypoglycemia… or those blood sugar “crashes” that make us want to stuff our mouths with food when they should only be filled with prayer. Other excellent foods to accompany dates or in lieu of, would be oatmeal with added flax seed or hemp hearts, homemade trail mix, a whole grain bread egg sandwich with a handful of spinach, or a green smoothie loaded with berries, protein powder and chia seeds. Protein is another key ingredient to slow down the secretion of insulin and sustain us throughout the fasting day. It also contributes to the retention of lean muscle mass and helps up that fat-burning potential that fasting already stimulates! Avoid caffeinated beverages as they will not only unnecessary stimulate you, but they also leach water from the body! Opt to down several large glasses of water, and avoid tea and coffee!

Iftar: How you approach the sunset fast-breaking meal of iftar can dramatically affect the quality of your fast, AND your focus and concentration for spiritual activities after, such as increased prayers and Quranic recitation. Most people make the mistake of gourging themselves on food as soon as the sun hits the horizon, no holds barred, thinking that they can’t control themselves. If you haven’t consumed anything all day, taking the time to eat slowly and properly is comparatively a breeze. This moment is really a reflection of your self-control and your growth throughout the fasting month. According to the tradition of the Prophet, it is common to break the fast with a date or some milk. I usually consume a date because of a dairy allergy, and follow it with lots of water. It is a  common misconception that “filling up with water” is a bad idea during Ramadan. First of all, it is estimated that a human being can only live 3 to 5 days without consuming any water. Compare this to up to 8 weeks with no food (as long as water is consumed!) It is MUCH more important to replenish your dehydrated cells than it is to stuff your face with pizza and Timbits! Also part of the tradition of the Prophet is to consume a few dates with water or milk, then retreat to pray the sunset prayer before consuming a larger meal. Most people I know cram as much food in their faces as possible (usually greasy samosas or spaghetti) before they are too full to even get up to make ablutions to pray. This is not a good plan.

Meals for iftar that follow the sunset prayer should include high quality proteins, fiber, vegetables for vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats! Too often at communal iftars, do I see people loading up on white rice that is fried in canola oils, or downing loads of desserts after a fried chicken meal. Ramadan is a time for self-dissolvance spiritually, but it is pretty hard to get into a deeper state of prayer and meditation if you are suffering from indigestion and inflammation. Opt for cleaner meals such as lentils on brown rice, or a fish and quinoa salad to maximize your nutritional intake and minimize digestive upset. 

Key switches to make that will alter your entire Ramadan include:

 -brown whole grain rice instead of white rice (The added fiber slows down the secretion of blood sugar and insulin, balancing your blood sugar levels and providing you with a slow release of continual energy. White rice is like white sugar – you get a spike of activity and a complete crash afterwards)

 -controlled portions instead of buffet-style (It is part of the Sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet to control the amount of food you are eating. It is not necessary to fill yourself until your pants are bursting, and in fact, it is not recommended in Islam. This sort of discomfort makes kneeling in prayer an arduous task when it should be something to enjoy.)

 -raw salad instead of cooked potatoes (Eating too many starches is also a common error during this month and can lead to excessive caloric intake and weight gain despite fasting throughout the day! Up your non-starchy veggie intake with a raw salad or green smoothie to accompany your meal: they are loaded with nutrients and additional fiber, plus they contain elements to help the natural detoxification process during fasting)

 – wait until after nighttime prayers to consume fruit, if at all (Many people make the classic food-combining mistake of eating fruit right after a heavy meal. Fruit and meat, for example, require opposing pH levels of digestive juices to be broken down. If you put them in the same stomach, the opposing secretions will neutralize one another and digestion is halted making for a very uncomfortable night. Most people use fruit as a dessert and so place it on top of meat inside their stomachs: this leads to putrefaction, gas and bloating.)

 – skip dessert (The same thing goes for sweets. As a general rule of thumb, sweets and meats should never meet in the same stomach! Do yourself and your blood sugar levels a favour and skip dessert which is usually devoid of any nutritional value and will make the following day of fasting more difficult.)

Water: I simply cannot say enough about consuming adequate amounts of water. It is best to simply avoid all other forms of liquid and just focus on increasing your water intake before the morning call to prayer. I often recommend that people have a 3L glass jug that they fill with spring water and aim to consume most of it before the night is over. Once again, it is MUCH more vital and time-sensitive than your intake of food, especially if you are fasting in the hot summer months! The average person can lose 1.5L of water in a hour of continuous sweating!

Supplements: There are some natural supplements that can make a world of difference in helping you stay nutritionally  balanced so that you have enough energy and drive to focus on the more important religious aspects of this special month. A few of my recommendations are as follows:

1) High quality multivitamin: And no, this is not Centrum or anything else you buy at the pharmacy. Do yourself a favour and go to a health food store and invest in a high-quality vitamin that is naturally sourced. Most pharmaceutical multis are synthetic or cheap and a general waste of money. A multivitamin will insure that your nutritional bare minimums are being met irrelevant of what you are eating! Take one at suhoor and 2 at iftar for maximal absorption and benefits!

2) Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids: Taking healthy fats is just as important as avoiding the bad ones! Plus healthy fats help to slow down the absorption of glucose into the blood, stimulate the secretion of bile and control the transit time of food in your gut! It is very easy to become deficient in these essential fatty acids while fasting, so take with iftar for best results! I recommend an Omega 3 fish oil from sardines and anchovies for the highest concentration of brain-benefiting EPA and DHA…and go to borage seed oil for your inflammation-busting Gamma-Linoleic Acid!

 3) Probiotics: These healthy bacterial helpers can soothe any digestive upset and keep your immune system strong while you are fasting during the day! They also help you break down your food and absorb the nutrients found within! I recommend one after taraweeh prayers at the mosque!

4) Liver Support: I suggest adding a milk thistle or N-A-C supplement to upregulate levels of the beneficial phase II liver enzyme, glutathione. Glutathione is required in large quantities when the body is detoxifying in order to neutralize free radicals and excess toxins that may be travelling to the liver throughout the day of fasting. Take it at the same time as the probiotics for maximum detox results! In the end, you’ll have a more purified body which can translate into greater clarity of thought and deed, as well as a more conscious emotional state!

 5) Bowel support: You may want to consider taking something to keep your bowels moving if you are the type of person who gets constipated while fasting. This is most commonly because of dehydration during the day. A simple, non-irritating natural laxative is Magnesium Citrate which stimulate peristalsis (relaxation and contraction of intestinal muscles), draws water into the bowel, and relaxes skeletal muscles that may be tight from excess toxin secretion. 

6) Nutritional support: This includes greens powders, protein powders and fiber supplements to boost your nutrient intake!

Exercise: A lot of people think that fasting is a dangerous time and that any “unnecessary” physical exertion will make their fast more difficult or possibly put them in danger. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies on Muslim athletes during Ramadan showed no effects on performance, as well as better lipid levels in those who train WHILE fasting, rather than just fasting on its own. When you train in a fasting state, glycogen breakdown is blunted, resulting in more effective muscle energy production and increased fat burning.  Training while fasting also resulted in better metabolic adaptations which leads to higher quality training and endurance later on in training circuits, improved protein synthesis and repair, and  a much higher anabolic response to post-workout feeding. This means that what you eat after you’ve trained on an empty stomach will be delivered more effectively for the replacement of liver and muscle glycogen and muscle recovery will be far improved as well. 

The best time to exercise is right before the sunset prayer and iftar meal. Try going for a half hour walk or jog, tidy up the basement, haul out the garbage, or go for a short swim. The activity will mobilize fat cells to be burned, and the immediate replenishment of food at iftar time will protect your lean muscle from being catabolized!

Whether you are a Muslim looking to get the most out of your Ramadan this year, or you are simply curious about experimenting with different spiritual practices in fasting, the above recommendations can help just about anyone achieve a better state of consciousness and awareness within their own body and soul. It is my wish that this information finds you willing and receptive, and serves to help us all become better, more grateful people during this blessed month of Ramadan!

RAMADAN-WALLPAPERS-5__1600x1000The First Ramadan: An Historical Account (2013)

The history of fasting goes back as far as human civilization, with various societies and religious groups partaking in some version of fasting all across the globe. Recent scientific research has shown that intermittent caloric restriction is one of the few practices that can contribute directly to increasing the longevity of life.(1) Fasting is one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion and acts as a cornerstone of faith for devout believers in Allah and His Last Messenger, Muhammad (pbuh). But what did the very first Ramadan look like ? When did it become obligatory for Muslims to fast the entire month ? And, how many Ramadans did the Prophet himself fast? Ramadan became obligatory on the second Monday in the month of Sha’ban in the second year of theHijra from Mecca to Madinah. Prior to this, the day of Ashura had been made obligatory. According to Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her), while fasting Ashura had been made mandatory in Madinah, it soon became optional after the month of Ramadan was made fard (obligatory).(2) The revelation about Ramadan’s status came from Ayat 185 of Surah Al-Baqarah in which Allah (swt) says,

The month of Ramadhan (is that) in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights the (new moon of the) month, let him fast it…(3)

Pre-Islamic Arabs were known to fast, particularly on the day of Ashura in celebration of Allah saving Moses (pbuh) and his companions from the pursuit of Pharaoh. They also used fasting as an act of penitence or in preparation for some other religious rites such as mourning or initiation. Some had the added feature of including a vow of silence, which was referenced by Allah in regards to Maryam.(4)

Many early Makkans called the Prophet a Sabian because his rituals took on a similar appearance to theirs, particulary prayers and fasting. Harranians were a group of Sabians from an area between Syria and Iraq who used to fast an entire month according to the state of the moon. It is thought that they introduced the Ramadan-style of fasting to the Arabian peninsula where it would be taken up and adapted by Muslims. It should be noted that the Qur’an cites the Sabians as “People of the Book” and believers in monotheism. When fasting was made obligatory for Muslims, it took on similar appearances to previous methods which limited food, water and sexual intercourse. The latter stipulation comes from a narration by Abu Huraira who reported that a person had been with his wife during Ramadan and as he was unable to free a slave or fast two consecutive months, the Prophet ordered him to feed sixty people.(5)

Over the nine years that the Prophet would fast Ramadan, a deeper understanding as to the benefits of the fast for the believers would arise. Fasting became known as a “shield” for those who practiced it and the smell emanating from the mouth of a fasting person was declared as better in the sight of Allah than musk.(6) Additionally, Muslims celebrated the special day Laylat-ul-Qadr (The Night of Power) as one of the holiest days in the Islamic tradition. In the Qur’an, it is cited as being better than a thousand nights, however, scholars still dispute as to whether this surah was revealed in the time of Mecca or Madinah.(7) Ultimately, the day is celebrated to mark when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Cave of Hira. This days falls sometime in the last ten days of Ramadan (8) and has traditionally been a night of extra prayers, continuous Qur’anic recitation, and the seeking of forgiveness of all sins. (9)

For early muslims, Ramadan was the ultimate representation of Allah’s Mercy – a month when the gates of Paradise are opened, the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained- and few missed the opportunity to raise their level of self-control and devotion to Allah by abstaining from the temptations of this world.(10)

(1)How Intermittent Fasting Might Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life, Scientific American, Volume 308, Issue 1.

(2)Sahih Muslim, Book 6:2499, Book 35:2502/3, Also appeared through the transmission of Abdullah b.Umar, Book 35 : 2504, Bukhari Book 31:116 and Jabir b. Samura Book 35:2514

(3)Sahih International Qur’an Translation

(4)Sahih International Qur’an Translation, Surah 19:26

(5)Sahih Muslim Book 6 : 2457, Book 35:2459

(6)Sahih Bukhari Book 31:118

(7)Sahih International Qur’an Translation, Surah 97

(8)Sahih Muslim, Book 6: 2618

(9)Sahih Muslim, Volume 3, Book 31 : 125

(10)Sahih Bukhari Book 31:123

ProductiveMuslim-Aiming-for-Awesome-Ramadan-Series-From-Planning-for-Ramadan-to-Planning-for-Entire-Year-600Master Your Emotions This Ramadan (2015)

Ramadan is upon us and, as the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, it is often a time for spiritual reflection and growth. Ramadan can also be a challenge, particularly for those in more northern climates (where the days are exceptionally long) or in hotter climates (where the lack of food and water can be difficult in the heat). Perhaps one of the best opportunities we have during the month of Ramadan is a decluttering of the self and practice in mastering our emotions. Just as abstaining from food, drink and intercourse during the daylight hours are prescribed for Muslims, so too are abstaining from poor talk, bad language, anger and laziness. For some, fasting can dull excessive emotions and for others, it can heighten them. In both cases, we want to be able to adopt the path of moderation. This means sharpening our abilities to harness and use positive emotions like compassion, love, mercy, and gratitude. It also means dealing appropriately with jealously, hatred, negativity, rage and self-defeat.

  1. Recognize that we are emotional beings. Some psychologists argue that all emotions are variations of either love or fear. Since emotions dominate our thoughts and behaviours, they are central to our understanding and practice of our Islam. Allah created us with emotions and ultimately, if mastered appropriately, they are for our own benefit. Like everything given to us by Allah, emotions can enhance our lives while still carrying the potential for abuse – the choice is ours and the guidance for balance comes from Islam. Islam does not require us to suppress our emotions, but rather to funnel them into positive endeavours and seek knowledge or professional help when needed. Our actions towards ourselves are just as important as those towards others, with dignity, self-respect and self-protection being both a right and a duty. The Qur’an states, And make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loves those who do good.” (Al-Baqara 2:195) Finally, the worst emotion a Muslim can submit to is despair. When we are overcome by our poor actions and conduct, we lose sight of Allah’s Mercy, forgetting that it is infinite each time we turn to Him. The Qur’an states, And for those who fear Allah, He always prepares a way out, and He provides for him from sources he never could imagine. And if anyone puts his trust in Allah, sufficient is Allah for him. For Allah will surely accomplish His purpose: verily, for all things has Allah appointed a due proportion.( At-Talaq 65:2-3)
  2. Recognize what an emotion is. A lot of studies show that emotions can be caused by specific neurotransmitters and hormonal fluctuations, and on one level this is true. However, explaining how an emotion happens is not the same as explaining what that emotion means to us, personally and culturally. At its most basic level, an emotion is a behavioural action and an individual’s intention behind that action. The emotion itself is the behavior; therefore, a good look at our intentions can help us examine our behaviours. In Islam, this means a purification of our niyyah. Stopping and thinking about why we are feeling a certain way can help interrupt a typical emotional reaction to outside situations. In turn, this helps us to think about the intentions behind an emotion and will help focus and change future actions.
  3. Interrupt Automatic Negative Thoughts. The idea that we can change our behavior by changing our intention (niyyah) might seem difficult at first, particularly when you are fasting. Many people suffer from something called “Automatic Negative Thoughts” which sneak into our ways of thinking and being without much self-analysis. However, their effects can be dramatic on our intentions, our action and our emotions as a result – often perpetuating more negativity. The main categories of ANT are: overgeneralization, black-and-white thinking, future-telling, reading people, labeling, negative mental filters, ‘should’ statements, personalizing everything and emotional reasoning. The three psychological techniques for overcoming ANT are: Immediate Reply (ask yourself if whatever you thought is true), Opposition Statement (negate the effect of bad thoughts by replacing them with positive ones), and Look-Around Strategy (shift the focus of your mind by stopping to look and ask questions about your surroundings – in nature, this can be particularly good for reflecting on God’s Creations).
  4. Remember Allah. As Muslims, one of the best ways to apply the appropriate interruptions to negative thoughts is by remembering Allah. The reward for dhikr, prayer and other acts of worship is increased during Ramadan so take advantage of this opportunity to master your emotions by submitting them to Allah. If you despair of Allah’s Mercy, open your Qur’an and read one juz (or more) daily. The reward is immense and you will feel yourself taken care of by the words of Allah, revealed for your benefit and guidance.
  5. Protect Your Fast. At the very least, mastering your emotions with some of the above techniques will protect your fast and garner its acceptance by Allah. Ideally, cultivating a strong intention to do all actions for the Love and Sake of Allah will help us move out of fear-based negativity and into love-based positivity.

ramadan-feastWhat Does Forgiveness Mean? (2015)

With the month of Ramadan coming to a close in mid-July, there is still time to reflect on what the mercy of the month means, particularly in terms of forgiveness. This is something discussed regularly during Ramadan – that it is a month to be absolved of one’s sins and a time to turn back to Allah – however, few people pause to reflect on exactly what forgiveness means. In this article, we will discuss forgiveness from Allah, forgiveness of others and the self, and finally, forgiveness as a way of letting go of the illusion of this world.

The concept of forgiveness is expressed directly as a number of different terms in the Qur’an including: ‘afw, ‘safhu,‘ghafara and tawwab. Al-‘Afuw is a name of Allah that appears in the Qu’ran five times and refers to “release”, “healing”, “restoration” and “remission”. It implies the restoration of our honour and dignity after we have dishonoured ourselves through sin and signifies release from the burden of punishment. It often appears with the name Al-Ghafoor, meaning The Most Forgiving. While this appears in the Qur’an more than seventy times, it has slightly different connotations, meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide” and “to excuse”. Safhu refers to the turning away from a sin or misdeed and implies ignoring. Lastly, At-Tawwab is another name of Allah meaning The Accepter of Repentance and is mentioned almost a dozen times in the Qur’an. The term tawwab means “oft-returning” and carries with it a sense of continuous repentance to Allah. As we will perpetually sin, the key in Islam is to always turn back to Allah and try to be better for the next time. To receive forgiveness from Allah, we have to recognize our offense and admit it before God, make the commitment to not reoffend and actively ask for forgiveness.

What is incredible is that there is no end to Allah’s Mercy towards us, no matter how numerous and terrible our mistakes become. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) narrated that Allah said: “O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you” (Al-Tirmidhi). And yet, despite this incredible generosity from the One who Created us, we rarely show forgiveness to one another and ourselves. Again and again, there is evidence in Islam that the strongest servants of Allah are not only those who can control their anger, but also those who have a seemingly limitless capacity to forgive others. When we cleanse ourselves of negative energy and vain criticisms of others, we can release anger and purify our hearts. When this is done for the sake of Allah, we have achieved the highest level of our spiritual conditions.

Ultimately, it is important to realize that this is a perpetual process of forgiving others, forgiving the self and of seeking forgiveness from Allah. It is not a state to be achieved once and for all, but a continuous activity which recognizes that spiritual homeostasis is momentary, fleeting and must always be sought. With this inner struggle comes a deeper recognition of the illusions of this world. If we hold onto the whims and desires of our egos, we remain tethered to the phenomenal world, invested too deeply in earthly existence which perpetuates a forgetting about our higher purpose: to worship Allah, to love Him and be loved by Him.