Getting Off Our Butts

One of the challenges of being a Qur’an teacher is knowing that most of my students- the teen ones especially but not exclusively- don’t do homework or practice.  Especially for my teen students who are already drowning in school work, I understand this. Our approach to the Qur’an is also a problem because we treat it like another piece of homework.  

One commonality between “homework” and “Qur’an work” is that we have a tendency to do both while sitting down.

In fact, most of our lives are lived sitting down.  We sit on our butts constantly. So how can Qur’an work feel any different from all of our other daily work?

It’s been interesting to note that one of the most noticeable things people are doing to cope with quarantine is getting up and taking walks outdoors.  Here in Michigan, there was something of an outcry when the governor asked all large-scale (50,000 sf or greater) garden centers to stay closed as part of the expanded stay-home order.  Gardening, too, it seems, has become a lifeline for many people.  

I don’t know about you, but I got overwhelmed and tired of everything being online almost immediately.  My school was moved online. My son’s school was moved online. The masjid’s educational programs and sermons were moved online.  New online courses and meetings emerged to help meet people’s needs for socialization and to fill the gap of many people’s desire to learn.  Great, right? Easy, right?

I’m so sick of my computer screen.  My eyes are bugging out. I’m having headaches.  And my regular Qur’an students who all meet me online because most of them are in different states, have also disappeared and not met with me for the past few weeks.  I get it. It’s ONLINE OVERLOAD.  

I find myself going outdoors just to have an excuse to look at things far away.  I also had a physical therapist who taught me some eye exercises that help with issues I’ve had from past head injuries.  (If you’re interested, look up eye exercises for neck and shoulder pain online.) When you spend time in the sunlight and fresh air and force yourself to look at things far away and breathe deeply, you can literally feel your brain and body chemistry changing.  

When something is important to us and we want to make a commitment to single it out from everything else we do, we often first think of ways to metaphorically “get off our butts” to make that happen.  This usually involves indulging in self-flagellation of guilt and shame, followed by making paper charts and schedules, followed by failure, and abandonment of the commitment.  The whole process from beginning to end usually involves something we have to physically “sit on our butts” to do, so no wonder we develop malaise and lose motivation quickly. 

So here’s an idea I use with my Qur’an students a lot:  

Find ways that we can physically get off our butts to make spiritual practices something we do while in motion.  Qur’an reading, du’a (personal prayer), dhikr (remembrance/meditation) are all things we tend to do while sitting down, and because we do everything else while sitting down, we tend to (literally?) fall or sink into a kind of malaise because it feels just like everything else we “have to do.”  

Where can we relocate our Qur’an reading and practice?  I’m a big fan of taking it outdoors, using swings, reading to animals, even practicing memorization while walking slowly.  I advise my memorization students to print at least two copies of the page they are working on and hang them in prominent places (such as the refrigerator, dresser mirror, or bedside lamp) where they can see it regularly and do “drive-by homework”.  As they are moving around they can check in with a line or a few words, then continue to repeat them as they go about whatever work they are doing. (This is also part of my teaching on how to “change the noise in your head.”)  

Dhikr and du’a are easy to do while in any kind of motion.  Numerous hadeeths of course prescribe sayings connected to specific activities, but we are not limited only to those.  Connecting a particular prayer or remembrance to a specific activity can help develop a habit of connecting activity to a state of prayer, and allows one to effortlessly or even accidentally enter into a state of prayer without going through the stages of mental inertia, guilt, and shame we sometimes face.   For example, years ago I was participating in Rabata’s salawat challenge when I had just started going to physical therapy.  I developed a habit such that I now associate salawat with exercise repetitions, and I automatically “breathe” the salawat when I use resistance bands and weights.  

(Don’t worry if the repetition is mostly “mindless.”  This is also part of my teaching on how to “change the noise in your head” which I will write about soon inshallah.)

Even salah, the act that we are literally told to “stand up” and perform, can become an act of metaphorical and physical “sitting” if we get malaise about how where we perform it. This is one of the benefits of prayer in the masjid, right? And now the masjids are closed. Consider varying your prayer location if you feel like you are in a rut. Pray outdoors if you are able. Even the bumpy ground has something to teach you about the spirituality of being in motion.

What are some ways you can think of that you can literally and physically “get off your butt” for the sake of your mental and spiritual health?  

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