Long before quarantine fatigue, meditation and mindfulness were parts of Saloumeh Bozorgzadeh’s daily life. The Chicago-based clinical psychologist practices Sufism, a school of Islam that emphasizes inward reflection and meditation. When the coronavirus and its accompanying stay-at-home orders hit the U.S. just before Ramadan (roughly April 23 to Eid on May 23), Bozorgzadeh knew that the regular practices the holy month inspires would be more critical than ever.
“There’s a great quote by a Persian poet, [Saadi Shirazi],” Bozorgzadeh tells Bustle. “He says that you can’t consider yourself a human unless you’re feeling the suffering of someone else. The reality is that in this period, there’s a lot of suffering.”
This mentality inspired Bozorgzadeh and members of her Sufi organization to create innovative ways of helping others during the pandemic.
For those who practice Islam, Ramadan is the holiest month of the year. Celebrations vary between sects, but generally, the period is meant to increase connection to God, community, and charity. In Sufism, there's a particular emphasis on people's relationships with themselves. Because of this focus, it’s considered one of Islam’s more spiritual sects, and those who practice it see themselves as students of the faith, whose organizations are often referred to as “schools.”
Bozorgzadeh is part of the Maktab Tarighat Oveyssi Shahmaghsoudi school, which operates Sufi centers globally. “The entire purpose of all of the activities [of the school] is to decrease suffering and bring comfort in any way, shape, or form,” she says. “The centers are making masks and face shields, donating food, and making gowns for health care professionals.”
She’s also the president of the Sufi Psychology Association, which uses the principles of Sufism to help people, regardless of faith, practice coping tools. In March, she and her colleagues distributed a free online course, which includes specialized tools for coping with anxiety, or issues regarding sleep or relationships during the COVID-19 crisis. Within weeks, hundreds had registered for the course.
In a May report, the World Health Organization said that the coronavirus crisis “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken.” Medical workers, who are at higher risk of depression and suicide, face even greater mental health burdens now that the pandemic has overwhelmed hospitals. In response, the Sufi Psychology Association launched a “Caring for our Caregivers” initiative, to share techniques for combating burnout. “Everybody is working harder than ever, and they're watching so many of their patients die,” she says. “When all of this settles down, we’ll have a whole other pandemic.”
Since April, the organization has also been donating iPads, preloaded with a Sufi meditation app, to 100 hospitals, where they’re placed in wellness rooms, staff lounges, and break rooms. They aim to reach 800 hospitals by year’s end. The goal is to help health care workers manage the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic, from post-traumatic stress disorder to exhaustion.
Bozorgzadeh says Sufi’s basic principles can help people cope with almost any type of stress. “The whole basis of Sufism is in order for you to know something, you have to experience it,” she says. “It’s not enough for me to tell you what water is. That’s not going to quench your thirst. The one thing you can be absolutely certain about, is that you exist. Start with knowing that, and unraveling that.”