by Kathryn Eve
Most of us are familiar with that well-worn buzz word “self-care,” but we still seem reluctant to put its health advisory into daily practice. Why? Is it because taking good care of ourselves (body, mind and spirit) is not a core value of recovery? Of course it is. For this reason, we are constantly exposed to a deluge of professional and self-help do’s and don’ts around self-care and its warnings against burnout, compassion fatigue, and the struggle to live in the NOW.
We see widespread evidence of self-care slogans and a buffet table of spirituality options circulating in our corner store magazine stands, daytime talk shows, group therapy programs, and even 12 step discussion meetings. Despite all the coverage and access to self-care-enhancing resources, many people still lack the motivation or discipline to incorporate these recommendations into their own lifestyle, including (ironically) those who preach it.
“It’s complicated,” you’re probably thinking. You’re right. Modern life is just that. But we do still have control over how we choose to live our life. Is it enough to just scrape by as a way of coping with our suffering or stress? Personally speaking, I want to enjoy life more fully by learning how to cultivate meaning and grace under all of life’s circumstances rather than react and run when the going gets tough. I want my problems to act as the gateway to my solutions; my pain to serve as both teacher and friend.
The idea of being kind to ourselves in a soulful way through life’s up and downs therefore deserves some rethinking and renewed conversation if we want to make a difference to our overall level of happiness.
How to lovingly care for ourselves is not the same thing as being self-indulgent. Too often we mistake the pursuit of materialism or a leisure lifestyle (amusing ourselves to death) with finding our true resting place. The reward of being happy and grounded won’t come from entrenchment in a social merry-go-round or “party” scene. Nor will it be found by throwing ourselves full throttle into a one- or two-week getaway as a cure-all to a year’s worth of rat race living.
There is an art to learning how to be comfortable doing nothing in a civilized way. Take the Italians for instance – perfecters of la dolce vita. Even travel writer Dani Shapiro found that spending time drifting among the Berkshires’ rolling hills provided an epiphany: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
The bottom line is that if we want to feel good, then we must be willing to make some simple but concrete changes to our outlook as well as our daily habits. It is not necessary to pick up and roam the countryside of Massachusetts to do so. But it will take some willingness and sweat to bring about positive change.
Transforming unhelpful ways of living is different for everyone. For one person, a commitment to not work so many hours a week may be the key to restoring harmony in his life and relationships. For another, the answer may lie in her reducing the inordinate amount of time wasted texting, tweeting or Facebook surfing instead of engaging in authentic face-to-face interactions. Still for others, a decision to take a sabbatical from the steady barrage of reality TV shows for a week may be the medicine needed to carve out some quiet self-reflection time.
If we can begin by allocating even 5-10 minutes a day to fuel our mind with a healthier stillness diet, it will do wonders in no time – not only in how we feel, but in how our brain gets rewired … and our priorities too. Nobel peace prize laureate and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered a clear observation of our ongoing struggle around self-care and slowing down at a recent Brock University meditation retreat. He poignantly shared:
Usually people fear being overwhelmed with their suffering and try to run away or cover up their loneliness, their anger, their fear, their despair. We do anything to get busy, not to go home to ourselves and touch the suffering inside. But with mindfulness [or prayer], you can go home in strength. You can hold the suffering tenderly like the mother holding the baby.
What Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is not some quick-fix approach to peace of mind, but an ancient invitation to return home – to wholeness. The choice is ours alone. We can either veer off course by prolonging the use of diversion tactics to try and make us feel better inside, only to crash and burn later, or we can take the road less travelled and devote our waking life to what truly matters.
In the end, what counts is taking gentle care of ourselves so that we can be fit enough to tenderly hold the suffering of others.