We hear a lot about “self-care” these days. We can see family and friends drift into pandemic-inspired patterns of behavior that make them unhealthy, unhappy. And they see us drifting in the same direction. When I was young, my mother used to repeat to me, “Money can’t buy you health, Alan. You have to take care of yourself.” And now everyone, from the top officials at the college all the way to chemistry students in zoom breakout rooms are talking about “self-care”.
My question here is, what drives us to think “self-care” is needed? Is it the pain in my wrist or neck or eyes from too many hours spent at the computer? (I was already suffering from these things before the pandemic). Or, could it be an emotional pain that I feel, but one that I cannot easily name or describe? Whatever the source of the problem, at a very simple level, “care” begins with noticing suffering and feeling compassion. We see the pain, whatever it’s nature, and this arouses a desire to act.
But if only it were that easy. We are much less likely to notice, admit, or name, the emotional side of our day-to-day experience. This is especially true when the emotions are “negative” feelings of loneliness, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, fear, arrogance, jealousy, or anger. I will quickly start to rub a sore wrist or neck. But am I equally willing to face my fear over what the future will bring, or my regret over some past failure?
Because we are more likely to notice negative feelings in others than in ourselves, a natural way to begin our inquiry is to ask, “How do I respond when I encounter these emotions in others? Do I pull away from them or do I approach them?” If the person who is experiencing trouble is someone that I feel close to, I’m more likely to stay by their side. I care for them. My compassion is naturally aroused. I tell them, “I’m here for you. Tell me about it.”
While there is a natural tendency to treat ourselves different, to reject/deny/avoid painful feelings, the example of how we treat our friends recommends another approach. My feelings are not a failing. They are a call to my best friend (myself) to feel compassion for me. In this case, self-compassion. Please, dear friend (that’s me), come closer to my suffering. Dear friend, I know you won’t try to judge me or fix me. I can count on you to stay by my side and join me in my inquiry, to let me know that I am being seen and heard. Let us share this awareness of each moment together, whether it is suffering, or just our breath, or the world around us. Whatever comes, please stay with me.
The Buddhist teacher and author, Bodhipaksa, writes about the importance of self-compassion and the process of self-inquiry in “Loving Pain”, Tricycle magazine, 5 March 2020. Here is very brief excerpt:
Something that can help us to practice acceptance of our pain is to recognize that our feelings are only ever pleasant or unpleasant, and never right or wrong. … Feelings are non-volitional and ethically neutral; they are not choices we make and so they don’t have any moral significance. … You need not be ashamed of any feeling you experience. You feel what you feel. Simply accepting this is in itself a profound act of self-compassion.
We may need to offer ourselves reassurance as we turn toward painful feelings. We can say things like, “It’s alright to feel pain. It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” This encouragement helps us build up our confidence, and it also takes up some of the mental bandwidth that might otherwise be occupied by reactive thinking. Turning toward our pain gets easier with practice. Gradually, we become less afraid of our discomfort.excerpted from “This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion” by Bodhipaksa, Parallax Press, 2019.
FYI, Bodhipaksa also has a wonderfully informative and detailed website, Wildmind. Check it out. And take good care of yourself. As my wise, dear mother once taught me, “Money can’t buy you health.” Make sure your labors are keeping you healthy.