Self-Care Is a Must

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February is the month we celebrate love. We see hearts everywhere, we look closely at those nearest us and express our love and gratitude to them. In that spirit, I decided to explore the root of love, thought not in the way you might expect. What is it that we need in order to love others well? We need to love ourselves first.   

Years ago I saw a great metaphor for this somewhere: if I want to give you an orange, I have to have it first. Why would it be different with love? If we do not have love for ourselves, we cannot give love as openly, without looking to that love to give us a foundation that we do not ourselves have.

Today, I will take just one slice of this subject: having love for oneself means taking care of oneself. It is not optional, it is a must. I often have students tell me that they wish, for instance, that they would come to yoga more, because they love it, because it makes them feel wonderful, because it puts things in a fresh perspective, but there is always something else going on that gets in the way:  the job, the teleconference, kids’ homework, life stuff. Many of us, I’d even venture to guess most of us, put self-care near the bottom of our list of priorities, when in order to live life sustainably, we ought to have it be front and center! This is especially critical if you are either living with illness, or helping take care of someone who is. 

I think there are two primary barriers that prevent people from prioritizing self-care. The first is that it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the advice out there for what we should be doing to take good care of ourselves: sleep enough, eat well, exercise every day. We may well have the good intention, but it’s just too much to add to our lives, so we give up trying. For this, I propose a much less intimidating incremental approach. For example, a couple of years back my acupuncturist, upon hearing from me that my optimal sleep time was eight hours, but on weekdays I got more like six, said “That’s not enough, aim for seven.” Genius! I was constantly hoping to get to eight, always falling short, and so I gave up trying. Seven turned out to be a lot easier to reach. 

The second barrier is much more tricky, and will be the focus of these incremental practices I offer today: the mind. The mind is conditioned to think that it is selfish to put ourselves first. The mind will whisper little messages of guilt if we do make it to the gym, because we could/“should” be spending that time with our partner, our kids, our work. The mind will interfere, the moment you try to sit down to meditate or simply take a few minutes for yourself, with “you don’t have time for this today”. These little mind tricks, for most of us, are completely pervasive, and we don’t even notice them. I speak from personal experience, and these mind whispers don’t easily go away, but with practice, we can begin to recognize them and overwrite them, one at a time. 

So, if you feel like you are struggling to get self-care in, I am going to start you with two very small practices. Of course, a big part of the point will be to observe what the mind has to say about them. In fact, you can start observing right now your mental reaction as you read this post: it might already be piping up with something like, “this is nice but I don’t have time for this”. 

These practices are so short you can adopt them today. The key is consistency: do these practices daily, and make them a priority

Morning mini-ritual. Make your morning coffee or tea into a ritual. When you pour your drink into a cup, pause. Really taste and smell it. Notice what other sensations or sounds are around you at that moment. Take a few minutes to sit with it and make that entirely the point, no checking phones or flipping through magazines. Observe everything about the experience: the tastes, smells, sounds, temperature, warmth in your hands. And importantly, observe your mind, and its little reactions and judgments, with gentle curiosity. Begin to recognize that voice that may be so familiar that you don’t notice it. To each mental impulse you will surely have that says “I don’t have time for this”, just tell yourself “I love you, and there’s nothing more important."

Two minutes of breath. Once or twice a day, stop, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. You could be sitting in your car before you drive, at your desk, or even standing in line somewhere.  For two minutes, follow the breath in and our through the nostrils. Tune into the feeling of the breath. Notice what comes up. Then follow the same response to the mental impulses as above. 

As you commit to doing these small things daily, you will start to notice a shift in your perspective. These practices themselves will bring you to a more peaceful place and shift the quality of your day. But they will also shift your mental attitude toward yourself, as they provide a continual opportunity to practice your response to your mental resistance or guilt. You will start to feel like you deserve the time to take care of yourself, deserve to make it a priority. 

At the end of the day, much of the resistance that we put up to self-care is about our mind, not our time. Luckily, it is well within our reach to shift how we respond to the mental resistance. Happy practicing, and we will keep exploring this topic.