Yesterday was my first day back teaching at a local college after four months of being “off” for summer break. Being back in a fast moving, regulated system with lots of people, and lots of expectations and beats to hit, is always a reminder to me of how difficult it is to take care of yourself. The external pull for how to show up is so great that it often seems like you need an act of God or Nature to break free from the gravitational force of “do more, faster, and more perfectly.” It was only Day One of classes, and yet, many (most?) had already hit the ground running.
There is no lack of information out there on what we are supposed to be doing to take care of ourselves. We are supposed to manage our stress, eat a healthy diet and exercise more. I do not think there is a single person within earshot of the Western world that has not heard that advice. We read about it. There are programs for it. We can download apps to help us be better. Only…we are not better. We are sicker, more stressed, more overweight, more sedentary and more unhappy then we have ever been. We can look to multiple causes for the situation we find ourselves in ranging from the environments we live and work in, to how we feel about ourselves, to lack of direct experience around how to actually take care of ourselves.
Self-care is always a choice. Based on what is all around us though, along with what we have been taught, it is certainly no easy choice. It requires that we go against the grain; the grain of our own habits and beliefs, and the grain of a culture that makes doing the unhealthy thing the automatic, easy, and “right” choice. So what are we to do? Maybe we can get clues by looking more closely at the word “self-care.” The dictionary has many, many meanings for the word “care;” protection, charge, temporary keeping, an object of concern or attention. One definition of “self’ is a person’s nature. I would like to propose that we think of self-care as a way of serving, honoring and safeguarding our truest nature. And while that may seem like a tall order at first glance, it actually is not because what we are really talking about is a return to something that already exists within each and every one of us; the capacity to choose on behalf of ourselves. And how we get there may be simpler than you think.
While I was “off” from teaching this summer, it became very, very clear to me that in any given moment I had a choice to make. On the one hand, I could notice and respond to how I was feeling. On the other hand, I could act on what I was “supposed” to be feeling based on longstanding beliefs or what others expected I feel and do.This is the crossroads we all reach each and every day; will you honor what your truest nature is feeling and needing or will you do what looks good on paper? It is the difference between listening and ignoring. It is the difference between being authentic and automatic. So, what would it be like if you learned to listen way down deep and then chose to act on that? What would it be like to notice when you are hungry, tired, and thirsty regardless of what the environment pulled for? How might you serve yourself by noticing that the way you have your life set up is too fast, too demanding, too inhumane? How might your life improve if you just chose to trust that even though it might not look like anything you have ever seen, or for that matter anything anyone else has ever seen, it is your way nontheless?
I often tell my students that taking care of yourself is not a chore. Nor is it a burden. It is not some dry and obligatory way of “have-to” living. It is not built on guilt or shame. It is not about “being good” or “being bad.” Instead, it is a celebration. Of Life. Of your Truest Nature. It is a way of choosing on behalf of yourself. It is something you get to do.