$Monday: Springtime for Self-Care in the Fall of Capitalism

Business as usual is canceled. The whole world is coming together to focus on one priority: flattening the curve. Most of us are coming to the realization that our one job now, while we stay at home waiting for our $1200 payments and $600-a-week unemployment bumps to roll in, is to pull up our big girl sweatpants and take good care of ourselves so our medical workers and critical service providers don't have to do unnecessary work. For most of us, our job now is not about making money or productivity but about reducing consumption and personal need. Beloveds, it's backwards day.

Some people are wondering, how do we do our part when we can't go shopping for designer yoga pants to wear at the gym and get facials and magic crystals and... ?

One silver lining of this crisis is that it's forcing us to take a hard look at what's truly important and true and what's capitalist phony baloney. Money and health are not always exchangeable. Self-care is not consumerism, conscious or otherwise. Self-care means: sleep, eat, move, rest, create joy, repeat. Keep your hands clean and your mind dirty. Get serious about laughing and making room for silliness in your life. Learn to stretch your roots, strengthen your trunk, and draw deeply from all of your internal resources to get through this long, weird time.

Originally, the term "self-care" had a medical definition. It was not about self-indulgence or vanity. It was about nurturing your own well-being to reduce your dependence on medical interventions.

Self-care encompasses physical wellness as well as mental and emotional hygiene. We all have some sense of what our individual minds, bodies, and hearts truly need (ahem, probably not scales, bikini goals, weightlifting trophies, or ingenious excuses). Nobody needs to become a zen mistress or a self-help yogi or an Instagram thirst trap. It's okay to want those things and to have non-essential goals, but it's important to know the difference.

It's especially important to stay mindful of which goals are not just neutral but at odds with our health needs. Sometimes the things we do in an attempt to look cute or improve our external circumstances can actually damage our health (such as when we engage in disordered eating or overworking). However, becoming our healthiest selves, physically and emotionally and mentally and spiritually and socially, usually does lead to feeling and being perceived as more attractive and gaining the capability to achieve more success at material goals down the line. Remind yourself of that if it helps you refocus on your health. 

Self-care is not about perfection, and it certainly isn't about blaming ourselves for circumstances outside of our own control. We all have physical conditions and susceptibilities that we never chose and cannot make disappear, but we all have daily choices that can stack the odds of good health in our favor. A whole lot of chronic disease can be attributed to our own behavior, and we have the power to change it.

Self-care is not selfish. It gives us the strength to be there for our most vulnerable loved ones in times of real need. When you set healthy boundaries for yourself and share with others how you are taking good care of yourself, you set a good example and light the way for others to follow.

Givers and--ahem--people who self-identify as "empaths" could benefit greatly, at this weird time, by pulling back from babying and enabling parasitic relationships. This is sink or swim time. Right now, when the poop is actively striking all the fans of the world, encouraging others (who are not your actual dependents) to depend upon your care is dangerous. Overextending yourself to mother people whose mother you are not puts everyone at risk--you, them, and everyone else around. It sets you up to burn out and sets them up to stay weak and helpless and lost when they cannot rely upon you. It sets up a series of failure dominoes that are currently at a heightened risk of getting tipped.

Right now, one of the most powerful ways each one of us can help to relieve the burden upon our medical professionals, our most vulnerable loved ones, and literally everyone on Earth, is to take up more personal responsibility for practicing our own lifestyle medicine.

It is critical to get serious about our health (physical, mental, emotional, social) right now, but that doesn't mean it can't be silly too. It also doesn't mean we have to follow someone else's instructions to the letter. It's usually best to start with getting mindful about what works for each one of us and for the others in our households, if we don't live alone.


Here's an example from my life: I keep hearing that this is the time to take up a sitting meditation practice. For many people, I'm sure that is helpful. My husband and I were white-college Buddhists. We have been practicing members of two hippie sanghas, one hosted by a beautiful Vietnamese temple in our current hometown. We used to love zazen, especially in big groups in lovely spaces with incense and resonant bells and Buddha statues and riotous flower offerings and jewel-toned pillows and cups of fresh mint tea.

Trying to do zazen in your cabin-fevered house with kids and pets SUCKS. It sucks, man. On top of being a frustrating exercise in futility, it's a crushing reminder of all the enjoyable stuff you used to do back in the day and now cannot, not for an indefinite amount of time.

So instead, I have implemented a family bedtime meditative reading from the book True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. I make it funny and relatable to my daughter by replacing all mentions of people with the word "cat." (It's kind of like how my husband and I sing lines of heavy metal songs to each other but replace most of the words with "meow" to make it family-friendly.) It makes my daughter giggle and pay attention and finally think and reflect. For us adults, too, it is easier to practice loving-kindness exercises on our adorable fluffy friend rather than on fellow humans. I'm sure you understand. Humans are jerks, and so are cats, but cats are floofy. Anyway...

Last night I read (adapted), "Loving-kindness is not only the desire to make a cat happy, to bring joy to a beloved cat; it is the ability to bring joy and happiness to the cat you love, because even if your intention is to love this cat, your love might make her suffer."

My daughter's eyes lit up, a wicked grin appeared on her little face, and she said, "Like when I smoosh Gretchen too hard?"

"Yes," I affirmed, and I went on: "Training is needed in order to love properly."

"Like watching cat documentaries?"

Yes. And so on.

So go forth (at home) and figure out how to live your best life--not externally but internally. If you start to climb the walls, sit on the roof and read a book (if you can do so safely; this isn't a good time to break a bone). Read poetry on your phone. Listen to a song that makes you happy. Preserve your sanity and wits like jars of ripe plums so that you can, as Sam Jackson writes in his newest literary work, "stay the f*ck at home." Lounge in your recliner or on your bed in the middle of the day or night and listen to the Not Crazy Podcast "Coronavirus: How to Keep It Together."

Take the lead on finding your most effective methods of recreation so that when this is all over, we can come together again to re-create the kind of economy and social structure that serves us all best.

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