By Talli Jackson
When I was first introduced to the idea of “self-care,” the impression I walked away with was that it meant doing what I needed to take care of myself as an individual. It had to do with bringing balance to my mind, body, and emotions, and used “feeling good” as both the signal that self-care was being achieved and its end goal. Often, “self-care” implied removal from certain spaces, activities, and people that stimulated stress.
I’ve spent the last eight years with a professional dance company touring the U.S., Europe, and Asia. As joyful as aspects of this work have been, it is also physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, and has often left me without much energy to offer to other aspects of my life.
In certain ways, the stresses offered by the work I’ve been doing are directly opposed to self-care as I had conceived of it. Yet, as I’ve continued to work and engage the challenges it presents as best I can, I’m able to recognize the cultivation of a richness of capacity in myself which can be drawn from in service to other people, whether that contribution is in the form of bringing presence and understanding to someone moving through hardship, helping students think and dance beyond their habits, or offering a tuned instrument as a conduit for beauty. As is found by people across time and discipline, what seems at first uncaring can also be deeply nurturing.
My own experience, as well as teachings I’ve encountered in the realms of spirituality, business, fitness, and the arts, suggest that my original conception of self-care as centered around pleasure and comfort was at best misleading, and at worst a detriment to healthy development. This idea has within it what I now consider to be three misconceptions: care is first and foremost about feeling good; caring is achieved by distancing one’s self from stress; and self-care can be achieved through thinking about and attending to one’s self as an individual, set apart from the wider communities of human and non-human life.
In this writing I’m attempting to articulate why I believe these are misconceptions and how they impede our capacity to care for ourselves. I’m also interested in reframing self-care in a way that relieves it of its association as a hedonistic, individualistic pursuit, and in supporting the understanding of it as something that is necessarily interdependent, communal, and passionately engaged. I hope these thoughts will resonate and offer a new and useful framing of self-care for those who encounter them.
In western culture we typically identify the boundary of our “self” as the outer edge of our skin. This is related to our culture’s teachings about freedom, individualism, and self-responsibility. The way these ideas are framed in the society at large contributes to a general obliviousness to the interdependence of the organisms and elemental systems that make the world what it is. Rather than speaking to the ways our actions occur in synergy with a greater whole, our cultural understanding of these qualities often implies, or even pedestalizes, separation and “independence.”
Even so, we can find examples of our interconnectedness and ways that our “self” expands beyond the boundaries of our skin throughout our everyday experience. From the winces we make when we see someone else hurt, to the expansive, shared “self” defined by nations, teams, institutions, family groups, etc., we see that the distinction between “self” and “not-self” is far more complex than we typically account for. Despite the readily accessible experiences that challenge it, this idea of ourselves as distinct from the world around us persists, even as we bear witness to its error and destructive force.
When we believe that we are distinct from the world and from other people, it seems strange that the things we do to the world and other beings would reverberate back to us in turn. When we believe that we exist separately, and the well-being of the world can be separated from our own, we imagine that we can act with impunity. That sense of impunity is a bulwark against the meaning of other beings’ suffering; what has no consequence has no meaning.
It takes a huge amount of resources for a person to distance themselves from their connectedness to the community of life. It has only been through the institution of systems that allow some people to exploit the productive power of other people and hoard unlimited amounts of resources for indefinite periods of time, regardless of the suffering of those who lack, that has allowed humanity to create life experiences where the kinds of distance and false sense of independence that exist today can be maintained.
Distance, however, does not come without cost. Like a structure held together by a complex array of tensions and compressions, human beings are meant to be fully integrated in a world of diverse interactions with multitudes of different forms of life. When the diverse multitudes are removed from our lives, aspects of our internal structures begin to collapse. We see this in the depression that falls on people who are isolated from social warmth, in the psychological torture that can occur in solitary confinement, in the destructiveness of oppressive social structures such as racism and sexism, and the health challenges common among those who are alienated from nature.
The systems of the world grew up together. The further we look into the nature of the world, the more we appreciate the intensity of its enmeshment and the corresponding importance of engaging the individual parts with respect for their function in the whole. Compassion, solidarity, and nonviolence are hallmarks of a worldview that honors the interdependence of all beings, as they are the qualities that acknowledge and facilitate the flourishing of connection. In the realization of connection, care for self is inseparable from care for all life.
Most of us who will read this article have grown up in a culture that uses discomfort, pain, and hardship as instruments of control. Additionally, we are generally told that one’s proximity to the “good life” can be measured by the absence of these things and are rarely guided into the delightful aspects of intensity and exertion. Many of us are conditioned to associate physiologically neutral or even beneficial physical sensations with negative emotional experiences. We avoid these types of sensations because when we feel them our bodies and emotions respond as if something harmful is happening to us, when this might not actually be the case.
A turning point in my work as a dancer came for me when I shifted my framing of difficulty from something that was inherently unpleasant to something that had the possibility of deliciousness. This did not change the sensation of burning muscles, tender joints, or split feet. After the fourteenth show in a two week long run, it did not make me want to bring my aching back to the theater for the fifteenth. But it did help begin a process of unlinking the sensations of my body from conditioned stories about their meaning, and has helped me come closer to the truth of what my body needs, wants, and is capable of. It changed my relationship to these sensations from one of oppressiveness to one of possibility.
If deliciousness is to be found anywhere in difficulty, I think it is to be known through the sense of aliveness we can feel when we bring our full presence to the intensity at hand. Indeed, for some things, like difficult conversations, rigorous exercise, standing for our values, it’s necessary to have a connection to the vital, delicious, aspects of intensity if we are to take caring action.
The Fierceness of Caring
I was speaking recently with a friend who for years has been dealing with chronic, often debilitating, back pain. They told me that over the last four months they had started doing something that has completely changed the state of their back and has allowed them to begin doing activities they would’ve considered inconceivable five months ago. What they started doing was Olympic-style weightlifting.
As I understand it, the theory behind the use of Olympic-style weightlifting as a therapeutic practice is that when you lift heavy weights with the proper alignment your body responds by quickly “learning” and “remembering” the healthy patterns of posture and muscular activation you are introducing. In order for this to work, they told me, one needed to be lifting almost as heavy a weight as possible (again, proper alignment is imperative) and to keep adding weight from workout to workout in order to continue training at the edge of the body’s capacity.
I don’t know about you, but up until this point lifting things as heavy as you possibly can didn’t live in my mind as a viable method for caring for chronic back pain.
There’s an association between care and that which is soft, comfortable, and pleasurable, as if what is caring for ourselves and others necessarily turns us away from pain and discomfort. When we think that care is about feeling good, we tend to overemphasize care’s relationship to pleasure, and end up avoiding that which is uncomfortable and equating that avoidance with “caring.” Here it can be useful to draw a distinction between self-care and self-soothing; where the goal of self-soothing is to move oneself toward a state of calm and comfort, the goal of self-care, as I’m defining it, is to support us in engaging fully in the life we want to live.
In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu draws a parallel between spiritual growth and the process of strengthening the muscles of the body, saying, ”You cannot expand the volume of your chest just by sitting; you must walk up mountains … What is true physically is, in a wonderful way, true spiritually.”
The Archbishop tells the story of Nelson Mandela, who as an “aggressive and angry” leader of the military wing of the African National Congress was taken to prison and kept there for 27 years. During that time Mandela slept on the floor and was forced to do hard labor, as well as other tasks meant to demean and ultimately “break” him. Clearly, being put in prison was not a gesture of care, nor was it the intention of his captors to cultivate a deeply compassionate, empowered human-being. Still, according to the Archbishop, “his suffering helped to grow him” and Nelson Mandela came out of prison “as someone of immense magnanimity,” “kind, caring, ready to trust his erstwhile enemy.”
Self-care is not negated by challenging and stressful situations, it asks that we engage with them in a way that serves life. When we’re able to recognize the illusion of the boundary line between ourselves and each other, we see that the cultivation of active, radical Love is both the means and goal of that service.
There is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr which is one of the most stark embodiments of this understanding that I’ve come across.
To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will tear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
MLK and his followers stood up under the weight of violent oppression that sought to subvert their successes and sabotage their flourishing. Their education in nonviolence, their rigorously trained ability to find compassion for those who opposed them, and the solidarity of a loving community gave them the inner alignment they needed to do it. The effort and training necessary to stand up without hate, honoring the interconnectedness of all people, made them into fierce, loving, resilient human beings. They embodied an active, fully engaged self-care that recognized they could not be whole as long as they cast other people out of their hearts, and that hate would only carve deeper wounds into the vision they believed in and fought for.
Now as then, some of the greatest acts of self-care have to do with “heavy-lifting,” and the often uncomfortable process of finding our way from hate back to Love, leaving no one on the outside of our conception of wholeness.
Kinship is Home
There’s a sacredness in the beginnings and endings of days. The first thoughts to cross our minds in the morning are often ones that shape the course of our day, and the thoughts we go to sleep with shape our sleep, dreams, and memory.
On good days, I walk out of my door in the morning, look up at the rising sun, and feel a kinship with the world. I walk along the tree-lined parkway to the subway in shimmering, dappled light and feel an intimacy with the elms and the oaks. I hear the birds’ morning song and feel blessed by the beauty they sing into the world.
When it comes to connection, as with most things, language matters. We might refer to the earth as our “mother,” and perhaps the other creatures of the world as our “brothers” and “sisters,” the plants as our “cousins.” We might look up at the stars and think of our ancestors. We meet people who are different from us, who are not our “family,” but who through openness, generosity, and sharing, become our family. Regardless of the words we use, the purpose of this language of kinship is the same: to inspire love and to recognize connection.
Love is concurrent with seeing what is. When we see others for who and what they are we recognize our common aspirations and struggles. We join with others in standing up into what might seem like unbearable weight. Guided by the wisdom of a radical Love, we realize that our well-being and theirs are inextricably linked. The fierceness of caring is in not letting go of that realization, no matter what.