The three most foundational aspects of self care are water, sleep, and food. Self-care often begins with getting these three elements in a balance that works for you. Sometimes we have these elements working but notice we are suffering. I know that there have been many times that I’m drinking enough water, sleeping enough, and eating right but I still feel stressed or overwhelmed. Even in the midst of ideal external circumstances my mind can still create suffering. Often when this happens it is because something is missing from my meditation or spiritual practice. In those times I need something more than just these foundational elements to help me notice my suffering and start to relieve it. Here is a list of some of the things that have helped me practice self-care over the years.
Be aware of your feelings
One of the best ways to practice self-care is to just notice your own feelings so that you can respond to them appropriately. I remember one time I was sitting in meditation and I noticed my mind was wondering a lot. I felt uncomfortable and kept wanting to open my eyes to see when the meditation was going to end. When I realized how much aversion I had to the practice I took a moment to recognize how I felt in that moment. It was then that I clearly felt anxious. I noticed my hear rate was elevated, my palms were sweaty, and my breathing was a bit fast. I had not noticed the feeling of anxiety because my mind was so busy trying to avert from it. Instead of feeling this uncomfortable feeling my mind wanted to tell me that I was not in the mood to meditate or that I had already been sitting for long enough. It was not until I was able to recognize and feel the feeling that I saw it start to dissipate. Rather than trying to push it away, I just stayed with the feeling and watched how it changed. Sometimes I would feel more anxious and sometimes it would feel like it was subsiding. Watching it without averting from it in this way actually made me feel less anxious and more accepting of what was happening in the present moment.
Likewise, in daily life you can practice self-care in this way. When you notice that something is not feeling right or that you are a little squirmy you can just notice what is happening in the present moment. This might mean being aware of the sensations happening in your body. Additionally, it might mean paying attention to the thoughts that are arising. Are you ruminating about something that happened in the past? Are you worrying about something you need to do in the future? Paying attention to what is going on can allow you to figure out how to best care for yourself or just paying attention might make you feel better.
There are times when just recognizing how you feel and watching it change is almost impossible. I have notice in my own life times when something is so overwhelming that just noticing it without having a way to respond to it is too much. When this is going on I try to respond to my suffering with compassion. One practice is to simply put your hand over your heart when you notice you are going through something. You can say to yourself “I care about this suffering” or “I have compassion for this suffering.” Just responding to uncomfortable feelings like this is a great way to practice self care. When I do this it allows me to see that whatever I am feeling is not all consuming. There is a part of me that really cares and wants me to feel better.
Another great way to practice self care in moment of suffering to to offer yourself forgiveness. I remember a time when I was walking my dog and I began to see that I was feeling pretty annoyed. I was constantly replaying an argument I had earlier with my partner. As I saw my mind doing this I started to get annoyed with myself for being unable to let it go. Soon I was angry at myself for being so stubborn and my partner for whatever his part was in the argument. As I made it to the next block I paused and realized that I had a choice about how I responded to my suffering. I could chose to replay the argument in my mind and continue getting angry, or I could care for myself and offer myself and my partner forgiveness.
As I walked the dog I started to remember that neither of us had woken up that morning with the intention of hurting one another. Neither of us wanted the other to be unhappy. This was also true for myself. I wanted to be happy and at ease. I began saying the phrase “I forgive you” over and over in my mind directed at my partner. Rather than forgiving him for what was said or for the argument I was forgiving him as a person. Then I directed the phrase at myself, I said “I forgive you”. Offering forgiveness and receiving my own forgiveness in this way made me feel held and cared for.
There are times that I have needed to practice self-care even though it is not particularly a moment of suffering. I have just felt that I really care about myself and love myself and want to show that in some way. In these times I practice self-metta or unconditional friendliness. Usually when doing this I think about a time that I felt very happy. Often I think of myself surrounded by my living friends and family. I usually picture about ten of us in a giant group hug. This image fills my heart with love and friendship. I then take this feeling and offer it to myself. I say to myself “may you be happy”, “may you be loved”, and “may you be cared for”. When I say these things I am not thinking of someone else making me happy, caring about me, or loving me, I think about doing these things for myself.
What I love about self-metta is that it can be used in different ways. It can be formal meditation practice where you sit in meditation and repeat the phrases over and over to yourself and try to cultivate the feeling of metta. It can also just be something that you do whenever you remember to. At one period in my life I decided to practice metta for myself whenever I was walking to my car and then for a few moments as I sat in my car before I turned it on. You can also chose to practice it when other people are around or whenever it feels right for you.
Having gratitude for yourself is a great way to practice self-care. Often when we do something good we gloss right over it without recognizing how good it really way. We have a human tendency to downplay the good and overemphasize the bad. One way to care for yourself more is to try to change this balance. This can be as simple as noticing the moments of joy in your life. Simply noticing when you are feeling joyful and being with that joy is an act of gratitude. You can even say thank you to yourself for creating that sense of joy.
Another way to practice self-gratitude is to thank yourself after something that you do that is estimable. For example, a year ago I had to take a long standardized test. It is a very long test with no breaks and they do not even let you take water in with you. It is on the computer so you get to see your score as soon as you finish the test. At the end I had studied for months, spent all this time taking the test, and was anxious to see how I did. However, rather than rushing to see the score I took a moment and felt how grateful I was for my hard work. I even said to myself “whatever happens I am grateful for all of your hard work”. Simply letting myself feel appreciate of all that I had done made me feel cared for.
Do Something Just for the Joy of it
About a year ago my meditation teacher asked me to do something every week just for the joy of doing it. She told me this would be a great way to practice self-care and would probably make me feel happier. At first I told her I did not have time to do something every week just for the joy of it. I asked her if it could be something I had to do but it also brought me joy. She told me that it could be small but to make it something unique that I could do. I practiced this for a while, just doing something because it brought me joy. I would take a walk by myself, go to the beach, or eat a really good meal. I found the more things I did the better I felt. It was also important for this practice to notice the joy that doing something created, and be grateful for doing it.
Similarly to the last practice I offered a great way to practice self-care is to be spontaneous or switch up your routine. Often I notice myself following the same routine every day. I wake up, eat, work, eat, work, eat, relax and go to bed. It can feel boring and monotonous when every day is like this. If I follow this routine too many days in a row I notice myself stating to feel a little down. It usually makes me feel better to mix things up. Even when this is hard because of the amount of work that I have to do there are simply ways to slip in new things. This might mean during my period of relaxation at night playing a game with my partner. I have also tried doing things like getting outside more throughout the day, or deciding to cook a nice meal. All of these things help mix things up and keep my mind engaged.
Balance Rest and Work
In addition to being spontaneous it is important for me to remember to find a good balance between rest and work. I am what I would consider a perfectionist. I like for everything to be completed fully before I rest at all. Sometimes this means if I am in the middle of something I will not get up for hours or even take a break until the task is done. When I do this I start to get grumpy and feel uncomfortable. My body is not made to work nonstop!
There are many ways to go about creating a balance between rest and work. One is scheduling breaks in my daily routine. There have been times when I have committed to taking a five minute break every hour. I also pick one day a week where I chose not to work. This can be really hard especially for people working multiple jobs, or for those who are self employed with an endless list of tasks. If it cannot be a whole day for you even setting aside a chunk of hours one day where you commit not to work is helpful. I usually find that even when I am worried because there is so much that needs to get done, I feel better when I take time to rest, and I am more productive.
Help Someone Else
It might seem strange to talk about helping others in a post about self-care but doing estimable actions is a great way to care for yourself. This is one of the easiest ways to feel better about anything in your own life. When I am happy, sad, or somewhere in between helping someone else always helps me. This can be listening to a friend talk about something going on in their own life. Sometimes just allowing someone else to be heard is the greatest gift you can give. You might also do some kind of formal community service or just help a friend with a simple task. There are endless ways to help someone else.
My final tip for self-care is to be honest. Be honest with both yourself and others about what is really going on with you. Whether you are in a moment of suffering or joy, be honest about how you feel. Just telling someone else about what is going on in your life might make you feel better. I chose to do this formally by having a mentor, someone I talk to about my practice and life. I also do this by just sharing with my partner and friend what is going on with me when they ask. If someone asks how I am doing I try not to tell them I am fine if I am not fine. Likewise, I try not to deny my feelings when thinking about them but rather accept the uncomfortable and joyful moments.