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Forget Massages & Spa Days—This is what Self-Care Really Is.

Self-care is so hot right now—and for good reason.

Burnout is coming at us from all sides: our personal lives, our professional world, and, of course, our insane political situation. It’s easy to try to make sense of the chaos by losing ourselves in the work of caring for others, whether it’s on the job or at home. Tending to someone else can carry a sense of concreteness—helping someone is something we can lose ourselves in, something we can feel good about despite everything else going on.

But of course, losing ourselves in the needs of others means that we often forget our own needs.

Or so we’re told by advocates of self-care, who generally recommend a variety of indulgent, comforting activities—a massage, a day at the spa, a trip out of town—as a cure.

These are, of course, great ideas (if they’re accessible). But I’m here to suggest that simply doing the activity isn’t enough. Rather, the actual healing element of self-care involves a skill, one that needs to be practiced.

To understand how self-care works, we need to first understand what gets us to the point of needing it. Life inevitably presents us with a series of stressors, traumas (micro or macro), and dissatisfactions. This is a totally normal, expected occurrence for all humans, as noted in the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.

When we experience these, we retreat. We retreat into our minds, away from our bodies; into our thoughts, away from our experience; into our mental world of things we want, away from what’s going on right here, right now.

Again, totally normal—but also, as the Buddha points out in his Second Noble Truth, this is precursor to more stress and suffering: we habituate retreating into the mind, suppressing, and ignoring the needs of the body and heart. Rinse, lather, repeat, and you get burnout—or, as the Buddha might put it, humans being humans in the modern, human world. Our lives are lived increasingly in our heads, where stresses magnify each other, rather than being lived in the now.

A dis-embodied life.

So what’s the point of self-care? Holding space and time for our minds to literally re-embody—to come back to our beating hearts, breathing bellies, and shaky limbs. Self-care activities are usually things that feel good, because that’s the purpose—the good feeling in the body is the invitation for the mind to come back.

And this is where we need to put in the effort to meet ourselves halfway. It’s not the simple doing of the activity that is self-care—it’s the re-embodying. To make that concrete, a massage spent daydreaming about your next vacation isn’t actually self-care—it’s the playing out of the deeply ingrained (but not healing!) habit of dis-embodying.

And so we get to the hard problem of self care: re-embodying is difficult.

Re-embodying requires paying attention, moment to moment, and our attention spans are under near-constant assault from the world around us. Our lives are filled with screens engineered to steal our attention from whatever we’re doing and get us hooked on a hit of digital approval or stimulation. Phones give us the ever-present option of disconnecting from what’s happening right now—further reinforcing our habit of dis-embodying.

So the practice of self-care is training our minds to re-embody rather than dis-embody, and making a space safe and comfortable enough to let that process happen. And from this lens, self-care begins to look a lot like meditation practice. In meditation, we’re training two parts of our mind: concentration, defined as the ability to stay with our present experience (usually of the breath), and awareness, knowing where our minds are in any given moment.

Basically, any self-care activity can be experienced with the mind of meditation, utilizing concentration and awareness. The practice is simply to be with the body during the activity, and when the mind wanders off, just keep coming back to the body.

Just like meditation, this practice of self-care isn’t some big, serious thing. It doesn’t need to bring up feelings of unworthiness when we discover, inevitably, that our minds can have a hard time concentrating on one thing, even if that one thing is pleasant sensations in the body.

In this vein, what could a practice of self-care look like? I actually have a great example for you: cuddling. My partner and I both love to cuddle, and this past weekend, we tried a brief cuddling meditation: pick a mutually agreeable cuddling position and place the attention to the physical contact with the other person. When the mind gets distracted, just bring it back to the physical contact.

Simple—and effective! My partner isn’t a meditator and typically has trouble with formal meditation practice, and yet instantly noticed a deeper feeling of nourishment and calm compared to less intentional cuddling.

Self-care doesn’t need to be complicated! What is an activity that feels good, in your body? Do it, but actually be there for it. When your mind runs off (as it will), try not to get down on yourself (it’s totally normal!) and just come back to your experience.

As you get deeper into the practice of self-care, things might change. Not only will the experience of the activity grow more nuanced and subtle, but you might find that what you enjoy starts to shift. Whereas you previously preferred a massage, you might start noticing the simple act of listening to a piece of music brings even more calm, relaxation, and healing into your body.

You might even gravitate toward activities that don’t seem to belong in the realm of self-care. I’ve grown to really enjoy taking cold showers (or at least finishing hot showers with a cold plunge). There is still fear, hesitation, and exhilaration each time I do it, but within the whole range of the experience, the emotions and sensations are bringing me deeper into my body in the present moment—which is exactly how self-care works! It might seem strange to think about cold showers as a form of self-care, but for me, it results in a feeling in my body that I actually enjoy, precisely because the activity and all the physical and emotional sensations it brings up allow me to re-embody.

This is all that self-care is: creating a space—by making it comfortable or enjoyable or exciting—to bring us back to what’s going on in our bodies. To see what’s going on in our minds. To feel what’s going on in our hearts. And we can bring this framework into anything we do: even watching TV, listening to music, or eating a meal can be opportunities to re-embody.

But as you embark on this broader vision of self-care, a word of caution: where there is comfort there is also sometimes discomfort. Being in the body can sound great, until unpleasant body sensations come along. And it can happen even in the middle of something you think you like. There can be that moment when that riff in the chorus of a favorite song stops sounding all that great and starts to be boring or even annoying. That moment will make you want to retreat back into the mind, away from the present experience and the process of re-embodying.

Just let it pass. Trust in that process, and keep coming back to what’s going on in your body, right now. There is no true self-care without it, and over time we see that the mind actually wants to re-embody! It won’t always feel like it, but it’s true.

Finally, I couldn’t end without inviting you to consider incorporating meditation into your self-care practice. Meditation is ultimately about developing the mind’s capacity to re-embody, and it will make not just your self-care but everything in your life more fruitful. And if you’d like some support on this path, check out Awaken Meditation, a project I’ve been working on with some incredible meditation teachers.

The beauty in both-self care and mindfulness practice is that we’re just engaged in a process of continually coming back. Doing that over and over again is the practice. Self-care is simply carving out time and space for an activity that facilitates re-embodying.

Self-care equals re-embodying. As long as you’re doing that, you’re doing it right. If you realize you’re not, there is no better time to start than now.

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relephant bonus:

relephant reads:

4 Self-Care Tips for Single Women.

Is it Self-Care or Self-Absorption?

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Author: Ravi Mishra
Image: Rikard Elofsson/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Cognitive Behavioral Teamwork Aug 14, 2018 12:58am

Fine line between self-care, ego, and fear. "desperately trying not to be a cliche and failing." -- desperately anything -- doesn't strike me as a character of self-care. What say you?

Miriam Mikell Bennett Sep 5, 2017 4:03am

I love this article! I have noticed that whenever I try to focus on the present, so many things begin to crowd my thoughts. I am aware of metacognition; therefore, I purposely "snap" back into the present...I "re-embody"! Now, I can't wait to try the cuddling activity with my husband. This is my fist time on this site, and it just may be everything that I have been looking for!

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Ravi Mishra

Ravi Mishra was born in India, raised in California, and is now living in Brooklyn. He is desperately trying not to be a cliche and failing. In his simultaneously best and worst hipster impression, he’s combining his expertise (technology and entrepreneurship) with his deepest passion (meditation and Buddhism) to create the Awaken Meditation app. When not being self-referential in a bio, he can be found teaching meditation at the Dharma Den, running or biking around Brooklyn, or pursuing one of too many hobbies (current favorite: learning how to spin fire poi). He’s been practicing in the Zen tradition for nine years and is soon to be a student in the Mountains and Rivers Order Zen lineage. Catch up with Ravi on his website.