Today on the Tricycle Editor’s Blog, an excerpt from Pema Chödrön’s latest book reminded us “When we build a house, we start by creating a stable foundation. Just so, when we wish to benefit others, we start by developing warmth or friendship for ourselves. It’s common, however, for people to have a distorted view of this friendliness and warmth. We’ll say, for instance, that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others. We end up feeling more threatened or irritable, more unable to relax.” From Unlimited Friendliness (Winter 2009).
I wondered, what do I do to take care of myself? What are the things that genuinely generate warmth and friendliness towards myself and help me be more able to care for others? And what things are just indulgences, cop-outs, bribes, and stuff I tell myself I deserve or need but don’t actually show real caring and don’t help me become more open to others?
Keeping my home clean is something I frequently underestimate, yet when it is clean, I am always amazed at how uplifted I feel. It has been a dumping ground since last September when the new school year began, and self-nagging to clean over winter break resulted in no more than a constant mild guilt. Yet, when Alison wanted to come over to have a look as a possible renter, I took the time, not much really, and cleared my dining table, coffee table, entertainment center, and desk, of their resultant piles of accumulated junk. I put my laundry away and did my dishes. I spread a flowery tablecloth on the dining table and dusted my shelves.
Since then, I’ve managed to keep it clean, with minimal effort (as I’m rarely home) and the way it makes me feel continues to surprise me, especially after returning from a long day spent in my cluttered attic studio (which, perhaps ironically, as a working space I feel very few compunctions about messiness). So being lazy and avoiding cleaning because I’ve had a “hard day” or I “deserve a break” or “no one else cares anyway,” actually makes me feel worse. These selfish excuses help no one, including me.
There are many ways I indulge without actually taking care (OED: to take thought for, provide for, look after, take care of; to have a regard or liking for) of myself – my constant low-level intake of refined sugar throughout the day, the way I procrastinate homework I perceive as “boring” or “pointless” and scramble to make up later, how I sleep too much or eat too little in response to stress, the way I get caught up in fictional stories and neglect my work and the real people around me.
Yet there are also a few genuine ways I care for myself – keeping my house clean, giving up cooking, working at the Daily Nebraska even though it is outside my chosen “career,” my Saturday night bath, the Sunday New York Times, enjoying music and listening to podcasts, sharing the lives of animals like my cat, and taking the time to care for others.
Stopping into the office to kibitz with Andrea or Brett, running into classmates on the stairs of Arch Hall, chatting philosophy and religion with Jake online, are all highlights of my day. Perhaps it’s a selfish motivation because these things make me feel better, but I like knowing how the people near me are doing. I want to know about Brett’s origami shaped aid station and I like joking with him about putting a giant robot poised to step on it in the model rendering (because it’s designed for deployment in Japan and we know how they love their giant robots). It makes me feel more involved with the world and less isolated. Even though by rights I ought to be up at my desk working furiously on my thesis, these water-cooler moments really help me find balance and energy.
So taking care of others is also one way of taking care of myself.