Self-Care or Self-Flagellation?

photo by Simon Migaj

My journey into mindfulness has been a process of discovery and of letting go. It feels like a sort of gradual deprogramming from conditioned views once unquestioned. One particularly tough knot to untangle has been the difference between holding oneself in servitude to shoulds, oughts, and musts and practicing mindful self-care.

Growing up, I somehow got the message that eating right and exercising were ways to make your appearance acceptable to others rather than ways of fueling and maintaining the miraculous and vulnerable vehicle from which we navigate this one precious human life. Many of us absorbed the idea that taking time for stillness, for just being, was self-indulgent and lazy.

In this high pressure culture of ever-greater efficiency and disposable goods, it’s easy to mistake our bodies and minds as simple commodities from which to extract as much externally derived value as possible. In our drive to do and accomplish, we might skimp on sleep, down time, moments of self-reflection, pleasurable activities, and the cultivation of interpersonal connections. We tend to ignore the signs of stress and overuse until we’re quite ill or burned out. In this way, we commit a sort of violence against ourselves.

Vipassana meditation teacher, Phillip Moffitt, defines violence as “any highly energetic form of relating to a person, including yourself, that is jarring, turbulent, and distorting.” He says these subtle aggressions may occur “through the way in which we schedule our time, push our bodies, and compare and judge ourselves against others.” Many of us don’t realize the many ways in which we commit violence against ourselves every day. We’ve habituated to it and until we change our habits, we remain unaware that there might be a better way.

Practicing nonviolence toward oneself lies in our intentions – it’s an active commitment to non-self-harming. We abstain from the use of threat or force, believing that it is unnecessary for change and ultimate well-being – that self-compassion, sometimes fierce and unyielding, is what leads to the highest good. It means saying no to beliefs and practices that only serve to oppress us and embracing attitudes and actions that are self-respecting and life affirming. This requires a level of inner strength, self-trust and courage that can be cultivated through training and practice.

The practices of yoga and meditation are teaching me that caring for the body and mind is of utmost importance and an honorable endeavor. In yoga, part of the underlying philosophy is an ethical observation of ahimsa or non-harming. In mindfulness meditation, we attend to experience non-judgmentally and with an attitude of compassion. Perhaps most importantly, the way we treat ourselves ripples out into our interactions with others. For those of us who care for others (which is most of us), we might even characterize self-care as a non-negotiable responsibility.

Release the harsh and pointed inner
voice. it’s just a throwback to the past,
and holds no truth about this moment.

Let go of self-judgment, the old,
learned ways of beating yourself up
for each imagined inadequacy.

Allow the dialogue within the mind
to grow friendlier, and quiet. Shift
out of inner criticism and life
suddenly looks very different.

i can say this only because I make
the choice a hundred times a day to release the voice that refuses to
acknowledge the real me.

What’s needed here isn’t more prodding toward perfection, but
intimacy – seeing clearly, and
embracing what I see.

Love, not judgment, sows the
seeds of tranquility and change.

– Danna Faulds, Self Observation Without Judgment

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