Self-care is promoted everywhere. Social media is riddled with images of the latest smoothie fads, corporations are offering “wellness classes,” and the social-work, medical, and other helping fields have taken self-care on as a motto to combat the staggering amount of burnout. I find value in self-care. I love saunas, baths, hot springs, time in nature, watching a good movie, and yes, even the occasional over-priced smoothie.
I spend much of my time doing difficult work that brings me face-to-face with the major blind spots of our culture. I interface with homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, domestic violence, and our prison system on a regular basis, and I am constantly blindsided by the lack of supports for some of our most vulnerable populations. Feeling helpless in the midst of another person’s pain is just one of the many agonizing moments I experience. Stress and second-hand trauma are par for the course. I need to spend the necessary time to rejuvenate if I am going to be any good for anybody, and beyond this, the perennial teaching of love everyone must include myself.
Self-care is defined by Oxford Dictionary as activities that “preserve or improve one’s own health,” which includes our physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Others also include spiritual health in this, however, for most of us embedded within the materialism of western culture, we can only conceive of this “spirituality” as an amalgam of mental, emotional and physical well-being.
It is because of this that we often conceptualize spiritual practice as another form of mental, emotional and physical self care. We translate spirituality’s benefits into the same individualistic materialism that plagues the self-care and wellness movement.
Wellness is often commodified as another product we need to buy, furthering us along on the rat-wheel of modern consumer culture and acting as one more outsourcing of wellness to the individual. Instead of looking at the systemic reasons why we are so stressed, burnt out, and disconnected, we use “self-care” as a chiding reminder for each of us to do a better job, creating guilt for our inevitable stumbles. We are so entrenched within this framework that we relate to spiritual practice in this same way.
In our modern, materialist framework, spiritual practice becomes “mindfulness” and its benefits become “psychological flexibility.” It is accomplished through several different psychological processes. “Defusion” is the ability to create space from our thoughts, thus freeing us from our automatic responses. “Acceptance” is when we drop the struggle with our inner experiences. “Self-as-context” is the ability to rest in the spaciousness of awareness rather than being caught in the contents of the mind (Hayes et al., 2006, p. 7).
I think it is beautiful that western psychology is making strides in this direction. And there are now mounds of peer-reviewed evidence to support the efficacy of this. But it is still a watered-down version of age-old truths that don’t require modern validation. Although all traditions hold this in some way, the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism on modern, western understandings of mindfulness cannot be understated.
To rephrase, it is about letting go of thoughts and emotions so we can rest in Awareness itself. From that place we watch as thoughts pass by like clouds across the vast Sky of Being. Spiritual practice, if we allow it, rather than offering a short-term relief from suffering, offers an enhanced capacity to bear witness to it.
This is much more profound than what is usually discussed by self-care, and it nuzzles right up to the profound truth unveiled through spiritual practice. It is as far as we can go utilizing the worldview of individualism and materialism, but it is still incomplete. Carl Jung, in his own way, also crept up close to this. He was able to conceptualize the gods and goddesses of the world’s myths as archetypes that connect us to the collective unconsciousness. This has helped many people to appreciate sacred stories and rituals that wouldn’t be able to otherwise. In my own journey, this kind of conceptual framework was once a helpful starting point. However, it is still locked in western materialism, and many scholars such as Cutcha Risling Baldy have taken Jung to task for watering down and appropriating their own Indigenous traditions.
One of the beautiful gifts that Ram Dass gave to us in the West is his ability to walk us right to the edge of materialism’s cliff, but then to invite us over that edge as we plunge into the oceanic depth of a more expansive worldview. Although frightening at first, we soon discover that this is not at odds with modernity.
The spiritual view is spacious enough to account for both ancient truths and modern scientific knowledge. It widens the lens to accept Eternity, Love & Consciousness as the Ground of Reality, and it holds that this is who we truly are. It boldly informs us that this is our birthright, to know and rest in this Truth. It calls us to widen our gaze beyond our own suffering, reconnecting us to the web of life where we form true, Sacred Community.
The Divine Beings spoken of throughout the world’s great spiritual traditions are not just archetypes of the mind, but also Entities that we can develop transformative relationships with. They can offer blessings, bestow grace, and serve as gateways to this Holy, Interdependent, Presence of the Heart.
And this Holy Presence of Love, if we can wade in its Sacred Waters, if it can affect us unfettered from the influence of culture, it has the potential to truly transform. We are molded as servants of that Love. Self and other blur together, and care becomes a natural act. Spiritual practice is not something we do to feel better. It is not something that we buy, and it is not just another activity for a mind desperate to stay busy.
It is Radical Wholeness weaving itself into existence, the Light of Love spilling forth from full cup to full cup, and the Holy Spirit flooding into the world.