Staying balanced in a world full of chaos is not easy. Between keeping up with our to-do lists, staying informed about the world news and taking care of our responsibilities, it’s easy to find ourselves depleted mentally, emotionally and physically. This can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and even illness.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful to be both productive and relaxed? With a few helpful tools, we can learn how to prioritize our self-care. Self-care is what enables us to take on challenges with ease, and to get things done without compromising our well-being.
Human beings are multidimensional. We have a mental, physical and emotional identity, as well as a psychic or heart-soul aspect. Each of these areas requires attention and care, but generally we can think of ourselves in two ways: we have inner needs that must be met, and we have outer responsibilities that must be attended to. Both must be honored, respected and nurtured if we are to be healthy and well-balanced human beings.
When we start to address our inner needs, we find that there are some activities we should do more of, and some that we should do less of.
Meditation is a good example. It’s a self-care method that brings peace to the mind and clarity to the heart by turning our attention inward. Many times we think about this as silent sitting, but that’s not always the case. There are many activities that produce the healing concentration of meditation. Which activity we choose will vary from person to person, and we can look to our interests to generate ideas about which activities to try. For instance, we might love attending yoga classes. When we do yoga postures with our full concentration turned inward to the breath and body, we are practicing a kind of meditation. This is a form of body meditation. Reading uplifting literature, or listening to inspiring music can also bring clarity and peace to mind and heart. Sitting on a park bench or taking a hike can reconnect us with nature and ourselves. These activities are essential to the maintenance of a healthy and balanced life and we can honor ourselves by engaging in self-nourishing experiences everyday.
Once we address how to meet our inner needs more effectively, we can look at what activities or experiences we need less of. What habits and patterns are we holding onto that don’t contribute to our well-being?
For example, are we aware of how much time we spend in front of digital screens or focused on electronic devices? The news might be captivating, but are we aware of how it affects us? Quite apart from the question of content, excessive interaction with these devises can do considerable physical and psychological harm. Beyond that, the content itself often brings up agitation, which can impact us long after we put the device down. We need to be mindful of what we’re exposing ourselves to.
Create some metrics for yourself when it comes to media exposure. Determine how much time you really need each day to keep up with the news. Compare that with the time you actually spend engaged with your phone, TV, work and home computers. Ponder how that affects you, emotionally, physically and mentally. Does it feel healthy? Fulfilling? If you see a problem, don’t ignore it, take charge of your life. Set limits and find activities that counter the ill effects. Remember, we weren’t born to interface with machines but with each other.
Bringing our inner life to balance is a process of trial and error. It’s like using a dimmer switch to customize the lighting in the room. We can find balance by dialing up our fulfilling activities, like meditation, and dialing down our draining activities, like too much media. This takes care of our inner needs.
But no matter how skilled we are at meeting our needs, we will always have outer responsibilities to take care of. It would be lovely to stay in deep meditation all day but that isn’t how life seems to work. We have responsibilities and duties that we need to preform. How do we care for ourselves amidst our responsibilities?
I think of my external responsibilities as my personal dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word that means “to work” or “action.” To understand our dharma means to recognize the uniqueness of our life situation. There are billions of people in the world, but each of us has a very unique place in it. Discovering our dharma is about realizing the most important points of intersection we have in our lives and which roles we play in other peoples’ lives. It helps us orient our work and action to where we will be most beneficial to ourselves and others.
Over the course of day, we may go through hundreds of different situations, playing many different roles. Discovering your personal dharma is about determining what roles you play that are the most essential. The world is large and there’s no limit to the ways we can serve and interact. There are family affairs, community, state, national and global affairs; but we do not have enough time and energy to do everything. One can easily become overextended, or conversely, overwhelmed by the world’s many problems. What burdens can we reasonably take on without neglecting our self-care? Where do our passions and our genuine capacities intersect? To know this is to know your dharma. This is real self-knowledge.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend. He was experiencing some confusion about just what his personal responsibilities in life were. We began by focusing on what was most important to him. He came up with three things: his role a father, as a spiritual seeker and as a teacher. Teaching was his profession. Amid many other interests and concerns he had, these were the three that engaged him most deeply.
My friend’s compassion and concern for the world extends far beyond his personal affairs, but his dharma pivots on the question of who he is internally and upon who or what most depends upon him externally. Once he’d established that, he was able to put his time and attention to its best use. By fulfilling his core dharma, my friend’s capacities will expand and he will perhaps grow into a wider dharma and wider circles of influence.
Each of us has internal needs and external responsibilities. Both are intertwined and both must be cared for. The neglect of one weakens the other. By bringing our inner nature and our outer life into a mutual focus, we clarify, strengthen and enrich every aspect of our life.
This is real self-knowledge and it is the best kind of self-care.