I recently wrote a two-part series on health (you can read them here and here). For those that bristle at the word ‘health,’ maybe because it’s a word that seems over-used to the point of meaninglessness and is often used to level judgment on people, perhaps thinking about it in terms of self-care will be a better entry point to the same idea.
In my previous posts I talked about eating well, getting enough water and sleep, finding ways to move that make your body happy, and finding professional and/or friendly support. All of those things are important, not just for our over all health, measured in terms of aches, pains, immune strength and fitness, but also in terms of happiness, peace of mind and personal stability. It’s much easier to be present with our lives and loved ones when we’re well rested and well fed and not hurting.
Self-care is something that I’ve learned only late in life. I’ve always been interested in health and fitness. I swam competitively growing up. I’ve never enjoyed staying up all night long. But the way I thought about health was much more along the lines of ‘don’t get fat;’ it was a form of superiority and virtue, so I thought. Over time I’ve let go of that thinking.
I remember two friends I had in high school and college. These guys were popular, smart, and high achieving. They attended prestigious colleges and when they came home for summer, they worked jobs with lots of responsibility and long hours. They worked hard and played hard. Their motto was “we can sleep when we’re dead.”
At 20 that seemed doable and even ideal. Now, as a mother of small children, in my late 30s, that just seems insane. However, that thinking seems to infect more areas of life than just the habits of ambitious 20-somethings. I remember working out with kids who would push so hard they’d vomit. I know loads of people who are getting through their days on coffee and sugar. It’s not that these things are just unhealthy – as if health is some sort of finite, definitive term that we can measure objectively; I find these ways of approaching life as acts of unkindness and even, in the extreme, acts of self-torture.
Kindness, going easy on ourselves, self-care – these things are generally looked upon as lazy or wussy; at best a sign of indulgence, at worst a sign of weakness. There’s something in American culture that aims to reward the person who works 60+ hours a week, pulls all-nighters, does gruelling daily work outs for a six-pack, or starves themselves thin. Somehow that’s virtuous. But those who happily eat bacon, get 9 hours of sleep a night, goes gently walking for a few miles only a few times a week, or chooses a slow-track career option in order to avoid an expensive commute or gain more time with family is often considered unambitious.
I’d like to extend self-care into our spiritual practices and even into the very private area self-talk. While I think I’ve got a strong handle on all the things I’ve listed above (eating, sleeping, major life choices, etc), I still struggle with bringing self-care into these two very personal areas.
I am ambitious and I want results! So that must mean elaborate pujas, regular spell work, making sure I do all my exercises every day, and so on, right? Well, no. Sometimes it means not doing anything. Sometimes it means just sitting and breathing and checking in with my parts. Maybe the way to honor a particular holiday is to not celebrate it, rather than stress out and go through the motions.
Not Doing is not something I’m good at. Over the years my husband has helped me trust that I can Not Do and my world will not end. I am coming to trust that when he says ‘lean on me, let me carry your load today’ he really means it and I can actually let go. There is freedom in this space. Eventually I get over my cold (or my migraine, what I’m struggling with lately) and go back to my regularly scheduled activities with renewed vigor.
But it’s hard. It’s hard to accept that letting go of Doing is an act of love for myself. This leads me to self-talk. The voices I hear in my head are mostly me trying to guilt me into Doing. ‘The gods will forget about you if you don’t make your weekly puja.’ ‘How are you ever going to grow in your skills if you aren’t practicing them daily?’ ‘You haven’t read tarot/run the Iron Pentacle/made a house offering/etc in weeks, what kind of a witch are you?’ Yeah, those voices are kind of mean. Nipping those voices in their wilted little buds is a necessary form of self-care.
I’ve come to realize that negative self-talk is a form of self-sabotage. More damaging to my skills and relationships than taking a day off or a week off, or doing the easier of the pujas (or whatever) is this self-talk that aims to undermine my very desires. Those voices don’t make me rush to my altar any quicker or practice my vocal exercises any more often; instead, they make me run even farther away from what I love. I want to hide under the bed, out of sight of such a nasty bully.
Self-care is an act of power. It’s not an act of power over – over others or even over myself. It’s an act of power with – I bring myself into right alignment with my loved one and with all of my parts. And what is a witch if not a person unafraid to harness power? I aim to increase the power and efficacy of my witchery and all the areas of life into which I put my efforts!
Getting a handle on all aspects of my Self and my health is powerful stuff. Better physical and mental health is an act of love to myself and to those with whom I have commitments. Learning to accept self-care and the care of others is an act of surrender and commitment to what is really important: my relationships – with family, friends and my gods, and to the desires I work towards regularly.