Self-Care: an off-putting name for a critical practice of mental health

Ascetic in wildernessLet me make a quick personal note on the word self-care. In truth, I really detest this word, and I think there is good reason why it took thousands of years for it to find its way into the vernacular. Not only does the word sound wimpy, it sounds selfish; it sounds like the sort of wimpy, selfish praxis we have going on en masse today. As if we need to care for ourselves anymore than we already do; as if our entrenched selfishness is somehow in need of a boost. Nothing could be further from the truth. True self-care is anything but wimpy and selfish, it is actually quite difficult and as much otherfocused as it is self-focused.

As I attempted to outline in a previous article, self-care, as distinguished from coping skills, is a practice of facing the fire of the irrational, natural self rather than a practice of tactically avoiding it. It is acceptance and pressing-into the authentic self rather than evading it.

How is self-care difficult and other-focused?

It is difficult because facing one’s true self is the equivalent of facing down dragons. The true self—or rather, the whole self—includes all those aspects of the self that are subject to constant avoidance for the purpose of emotional survival. This habit of avoidance starts early, usually in childhood, and is often continued for a lifetime (ordinarily as a matter of unconscious avoidance). As a therapist I find that both men and women struggle to face these dragons, but men on average are particularly more resistant. The idea is that giving attention to emotions makes a man weak. As I’ve heard innumerable times: “Emotions aren’t real.” He won’t acknowledge his feelings because they would somehow make him vulnerable; easy pickings for the enemy out there. The truth is the exact opposite. If he were truly courageous, he would wrestle with himself—his most formidable opponent. As the “Art of War” teaches, the one who knows both himself and his enemy is invincible. This age-old warrior code has been tragically lost on modern man.

And it is other-focused because the person who practices consistent self-care is more available to himself, and consequently more available to others—more available with his whole self. As discussed in the last article, if one is intent on beating neurosis it is imperative to find “emotional unity with something beyond the self.” One cannot emotionally unify with something outside the self if the self is committed to suppressing emotions. Ironically, without a consistent practice of self-care one is instinctually more selfish. This is because emotional suppression causes one’s existence to shrink to a tiny, phantasmal, abstract inner world where one’s self is all-important.

What then constitutes the sort of self-care practice which allows one access to his or her whole self?

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there is no one-size-fits-all practice of self-care. However, there are some seemingly universal practices which have worked for people in every culture and every age since the beginning of time. When one studies the various religions and philosophical schools throughout history one particular practice rises again and again to the surface—mindful prayer and meditation.

I list both prayer and meditation together because of their similar activity and results; however, I personally think of them separate practices for theological reasons, which I will hopefully discuss in a separate article. The fact is, both prayer and meditation have a very wide range of practice. Prayer, like meditation, can be a rote thing or a deeply passionate thing; can serve a specific momentary purpose, or a more long-term, transcendent union with something other than self (e.g., God). For the purposes of a discussion on self-care the latter is emphasized.

Prayer and meditation are the standards of self-care, established by humanity’s forebearers from time immemorial. Only recently has modern neuroscience managed to demonstrate definitively the positive effects of prayer and meditation on neuroplasticity—specifically how it helps regulate the autonomic nervous system responsible, among other things, for the human fight or flight response.

Mindful prayer and meditation require the individual to set aside uninterrupted time in which he or she willfully suspends all acts of doing, all compulsions to problem solving, and all thoughts stemming from a critical, self-examining nature. There is no shortage of time for these things. One can find a minimum of 18 hours a day to indulge in human-doing, but the call to mindful prayer and meditation is the call to a minimum of 5 minutes a day to indulge in human-being.

The psyche absolutely requires it! And I do not mean to say self-care by way of prayer and meditation need only be 5 minutes, it can be as long as the individual determines. I only mean to say that a daily practice of it is necessary for healthy mental functioning.

In the next article I will attempt to outline some specific ways to engage in this sort of self-care. I will include some of the ancient Christian ascetic practices of mindful prayer, certain Eastern meditative angles, and hopefully some modern western philosophy imports from both Kierkegaard and Heidegger.

Thanks for reading.

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