2020 Self-care Recap & Metta Meditation

This 2020 self care blog was written with an intention to focus our attention on sustaining our own well-being through these chaotic times. A roadmap with points for reflection and a number of mind-body self-care practices were presented with an emphasis on developing skills to “up our game” in paying kind attention to ourselves and to others. We started where all well-being begins, with valuing self-care as an expression of self-compassion.

Attention training starts with developing presence to oneself. Simple yet effective methods for presencing were drawn from the domain of mindfulness, which has considerable scientific support as a necessary skill for cultivating compassion. Compassion was described as action taken to relieve suffering and suffering was simplified to represent the “rub” of resistance we feel whenever we want our experience to be different than it is unfolding in the here and now.  In this way, suffering is recognized as an experience common to all humanity and therefore all humanity warrants compassion. The likelihood that this statement may feel like a tall order to you in these intensely divisive times is evidence for an opportunity to respond to your “rubs” with self-compassion!

The tradition of Yoga, a point of origin for mindfulness practices, has for millennia offered humanity a technology for relieving suffering; meditation.  Yoga is actually a psychospiritual science of the mind that uses myriad physical practices as a tool to move the body into tolerating stillness. Yoga practices also prepare the nervous system by cultivating meditative states as preparation for meditation. Various forms of meditation have been vigorously investigated in the neuroscience literature and a fair conclusion is meditation is helpful to training attention in ways that generate states of well-being. How often we enter these states and how long we can sustain them is a function of frequency, duration and focus within the practice. Meditation is a teachable skill and much of the simple, secular practices that have been presented in these monthly articles are appetizers to inspire you to incorporate informal mindfulness practices into formal ones and perhaps even adopt meditation as a component of your self-care regime.

We have discussed attention to our embodiment via observing body, breath, thoughts, emotion and movement, then went further to curiously explore our experience of selfhood beyond embodiment. We have been encouraged to be gentle with ourselves by befriending whatever arises in our observations and to sanctify and savor all experiences we have each day that warm our hearts, generate gratitude or feel inspiring, awesome or wonderous. We have touched on forming intention as a way of being to support whatever aim we have established that nourishes our life force. I truly hope you have enjoyed the ride of reading these articles and working with the practices presented throughout this year.

In closing, the practice of Metta Meditation has been researched and demonstrated to assist in the development of self-compassion; a prerequisite for offering compassion to others. As health professionals, I imagine we recognize the absolute necessity to have an ongoing resource to refresh our compassion.  Consider this merely a template, and comprise a meaningful metta meditation of your own.

Get in a comfortable position and become present.  Consider use of soothing touch (hands on heart or face). Think of someone you love deeply to initiate feelings of warmheartedness, then offer these words to a loved one, to yourself, to both of you, to a neutral person you encountered today and to all beings. After some practice, you may progress to include a person or group that you feel your “rub” towards arise whenever you think of them.
May (you, I, we, all) be happy.
May (you, I, we, all) have the resources needed to be healthy.
May (you, I, we, all) know peace.
May (you, I, we, all) live in freedom.

It has been my great privilege to share this writing with you throughout this year. If you are interested to take a deeper dive into these topics, I gave a webinar  for Medbridge entitled Self-care Practices Inspired by Contemplative Neuroscience and Yoga which has been recorded. You can find it at this link: https://www.medbridgeeducation.com/course-catalog/details/self-care-practices-inspired-by-contemplative-neuroscience-and-yoga-recorded-webinar-cheryl-van-demark/

Train your ABS

In the las blog, an activity exploring selfhood was introduced wherein one bore witness to what remained of a sense of selfhood when asked to imagine placing all roles, responsibilities and objects of identification  upon the shelf. Recall in this practice, the body and the senses were also shelved, so that aspect of the self which remained is in the domain of what global wisdom traditions refer to as the subtle realm and what Western science would label non-putative.  Globally there are as many as ninety-seven different names for that which is not subject to measurement!  For our purposes, let’s stay secular and consider this subtle realm of self that is aware of all this essence of your selfhood is not, (everything placed on the shelf) to be our vitality or life force.

Many fitness regimes frequently make training the abs (abdominals)  a core component of improving human performance, so here is a new twist on abs training.
( pun intended 😊) Subtle realm A.B.S. training asks us to Attend, Befriend and Sanctify to access our life force.  These are foundational and interdependent acts. Throughout this year of writing on the topic of self-care, a steady drum beat has been sounded to develop basic mindfulness skills to curiously and kindly attend to all of our human treasures; the body, its vital energies, mind and emotions, our consciousness and spirit or soul.

A: To attend to our subtle realms requires some dedicated sensory clean up to get underneath all the shiny third world material things designed via neural marketing to capture our attention. It also requires the most difficult act of all for us Westerners; a period of non-doing! Overachievers can rest assured, the non-doing calls for periods of radical attention to replace pathological busyness, so there is still a challenge to meet.  No learning happens until we can properly gather and place our attention and no growth is likely to occur without the ability to hold our attention where we need it to stay. Skillfully attending to our inner domain is an act of vulnerability that asks for courage to navigate uncertain terrain.

B: To befriend ourselves as we attend to our subtle treasures is a key component of the practice of self-compassion. Resolving to befriend whatsoever we may discover however may be easier said than done. This is where the mindfulness facet of non-judgement comes into play. Living through a pandemic in an increasingly divisive world activates our primitive brain, generating some intense feelings and emotions. Befriending is a related step in allowing and attuning which were described in both of these previously presented practices: the R.A.I.N. self-compassion practice and the G.R.A.C.E. method for cultivating compassion for others. Humans are hard wired with strong drives to approach or avoid, which is why adopting a non-judgmental perspective towards difficult emotions takes so much practice! We are less likely to approach those aspects of ourselves we are unable to befriend, yet those aspects are typically the very ones we most need to compassionately tend. Ultimately befriending ourselves as we are now, with the understanding our human treasures are inherently changeable, is the very an act of love leading us into the mystery of the nature of the self.

S: To sanctify asks for perspective taking of all life as sacred. For those who prefer more secular language, consider substituting savor for sanctify. This intentional mind-set seeks not only to notice, but also to savor, all experiences of beauty and wonder. We are also called to sanctify one another by learning to see beyond appearances to recognize suffering as common to our humanity and sense the essential goodness in one another. Pause often and generate feelings of gratitude. Acknowledge the meeting of needs we may have come to take for granted such as shelter, food, water, nature and loving relationships. Generating gratitude is a stepping stone for learning to sanctify.

Interdependence is evident in these subtle A.B.S. supporting our core being. To sanctify life, we attend to it by showing up to all of our experiences with our full presence. Appreciating the transient and cyclic nature of the pleasurable, neutral and painful moments we are alive in now, we learn to befriend ourselves amidst whatever is unfolding, just as it is. Sometimes we are empowered to sanctify and savor what we hold sacred only after we have suffered through the profane. I think 2020 is providing this opportunity for many around the world. May your self-care yield a strong physical and metaphysical core!

Exploring the Self in Self-care

Motivation to make the time may be discovered by considering the consequence of self-care’s opposite qualities. Given self-care promotes thriving, neglecting it may lead one to the opposite of care; disregard, neglect, oversight, omission and thoughtlessness or the opposite of thriving; withering.  With the understanding we are bioplastic and therefore grow stronger at whatever we practice the most, it is prudent to acknowledge conditionality. In some circles, it has been suggested that the increasing emphasis on self-care and well being in the workplace may be one more way of shifting the responsibility for health and well being away from employer accountability for creating supportive environments and away from our struggling sick care-oriented health care system. Certainly, this a perspective to be aware of and something to reflect upon as it pertains to one’s workplace environment. In this monthly feature, self-care has been repeatedly presented from the perspective of an expression of self-compassion.

The present invitation is to engage in contemplative practice with the notion of the “self” we are caring for in our present scope of self-care.  Such exploration relates back to prior articles that introduced the practice of regarding oneself as a continually changing happening as a way to encourage mindfulness of the series of present moments that weave the fabric of each day’s experiences. Contemplative neuroscience would suggest such conscious experience is responsible for our sense of selfhood.  Contemplative practices are self- oriented in that they provide practical means to promote human thriving and flourishing by training attention in the domains of self-regulation, self-inquiry and self-awareness. So, this month let’s direct our self-care practice to exploration of who are you?

For many of us, our notion of selfhood tends to be enabled by our embodiment and all of the sensory machinery that comes with the package.  Having continual somatic and visceral inputs to our nervous systems provides the primary reinforcement of our sense of I, me, mine selfhood. I am walking, those are my feet, wearing my favorite shoes. Contemplative neuroscience studies the nervous system mechanisms that are active when we engage in reflection, while contemplative practices map out an experiential path of inquiry into the nature of the self.  So, as you reflect upon the question “Who am I?”, does your sense of self extend beyond your body?

As you reflect, it may be useful to take yourself through a process that allows you to arrive at a sense of selfhood by sorting out who you are not. When the activity is complete, rest assured you can reintegrate all you have sorted out.  Begin by standing in a posture that embodies dignity. Take a moment to experience the feeling of the posture and its influence upon your breath. Spend a few minutes just standing there in an embodied experience of dignity.  Notice if it feels familiar or unfamiliar. Next, imagine you are standing before a shelf on which you will now set all object forms of your societal identification- driver’s license, voter registration, passport, etc.  Put all of it on the shelf, then repeat who am I?  Next, imagine you place all subject ways you identify yourself up there too; child, parent, partner or spouse, sibling, health professional, athlete, artist, writer, even down to your gender identity. Put all of it on the shelf, then repeat who am I?  Now add your five senses and the sixth, your mind as the meaning maker of your sensory experiences. Lastly, appreciating the body as the impermanent material form that it is, tenderly place your body with everything else on the self.  There remains a faculty of awareness or consciousness unconnected to the senses, mental machinations and form just placed upon the shelf. Again, inquire who am I?  I would not presume to offer an answer to this question other than to pass on the typical phrase from this yoga-based practice that invites a next level of reflection and contemplation, which is I am the one who knows or I am that (not subject to name or form).

This type of practice invites a consideration of extending self-care beyond supporting our body-mind tissue-based systems to other powerful, yet presently immeasurable, domains of healing that support our vitality, our life force. Whatever those domains are for you also, the point of this month’s writing is to call for the necessity of (its /that) inclusion in your self-care.  An experience with that nature or essence of the self is likely to be the source of compassion and motivation to take whatever time is necessary for right action in your self-care.