Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’

doesn’t make any sense.

– Rumi


By Heidi Weiss, NTP, MPH

I’ve never liked the term self-care. Its existence implies that there’s something other than caring for oneself that we ought to be (and are) doing most of the time. And so, the theory goes, we need periodic reminders to care for ourselves before we deplete our energy stores –  to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we attend to others. Nevertheless, I understand and agree with the sentiment behind the contemporary self-care movement in one respect: it speaks to an inner knowing of our inherent worth as sacred beings and the need to nurture ourselves so that we can show up for others.


However, I believe that this concept of “self-care” is outdated and mis-directed, because it suggests a false dichotomy between caring for oneself vs. caring for others, caring for our work  vs. caring for our bodies, and caring for ourselves vs. the rest of the world. Here’s the thing: care is not a zero sum game. Self-care and other-care are interwoven: there is no way to care for others if we are not caring for ourselves, and we are not truly caring for ourselves if we are not also caring for others and the Earth, as we are all connected. And, maybe more radically, when we work, we can also be caring for ourselves – if we do so with awareness. We’ll dive deeper into what that looks like a bit later. 


How did the idea of self-care come about in the first place?


Human beings are so wired for connection and for helping others, and for “gettiing ahead,” that we easily become out of balance in the direction of the external world. We live in a fast-track, perfection-driven, hustle till you hurt society. We drown ourselves in work, then numb out with substances or behaviors to recoup our losses (or to cope with the disconnection and stress that shutting off our awareness generates). Conditioned for criticism and comparison, our minds are constantly ready to divide and conquer. 

Therefore, the very concept of focusing on ourselves with anything other than a critical eye (i.e. attending to well-being) has become alien to many. Those who see the dangers of this imbalance and the necessity of that which has been undersold (namely, rest) –  have created a self-care movement. In other words, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of work and profit (and survival, for many), that we are witnessing its inevitable return. But rather than accept this binary world of self care vs. self-profit, there is a third camp that is (re)emerging, a voice that indigeinous peoples knew long before this modern re-discovery. There has always been another option, a middle way. 


So what does this actually look like?


  • Being present in our bodies, and consistently allowing them the rest, nutrition, and movement they need to function optimally (*not just the bare minimum)
  • Feeling and expressing our emotions, and accepting that things may not always (or EVER) be picture-perfect 
  • Caring for our space to make sure the accessories of living don’t overwhelm our purpose
  • Working toward creative goals and dreams while maintaining an awareness of the limits of our body and mind
  • Connecting with others, since we are social animals who need love and support 


It is because we have become so disconnected from our foundational requirements for emotional, physical, and spiritual health that we have needed to devote (invent) a separate time and space for it called “self-care.” But in reality, there is no other choice but to care for ourselves. The opposite of self-care is not caring for others. It’s checking out, disconnecting – and it is often done even in the name of recreation, and dare I say, self-care.


Wellness practices are not about a choice between caring for ourselves vs. caring for others. When we care for ourselves deeply, imagine what happens to our capacity to care for others. When we can see our own suffering and address it with compassion, we can also soften to others and meet their needs. It enhances our care for others when we care for ourselves. This care also isn’t laziness and self-indulgence. In fact, it more often requires the opposite: caring for oneself means consistently showing up – all the way – which is self-discipline in action. And it also entails an awareness of the community: when we care for ourselves, we optimize our systems to care for everyone in our path. We notice what they are needing, and little ways that we can support them, too. 


And what do we call this other way?


I’m still looking for an apt name for this way of being, of caring for self and others and the environment all at once. The closest I have come is the Buddhist concept of present moment awareness. (Or, I like to combine the ideas of physical care with present moment awareness and call it “awareness care.”) The Taoist principle of “The Way” offers another name that elevates living in harmony with the Earth and each other as essential.  It is less focused on caring for the self, and more about being aware of all that is around us, and our relationship to it. How we all affect each other, how our thoughts impact us, and how we can all tread a little lighter on the planet. We might therefore call it the way of harmony, or a way of connection.


And where does that leave us with the practices that we previously thought of as “self-care?”

Let’s be real: if “hustle till it hurts” is where you live, and you are recognizing a deep wound of disconnection, an hour of “self-care” a month (or even a week) is likely not going to solve the problem. But what it will do is help you access what an experience of deep care feels like, so that you can recognize and start to replicate that feeling, wherever it emerges in your life (while laughing with a friend, in a moment where the beauty of a sunset catches you by surprise, or yes, in a massage or movement class). While one session can sometimes create profound enough healing that it does change lives, often a consistent practice of this “awareness care” is required to learn a new way. How we treat ourselves is a mark of how we also approach others, and the world. Our relationship with ourselves is the foundation on which all of our other relationships are modeled.


 Some of our other articles detail how the rituals and practices that we name “self-care” can shepherd us to more skillful present moment awareness in the midst of our lives. For the modern human, raised in our no-pain-no-gain society, it takes some change of pace and even environment to shift patterns, and to find our way back to center. Taking time for this is more than self-care – it is a reminder of the infinite nature of our spirit, and offers us the  S P A C E  in which to hear it, with practice and intention. 


Think of it as un-schooling for your monkey-mind: like learning any new skill, consistent practice at this different way of being is what eventually creates critical momentum for change. 


If you know that you are out of balance, we hope you’ll find your way to a support network and consistent, regular touch-points of caring awareness for your body, mind, and spirit to help you learn this language of awareness care. We would love to be a part of it, and we have incredible practitioners and offerings that you can take advantage of in Portland, Oregon (and a couple of remote options also for online Pilates and distance Reiki!)  HERE.