Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

Quit Complaining

In his victory speech Joe Biden said, “put away the harsh rhetoric, and lower the temperature.” He’s right. Let’s be done with grievance and aggravation.  Constant complaining cramps the soul and sickens society. 

My grandfather put this crudely. He’d often say, “quit your bitchin’.” A poet would say, “Let us not be aggrieved.”

The grievance machine runs on bile.  President Trump is complainer-in-chief.  He has griped and grumbled for years: from American carnage to a rigged election.  Conservative commentators copy his kvetching and complain about the “frauds and liars” in the liberal establishment. 

Of course liberals love lambasting Trump. They also lament his popularity.  After the election a headline in Politico said, “Democrats look at Trump voters and wonder, ‘What the hell is your problem?’”

All of this complaining causes heartburn.  Grievance produces grief.  Anger begets animosity.  And a small mind gets focused on small things.

There is a time and place for righteous indignation—but it is a narrow place and a limited time.  Genuine injustice ought to enrage us.  But rage can burn a hole in your heart if it is not transformed into creative activity.

Common sense teaches this.  Complaining about being hungry does not fill your stomach.  Whining about the wind won’t stop it from blowing.  But griping and groaning will certainly make you more miserable. 

Ancient wisdom traditions tell us to bear hardship without complaint.  They emphasize resilience and teach us to give up grousing.  The Stoics recommend taking things as they come without wishing them to be otherwise.  The Taoists teach us to stop fussing and fuming by learning to flow with the changes .

The wisdom of patient endurance and going with the flow is obvious.  But quiet retreat is not the whole answer.  The further lesson is to get to work.  We ought to transform resentment into resourceful action.  If the wind is blowing, close the window.  If you are hungry, cook something. 

Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”  We might add, “if you don’t like what’s happening, then either fix it or shut up.” 

Partisanship feeds on outrage.  The headlines called this the most important election of our lifetime.  The Republicans claimed it was a fight against socialism, anarchist violence, and leftist totalitarianism.  The Democrats claim.ed it was a fight against fascism, authoritarianism, and malicious incompetence. 

This created historically high voter turnout.  But a third of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  While the partisans are screaming, a third of Americans opted out.  Maybe the screaming has turned them off. Some non-voters are ignorant and lazy.  But some are sickened by the vitriol of the public sphere.

Grievance is a sales technique.  It keeps us glued to our screens.  Clever partisans fan the flames of grievance and complaint. But this divides us and closes people’s minds.

Our complainer-in-chief is a master of the dark art of aggravation.  His vain boasts and vile complaints are mostly hot air.  But his followers love it.  His opponents love to hate it.  And the viewing public keeps tuning in. 

The Trump era is like spicy food.  It’s exciting.  But it disrupts the digestion.  Some people get addicted to the cycle of heat and misery.  Others can’t stand the smell it leaves behind.

It’s wise to stop binging on spicy stuff. Most people intuitively understand this.  It is difficult to live life permanently aggrieved. Active people have little time for grievance.  We have work to do, families to care for, and activities to enjoy. 

Of course, there is irony in complaining about complaining.  At some point, we just need to stop it.

The world’s traditions teach us how to lower the temperature. Instead of grumbling, be grateful.  Instead of complaining, have deep conversations.  And instead of pulling your hair out, put your hands to work.

Fire Wisdom

Smokey Sunset

The Sierra Nevada is blazing.  Smoke chokes our lungs here in the shadow of these burning mountains.  Yesterday we learned that a friend’s house burned down, another victim of the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake.

What wisdom can we learn from fire and smoke?  Fire is a terrifying force of nature.  It is also a metaphor. Pandemics burn.  Violence flares up in the streets.  Some warn that the bridges of democracy are being torched.  Each day brings a new conflagration. 

The ancients saw fire as a primal force.  Fire cults gave birth to religion. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Ancient worship included burnt offerings and smoking incense.

The Greek sage Heraclitus gave voice to a fire philosophy.  He said the cosmos is an “ever-living fire.”  Everything changes.  The eternal fire burns all things.  This fiery wisdom reveals the cold, dark truth of mortality. 

The Greek word for fire (πῦρ or pyr) is the root of our word “pyre.”  The funeral pyre purges and purifies, returning ashes to ashes.  Fire transforms mortal flesh into smoke and wind.

Fire destroys. But it also gives birth. Fire is essential to the forest’s life.  It clears the undergrowth and fertilizes the soil.  The seeds of the mighty sequoia only germinate after a fire.  The bark of the sequoia bears the marks of prehistoric flames.

Climate change accelerates this cycle.  The ponderosa pines have been destroyed by the tiny bark beetle.  Drought and death have reduced these forests to kindling.  The hot winds of a feverish climate fan the flames.

Wind is another metaphor and element. Wind is breath. But wind is duplicitous. It can blow flames out or encourage their growth. The same is true of breath. Breath is life and laughter. But breath gives voice to angry words and hateful curses.

Wisdom teaches us to control the breath and to inhale clear air from above the fuming haze. Watching your breath teaches patience and tenacity. Someday the winds will change.

Someday these ashes will give birth to new growth. Fire wisdom takes the long view.  The life cycle of a sequoia is measured in centuries.  Forests span millennia. 

The big picture offers some consolation.  But what about today?  Wisdom teaches us to tend the fires that nourish us.  Fire can be a friend.  As darkness falls and the cold settles in, a campfire reassures. The hearth provides a place to gather and dwell.  There is comfort in keeping the home fires burning. 

But an errant spark can burn down the house. Fire is dangerous when it blazes out of control.  That is why we protect our fires from the wind. Fire explodes when the wind blows uncontrolled.  This is also a metaphor.

The Buddha said everything is burning.  The senses are on fire, he said, as is the mind.  Suffering arises when the flames of the spirit are fanned by ragged hyperventilating and breathless passion.  Negative emotions burn the soul and fuel terrible explosions.

Anger and resentment grow along with violence and fear.  These flames are scorching our social world today. We need to moderate our breathing and keep the sparks of hate away from the powder kegs.

These Sierra fires are flashing a warning.  We have grown too fast.  We live too furiously.  We burn too brightly.  Our breathing is shallow and feverish. Life is out of balance.  The world is on fire. 

The solution is containment and prevention.  A forest fire cannot be quenched.  It can only be contained.  The same is true of pandemics and of violence.  Control the burn.  Keep kindling and flame safely apart. Breathe from the belly.

This is a simple lesson taught by ancient sages.  Control the negative emotions that incinerate the spirit.  Watch your breath. Conserve your fuel.  And tend your hearth.

We should also discover the cooling balm of compassion.  This fiery world contains too much mourning.  Let’s comfort the grieving. And hold fast to patient hope.  The winds will shift. The rains will come.  The smoke will clear.  And someday these ashes will give birth. 

Wisdom and Courage, Hygiene and Hope

Fresno Bee, August 16, 2020

This is a frustrating fall.

The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.

We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.

It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.

Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.

But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.

The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.

Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.

Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.

Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.

Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.

Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.

Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.

A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.

These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.

Simplicity

Simplicity

Wisdom for tumultuous times

I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, Simplicity. It is available at Amazon.com in ebook (Kindle) or paperback (either with color photos or in black and white).

This is the first volume of a planned trilogy called The Three Mountains: Simplicity, Compassion, and Hope.

The book includes insights from the world’s wisdom traditions, along with photographs from my wandering in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, and the Andes.

“Things change. They always have. They always will. One day we are born. We build, create, and dream. And then one day we die. For a short while, we are privileged to explore existence with grace, kindness, and fearless acceptance.”  
Excerpt from Simplicity

Available in Three Formats

Kindle Ebook

Color Paperback

Black and White