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Mindfulness-Based Self-Care

Thich Nhat Hanh advocates doing everything mindfully.

Infuse Mindfulness in Every Self-Care Activity

It can be a challenge to spend considerable time engaged in self-care—in what we truly need—when we would rather be working or playing or chasing what we want. Unless we use self-care activities to practice mindfulness and loving kindness toward ourselves, these activities can contribute to a host of unhealthy emotional states: anger, frustration, isolation, sadness, loss of meaning and purpose, lack of joy, guilt, and shame. In addition to needing to spend more time engaged in self-care activities, many people living with chronic health challenges have to postpone or cancel activities quite regularly and without warning because of fatigue, pain, malaise, flare-ups of various disabilities, or emergency medical appointments. Learning how to infuse all of these situations with mindfulness-based self-care—to give ourselves what we need instead of fixing on what we want—can serve as an antidote to the common feeling that life is passing us by.

Exercise—Don’t Believe Everything You Think

It is vital to know when you are genuinely too tired or in too much pain to exercise—needing to rest instead—and when those are just thoughts you can observe with curiosity and even amusement, reflections of what you want or prefer. I get practice discerning the difference when I’m on the elliptical cross-trainer early in the morning. I often become aware that I want to get off because I’m not enjoying myself and I feel too tired. My mind creates logical, convincing reasons why I could skip exercise this morning. Mindfulness allows me to enjoy the parade of thoughts that are telling me it would be okay to get off the machine and go have something to eat instead.

Because I can recognize these thoughts for what they are—nothing but transient mental events—I’m able to let them go while I take loving self-care by staying on the machine for the full forty minutes I set aside for daily aerobic exercise. Listening to lively music with a beat helps immensely. Following my forty minutes on the machine, I do thirty minutes of stretching and strengthening of my core muscles. At the end of the exercise period, not only have I done my body an immense favor, I also have reinforced a sense of mastery & wellbeing. When I live by my values, and in this case I value the health benefits of exercise, it is very clear that I am the master of my life. This is very empowering and creates the states of mind that are most likely to enhance health.

If I instead give in to my insubstantial thoughts, stop exercising, and hurry to the breakfast table, I know from experience that I’ll be letting myself down in terms of self-care. Not only that, but instead of seeing myself as the master of my life, I’m more likely to see myself as an unfortunate victim of circumstances.

Walking and Self-Care

While we may first think of food, rest, and medical treatments as the mainstays of mindfulness-based self-care, the simple act of walking with great attention can also be an important mindfulness-based self-care practice. This is something else I have discovered for myself.

I have very severe osteoporosis (T-score of -4.6). Not long ago I was told that the treatments for this condition were no longer working and I immediately had visions of falling and breaking a hip. But because by then I’d had lots of practice in mindfulness-based self-care, I asked myself what I could do to care for myself in light of this new information. I realized that I didn’t have to passively await an “inevitable” hip fracture. I became empowered to practice mindful walking throughout the day to avoid a fall. I could have gotten angry about needing to be so careful; instead, I have used the severe osteoporosis (and arthritis) as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. This is another way for me to live as the master of my life. I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter how many health challenges we live with—as long as we practice making conscious choices regarding how to care for ourselves throughout the day, we can enjoy a rich life.

Walking mindfully has other profound benefits. For example, with aging, it is all too easy to get sloppy with posture, which exacerbates spinal degeneration and results in shallower breathing. This negatively impacts the functioning of various organs in the abdominal cavity as well as the brain. Walking mindfully and erect while breathing diaphragmatically is also associated with a greater sense of presence and connection with the environment. With practice, walking mindfully can become a habit and an act of loving self-care.

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