I can’t believe it’s the end! Thank you to everyone who’s followed (and continuing to visit) this series. Be sure to sign up for my mailing list if you want to stay updated. I plan to offer a Rule of Life workshop soon.
Practicing good, consistent self-care requires knowing your needs and developing a plan to which you can hold yourself accountable. For me, that has come in the form of a rule of life – “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast). Developed by monastic communities as a way of shaping communal life, many people use a personal rule of life to nurture their spiritual development.
But we are not just souls. We are body-mind-spirits-in-relationship. Thus, a rule of life is not just about growing in holiness. It is about growing in wholeness.
A personal rule of life should include practices to promote wholeness and vitality in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and relational well-being (mine also includes intellectual and missional). Wellness, of course, is relative. Your idea of wellness needs to be tailored to your unique needs, capabilities, and health concerns.
Spend some time this weekend drafting your own rule of life. Consider the disciplines and practices that you need to engage in to be well. Some practices are daily; others might be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly. Start small. Mine started out with just a few practices but has grown over the years as I’ve learned more about my needs. A rule of life should be aspirational; make it challenging but realistic.
If you want to take it a step further, create a poster of your rule of life and put it someplace that will serve as a reminder to you. I keep mine in my planner as well as on my office and bedroom wall. I revisit it regularly to see how I’m doing, including where I’m doing well and what I need to improve.
At the beginning of this year, I did a mindfulness retreat with the Insight Meditation Society. I love silent retreats. Each time I do them, I leave with deep feelings of peace, clarity, and connection to the world around me. But this retreat was virtual. I spent 5 days in silence while being at home with my spouse, our 12-year-old (who was doing remote schooling), and our dog. Well, mostly in silence. At its start, our retreat facilitators acknowledged that being at home meant that we might need to talk, but that when we did so, we should practice wise, or right, speech.
As Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl Giles describe in their new book, Black & Buddhist, right speech “includes refraining from speech intended to harm oneself and others but also includes cultivating skills of speech that are nurturing, supportive, and inspiring.” Right speech isn’t about being nice. It acknowledges and allows for anger, but it aims at being constructive, not destructive.
The commitment to wise speech during retreat made me slow down, think about what was necessary and helpful to say, and then say no more than necessary. Silence and wise speech together helped me to be more self- and other-aware. It is a powerful practice that I need to do more often.
On this Good Friday (the penultimate day of our series), it seems appropriate to practice silence and, when speaking is necessary, wise speech. This means not talking, and also not emailing, texting, or being on social media. You may not be able to do this for all of the day, but choose a block of time when you can. Tell others around you what you will be doing so that they’ll be prepared and supportive of your practice.
Mindfulness is not just about the mind; it also promotes body awareness. If you have problems with self-care, then you likely have difficulty with body awareness. We arrive at a state of self-care neglect because we have been socialized away from our bodies.
We may live in our heads, focused on the world of thoughts, logic, and performance. This is often the plight of people who are high achievers. We can become masters at ignoring our physiological needs in order to get the work done. Sometimes we even pride ourselves on our ability to go without sleep, food, rest, movement, touch, and sex. We call it discipline, drive, and motivation.
Sometimes we’ve been taught to focus on the needs of other bodies – other people and institutions. We pride ourselves on caring and doing more for others than for ourselves. We call it responsibility, love, even discipleship.
After two breast cancer diagnoses, I am finally learning to pay attention to my body, including its sensations and needs. I am getting better at noticing pain and discomfort when it arises, and then responding to it with care. Body scan practices have helped me develop that skill.
A body scan is a guided mindfulness practice where we systematically pay attention to how each part of our body feels. Usually done lying on a yoga mat (or seated in a comfortable chair), they take 30 to 45 minutes. For years I avoided it because of the time involved. But after a year of practicing it once or twice weekly, I feel its benefit. I am diligent about self-care precisely because I know how much my body needs it.
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. “Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words. Otherwise, I’d never know what running means to me.”
Like Murakami, writing is how I reflect and process my thoughts and experiences. Sometimes I do that for public consumption. But a lot of what I write has come in the form of journaling. Journaling captures some of the never-ending swirl of thoughts that is constantly in my head, giving it form so that I can observe it. That is a practice of mindful self-awareness.
One of my self-care commitments is to journal at least twice weekly. I don’t have a particular process or form. I don’t do bullet-journaling (yet!) or write in response to prompts. I just write what I’m thinking about or going through at the moment. For the past 10 years, I’ve done most of my journaling electronically because it helps me keep the practice. As much as I love a beautiful notebook, frequent traveling made me opt for a digital format that I’d always have available. And I love being able to add photos to my journal.
Spend some time journaling today. You don’t need a fancy notebook. A single sheet of paper or digital document will do. You don’t need to spend a lot of time doing it and you can approach this in any number of ways: reflect on the day, use a journaling prompt, or simply write a list of experiences from this day that you’re grateful for.
The best practice that I have found for getting comfortable with silence and cultivating self-awareness is meditation. I began meditating nearly 20 years ago when I first embarked upon my self-care journey and I honestly don’t know where I would be without the practice.
There are many forms of meditation, but when I speak of it and its benefits, I am specifically referring to mindfulness-oriented practices, which help us to become grounded in and aware of the present moment. There is a large body of research demonstrating its health benefits.
As someone who stays in my head a lot, it is very easy for me to ignore my bodily experiences, including my feelings, sensations, and needs. And as a StrongBlackWoman in recovery, my modus operandi is centering the needs other people and suppressing my own. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in my self-care journey was that I couldn’t name my own needs.
Mindfulness meditation helps me to be grounded in the here-and-now, to notice what I am experiencing both internally and externally, and to do so without judgment. As my practice grows deeper, so does my self-care and my ability for compassionate connection. I began with a daily practice of 5 minutes of breath awareness meditation. My current practice includes 20-60 minutes daily of mindfulness practices, including sitting meditation, body scans, yoga nidra, qi gong, or yin yoga.
In the US, we have a profound discomfort with silence and stillness. Many of us have been conditioned to live with constant sound stimulation. When we are alone, we turn on music or television to “keep us company.” When we are in the same room with others, we feel compelled to fill the space with chatter at all times. This isn’t a dig at extroverts; introverts often fill silence with internal chatter or by distracting ourselves with other activity.
We are so uncomfortable with silence that therapists learn early in our training how to use this to our advantage. We know that if we stop talking, our clients will start. “Don’t rush to fill the silence,” I teach my pastoral care students. “Wait them out.”
Ultimately, we cannot care for ourselves if we cannot be with ourselves without distraction. Silence provides the space necessary for mindful self-awareness – awareness of our internal scripts, our external realities, our emotions, our bodily needs and sensations, our preoccupations and anxieties. Avoiding silence, then, is a way of running from ourselves and our realities.
How often do you spend time in silence? If rarely or never, try it today. Do at least one activity in complete silence, without the noise of television, music, podcasts, and even phones. It might be washing the dishes, preparing dinner, walking, or even eating a meal with your family. During that time, direct your focus toward the task at hand. Notice what you are doing and the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that you experience.
If you go to a bookstore looking for a book on time management, you will probably end up in the business section. That’s because time management has largely been construed as the capacity and skills that we use to increase our productivity and efficiency in work settings. In the West, after all, “time is money,” so time wasted is money lost.
It is a perfect philosophy for a former slaveholding – and now hyper-capitalist – society that reduces people to commodities whose value is dependent upon their economic productivity. It is a philosophy embedded into many of the planners and time management systems that we utilize today.
During my first breast cancer journey, I realized that I needed to think about my time differently. Instead of – or at least in addition to – planning my day to maximize how much work I could do, I needed to plan around my values and priorities. I needed to rethink my relationship with time.
I’m still working on it. My new time-related mantra is: “The only day the body has is today.” I try to remind myself of this when I am tempted to forgo self-care so that I can get more work done. I’ve expanded from digital planners to paper planners that help me to visualize how I’m integrating self-care and other priorities into my day. I use apps like Productive and Insight Timer as accountability tools.
But more important than the tools is the work I do to gain and maintain clarity about my priorities, interests, and values. That has involved lots of self-reflection, journaling, mindfulness practice, and therapy.
Next week, we will conclude this series with a focus on silence and self-awareness. For today, think about what this week has revealed about how your time aligns with your priorities.
At the beginning of the year I read Kendra Adachi’s The Lazy Genius Way (shout-out to Jen Hatmaker’s podcast for introducing me to this book). In it, Adachi mentions automation as a time management strategy. We usually think of automation as involving machines. But we also automate anytime that we decide once how we’re going to do something, and then let that decision set a pattern.
My meditation practice, for example, is largely automated. Thanks to my schedule template and my meditation space, I don’t need to decide when and where I’ll mediate each day. I just have to decide what specific meditation I’ll use (and I have a list for that!).
Automation also helps me to tackle my difficulties with healthy eating. Each Friday, my family plans our dinners for the following Sunday through Thursday. We have a loose template for it: Sunday is the day we cook time-intensive meals. Then it’s pasta, an entrée salad, bowls, and tacos/fajitas during the week. All we have to do every Friday is figure out which variations of those meals we’re doing (and two of them are handled through our weekly HungryRoot box). We write it up on our menu board, do the grocery shopping, and voila! No debates or decisions about what to eat that week.
We can automate self-care in small ways, too: taking time to plan the next day’s schedule or clothing; setting out what we need to make our favorite morning tea the night before; making a weekly appointment with a trainer or therapist, and so on. What can you do to automate part of your self-care? Notice where you’re already automating and celebrate that.
I struggle with evening self-care. Once my workday starts, it moves at a breakneck pace, with little time to breathe. Some days are so filled with meetings, classes, and presentations that I am unable to even start on my to-do list until evening. Consequently, I have often crammed much of my self-care into the morning, fearing that it wouldn’t get done otherwise. But I can’t get all of it done in the morning, leaving some vital evening practices neglected.
Over the past two years, I’ve experimented with an end-of-day wind down routine. It started out simply: try to stop working by 8pm, cease blue light exposure by 9pm, and restrict nighttime reading to fiction.
Gradually, the routine has expanded to take up more of my evening. I stop work by 6pm and try to eat dinner by 7pm. I spend more time talking with my family. I take time to do my post-surgical exercises. I straighten up my workspace and lay out my clothes for the next day. And I end the day reading in bed with a cup of sleep tea with the aromatherapy diffuser on.
It turns out there’s more time for self-care in the evenings than I thought. But it requires me to stop working, to decide that it’s okay for some things to be left undone. The truth is that there will always be something left undone. Increasingly, though, I’m not willing for it to be caring for myself.
Experiment with an evening wind down routine that helps you to decompress from the activity of the day and to do some restorative self-care. Keep it simple. And if you have young children or other caregiving responsibilities, it may help to make this a family effort.
One of the best ways that I have found to practice consistent self-care is by scheduling it. It’s no secret that I am a planner junkie. Even now, my planner sits beside me, open to today. On the inside of the front cover, I have pasted a weekly schedule template, my ideal version of how I will negotiate my time during each workday. I draw up a new one each semester based upon my teaching and meeting schedule for the term. The goal of the template is not to help me get more work done, but rather to help me center two of my priorities in my daily activity: self-care and writing.
Self-care takes time, and I have four daily self-care tasks that require significant chunks of it: meditating, stretching, preparing healthy meals, and exercising. Each of them has a place on my schedule template. It provides a visible reminder that there actually is time in my day for self-care. And when life disrupts the routine (which it does fairly often), I know how my self-care practices will be impacted. An early morning meeting means that I may have to forgo my morning meditation and stretching routine. Can I get it in somewhere else that day?
Sticking to the schedule is a way of setting boundaries around my time and priorities. Allowing myself to deviate from it is a way of being flexible and adaptive to the demands of life. But the schedule provides a point of return. I practice. I deviate. I return to practice.
How might you put self-care on your schedule today? Identify either a one-time or regular practice and make room for it on your schedule. If you keep a planner (paper or electronic), write it in.