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The Self Is Social: How Learning to Take Care of Ourselves Can Help Us Take Better Care of One Another

Like a Meadow

What’s the part without its whole? A single cream-white gardenia’s
still sweet. A lone sprig of lavender lightens the air.
But like a meadow most things are better in their multitudes:
grounded in the green grass, the wildflowers proliferate there,
all interlaced, a single soft bed. And below the honey blossoms
of a bitter orange tree, the people picnic and play. They smile and wave.
They ask if you’d like to join them on such a fine day.

— Matthew Kosinski

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of Lavender + Petals’ recentering energy, we’re considering self-care approaches that encourage us to truly reconnect with ourselves and one another.

In a survey conducted last summer, 80 percent of respondents said they intended to make a concerted effort to practice more self-care following the COVID-19 pandemic.1 It’s easy to see why: In addition to its staggering physical toll, COVID-19 has done profound damage to our minds and our relationships. The extended lockdowns necessary to get the virus under control have also disrupted our routines and strained our communal ties, leaving us alone with an extraordinary sense of prolonged grief.

With vaccines rolling out and case counts falling, there’s reason to feel hope — reason to believe we’ll be able to hug our friends and loved ones soon.2 But mental health experts caution we’ll have some important healing work to do before we can return to that state of normalcy we all long for.3

What will that healing work look like? Self-care can take many forms, but our particular historical moment calls for a kind of self-care that expands beyond the self, one that tends to the community as much as it tends to the individual. That’s because COVID-19 isn’t simply a personal problem, but a public health crisis, with an emphasis on “public.” The pandemic exacerbated income inequality; disproportionately threatened the lives and livelihoods of historically marginalized and disenfranchised members of our communities; and occasioned further political polarization in America.4

What we have now is a chance to not just get back to business as usual, but to make the world better than it was before. As the healing work gets under way, we have to ask ourselves: How do we engage in a kind of self-care that serves both the self and others? How do we tend to the well-being of ourselves, our communities, and perhaps even our country?

The Simple Things

When you think of “self-care,” you probably think of treating yourself well: a long soak in a warm bath, surrounded by lit candles; a luxurious skincare routine; splurging on a nicer-than-average bottle of wine. Modern self-care, for many of us, is a matter of buying something that makes us feel good.

And there’s nothing wrong with that: Certain objects truly make us happy. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology.5 When we want to take care of ourselves, we reach for things that make our physical environment more comfortable, more pleasant, and more conducive to a caring state of mind.

But problems can arise when we treat commodities as the be-all, end-all of self-care. As Jessmina Archbold, a psychotherapist and wellness coach who goes by the moniker “Minaa B,” tells First Round Review: “Of course [we are entitled to buy ourselves things we like], but if we frame it as though self-care practices start and stop with spending money on material things, we're getting it all wrong.”6

In truth, meaningful self-care can be as complex or stripped down as we want it to be. It can involve elaborate rituals and an array of items, or it can be as simple as taking time to listen to and reconnect with your body. As music therapist and business consultant Holly Howard puts it: “Wellness is free. It’s water, and it’s walking, and it’s rest.”7 [Editor’s Note: We at Keap have been working with Holly for the last two years.]

In fact, one form of self-care that became particularly popular during the pandemic is one of the simplest of all: spending time outside. Visits to national parks increased during 2020, and not just because everywhere else was closed.8 Heading into the great outdoors makes us feel better, with studies showing it reduces anxiety, improves sleep, and even strengthens the cardiovascular system. There’s a partly scientific explanation for it — we get more oxygen into our bodies when we’re outside, and the natural oils produced by plants actually reduce physiological symptoms of stress.9

“Spending time in nature helps us situate ourselves in the broader community of the world, reminding us that we’re not alone, that we’re part of something bigger.”

But there’s a social component, too. Reconnecting with the planet on which we live and moving intentionally through it offers the perfect antidote to the atomism and isolation of the pandemic. Humans are inherently social beings.10 Spending time in nature helps us situate ourselves in the broader community of the world, reminding us that we’re not alone, that we’re part of something bigger.

No matter the form it takes, the most meaningful self-care helps us meet our own needs while connecting us to others. The ultimate point of self-care is to spark transformation in the self so that we can transform the world. To quote Howard again: “No system is going to change us. No policy is going to change us. Change only comes from within, and then the policies that get made from that place, and the systems that get made from that place, will actually have a really good impact.”11

Community Care Is Self-Care

This notion — that self-care starts internally but moves outward — harkens back to the origin of the term “self-care,” rooted in the women’s and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Activists saw that poverty and oppression led to poor physical and mental health outcomes, and they understood good health as not only a human right, but also a necessary prerequisite to challenging an unjust status quo. It’s hard to fight the system when you’re not feeling well.12

That legacy of community-oriented self-care persists to this day, in the form of organizations like The Audre Lorde Project, a community-organizing center named after poet and activist Audre Lorde. The Project’s toolkit for self-care, for example, is designed to help people create coherent self-care plans for themselves and their communities. As the Project writes, “In moments of grief, crisis, or trauma, and in the time before and after, we need each other to survive and thrive.”

“It’s hard to fight the system when you’re not feeling well.”

Audre Lorde viewed self-care not as indulgent, but rather a necessary (and political) act of self-preservation in the face of many systemic challenges.Source:

A similar model of community-oriented self-care is evident in the work of initiatives like Braver Angels, a nonprofit that aims to end political polarization in America through its Red/Blue Workshops. These workshops bring people from both ends of the political spectrum together to listen to and learn from one another, so that they might find common ground and come to see each other as neighbors rather than enemies. As we wrote about in our February 2021 Ignite article, a functioning democratic society requires a strong social fabric. Groups like Braver Angels hope to restore that fabric following years of distrust and discord — a form of deep, collaborative self-care we could all benefit from.

Mind, Body, World

For all its radical potential to transform the world for the better, self-care can also be co-opted by less scrupulous actors to reinforce dependency as opposed to deepen our self sufficiency. Perhaps no form of self-care captures this tension better than the modern world of mindfulness.

“[Mindfulness] asks us to focus our attention on the moment, to be fully present in ourselves and our lives in a world jam-packed with distraction.”

In its authentic form, mindfulness is a simple but powerful meditational act. It asks us to focus our attention on the moment, to be fully present in ourselves and our lives in a world jam-packed with distraction. But many modern purveyors of mindfulness preach what Buddhist teachers Ron Purser and David Loy call “McMindfulness,” a version of meditation that makes self-care into an individualized consumer experience. McMindfulness can strip mindfulness practice of its social component, encouraging a kind of meditation that isolates us rather than reconnecting us with the world.13

As Purser and Loy explain, authentic Buddhist mindfulness distinguishes between right mindfulness (samma sati) and wrong mindfulness (miccha sati). Right mindfulness asks us to use our meditation time to cultivate wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities that help us, and the entire world, flourish. It encourages us to move beyond ourselves, to reflect on how our lives are interconnected with the lives of others.14

We can see how mindfulness can be a path to both personal and social transformation by looking to the fascinating recent work of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and therapist Resmaa Menakem. Looking at the evolutionary connections between the body and the brain, their work demonstrates that taking care of one’s own mental and physical well-being is a necessary step towards healthy cultural change.

In the bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk explores how our bodies chronicle our traumas — those experiences so intensely distressing and distressingly intense that we have trouble fully processing them15 — physically. Trauma reshapes our neurological structures, resulting in what van der Kolk calls a “fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions.”16

Meditation and mindfulness have proven to be highly successful in recalibrating the brain's relationship to the body, and thus to the larger world outside perceived through the senses. Van der Kolk writes, “The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.”17 In particular, he recommends yoga, dancing, breathing exercises, and expressive artistic practice as simple ways of getting back in touch with our bodies.18

Resmaa Menakem teaches ways we can nurture resilience and attain a deeper peace by responding to the collective traumas of our past through the body; Source: Resmaa Menakem

Social and cultural traumas can also burrow deep into our collective beings. Therapist and author Resmaa Menakem has written extensively how efforts to overcome historic cultures of domination, such as recent U.S. anti-racism efforts, may struggle to achieve their goals in part because we focus on speaking to the intellect when we should focus on healing our body/mind connection.19 Menakem posits that past cultural traumas are deeply encoded within us. In high-stress situations, the body reacts instinctively and the mind simply follows. By consciously reconnecting our body and mind, we can learn to move through moments of intense feelings in personally and collectively healthy ways.20

As Menakem and van der Kolk both suggest, mindfulness practices offer a powerful tool for mending our internal relationships. In turn, we can then focus on building healthy, resilient relationships and cultures outside of ourselves.

A TED talk that involves a five-minute breathing exercise has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Could learning to ground ourselves in our bodies really change our lives?; Source: TEDx Talks

‘All We Need to Live a Good Life’

Healing ourselves and the world may seem like a tall order. How do we create holistic self-care practices that center our selves without falling into solipsism? How do we weave together the disparate threads of self-care — from candles to community action, mindfulness meditation to taking rest — to tend to both our own needs and the needs of others?

While the questions are great, the opportunity also couldn’t be greater. Thankfully, mother nature has had a long time to proffer some wisdom.

“Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds, and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.”

Perhaps we should look to the principles of modern permaculture, a set of ecological and agricultural methods and ethics based on Earth’s natural ecosystems. As Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, states: “Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds, and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.”

Like permaculture, self-care is ultimately about harmony — harmony with ourselves and with the world in which we live. And self-care, like permaculture, starts with the basics, the recognition that we already have many of the things we need to live a good life. When we use those things wisely, and share them with one another, self-care becomes a way of living. The healing comes (almost) naturally.

— The Keap Team

'Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence.' — an OnBeing podcast episode with Resmaa Menakem exploring race, the body and healing. Source: OnBeing

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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