“I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for months, and it’s sapping my energy. I’m ready to be done with it!”
Our bodies are of the nature to become ill and injured, at times. Everyone’s been there, but some of us certainly go there a lot more than others. We all say we want to be healthy, yet we may struggle with staying healthy. Many factors go into this- our environment, our socio-economic status, our access to nutritious food and medical care. Ultimately, the daily choices we are able to make- and we all have choices to make- can sway our health. Are you making choices that lead to health and healing?
Temple or Trashcan?
When you get right down to it, self-care is a spiritual enterprise. It is the attitude of reverence and respect for our bodies and minds that allows us to prioritize caring for ourselves- the same kind of reverence and respect for the body that various religious traditions speak of when describing the blessing of being born human. When you recognize the great responsibility that has been given to us by our ancestors, Great Spirit, the Earth- or however else you identify your reason for being- it becomes clear that great care must be given to your body. When you consider how dependent you are on your body to get around and do all the things you do every day, it becomes even more clear that great care must be given to your body.
Green Juice in the Making
When we are making choices throughout the day, we all need to ask ourselves, “Is this the choice for a Temple, or a Trashcan?” For example, am I putting whole, nutritious foods (temple) or processed, high-sugar foods (trashcan) into my body? Am I training my muscles to become more flexible and strong (temple) or ignoring them (trashcan?) Do I allow my body regular deep rest (temple) or do I run myself into the ground (trashcan?) Am I putting toxins like alcohol (trashcan) or nutritiously-dense green juice (temple) into my body? This 1977 quote from Swami Muktananda frames our options pretty well:
“If God made heaven, he also made hell. Remember both. Don’t go by what God has created but by what is good for you. Who created poison if not the same God who also made honey? What shall we eat, poison or honey?”
In my words: our experience is a mirror of our consciousness- it all comes from the same Source, but what are we choosing to cultivate? Heaven, or hell? This is the same question as temple, or trashcan? Awareness of the quality of your choices is the first step towards lifting up your overall quality of choices. The second step is interpreting the drives underneath your choices. Most of us have some drives for treating our body like a trashcan rather than a temple, though the further along in your self-care practice you become, the less and less desirable the trashcan-choices will become and the more and more desirable the temple-choices will become. When you deeply believe you are a manifestation of the Divine, you treat yourself that way. Our choices are a reflection of our mental and spiritual state. If you are recognizing repeated, unhealthy choices, it’s time to acknowledge that you are suffering with sickness at the level of the heart. Your malady may be self-hatred, from internalized misogyny or homophobia or racism. It may be addiction to food or sugar or alcohol or another substance / behavior that you use to soothe anxiety or depression. We have access to nearly unlimited ways to briefly escape our suffering.
Does any of this sound on target? You may think, “I don’t hate myself! I have good self-esteem.” However, you don’t need to love yourself to have self-esteem. Maybe you know you’re a good realtor and parent, and you have self-esteem around those traits. You can still have underlying, unprocessed shame that is calling the shots when it comes to making choices about your health. If you are making unhealthy choices and treating your body like a trashcan, you’ve got work to do. The work may be deep and uncomfortable, but I’m going to posit that your growth and health are worth the work. Don’t despair- there are many ways to get started with this work. Personal therapy, prayer and meditation, group therapy, 12-step programs, and seeking support from elders in your spiritual community are all great choices.
I begin this exploration looking at daily choices because it is the years of positive choices that build up our health or the years of negative choices that break down our health. The sooner you start putting clean and nutritious fuel into your body and training your muscles for strength and flexibility, the sooner you will see that you are less likely to become ill or injured. We can prevent illness or injury just as well as we can respond to it when it happens.
The Ill Body’s Message
First- as described above- illness and injury are potential alarms that the way you have been treating your body may not be the most gentle, caring, and supportive. Second, illness and injury are telling you exactly how to heal: you are naturally less able to do as much when you are sick as when you are healthy. Your body is telling you to slow down and take it easy. Our culture rewards working through illness- we even have over-the-counter drugs meant to clear up congestion and keep us awake! This has always seemed wrong to me, as congestion is part of our body’s process of defending against pathogens and our need for greater sleep is meant to conserve energy for healing.
We don’t all have sick days at work or the savings to afford the luxury to rest when we are ill or injured- this is one part of how socio-economic status can prevent us from making the decisions that will lead to our greatest health- but if you can, your body is telling you to take it as easy as possible. Some illnesses require several days in bed or not leaving the house. Give your body what it needs. I know many people can’t be still, can’t allow themselves time away from work for healing. Sometimes these people think that their work is irreplaceable or that they are just that committed to their work. I’d like to propose that the real challenge is that most of these people simply are uncomfortable sitting still, maybe to the point of being afraid of what they might see in themselves if they simply stop and spend time alone.
Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh
Very little in the world is so important that it can’t wait a few days. Let the work sit- undone or delegated- while you are healing. If you are afraid of appearing weak or somehow incapable at work, I will propose that not tending to your needs now will just make even more incapacitating illness occur down the line. Just like in so many areas of life, there aren’t shortcuts. We need to go through the experience of being sick. If you don’t allow yourself thorough healing- if you don’t stand next to your body and her need to heal- how can you expect your body to stand by you, for the long haul? This is my favorite recording of a laying-down, body-scan style meditation practice from the Plum Village tradition called “deep relaxation.” It’s 45 minutes long, so listen when you are truly laying down to do some deep relaxing!
The beauty, radiance, and resilience we wish from our bodies all come from our careful cultivation of these qualities through our own loving choices.
Invite the Care of Healers
Aside from the baseline self-care of good nutrition and exercise and the special effort to get rest when you have fallen ill or injured, it is always good to identify a team of healers in your life. Medicine women and men are all around us! These may be friends who can give you consultations when you have health concerns, or professionals you only ever see when you have a formal appointment. Healers come in many stripes: massage therapists, doctors, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, herbalists, Reiki practitioners, chiropractors, and so many others. Who has come into your life? Your friend-circle is a great place to start; you can ask informational questions to learn about a friend or friend-of-friend’s practice, to see if you’d like to try his or her work. I recommend getting familiar with the types of healing available in your life at any point- whether you are feeling healthy or ill. Make appointments to meet with those whom you feel drawn to work. Money invested in learning about health and healing is wisely invested. Just like seeing a financial advisor, seeing a health-practitioner can help put your mind at ease about having the tools necessary to make the best decisions for yourself, should you ever be ill or in an actual health crisis.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
What have you learned about self-care from illness or injury? Please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!