by Mireille Bourgeois
Years ago, I had disordered eating (also known as an eating disorder). It took me a long time to get over it, and for me a combination of self-evaluation, therapy, and social work helped. I was reading into Buddhism back then and related to its primary philosophy that “suffering is living”.
The concept in brief, is that we have a life, and within that life we must experience suffering and joy, it is the balance of life and death, to suffer is to live. Of course in our darkest moments (I’ve had a few) it’s hard to rise above our suffering and appreciate this moment we are feeling with such extreme and powerful emotions. But that’s no reason not to try. Suffering is our mind’s way of positioning ourselves against our beliefs. We think life should be one way, and when a so-called injustice happens “to us”, our mind goes into overdrive trying to figure out the proverbial “why”. I want to be clear here that I’ve suffered from depression before but I am not a depressed person. I’m not speaking about just “rising above” the depression, which I know is nearly impossible for individuals who need attentive care and additional support from either medication or support groups, I’m speaking about a mindset on life, that which compliments a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Buddhism doesn’t tell us to ignore suffering as a painful thing, but acknowledges that pain is one of the feelings we must feel to be alive. We don’t question joyous moments as much as we question the painful ones. But maybe we should. I think that’s what being “mindful” is. Just think on how many times you have thought “I just need a good cry.”. Sometimes, feeling pain is necessary.
When I was in recovery I started working as a peer counsellor with women who also had disordered eating. In some ways, it made me feel all the horrible moments I’d experienced all over again, but in another way it helped me re-position my feelings towards what had caused me so much suffering to begin with. It was as hard as it was cathartic.
At work, since most of the employees had at one point suffered from mental illness or an eating disorder, they instilled the very life changing “Self Care Day”. This was a paid day of work where we were asked not to come into work, or to spend the day doing stressful things, but a day where we were asked to do something good for ourselves.
This practice has completely changed my life, and even though I barely notice when I’m doing it now (I barely have time NOT to stress at my current job), it just kicks in when I need it. Self care doesn’t NEED a whole day. It’s self-care to take a deep breath when someone is pissing me off ( 😉 ) or when something really stressful happens at work, and I rise above the stress to look at the situation, assess it’s grander, and then come back down to the moment and am better able to deal with it. Better yet, I sometimes realize there’s no point in stressing about something that I can change so easily, or alternatively that I really can’t do anything about. It’s self care when I’m in the middle of an obsessive cooking day (6hours at a time on my feet is NOT always as relaxing as I think it is), and decide to take a 5 minute rest on my couch, look out the window, and reassess why I’m keeping myself so busy anyways.
What I learned when I was helping these women take care of themselves, was that when I’m at my darkest, my most stressed, I need to give myself to someone or something else. My friends would get so mad at me when I kept so busy with tons of volunteer work “you’re doing it to yourself”, but I’m just not the “do nothing” kind of person. I need to connect to something to relieve myself of stress. A type of offering to the “gods” if you will. A do nothing day for me sinks me into depression, whereas for someone else it’s a dream. Cooking has helped me with this at times where I get to spend a day alone in my mind but still occupied and meditating on what’s happening with me. Gardening is the more tangible transcription of this notion. I give hard work, suffering to the ground (and some enjoyment of course), and it comes back to me by growing food or beautiful flowers and foliage, feeding me literally and figuratively. Patience is key when assessing self care. It takes time to instil these habits and to experience the rewards for that patience. (in fact, that’s what meditation is, exercising patience and mindfulness.)
Anyhow, this is quite mushy, I realize that. And not a revelation to anyone I’m sure. But today I took a day off to make up for a lot of overtime I’ve been doing, give my brain a rest from all that grant-writing, get better from a cold, to take a breath and re-evaluate things. My BF is home too, we’re spending quality time together, just doing our own thing and I’m having some friends over tonight. I’m going to be making a few snacks throughout the day. This is a self care day, old school style, and it’s making me feel good that I am still practicing self care, Buddhism (or some version of it) so many years later.
PS: Here’s another, more practical/literal view on Self Care. I like her idea of “living authentically”.