I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
It was early in the winter last year, during one of my regular trips to a favorite spot of mine – a quaint and unassuming little coffee house only a short walk away from my apartment – that I found my escape from the laundry list of school assignments, project deadlines and various other commitments that had been consuming all of my time and energy over the last semester. Of course, being a full-time student and having a part-time job doesn’t always provide you with the luxury of time to give away so freely to seemingly frivolous and trivial pursuits, like creating art, reading books, trying out new recipes, visiting with friends, writing or simply just being. This, in turn, inevitably creates a discernible imbalance in your life, leading you to believe that such a strenuous and unsustainable lifestyle is completely normal. I’d grown so used to the way things were, and to the prospect that this was how they’d always be, that I had never fully understood or embraced the art of caring for myself in the same manner as I’d gladly undertake for anyone else I love. Entertaining even the thought of making time for my own interests and wellbeing seemed so absurd at the time. But this much-needed break from school and work had allowed me to mentally and physically slow down, recenter and reground myself in what’s really important – the people and places I love, and the things I enjoy doing. With this renewed inner peace and mental clarity came the reminder that finding enjoyment in the simpler pleasures of life is – and always will be – what truly matters, and that I had not been giving these things as much attention as they so rightfully deserved.
The prevailing concept of self-love, though undoubtedly acknowledged with appreciation and acceptance, is often regarded as mere folly, a foolish waste of one’s valuable time that could aptly be spent elsewhere. In today’s ever-changing, fast-paced and technologically-driven social environment, it comes as no surprise that self-love would inevitably slip through the cracks. We’d much rather get a head start on that research paper that’s not due for another month (well … for some of us, this is true); log extra hours and accept every request at work in hopes of a heftier paycheck; or strive to make everyone else happy, all at the expense of our own mental wellness. Setting aside time in our perpetually busy schedules to reclaim the element of balance and mindfulness ultimately falls short on our list of priorities; yet, paradoxically, addressing one’s own needs and desires is imperative – now, more than ever – to living your best and most fulfilling life.
So, how exactly does one begin to define the term ‘self-love’? What does it look like? And how does one more easily differentiate between the rejuvenating and rewarding effects of self-love, and the deceitful and insidious nature of selfishness? Admittedly, it can be difficult at times to recognize this difference, and it’s not uncommon to assume that they’re one in the same. However, digging a little deeper into the subject reveals that self-love couldn’t be any more dissimilar to selfishness in both intention and in action. Selfishness makes the empty promise of some kind of tangible or monetary reward; self-love offers no such reward, yet it builds us up and strengthens us in a way no paycheck or plaque can ever replace. When considering this distinction, it’s important to note that self-love focuses on our own mental, emotional, spiritual and physical nourishment, while still remaining mindful of the needs and wants of others. On the contrary, selfishness blinds us to the needs of others, leading us to believe we’re somehow superior to them. It ultimately places us at center stage, while those around us are left to fall by the wayside and silently blend into the background. It’s because of these subtle differences that so many of us are hesitant to put ourselves first, fearing that we’re doing so at the expense of the important people in our lives – our family members and friends. With all that being said, writing our own definitions of self-love will ensure that both our needs and desires, and those of other people, are fulfilled.
Tiny Buddha, a website dedicated to spiritual health and wellness, so eloquently professes, “Self-love is the foundation on which we build a happy life. Without self-love, we have nowhere to put the love or abundance that comes to us.” As a result, we will that love away to everyone and everything else around us, without considering how doing so may affect us in the long run. When I think of my own experiences with Crohn’s disease, and how self-love plays a role in the healing process, it’s easy to accept that self-love must not be ignored. Aside from watching what I eat and following a whole-food, plant-based diet, it’s the one thing that’s gotten me through some of the toughest times with this illness.
Of course, I could just give you a simplified written definition for this idea, but I personally believe self-love to be much more individualized in nature. Everyone has their own interests and passions, and one person’s beliefs and values in regards to self-love may be drastically different from another person’s ideals. For some, self-love may involve spending quality time with family and friends; catching the latest comedy at the theater; or taking a weekend trip to another city. For others, it may very well mean getting invariably lost in a good book; expressing their thoughts and feelings in a journal; or, perhaps, sitting in complete silence, quietly contemplating their surroundings with an open, warm and grateful heart. In any case, it’s important to ask yourself, “What are my interests? My passions? What is it that makes my soul sing, that makes me come alive?” Much like a garden needs water and sunlight to thrive, we need relaxation and renewal. Once you make these discoveries about yourself, over time, it becomes much easier to step away from life for awhile and take time to reflect upon what you’ve accomplished.
There’s a wonderful, old Italian adage – “il dolce far niente” – that’s literally translated as “the sweetness of doing nothing”, a notion brought to the forefront in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, Eat, Pray, Love. In the film of the same name, Liz, the protagonist, begins her journey to spiritual enlightenment with a trip to Rome, Italy. She artfully blends into her new and exciting cultural environment, as she learns the language, enjoys authentic Italian cuisine and wholeheartedly embraces everything the city has to offer. It’s here she meets Swedish expatriate (and reluctant muffin-top enthusiast), Sofi; Giovanni, her rather attractive Italian tutor and Sofi’s love interest; and Luca Spaghetti, who first introduces her to the sweetness of doing nothing. A way of life so far removed from the one to which we Americans have grown so accustomed, for the Italian people, “doing nothing” is an event in and of itself, one that’s not relegated to only special occasions. In fact, they practice the art of doing nothing daily! Just as they’d make plans or write a to-do list, so they’d also make time for doing nothing in particular. “Il dolce far niente” is really about breaking away from routine and doing things differently for a change – taking the road less-traveled, if you will. It’s about sleeping in just a little later than usual on a Saturday morning and brewing a pot of coffee at home. It’s about taking the more scenic route to class or work. It’s about doing more things simply because you want to, not because you have to. Whether you’re meeting a group of friends for lunch, or piddling around town, indulging in fancy espresso drinks and scouting out the best bookshops, or taking a stroll through the park with your loved ones, it doesn’t matter. There are no rules when it comes to self-love. It’s your time, after all, so make the most of it while you have the chance.
In addition to the more anecdotal experiences and benefits of practicing self-love, there’s also current empirical research and evidence supporting these benefits. I recently read an engaging and well-written article by Beth Janes in the March 2017 issue of Shape magazine, a women’s health-and-fitness publication (and a worthwhile investment, in my opinion!), entitled, “Put Your Head in the Clouds”. The article begins with an opening statement that perfectly describes the overall intention behind this practice:
Time off is what your brain thrives on. It spends hours every day working and managing the constant streams of information and conversation that come at you from all directions. But if your brain doesn’t get a chance to chill and restore itself, your mood, performance, and health suffer. Think of this recovery as mental downtime – periods when you’re not actively focusing on and engaged in the outside world. You simply let your mind wander or daydream, and it becomes reenergized in the process
Janes then goes on to mention that this constant stream of busyness only results in our false and poorly misguided sense of security in what we believe we’re accomplishing. In fact, in the long run, one actually accomplishes less than what they’d originally intended; they’re juggling too many commitments at once, ultimately failing to dedicate their full attention to any particular task, whatever it may be. Allowing ourselves to be fully present with what we’re doing and the people with whom we’re interacting, and giving our minds a chance to recover, is ultimately more beneficial than being trapped on the perpetual hamster wheel of overwork.
Current research and information provided by Dr. Stew Friedman, the director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Leading the Life You Want, aims to reinforce Janes’s claim touting the importance of resting and nourishing the mind:
The mind needs rest. Research shows that after you take a mental time-out, you are better at creative thinking and coming up with solutions and ideas, and you feel more content
According to Janes, our brains have two primary modes of processing the world around us: the action-oriented mode and the default mode. When we’re completing both simple and complex tasks, making decisions, processing information and solving problems, we’re employing the more task-oriented part of our brains. In comparison, it’s when our minds enter the default mode network (DMN) that they begin to wander (in a good way, of course). An easy way to remember this is to envision the DMN as a balloon that floats upwards to the ceiling when you let it go. Just as the balloon’s allowed to temporarily break free from your grasp, so your mind’s permitted to do the same. Just remember to reign it in though when you need to come back down to Earth!
Janes ultimately concludes the article with a statement from Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., the director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, reminding us that there is no specific prescription for self-care, just as there’s no single course of treatment that’ll work for every patient:
DMN isn’t the only kind of mental break you benefit from. Doing things you love, even if they require some focus – reading, playing tennis or piano, going to a concert with friends – can also be rejuvenating. Think about which activities energize you. Build in time for that enjoyment and to experience the positive emotions that come from them
In the end, it all comes down to what’s important to you, and how you can dedicate more time to those things that bring you fulfillment and happiness.
Our lives are busy, yes; there’s no denying that. School assignments. Work projects. This, that and so many other things vie for our attention on a daily basis. But what I’ve learned is that life doesn’t have to be this way – an endless and exhausting dredge of external commitments. There’s so much more to life than that. I’ve learned that self-love is, in fact, a lesson in setting boundaries and relinquishing control.
Establishing boundaries with certain people, places or situations is the proverbial key to freedom from the worldly chains weighing us down, but finding the lock isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Learning to say ‘no’ to people can be difficult; thoughts of doubt and fear will fill your mind, creating lies that’ll tell you you’re doing something wrong, that you’re somehow not good enough simply because you turned down a certain commitment. Acknowledge the fact that these thoughts exist … then let them go. Don’t let them consume you. Don’t dwell on them, or they’ll only keep you trapped in a vicious cycle of yearning to break free, but lacking the courage and faith to do so. Understand and accept that you’re only human, and one can take on only so much work at a time. No one can give you the gift of rest; you have to give it to yourself. Finding balance is the answer to living the most abundant life possible, whatever that may mean for you.
So, what will I be doing today? Well, considering the fact that all of my final exams are done, and I’m in the midst of preparing for my graduation ceremony … whatever I want to do! I start my summer internship with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation soon; until then, I’ll be catching up on sleep, spending quality time with my family and friends, and (maybe) cleaning and organizing my apartment. Today, I’ll be thoroughly enjoying a beautiful, homemade lunch in the peace and quiet of my apartment.
Today, I’ll be meditating and doing yoga.
I’ll be going outside in the warm, bright sunshine and taking a stroll around the neighborhood.
I’ll be reading some more of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
And tonight, I’ll be hitting the sheets early.
What will you be doing today?