When I was a young girl, my mother had a specific tree just behind our house where she would occasionally retreat to when she needed a break from being a full-time mother, trapped on a 100-acre farm with four boisterous children. It was her place of refuge. For a few short moments, with a cup of coffee and her thoughts, my mother would sit quietly, hidden under the droopy branches of a spruce tree.
Usually she was able to slip away while we were out playing or otherwise occupied, but a few times I remember my siblings and I running around the house and the forest, trying to find that special tree and our mother who had taken her brief reprieve from us. I can imagine my mother then, sitting under that tree, desperate to get her breath while listening to the footsteps and childish chatter that wove itself around her. I am certain, in those moments, it felt like caring for herself was a near impossibility. But there is no doubt in my mind that the guilt she might have felt was mixed with the strong knowledge that this time to herself was essential for her to be the best mother she could be.
The truth is that taking care of ourselves can feel like an impossible task. While you might not have four children running around looking for you (or maybe you do!), you might have felt, or do feel, that sense of being swept away by the demands placed on your time and energy. Many of the systems and structures we find ourselves in are designed in a way that do not always foster or support the time and space needed to adequately care for ourselves.
Even beyond the pressures of society, the act of carving out the time needed to adequately care for ourselves can feel insurmountable. When it comes to prioritizing our self—our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being—many of us buckle. I see it in myself. While it amazes me that it took over a decade for me to start paying attention to a body that was exhausted and depleted, I can still find it a challenge to care for myself. Self-care can be seen as selfish or self-indulgent, so when our time feels scarce many of us are inclined to keep the responsibilities that we have to others, but drop the responsibility we have to our self.
The interesting thing about self-care is that it is anything but selfish. The people who benefit most are those who we serve—our children, friends, partners, colleagues. Rather than thinking about creating space to care for ourselves as a “nice to have,” we need to think about it for what it is—a responsibility. We care for our well-being so we can be the best we can be with those in our life. When we become better rested, when we feel healthier, when we become more aware of our habitual responses and patterns, we are able to offer the world a stronger, more grounded and responsive version of ourselves. As far as I am concerned, nothing about that is selfish. Recently, I was at a Buddhist meditation retreat that focused on (among other things) self-cherishing and the dangers of believing in your own self-importance. The nun who gave the dharma talks was very careful to distinguish between self-cherishing and self-care. From a Buddhist perspective, self-cherishing is believing you are more important than others (a path to suffering, according to Buddhist teachings), but self-care is working on yourself to the benefit of those around you. Self-care, therefore, is an act of service. According to Buddhist teachings, when we work on and care for ourselves, the world benefits. By making our own health and well-being a priority we are able to show up more fully in everything we do and THAT is a beautiful thing.
Despite our efforts to find her, my mother never once disclosed her secret hiding spot to us. Just a few years ago, my parents sold our childhood home and the farm it stood on. When I walked around the property one last time I still found myself wondering which tree it was that my mother would disappear under. For me, it had grown into a symbol of something powerful—a symbol of boundaries and refuge and prioritizing the self in order to serve the collective. That tree was my mother’s fuel source when she found herself on empty, a vital supply of energy and recalibration that allowed her to continue her work in service of her children.
I am thinking that we could all use the refuge of a tall spruce tree, every once and a while...