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Is self-care selfish?

Kathy and I are running a course on self-care at the spa road Buddhist centre next weekend and so our thoughts have been circumambulating around the tricksy subject of the self and what to do with it.

Growing up in the Judaeo-Christian Western world it’s easy to get enmeshed in a linguistic thicket of words that tangle us in the negative side of self: egotistical, egomaniac, self-centred, self-regarding, selfish.

And then if we encounter Buddhism, the teachings seem to emphasise that. The early Theravadan scriptures are explicit in their targeting the illusion of self, of I-making and me-making, as the source of our suffering. The Dalai Lama says, “All our suffering comes from worrying about our self and all our joy from caring for others.”

How would it be to really care for the self?

And yet… and yet, look closely at the DL’s statement and there is a subtlety. Worry about the self causes suffering – for sure. But caring for others brings joy. Perhaps it is the worrying and the caring that is important. How would it be to really care for the self?

When you approach the matter from the “lineage of therapy” then a different emphasis hoves into view.

IN therapy, a strong sense of self is seen as important – even central. From a therapeutic point of view, a weak or flimsy self is the source of suffering. It allows paranoid projections to arise, an anxious way of being in the world, and it prohibits an enjoyment and savour of what we are experiencing.

There’s a lovely quote from Alan Watts that says (and I paraphrase): “I am the Universe experiencing itself”. And that idea points us to a very different idea of self. Feeling our here-and-now as a portion of the Universe marks out the grandeur and the importance of really connecting to the Self-experience.

Most of us do not feel our day-to-day existence as being a glowing fragment of the universal whole

And yet, nice as the sentiment sounds, most of us do not feel our day-to-day existence as being a glowing fragment of the universal whole. Why not? What is it that actually makes our self-experience so meagre?

We can shed some light on this conundrum by distinguishing between “Being” and “thinking-about-being”. This is a distinction that Eckardt Tolle makes over and over in his books – but it bears repeating.

In some sense, the “thought of the self” is the problem rather than the lived self-experience. Unconstrained by the thought “this is me” or “this is my experience”, our moment-to-moment being is rich and wonderful and warm. Getting rid of the “self” doesn’t mean we vanish. In fact, it allows us really experience the wonder of being a slice of the Universe.

Letting go of our addicted obsession with the ‘thought-of-self’ requires practice and understanding – but it allows us to experience everything that is really going on under the word “me” or “I”. Getting into our body helps, meditating helps, shifting our perceptions helps.

The Vajrayana end of the Buddhist spectrum (those teachers from Tibet and the Himalayas) emphasise this liberated aspect of ‘no-self’. This is not a state of dry, self-denial, or self-erasure. It is another, clearer order of self-experience. We gradually free ourselves freed from the habit of worrying about the “thoughts” (i.e. all the habitual and conditioned thinking we do about ourselves over and over).

The network of spreading circles and squares radiating out from a central fountain

In this non-conceptual experience of selfhood, there is a simple pleasure and warmth. A humorous sense of “Gosh, it’s really simple”. And from here the Vajrayana takes it further. There are practises to clarify this self-experience, to enrich it, to magnetise it and to make it active and beneficial in the world. We enter the “vajra world”. The guiding image here is not of individual ‘atomic’ selves bouncing off each other in disconnected Brownian motion, but rather of the mandala: the network of spreading circles and squares radiating out from a central fountain. In the alchemical West, we had images of gardens. In the east, they have those fantastical, multicoloured mandalas, of endlessly proliferating parts and patterns.

this is the self that has no anxiety about edges or boundaries. A self that is plugged into the surroundings, so that there is no sense of lack, no ravening hunger that drives aggression and greed. This is a self – paradoxically – that can truly care for others because it is so full itself. This perhaps is the ultimate self-care.

I’d love to know your thoughts on self-care. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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