Balancing Care for Self and Others in Stressful Times

By Dr. Sid Jordan

Many people who attend meditation and wellness seminars offer that their motivation for participating is related to hitting the reset button and taking better care of themselves. In these times of crisis many of us own that we are overworked and overwhelmed with caring for others. Some are going through extreme demands of being at home with the entire family everyday or being isolated due to the pandemic lockdown. Upon a closer look many reveal that they have been in denial of their own needs, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. The need to hit the reset button and find a new normal for caring for yourself and others has never been more relevant as we all face the coronavirus pandemic.

When we examine where to begin, we realize that first we must slow down and listen to our bodies and inner dialogue. Programs with yoga and meditation create a space for an introspective process that enhances self-awareness on many levels. The body and mind awareness achieved with yoga exercises helps us reconnect with our feelings and needs. Regular meditation practices connect us with our intuition, which reveals what simultaneously best serves the common welfare. The decision to attend online meditation and yoga courses is often supported by a friend or family member. This is a gift we can offer others and ourselves in the midst of this crisis.

Many of us may not have yet fully embraced a program of self-care. Our busy culture and demands of the current crisis may not support taking care of ourselves and we may view self-care as selfishly motivated. Where is the balance between care of self and care of others? The analogies of balancing care of self and others need a more expansive metaphor. Perhaps first “know thy self”.

The golden rule, “treat others as we would have them treat us”, presumes we know what others and we need. Henry David Thoreau once said that, “If people are coming to help me, let me know in advance so that I can hide behind my wood shed.” Thoreau’s caution is particularly true now with our mandate for social distancing. If we are first clearer about our own needs, then we might be better able to discern what others need.

To combat the stresses associated with the coronavirus pandemic there are many online seminars to meet our needs for balanced care of self and others. Many programs offer improved physical and psychological immunity through healthy diet/herbs, yoga exercises, meditative practice on and off the mat, and communication skills such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Tantamount in this effort to better care for everyone, in this time of imposed “social distancing”, is the need for “distant socializing” to maintain, at the same time, the needed social support and a healthy physical distance.

Yama and Niyama Applied to the Pandemic

Paradoxically, caring for one’s self invariably means caring for others as well. It is part of our human nature to care for one another. To neglect caring for ourselves is to neglect being able to properly care for others. Our individual mental and emotional wellbeing is inextricably intertwined with our collective wellbeing. Thus we need a set of guidelines that supports this interconnectedness of balancing care of self and others. In the yoga community this set of guidelines is Yama (care of others) and Niyama (care of self). The current pandemic brings home the need and opportunity to serve the common welfare. Yama and Niyama give us non-dogmatic guidelines to serving each other, plants, animals and the environment based on time, place, and the entity to be served.

These guidelines escape the dogmatic dictates of “never think, say or do this” or “always think, say, or do that”. This is illustrated in the yama called “ahimsa” that supports not to consciously inflict harm on anyone by thought, word or deed but not to avoid use of the necessary force to protect yourself and others when threatened.

The yama called “satya” espouses that to speak the truth benevolently requires different thinking and phrasing depending on the people, place and timing for those involved. An example would be the way you choose to share the news of an illness or death in the family for different people based on age and closeness to the ill or deceased one. This discriminating use of the truth serves everyone. While we need to eventually embrace the “whole truth” half-truths may help protect the innocent until the full truth finds its moment for revelation.

“Asteya”, non-stealing, can mean being attentively present when others are sharing their story. Active listening is extremely important in this time of crisis so as not to mentally take the other’s valuable time and or discount their feelings. “Not listening” may be the largest example of stealing with which humanity could be charged. While not taking other’s personal property is a material form of asteya this principle involves not even having the thought of stealing.

The yama, “aparigraha” or living simply means taking and utilizing only what you need so as not to deprive others. This principle is especially important during the pandemic when shopping for groceries and supplies. More broadly this is an ecological principle that encourages maximum utilization of all natural resources, physically, mentally and spiritually, especially when supplies are threatened.

The last yama, “Brahmacayra” or “Madhuvidya” (sweet knowledge), is applied in the ideation that “the actor, the act, the recipient of the act and the results of the action” are all part of a unified field, Oneness or Divine Presence, depending upon your cosmology. From another angle “to give is to receive and to receive in to give.”

In serving others the yamas honor the simultaneous benefits for the served and the server.

Likewise the principles of Niyama’s while concerned with care of self also reflect serving others. The principle of “tapah”, that involves making some personal sacrifice to serve others, reflects that self-integration requires taking care of others physically, mentally and spiritually.

The principle of “shaoca” stands for the cultivation of cleanliness, both physically and mentally. Our physical cleaning rituals during the coronavirus pandemic require great care to protect everyone. The mental practice of shaoca involves combating tendencies towards selfish and greedy thoughts.

“Santosa” or contentment is achieved by developing “a state of mental ease”. To develop this state of mind we can remind ourselves when feeling overwhelmed and stressed that behind our anxieties and tensions we have a vast reservoir of creativity to solve problems individually and collectively. The obstacles we face with the corona virus can be seen as opportunities for positive personal and collective transformation.

The next principle, “Svadhyaya” calls upon us to integrate our intuitive and rational minds through a deeper study of spiritual literature and keeping good company. We become like the news, literature and company we imbibe. Down time at home during the lockdown can afford a valuable opportunity to read inspiring spiritual literature and do some distant socializing with old friends you haven’t been in contact with for a while.

The last principle of niyama, “Iishvara Pranidhana” means meditation, the key to the integration of all the yamas and niyamas. The focus on the mantra in meditation unites us with our universal benevolent Spirit. Meditation is a “science of intuition” that guides us to discriminating choices that serve the general welfare. Social lock down affords the time for many of us to deepen our meditation and contemplative practices.

Caring for the External World as an Extension of the Self

Where did the coronavirus come from? What is our responsibility towards the plant, animal and inanimate world? How could better care of these elements of the environment serve them and us better? This appreciative inquiry from a moral and scientific point of view might bode well for the general welfare or all beings animate and inanimate.

It has become well-understood that we are interconnected with all elements of the environment, but we don’t seem to adopt a life style that follows what we rationally know about these connections. We continue to destroy the forest and oceans’ vegetation that provide most of our oxygen. We slaughter animals for consumption that are fed growth hormones, have a high acidic nutritional content and may be the source of many virulent viruses for humans. We pollute our water resources with fracking and oil spills. To cap off this irrational behavior we pollute the air we breathe with uncapped carbon emissions. As one French scientist put it, “We are drowning in our own waste.” We choose competition for inequitable economic gains over choices for a healthier more cooperative life that honors humans, plants, animals and the inanimate world. The so-called inanimate world consists of the chemical elements of the living cells of our biological being, the calcium of our bones, the iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe. The self that we inhabit is an extension of all these elements of the environment. Throw in the pandemic and it’s time to scream “Overload!” Enough of the problem; what can individuals do to combat the stress of it all in their smaller circle?

Your small circle is a microcosm of the big macrocosmic circle. My spiritual mentor, after telling me to, “Do something great for the suffering humanity,” sees how overwhelmed I am with this request and holds his right thumb and forefinger close together and tells me that “Something small can be great.” Then he leans forward toward me with his thumb and forefinger and pushes the corners of my mouth up saying, “Smile a little.” (This was long before the pandemic demand for social distancing.)

So, the question is what can we do concretely to serve all beings in this time of crisis and beyond? Depending on your level of energy, time available, and individual gifts, you may choose something small, medium or large to offer to yourself and others. These opportunities are in front of us. Adopt a stray cat. Water your plants. Compost everything you can. Eat healthily and slowly until comfortably full. Feed the homeless. Conserve water. Give all the stuff you will never use to those who need it. Start a garden and share what you grow with the community. Dance and sing with others online. Start a support group online for the sole purpose of support; let everyone define it together. As Bucky Fuller says, “The next step in evolution is learning to live together.”