This article appeared in the quarterly journal Artists of Possibility. Enjoy!
Self-Care as a Sacred Act of Devotion
How Health, Fitness and Well-Being Are Inseparable From Spiritual Life, Service, Creative Expression and Divinity
Many people experience health and fitness as a chore at best, or misery at worst. Even devoted spiritual practitioners often feel challenged in making healthy choices—what you might call “getting yourself to do something you know you should do.”
For decades, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “how do I get myself to [do X] or [ stop doing Y] ?”
My answer is always the same: “You can’t get yourself to, and no one else can get you to either.” Thinking in those terms is the mark of a paradigm that limits you, that obscures the possibility of easeful, joyful self-care that in turn supports your highest potential.
Thankfully, you can do something much better than wrestle yourself into “complying” with grim, lifeless health “regimens.”
You can come to care for yourself and life so much that you want to give yourself all the good things you learn about. You can cherish yourself and life so deeply that you simply wouldn’t do anything but the best for it.
This may sound like an impossibly high bar. But it’s not only possible—I think it’s especially accessible for those on a spiritual path like ours. You have a head start.
The attainment of wanting healthy choices is a spiritual prospect, not just a physical one. It involves making a conscious connection between your abiding respect for and awe of life and god, and a similar reverence for yourself—in an authentic recognition that YOU ARE THAT.
This connection is sorely missing from health culture. As a result, we struggle mightily with self-care, and suffer tremendous health consequences to a needless degree.
Here’s some food for thought (so to speak) about how your devotion to spirit and what truly matters—your reverence and awe for the grace of being alive in a body—can naturally inspire self-care.
CHANGING CONSCIOUSNESS VS CHANGING HABITS
One thing I’ve seen in 30 years as a self-care coach, trainer and mentor is that it actually doesn’t work to externally try to change your habits—to wrench yourself into doing something different.
What works is you BECOMING A PERSON who naturally does those things.
Instead of “habit change” or “behavior change,” I approach health transformation as a function of seeing and speaking differently, and focus on potential instead of problems.
The core premise is this: Don’t try to change what you DO. Shift who you’re BEING.
Become a person who nourishes your body and life with gratitude. Become a person who cares so deeply about what you’re here for that you’re compelled to do right by yourself in every way.
Become a person who gives to yourself as an act of giving to the world, knowing they’re not separate. Become a person who deeply connects your aspirations to your life choices every day.
Become that person.
It doesn’t work to just try to do different stuff…while remaining the same old person. To harangue yourself into “habits” while embedded in an old identity, or the entrenched “normal“ health-fitness consciousness.
What works is shifting that consciousness and center of identity. Who we’re being and where we’re seeing from is what influences our healthy choices. That’s when they truly become choices—an extension of who we are.
So how do we facilitate that?
The way we do most everything else in our spiritual practice: by attuning. We rest and dwell in a different conversation.
With health and fitness, as with meditation, we can do that with simple attentional practices. By resting your attention in new places, new conversation and new perspectives, you “park” in a different consciousness and grow mass and density there.
There are many practices that help with this. A core one is simply giving attention to what matters and cultivating a connection between that and your choices.
What I see most missing when people struggle with healthy things is a felt, lived connection between what really matters and the choices that you make every day. Between what you really care about—and how you care for yourself.
Thankfully, this disconnect can be healed. Sometimes just by shining light on it, awakening to the very presence of this rift. Just considering this right now could begin to shift something, to open the window a crack and illuminate what was once opaque.
The fact is that any division between “what really matters” and “how you care for yourself” is illusion. Your life/dreams/service/creative expression, and The Sacred, and how you care for yourself are inextricably melded.
Compartmentalizing them is destructive to health, personally and collectively.
Even before I was deeply embedded in spiritual life, I saw early on that working with questions like “What’s most important to you? What do you value? What do you treasure? What do you really want?” constituted a hugely overlooked “secret ingredient” in lasting change.
I see people bring all kinds of stuff to their health and fitness efforts. Concepts about discipline. And willpower. And restriction. What they usually don’t bring—because in our culture, almost no one thinks about this in a health context—is a deep, cultivated, contemplated connection between health/fitness and…who they are. What they love. What life IS.
When your efforts aren’t rooted in the soil of that love and devotion, healthy living almost always remains a scattered bunch of grudging obligations.
The negative, narrow and clinical language of this paradigm (which I call “Diet Thinking”) reinforces a narrative that feeds inaction and failure. It includes unquestioned and destructive assumptions such as: healthy living is hard. It’s boring, drab, confusing, complicated, unsexy. It’s maybe even impossible.
There’s also the detachment from “real life.” It’s a thing, over there, divorced from the rest of you. You rarely just eat and move and rest and live. You don’t just choose. Instead, you’re “on or off” a program. (Or a wagon. What is this “wagon?”) Your life is over here. And your health efforts are over there. Diets, exercises, plans, regimens.
(Doesn’t a regimen sound awful? Many people beat themselves up for not “sticking to a regimen”— like that’s something anyone would ever want to do! Yet we don’t even question this language.)
Clinically treating healthy choices like an isolated regime that has to be wedged into life and “adhered” to—and that you can relapse from (seriously?) like it’s an illness? This isn’t working—as evidenced by no more than 2.7% of Americans claiming even the most rudimentary of healthy practices. (That’s a real stat from a 2016 Mayo Clinic study1.)
CONTENT VS CONTEXT
Related to this “great divide” and its toxic vocabulary is the obsession with content over context.
You’ve probably noticed we tend to focus nearly all (if not all) our attention on the information element. Plans, tips, blueprints, hacks…our culture operates with the mistaken assumption that information alone is what’s missing, and information alone will produce results.
Yes, it’s important to know what to do, too—and to be fair, there’s a good bit of confusion about that. Figuring out what you most need is vital. But it’s worthless if you’re not going to then give it to yourself. And that’s what people struggle with the most.
You may think or be told you lack “motivation”—but really it’s missing context.
We’re hammered with instructions endlessly, in this void of any compelling reason to use them.
“This is the food that will do this” or “this exercise that will do that.” So what—if you aren’t connected to an inspired passion for that outcome?
It’s like seeking the best map to Ohio—when you have no reason to go to Ohio. But you keep collecting more and more maps, touting various routes…with still no real impetus to travel.
And you never get there. The maps don’t make you go. They just pile up in the car.
With the kind of spiritual context I’m describing, you have good reasons to “go.” Your doing becomes embodied, imbued with love and divinity. Then, directions and how-tos have a coherent place in your self-care. They’re literally brought to life.
It’s the difference between “sticking to your regimen” and nourishing yourself as a unique expression of The Divine.
You can hear the difference. And you can cultivate it.
HOW DO WE BEGIN TO EMBODY AND LIVE THIS?
Being spiritual folks, this should come naturally, right? Since we’re already contemplating who we truly are, what really matters, and what we want to serve?
Yes, but the paradigm is so entrenched that you might find yourself mired in it like everyone else. Even though in most ways you might be evolved far beyond convention, seeing through much of what entraps culture.
When it comes to health and fitness, you might leave all of your spiritual practice and perspective at the door. The reverence, the sense of the holy, the honoring of the miracle of life…might leave the building. You might meekly go into the small airless room of “I have to fix my body problem” and cut yourself off from all this context.
It’s understandable, because the paradigm is mightily entrenched. But what if you transcended this personal and cultural web of assumptions?
What if you gave conscious attention and energy to what matters instead of efforting at what you “should” do? If you developed a bond between how you nourish yourself—and what you want most, are here to do, ARE?
What’s possible is that generously giving yourself all the healthy things your body-mind-spirit need becomes a joyful expression of devotion and abundance, wonder, gratitude—instead of resistance and burden. Healthy choices become a self-evident affirmation of who you are and what you care about, from an authentic freedom. As an act of love, and service—not just to ourselves, but to the world, or to god. A sacred practice that feels like a privilege.
You become a person who loves yourself, others, and life too much to do anything but nurture the precious vessel that you are.
HOW WOULD YOU CARE FOR GOD OR THE DIVINE?
Another essential perspective shift that I like to point to is about putting your actions where your mouth is if you believe in you are a portal for the Divine and you acknowledge there is no separation.
If you believe it, and include ALL of life (including your body and your health)… what does that mean about how you treat yourself? How can you exclude…you?
Do you desecrate a temple? Throw trash on its steps? If not, why not? I contend it’s not so much because it’s “bad” or “wrong” but because…you just wouldn’t. You don’t want to. It’s hard to trash what you respect.
When the body is seen and felt as a sacred treasure—when we cherish it as an inseparable dimension of the miracle and mystery of being alive—self-care becomes a celebration of divinity and wholeness.
You’re so steeped in your desire to serve as a clear portal of goodness that you couldn’t bring yourself to gunk up the conduit.
At this point, all talk of “willpower” becomes obsolete. There’s no need for “getting you to” do stuff with browbeating “shoulds.” No propping and pumping you up from the outside. That conversation becomes irrelevant.
The idea behind all this is hopefully familiar to you. You‘re here at least in part because you care about serving, divinity, full expression. Now it’s just about bringing well-being inside that sacred circle and aligning that, too, with your deepest truth. What you love, what matters—let that live you.
YOUR NOURISHMENT SERVES THE HIGHEST GOOD. IT’S NOT SELFISH.
Beyond the paradigm I call “diet thinking,” I see a context of NOURISHMENT. Nourishment to me is everything you give yourself that you need to be healthy, strong, fit, energized, clear. It’s everything you put in, on and around you.
Which means it’s about food, movement, rest and sleep, but also meditation, breathwork, nature, art, hydration, herbs and natural medicines, aromatherapy, energy, relationships, community, service, even climate and the ingredients in your household and personal care products. And doing nothing at all.
And whatever else truly feeds YOU.
To nourish yourself, you look at your whole body, your whole life, and even more than your own life. You choose things that are healing and nurturing for the biggest possible reasons.
You don’t ask how can I get skinny, lower my blood pressure, fix my butt, get my doctor off my back, be “good….” You hold it so much bigger that those “issues” are no longer in question. You’re asking: How can I nourish myself better? And what’s the highest good right now?
Instead of self-care being a piecemeal, picayune fussing over how our bodies look or biomarkers or optimizing minutiae, we take care of ourselves as a calling and because we’re a piece of a magical universe.
We focus on strength and energy and resilience and longevity—and where we’re needed. We see that it’s generous to ourselves but also to others when we’re nourished. It’s making a gift of ourselves.
When you deprive yourself of nourishing care in any way—whether it’s food, rest, moving your body, stress relief, healing practices, or anything else you need…you deprive others too. Self-care isn’t selfish—self-deprivation is. When you withhold from yourself, you withhold from the world the fullest expression of you. It’s our loss too.
So self-care is about you, yes, but it’s not JUST about you. It’s about you as a vessel, portal, or prism in the ways we already consider in spiritual practice. It’s about being fueled to live your dharma fully and express your highest potentials. It’s a dimension of that, and inseparable from that.
My experience is that if we truly recognize and embody this, most struggles with doing healthy things really can fall away. You choose through the lens of becoming the clearest, most open vessel for divinity to express in this world through you.