For the Holidays, the Gift of Self-Care
A Buddhist teacher offers five simple steps to quiet your mind and soothe your stress any time of year.
The Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim remembers the moment he discovered the power of self-care. He was a frustrated graduate student when a trusted friend told him the solution was to “be good to yourself first — then to others.”
“I had never once thought properly of caring for myself or loving myself,” he writes in his latest book, “Love for Imperfect Things,” which is to come out in paperback in February. “We consider it good to be good to others, but don’t forget that you have a responsibility to be good to yourself first.”
Haemin Sunim (Sunim is the term used to address a Buddhist monk in Korea) has taught Buddhism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and continues to espouse the power of self-care through Buddhist teachings. He has amassed more than one million followers on Twitter and become an international best-selling author who guides his readers on managing stress and overcoming the challenges of everyday life.
The obvious forms of self-care are exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep. But self-care also means taking time for yourself to manage stress and practicing self-compassion, along with mindfulness and meditation techniques.
Most of us already know that self-care is good for us. Research shows that people who practice self-care have better quality of life, are admitted less frequently to a hospital, and live longer than those who report poor self-care.
While self-care is a simple concept, it can be remarkably difficult to enact. It may feel selfish or too time-consuming to focus on your own needs, and many of us don’t know where or how to start. Haemin Sunim suggests a simple five-step plan to give yourself the gift of self-care this holiday season.
Start by just taking a deep breath. Become mindful of your breathing. You’ll notice that when you begin, your breathing is shorter and more shallow, but as you continue, your breathing becomes deeper. Take just a few minutes each day to focus on your breathing. “As my breathing becomes much deeper and I’m paying attention to it, I feel much more centered and calm,” Haemin Sunim said. “I feel I can manage whatever is happening right now.”
Acceptance — of ourselves, our feelings and of life’s imperfections — is a common theme in “Love for Imperfect Things.” The path to self-care starts with acceptance, especially of our struggles. “If we accept the struggling self, our state of mind will soon undergo a change,” Haemin Sunim writes. “When we regard our difficult emotions as a problem and try to overcome them, we only struggle more. In contrast, when we accept them, strangely enough our mind stops struggling and suddenly grows quiet. Rather than trying to change or control difficult emotions from the inside, allow them to be there, and your mind will rest.”
Begin to practice acceptance through a simple writing exercise. Write down the situation you must accept and all that you are feeling. Write down the things in your life that are weighing on you, and the things you need to do. “Rather than trying to carry those heavy burdens in your heart or your head, you see clearly on paper what it is you need to do,” Haemin Sunim said. Whether the issue is work, family demands or holiday stress, the goal is to leave it all on the paper. Now go to bed and when you wake up, choose the easiest task on the list to complete. “In the morning, rather than resisting, I will simply do the easiest thing I can do from the list,” Haemin Sunim said. “Once I finish the easiest task, it’s much easier to work on the second.”
Never underestimate the value of meaningful conversation for your well-being. Make time on a regular basis for a close, nonjudgmental friend. “If you feel frustrated or angry, look for a close friend and buy them coffee or lunch or dinner,” Haemin Sunim said. “Choose someone who will listen without any kind of judgment.” Talking through your feelings will give you insights into your own needs. “You already know the answer,” Haemin Sunim said. “It’s just that you haven’t had the opportunity to clearly relive the story. Once the story is released, you can see it more objectively, and you will know what it is you need to do.”
One of the easiest ways to care for yourself is to take a walk. Just walking, Haemin Sunim said, can distract your mind and create space between you and whatever is causing stress in your life. “Walking can be an incredible resource for healing,” Haemin Sunim said. “When you sit around thinking about upsetting things, it will not help you. If you start walking, our physical energy changes and rather than dwelling on that story, you can pay attention to nature — a tree trunk, a rock. You begin to see things more objectively, and oftentimes that stress within your body will be released simply by walking.”
Haemin Sunim said he wrote his first book, “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down,” after teaching students at Hampshire College and answering their questions about managing the stress in their lives. He said his ultimate goal in writing “Love for Imperfect Things” was to guide readers to a path of self-care and acceptance.
“The main point is how to accept yourself when you are living in a world striving for perfection all the time,” he said. “Even if you feel there are many things in your life that are imperfect, if you look at them in a compassionate way, you discover that imperfection, in and of itself, is beautiful and has meaning.”
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, The Times’s award-winning consumer health site. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series “Life, Interrupted” and is the author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.”