I grappled a lot with identity, self-worth, purpose and meaning after developing a chronic illness and quitting design as a job. I recognised my life then was unsustainable – I felt like I was living out an unhealthy internal script over and over again, leading me to burn out and hurt myself repeatedly. Throughout the years I have also witnessed behaviour of many people who set out to “do good” intentionally but unintentionally harmed the people around them because they were not aware of their own unhealthy behaviour. I was one of them.
Who am I, without a job, a professional role in society? Who am I, as a disabled person, rendered unable to contribute in ways I previously know how? But I knew I would rather contribute net zero than to unintentionally contribute negatively to the world around me. At that point in time, I have found this quote by the late Thich Nhat Hanh very helpful:
Non-action is already something. There are people who don’t seem to do very much, but their presence is crucial for the well-being of the world. You may know people like this, who are steady, not always busy doing things, not making a lot of money, or being engaged in a lot of projects, but who are very important to you; the quality of their presence makes them truly available. They are contributing non-action, the high quality of their presence. To be in the here and the now—solid and fully alive—is a very positive contribution to our collective situation.
I wanted to become such a person. Even if I was unable to be richly present for people in general, I want to at least be present for my family, partner and myself. I am still on this long journey, but I do notice the quality of my relationships and my life transform as I continue to change internally.
I think because of the conditions most of us are raised in, we believe self-care is selfish. How can we possibly think of caring for ourselves when people out there are dying?
Yesterday I posted a picture of some food I cooked, and being mindful of current affairs I also wrote about how even in despair we should despair with a nourished body and spirit. I really believe this. I took years to overcome my previous mindset of how I should give all of myself away before I can even look at myself. All those years of supposedly giving myself away caused suffering, and these recent years of learning to care for myself made me much more aware of how I interact with people. My relationship with myself essentially dictates how I relate to others. It seems so simple, but it is not easy to have a healthy relationship with oneself.
While contemplating all of this I am reminded of a book I read years ago. It was a recorded conversation of Matthieu Ricard (the “happiest” man in the world) and his father. I wanted to share some snippets because I think it applies to the world right now:
A retreatant withdraws temporarily from the world to gain the spiritual strength required to help others effectively. The spiritual path begins with an inner transformation, and it’s only when that’s been achieved that an individual can usefully contribute to the transformation of society.
It is a tradition for Buddhist monastics to retreat from the world for years, decades, before they return to the world to contribute meaningfully. It seems like an absurd concept especially in this world where we’re thrust into society to work when we are barely developed as a human being. If we take a look at lawmakers around the world, I think they would benefit from a few years of developing their emotional maturity before they are allowed to make decisions for the greater whole. But it is 2022 and all we care about is how great we are in STEM and there is no discourse at all about how we handle our emotions and psychology.
Ricard continues by stating that peace can only come when we learn how to be peaceful internally as individuals:
The Dalai Lama says that outer disarmament can only take place through inner disarmament. If the individual doesn’t become more peaceful, a society that’s the sum total of such individuals will never become more peaceful either.
…which his father responded incredulously and Ricard reiterated his belief:
J.F. – Do you mean that the only way to attain lasting peace in the world is the reform of individuals? M. – To think otherwise is surely utopian. The reform of individuals would, of course, have to include our leaders as a first step!
He finally ends with what he (and Buddhists) believe is the chain of change:
In any case, the first thing is to make peace within oneself – inner disarmament; then peace in the family; then in the village; and finally in the nation and beyond.
As a society we’re obsessed with speed of course. I think this is because subconsciously we know we have relatively short lives, so we want to do everything faster. Because of this obsession with speed and progress we have designed our education systems to breed efficient workers, neglecting lessons of how to even exist as human beings. We’re bombarded with supposedly moral lessons like group before self, filial piety, obedience to seniority and authority – look where they have gotten us?
I don’t pretend to know the solutions. But I do personally believe that by learning to nourish ourselves we can then know what it means to nourish others. If you were like me and constantly feel guilty for trying to live well, I hope for us to consider that there is no net positive effect is everyone is drained, anxious and starved.
There is power in the inner work of an individual. Everything ripples out from the individual. Systems and policies are designed by individuals. I agree with Ricard: we cannot hope to have change on a large scale if individually we’re all still stuck in our old ways of living.
recalibrating the definition of self
“Jean Francois-Revel, a pillar of French intellectual life in our time, became world famous for his challenges to both Communism and Christianity. Twenty-seven years ago, his son, Matthieu Ricard, gave up a promising career as a scientist to study Tibetan Buddhism — not as a detached observer but by immersing himself in its practice under the guidance of its greatest living masters.
Meeting in an inn overlooking Katmandu, these two profoundly thoughtful men explored the questions that have occupied humankind throughout its history.”