Before the Covid pandemic brought it into such stark relief, the theme of care started emerging for me. I’d noticed that the purported split between caring for ourselves and caring for others didn’t always hold true. Caring for others in a retreat context always filled me with delight, circling back to nourish me. But let’s be honest, I have a super-relaxed husband and no children, so I've never really had to give of myself in the unconditional way you do as a parent. I started wondering whether my sense of caring was conditional, motivated by a wish to be liked, or to be seen to be kind. Our mind can play wonderfully heroic tricks on us!
A few months ago, my theories and hunches were put to the test… my mother broke her femur during the UK lockdown, and she requested my support. I felt excited, and then sorrowful about leaving my home, husband and ageing dog. And then is just felt right. This was something I wanted to do. I felt the wish to honour the years that my mother had cared for me. Ironically, as a child I broke my femur on three different occasions so to care for my mother felt like a healing cycle of life. This was my opportunity to return the unconditional love which she had always shown me. But could I be unconditional?
I’ll leave the story of quarantine in an airport hotel for another blog but suffice to say that it turned into a magical retreat experience, supported by a Zoom dharma community, with whom I sat for seven hours each day. We contemplated the six bardos which shifted my view of life. I could now be present with whatever was in front of me.
Circles of Care Model
A model that I've found useful reveals different circles of care or safety: being cared for by another, caring for ourselves, and then caring for others and the planet. (If you prefer to listen, rather than read, scroll down to the YouTube video).
Right at the centre lies the fundamental truth that none of us would still be alive today if we hadn't been cared for by someone else. For many people, the circumstances of their life may have meant that their primary caregiver was a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, or care workers in an orphanage. We may have certain regrets about who our caregivers were, or we may have wished that they were able to care for us in more skilful ways, but the very fact that we’ve survived is because we live within communities of care. When I first heard this from one of my teachers, it settled me into the sense that it's an innate part of us; it's not something we need to learn. How to give and receive care is part of our human birth right. We may need to remember and practice, but we don't need to learn it from scratch. We already have this in-born capacity.
Ideally, as babies, we learn how it feels to be cared for. In psychological language this is secure attachment. In Buddhism, attachment is often seen as a less desirable quality but being securely attached means that we know that we can put our trust in someone or in something. For Buddhists, we take refuge in the teachings themselves or our lineage holders, the buddhas and bodhisattvas. We get the sense that we are being cared for by something all the time, such as the benevolent universe. Once we have this felt sense, then we can cultivate our ability to care for ourselves.
Feelings and Needs
I've been guiding many meditations recently which focus on feelings and needs because if we can tune into how we're feeling at the physical and emotional level then we can learn how to take care of ourselves. This is known as self-regulation. We learn to regulate our emotions, and how to come back to a sense of groundedness and centredness. Self-regulation is a powerful skill particularly when we are living in very unstable circumstances. How do we listen to the news and then return to a sense of centeredness within ourselves? How do we hear the demands of others and still come back to our inbuilt sense of safety and care?
Once we’re able to look after our own human needs, we can expand a little wider. We can extend our care to those with whom we share our life, whether the people we live with, or in our community. We also need to cultivate the sense of caring for the whole planet, not just humans but all living beings. If there's one thing the pandemic has really taught us all is the Buddhist principle of interconnectedness or interdependence. We then trust that if we can care for ourselves and those around us, that kind intention moves through the whole web of life. We can reassure ourselves that it’s possible to care for everything by attending to our little jigsaw piece. Everyone around can put their little piece of jigsaw into the puzzle and the whole world at some level can feel held within care.
What I learnt through my own experience of caring was to seek refuge in four key areas. This allowed a deeper sense of unconditionality.
1) Daily meditation practice
2) Self compassion practices when necessary
3) Seeking support from friends
4) Trusting in the community of care
Through my daily meditation practice, I have come to see certain tendencies in myself – some lovely, and some rather revolting. Each day I ask, “How are you feeling and what do you need this morning?” The older, wiser part of me takes care of the more vulnerable. I have learnt to identify which of my own feelings and needs must be honoured before I can attend to the feelings and needs of another. I also ask, “What is my motivation in this moment?” Sometimes my urge to offer care comes from a place of guilt or shame or resentment. When I realised this, I developed a new trick… 10 more minutes on the cushion. No rush. No running away from my reality. In that little pause, I dropped into self compassion, allowing those feelings to be seen, acknowledged and supported without adding my own judgment to the mix. Often, in seconds, the uncomfortable feelings would dissolve. I could return to what I believe is the true nature of all human beings – love, kindness and compassionate care. I learnt to watch for neglected feelings like irritation or loneliness, which were the warning signs of giving from an empty place. It became a practice of honesty to know when I couldn't offer much. We were born into community for a reason - others are always around to step in, so that we can step back momentarily.
Sometimes I needed to call friends who had gone through the same journey of caring for elder relatives and they were able to hold me. I found it really important to feel resourced enough in order to build my own capacity. Then it felt possible to move into relationship from a place of love and appreciation and reciprocity.
The Joy of Caring
By the end of my time at home, my mother's ability to walk and dance again gave me great joy. I was also reassured to see how she was shifting focus to the community who would take care of her once I was gone. It can be a trap in our role as caregivers to feel that everything is our responsibility and yet we are always part of community. We may have gifts to give but someone else has another gift that a person may need.
I guess my deeper learning over this time was that the concurrent offering of self-care allowed for unconditional care and love. And then knowing that the wider community is always on hand to offer support. All we need to do is learn how to ask for our needs to be met. This sounds simple, but isn’t easy if we’ve been conditioned into self sacrificing behaviours.
When I've studied self-compassion, it's become clear that many religious communities are instructed to show care by putting 'our neighbour above ourselves'. Within our southern African context too, Ubuntu or Botho is a deeply conditioned worldview. Mistakenly, put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own and miss the fundamental point, highlighted in Buddhism; we are all equally worthy of care. When we have needs, we can either meet them within ourselves or we can ask others to help meet those needs.
We are worthy of care and need to practice asking for our fundamental human needs to be met. It's interesting that so many of our needs can be met within ourselves. We can offer ourselves love; we can nourish ourselves with beautiful music or by sitting in nature, or with a warm beverage on a cold day. We can nurture ourselves in very simple ways and those acts of self care resource us so that we have the capacity for care for others.
It's then that the magic begins... We start to attune to the felt sense of joy in caring for another, and we learn that we can ask others for support. Once we know the joy of giving, we also realise that by asking someone else for their help we offer them the opportunity to receive the joy of giving to us! This allows for a beautiful reciprocal cycle of asking and receiving, then giving and receiving the joy of care.