“Always give from the overflow of your well, not from its depth.”
There is a children’s story called The Giving Tree about a boy who is able to communicate with an apple tree. It begins, “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. As he grows older he starts to make requests of the tree.
As an adolescent, the boy wants money; the tree suggests that he pick and sell her apples, which he does. As a young adult, the boy wants a house; the tree suggests he cut her branches to build a house, which he does. In middle age, the boy wants a boat; the tree suggests he cut her trunk to make a boat, which he does, leaving only a stump.
Finally, the boy becomes a shriveled old man. He wants only “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the stump provides. The story ends, “And the tree was happy.” As a young mother reading this story to my son, I interpreted its message to mean that giving away everything with no regard for self was the key to happiness. But unlike the Giving Tree, whenever I contemplated the possibility of a future as a stump, it never made me happy.
Most spiritual disciplines teach the virtues of sacrificial love. Setting aside your own needs to meet the needs of another is a beautiful form of love. But taking care of others becomes exhausting and unsustainable if you try to care for everyone else while neglecting your own needs. When the stress of continually being there for others is high, we can become overwhelmed by our own caregiving responsibilities and run the risk of burn out.
As I matured, I realized the key to selflessly serving others also involves self-nurturing. Only when we are nurtured is it easy to nurture others. When we do not nurture ourselves, we are unable to draw on qualities of love and compassion, and other spiritual values that support serving others. Ignoring our own needs renders us unable to give freely from a place of deep caring and compassion. When we give solely out of a sense of duty and obligation, without love and compassion, we feel resentful, taken advantage of, and depleted. In the end we can wind up feeling bitter and unhappy.
In yoga, selfless service to others is called Seva or Karma Yoga. In her book, The Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Joy Devi suggests that to effectively serve others selflessly we would be wise to serve ourselves as well. She introduces the practice of Karma Yoga for oneself. If done regularly, Karma Yoga for yourself aka self-care, even if it is only done for 20 minutes each day, can revitalize your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
Sometimes we confuse self-care with self-pampering – designer clothes, gourmet dining, extravagant vacations, and other luxuries – or with self-indulgence – spending money you don’t have, vegging out in front of your television eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (pick your favorite flavor), or indulging in a television marathon to catch up on those five episodes of Scandal you missed. As long as you can afford the luxuries you buy…and as long as you don’t make a habit of reducing your stress by choosing quick fixes that don’t require much effort, there is nothing wrong with self-pampering or self-indulgence. It’s just not the same as self-care.
Self-care, or Karma Yoga for self, requires effort, focused attention and perseverance. It means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors. Self-care should include practices of serenity, exercise, love, and healthy food.
• When you are tired, rest and do practices that will quiet your brain like meditating, sitting quietly, using positive affirmations, or relaxation techniques.
• Get your life force flowing by walking, running, dancing, doing Tai Chi or practicing yoga.
• Stay connected. Contact friends at least once or twice a week. Join a book club, or a walking group. Be involved in your community.
• Be mindful of what you put into your body, your mind and your spirit. Make sure your food diet, your thought diet, and your emotional diet are balanced and healthy. Abstain from substance abuse, pursue creative outlets, or engage in psychotherapy.
In the midst of the busyness of life, find what feeds and nurtures you. In order to serve others lovingly, we need to nourish ourselves. When you remember to selflessly serve yourself, service to others comes not from your depth, but from your overflow. And when that happens, like the giving tree, you will be happy (even if you are an old stump).