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A Little Self-Care A Lot

Questions can teach us more than answers

As a teacher, I love it when my students ask questions. Questions can reveal new ways of thinking about a topic, inspire ideas, and help to broaden my perspective. It is the questions for which I do not have answers that teach me the most. These questions stir up both rich discussions in class and rich introspection afterwards.

A few weeks ago, I taught a class on spiritual direction. Essentially, my goal was to explain what this work I’ve been doing for 15 years is and why someone would want to try it. The first hand shot up before I was even halfway through my notes and the class morphed into question and response mode that covered more territory in more depth than any prepared presentation I could have written. I was in teacher heaven!

Questions can teach in slow motion – the answer may not show up for days

One question in particular stayed with me, in part because what came out of my mouth in response surprised me and in part because (of course) a better answer popped into my head a day or two after the class. Does that happen to you too?

I was asked what role attending retreats plays in my spiritual life. In truth, I have taught at many more retreats than I have attended – and I have often felt a little funny about this. Why do I readily and enthusiastically agree to offer meaningful spiritual experiences at retreats, but so rarely set aside the time to attend one for my own enrichment?

Because I’m writing this essay with the benefit of already being hit by the lightning bolt of my “better” answer to this question, I’ll start there. In the years that I taught more than a dozen yoga classes every week, I was asked hundreds of times how often students should practice. My answer never varied – “a little yoga a lot is better than a lot of yoga a little.”

A little a lot is better than a lot a little

What I meant was, essentially, 20 minutes of yoga four or five times a week is better for you in the long run than a single weekly 90-minute practice. What I was trying to inspire in my students – many of whom might have been inclined to throw up their hands and skip practice entirely when they didn’t have time to come to class – was the confidence that practicing just a little bit on really busy days was “enough.”

How I wish I’d connected the dots to this truth when I responded to the question about retreats in my spiritual direction class! In it lies the answer to why I so rarely set aside a week or a weekend or even a day to attend a retreat. Without even realizing I was doing so, I seem to have embraced the idea that a little time to nurture my spirit a lot (five to six days a week), is better for me in the long run than a lot of time to nurture my spirit a little (once or twice a year).

What could a mini, daily “retreat” look like?

What do I do in all of these little retreat times from my worldly life and work? Currently I …

  • meditate for 20 minutes six days a week.
  • practice 30-60 minutes of yoga and do a few minutes of breathwork five to six days a week.
  • read daily, and I allow what I read to change as my mood or craving changes – it could be an email with a daily quote or a longer essay from teachers I admire; it could be a poem, or a chapter from self-help, spiritualty, or yoga book.
  • write in my journal when the inspiration hits – probably three times a week – and I write an essay for you to read once a week.
  • go to church most Sundays.
  • meet with my spiritual director once a month.

Many mini “retreats” help me avoid the way I feel when I don’t make the time for them

There is no “should” to the way I practice my spirituality. There are no rules. What keeps me on track is the way I feel when I drift away from nurturing myself from the inside out – which can range from slightly anxious, to squeezed and harried, to emotionally, physically, and mentally overwhelmed. In short, I practice to avoid the way I feel when I don’t practice.

And it works. FOR ME.

What works for you is yours to explore – and will be for the rest of your life

What I do to take care of myself may be too much or too little or just not the right “ingredients” for you. What works for you might be signing up for four retreats each year to realign your inner and outer life. My point is that practices take root over the course of many years. What helps the most is the willingness to explore new things and the freedom to keep what works and to let go of what doesn’t.

Nurturing ourselves so that we are better able to nurture the world around us is the work of a lifetime. Lucky for us, a lifetime is exactly how long we have.

Did you know that you don’t have to be religious to explore spiritual direction? Spiritual direction is a powerful way to explore the depths and meaning of life even when we are without a faith tradition.