While we may sometimes feel alone in the world, the isolation and grief many of us feel this year is pronounced and profound. Humans are social beings that rely on community for physical and mental wellbeing. In turn, our communities rely on togetherness, and our collective isolation can fray the fabric of community.
If there is a silver lining to this dilemma, it is that this time in history reminds us that we are not alone. Now, this connection we have with one another is undeniably evident. The importance of our communities has shown itself; we need one another to stay healthy and strong individually and to cultivate and maintain strong communities.
What can we do during this time of isolation and grief? We could see it as an opportunity to practice self-care and embrace productive solitude as we work on strengthening our inner selves for the sake of our communities.
When the concept of self-care was first brought into the western mindset, this was the intention. Self-care was not “me time” or indulgence. In his paper, The Connection of the Care for Self and Other in Plato’s Laches, Harvard PhD candidate, Will Tilleczek, says: “Epimeleia heautou, or care of the self, is central to Socratic ethics. But it was never about treating yourself. The idea was that caring for the self empowers you to better care for others and the world.”
Tilleczek goes on to tell us that Plato believed care and cultivation of the self was also key to creating a fruitful, ethical, and effective democracy. In a modern metaphorical equivalent, we must put on our own oxygen mask first, before helping others.
Rudolf Steiner agreed on the importance of this inner work not only to benefit the self, but to benefit students as an educator, saying simply, “You will not be good teachers if you focus only on what you do and not upon who you are.”
For Steiner, inner work was about knowing a higher self and it took practice, specifically practicing six capacities: “Control of the direction of thought; control of the impulses of will; calmness in joy and sorrow; positiveness in judging the world; impartiality in our attitude toward life, and inner harmony.”
This sounds, by modern definition, a lot like self-improvement and care. In fact, he had specific self-care tasks he recommended as one embarked upon a journey of inner work, including:
Developing a healthy body and soul
Finding our connection to all things
Finding balance in daily life, and
Developing a Healthy Body and Soul
Balanced eating, exercise, and deep breathing are easy starts. We cannot hold our breath through this moment in time, like one may do during a temporary pain like an ear piercing or a toe stubbing. So, breathe deeply, in the fresh air, each day.
Breathing deeply is proven to calm us. According to Esther Sternberg, researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, our breathing can trigger a switch in our nervous system. She says, “deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction — the one that calms us down,” and this effect lasts over the long term in influencing this autonomic system’s ongoing reaction to stress.
For the soul, or the mind if one prefers, try a balance of thought and an acceptance of uncertainty. American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön tells us: "The truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen."
It helps also to simplify expectations and to not value productivity over wellness. Many find comfort in working, and it can be easy to fall out of balance and forget to set boundaries and simplify.
Finding our Connection to All Things
While actively engaged in our communities, in-person connection is the default. Presently, we must bring intention to keeping connection. We must find our creativity and dedicate specific time to reach out through the phone or even the mail. While it’s not the same, it will help.
Nature, thankfully, is still available to most all of us and it is a fruitful way to feel a connection to all things. We can work outdoors, hike, and exercise, or even just sit and observe if the weather allows. As Steiner said, “You can get an idea of human nature only when you can see the relationship of the individual human being to the whole cosmos.”
Finding Balance in Daily Life
Rhythm and repetition hold sway in nature and in our own lives. Ask any Waldorf early childhood teacher how routine influences humans. Routine for young children is everything. While we build a muscle for spontaneity and disruption as we age, routine is our warm home base; our backbone of wellbeing.
Do as our early childhood teachers do. Have activities that breathe in – purposeful, productive, industrious – and then activities that breathe out – relaxing, still, and observational. In this way we can seek to bring balance and routine to our daily lives.
The benefits of gratitude are well documented, such as in this study on gratitude meditation and brain-heart coupling. Noting our gratitude, literally in a journal, can improve our mental and physical health.
If we make time to reflect on the world’s abundance, we can see what we are fortunate to have in life already. These moments not only help with appreciation of what we have, but also broaden our perspective of all that exists in the vast expanding universe.
In conclusion, here is a morning and evening meditation from Rudolf Steiner:
More radiant than the sun,
Purer than snow,
Finer than the ether
Is the Self,
The Spirit of my heart.
I am this Self.
This Self am I.
I am the Self
The Self am I
The Spirit of my Heart
Is the Self
Subtler than the Ether
Purer than Snow
More radiant than the Sun
Photo Credit: The Waldorf School of Philadelphia