When was the last time you asked yourself what you need? Not what’s for dinner or what emails have to be answered for work or what you need to do to make sure that everyone else around you is well tended and taken care of. This question is simply about you. If the rest of the world and responsibilities fell away just for a minute - or an hour - where would your spirit pull you? What, would it feel like to do exactly whatever it is that tugs at your heart in that moment. What is that? Is it a moment alone to sit in stillness? Is it a guilt-free run on a trail? Is it reading (or writing) a book? Tending your garden? Dinner out with friends or family? A nap?
Until a few weeks ago, I would have said, with confidence, that given the opportunity it would be easy to decide how to fill that time. Sixty minutes of uninterrupted, unplugged me time? Ha! Where do I begin? As it often happens, it turns out that some of the easiest questions actually are the most difficult to answer.
Every day, we choose how to spend our time. We work, we sleep, we cook, we check off what needs to be done to meet the basic demands of living. Then we fill in the cracks with all of the other stuff: kids’ activities, media, time with friends, checking in with family, volunteering, tending to our health or the health of others. We settle into our habits and routines, and time seems to shrink, until we just do-what-we-do with little thought to whether, in this moment, we might actually, possibly, really need to be doing something else?
For 72 hours, I was given the freedom to ask myself what I need in the moment. And I struggled, gaging my options mostly by my preconceived notions about what might be viewed as highest-value activity (hint: no such thing). It took a full 24 hours for me to finally lean into the freedom that comes with knowing that what I should be doing is exactly whatever-the-hell-I-want-to-be-doing and following wherever my spirit in the moment led me. As I moved through those three days I learned to listen to that inner voice, and I learned:
I needed to commit to writing everything that I was experiencing so that I could capture it for me and to give me some starting point from which to translate the experience for my family. I needed time to let all of my thoughts, feelings, explorations, and ideas tumble out onto the pages more than I needed sleep.
I need different things from my runs. One day I needed to run hard for 10 miles on a forest trail, in joyful celebration of life in the company of new friends. The next day, I needed to purposely pull myself away from the pack to walk - not run – so that I could soak in the beauty of the place and to be alone in my grateful tears.
I need more time in the company of people who are diverse, and engaged, and strong. Friends and family – old and new, near and far - who dare me to peel back layers, challenge me to think deeply and go beyond what is comfortable. People who know the simultaneous discomfort and joy that comes with pushing your physical and intellectual limits, and who go out of their way to support each other in these endeavors.
A lot is said and written these days about “self-care”. Most advice centers around vague notions of slowing down, being good to yourself, unplugging, and generally letting go. But I would argue that real self-care is not as easy as advertised and requires more than 10-minutes of quiet time with a cup of tea. I would advocate instead that true self-care begins with spending time with yourself to understand and discover what you need to be doing. Strip away the obvious answers and get to the core of what really is deserving of your precious time. What brings you the most fulfillment? Strength? Peace? Joy? What do you crave in the same way that your lungs crave oxygen?
Whatever those things are for you, do more of them.