Culture and Community: The Importance of Self Care as Pagans

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This year has brought about many challenges within our communities and across the world. The closing of 2014 highlights what has seemed to be a complex year of politics, celebrations, complicated dynamics and transitions. As the Solstice is near, and 2015 approaches, people are looking for ways to recuperate, rejuvenate and internalize the rebirth of the sun as we move forward.

The longest night of the year, on the 21st of this month, represents the rebirth of the sun in many different traditions. This natural transition has many different spiritual significances, including the sun as a symbol of hope and growth. And the Gregorian calendar restarts one week later on New Year’s Eve, giving people this same sense of transition and hope.

Courtesy of pixabay.com

Courtesy of pixabay.com

In these times of civil unrest, many people are looking for a chance to recuperate from the on-going challenges and to prepare for new opportunities. One of the most important concepts in doing that is self care. This is the mental, spiritual, emotional and physical support that comes from specific actions, events, and activities that are personally fulfilling and intentional.

Self care, as an act, is something that is often instrumental in healing work, and balancing personal energies to prevent or decrease burnout or emotional fatigue. People  of many spiritual paths discuss having a daily spiritual practice or routine, as a form of self care. Some Pagan traditions stress this point for practitioners and, especially, students, but others do not.

Regardless, activism, teaching, Priest or Priestessing, and other forms of manifested spiritual activities can take an additional emotional toll.  When you add these additional tasks to the intensity of jobs, children, the holidays, and the everyday routines that challenge our minds, bodies and spirits, we see how self care becomes a needed act of health.

It is often understood that Pagan leaders have fallen into the traps of burnout, and many have decided to leave the community or have become ineffective leaders as a result. Recognizing the importance of having intentional activities and moments of release to support homeostasis is vital to the sustainability of personal health and community health.

Self care is not just about meditation and mindfulness, although these things are often included, but it can also include everything from good sleep and eating patterns, exercise, routine social engagements, to self imposed moments of time out.

While anyone is susceptible to levels of burnout, or emotional fatigue, service professionals are trained in this concept to help their clients and to increase their own job effectiveness. Several professionals within the psychology, social work and behavioral science fields shared their thoughts and insights on the importance of self care and the intersection of spirituality. Lupa Greenwolf has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and is a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Jacki Richardson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Missouri, and Elizabeth Rose is Master’s level Social Worker (MSW) in Southern California.

[Photo Credit: B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net / CC lic.]

[Photo Credit: B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net / CC lic.]

Lupa Greenwolf

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

Preventative care is gaining wider acceptance in the medical community in general. For mental health care, self care is one of the best forms of preventative care there is. Many of us suffer from stress on a daily basis, even if we don’t have any other mental health concerns, and over time that stress can really wear us down. It has measurable effects on our mind and emotions as well as on our bodies. So one of the best things you can do for yourself is regular self care.

By self care I don’t just mean taking a week-long vacation somewhere; while vacations are great, most of us can only take one or two a year at the most. Instead, I’m talking about regular, even daily practices to reduce stress and otherwise increase mental well-being. For some people that’s meditation; for others it’s quality time with family or friends. Do you exercise a few times a week? That’s self care, too–physical exercise has been shown to boost psychological health. And if you exercise outside, as opposed to in a gym, you get the positive benefits of nature, even if it’s in a city park.

Self care isn’t just good for shaking off everyday stress, though. We all have times in our lives where things get really tough–the death of a loved one, a lost job, medical issues, all of these can make your life a lot harder to get through. And for people who have other mental conditions like anxiety and disorder, life can sometimes be a bit of a roller coaster when symptoms increase. So for the times when you’re knocked out of your usual comfort level, self care can help to keep you from feeling even worse until you can get your equilibrium back.

Finally, there are people who put themselves deliberately in situations that can increase the stress in their lives. When you go to a protest, both the activists and the police on duty are in high-stress positions, and over time continuing to be in the role of activist or officer can lead to burnout and other products of this immense amount of stress. In fact, anyone working a job or other activity where you’re subjected to spikes in your stress level on a regular basis–firefighters, teachers, people working on fishing boats, and more–can find their psychological reserves worn down faster than the rest of us, especially if they’re also experiencing potentially traumatic situations as part of the normal course of their work. For these people self care may need to include more intensive tools such as therapy, or good books on trauma work like Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship, not just when they’re traumatized, but before it happens (there’s that preventative care again.)

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?

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Lupa Greenwolf

The burnout associated with this time of year has several signs you may notice. You may feel physically or mentally tired, and the idea of getting up to go to work or school yet again just makes you want to roll back over and go to sleep (more than usual!) Once you get where you’re going, you may find yourself unable to focus on the tasks at hand, whether that’s responsibilities at the office or caring for young children as a stay at home parent. Some people become more irritable when they’re burned out and may snap at small provocations. Others find themselves crying for no real reason, or just feeling “off” in general. And it’s not uncommon to zone out, daydreaming about being anywhere except where you are now, even though you have a deadline to meet and entirely too much work to get it done. (Note: if these symptoms last for more than a few weeks or if they keep coming back you may wish to talk to a mental health professional about the possibility that there may be more than burnout going on.)

Just taking a little time each day–or even a moment every hour–to take a break from the usual stuff we do can have a big positive impact on our mental health. Think of it like having to work outside all day in really cold weather, but every hour you come back inside to warm up for a few minutes before you head back out. You can also make better use of your time off. Do the things that need to get done–make sure everyone gets fed and that everyone has clean socks (or ask someone else in your household if they can help or do it themselves.) But don’t feel you have to go above and beyond. And let yourself have at least one genuine day off a week if you can. Don’t just zone out in front of the TV; that’s doing the same old, same old. Instead, take the opportunity to get a change of scenery; go to a museum, or a park, or even just a walk in your own neighborhood if you can.

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality is the art of feeling you are a part of something greater than yourself. Whenever I get stressed, I remember that I am just one tiny bit of a highly complex, interconnected universe made of intricate bits and parts ranging from atoms to galaxies. This reminds me that there’s a lot more going on than just my own concerns, and it inspires me a sense of wonder and awe that I am privileged enough to be a part of this amazing reality. It doesn’t take away the problems I face, but it puts them in perspective.

Actively participating in your spirituality, even in small ways, can help you feel more grounded. It gives you some sense of routine and predictability. Burnout is often accompanied by feeling out of control of one’s life, and when you’re able to regain some control in one part–like spirituality–it can help reduce the stress associated with other areas that are still largely out of your grasp.

The winter solstice is a particularly nice time in the Northern Hemisphere for shifting your energies (figuratively or literally) as it marks the time when the sun starts to head back north, signifying a return from darkness. (In the Southern Hemisphere, you may wish to see it as the beginning of a respite from the heat of summer, reflected in one’s own burnout.)

[Courtesy of Pixabay]

[Courtesy of Pixabay]

Elizabeth Rose

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

What follows is a mixture of my clinical training, mostly as it supports my spiritual practices. I was a priestess before I was a therapist and social worker, and, lifelong, I’ve been a healer on my own journey. The best reason for self-care would be self-love or, to be more accurate, self-preservation. Of course, helper-types are notorious for thinking that the advice “be kind to yourself” applies to everyone BUT them. So, if I’m dealing with one of those (and I am one of those), I talk about “putting on your own oxygen mask first”. Most people generally understand that, to be prepared for the worst, you have to be able to breathe, to function mentally and physically.

Generally I strive for some degree of ongoing self-awareness of the condition of my body, mind and spirit, to catch problems before they debilitate me. In other words, I self-monitor. It can also mean making sure my timecard at my job is filled out and submitted 1st thing Friday morning, BEFORE I start taking calls, setting appointments or seeing clients. Worrying about how to make ends meet is not helpful for staying stress-free. A poor relationship with money (and the self-value connected to money) is also an area where many “helpers” struggle. For someone who likes to help,  it requires a conscious effort not to overextend one’s boundaries and to put personal priorities first. Doing so really helps decrease stress, however.

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?

I know, going into the holiday season, that I’m more likely to be tired, or stressed and make a point of observing myself for this – being more reactive, moody or achy. Having a mindfulness practice really helps. Checking myself, using a chakra model, helps me. Making sure my basic needs are taken care of, starting with the foundation: 1st chakra – “How well am I grounding whatever is coming to or through me?” “Do I have the basics: enough money, food, safe/quiet space just to be?”; 2nd chakra – “How am I nourishing myself or getting nourishment from others?” “Do I have any moments of joy or play in my day?”; 3rd chakra – “Am I able to positively influence my environment? If not, why not?”

On the therapeutic side, a formula from the recovery community, HALT (“Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?”) is really helpful and covers all these areas as well. If any of these are “empty” or in poor condition, go remedy the problem before proceeding further.  Getting regular massage, spa-time (even if it’s just my bathtub and some Epsom salts), more sleep, yoga and healthy food can help address those “lower chakra” issues. So can telling people who are crossing your boundaries to “step off”, as this can be a serious energy drain. During holidays, family often presents these sorts of challenges and navigating family boundaries can take a lot of awareness and energy management.

Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose

Doing a basic grounding and protecting process if I sense I’m getting shifted off my center is almost a reflex now. I was trained by Petey Stevens of Heartsong in a very useful model, although my Traditional Craft training used some similar methods. I’d also recommend practicing energy movements, in the manner described by Julie Henderson. Her book The Lover Within is a simple, basic text in energy work, a sort of Western Tantra. Learning how to condense overly-diffuse energy is really helpful for most empathic types. For protection, I simply connect to Earth and Sky, letting go into the  ground what I don’t need.

I also use music, sound and dance to shift my energy and recommend this for people who are strongly auditory or kinesthetic (as I am). I find the vibrations of certain sounds, like mantras, overtone chanting or singing songs that have positive resonance can work very well (and you can do them in the car or on a walk). Surrounding yourself with colors that shift your mood is beneficial too. You may find it humorous, but since, as a social worker, my job involves a lot of computer time, I do my nails with colors and designs that make me happy, since I look at my own hands …a lot. My inner priestess loves ornament! It raises my sense of joy. .

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality infuses everything I do, but making time away from the rest of my work and family life is very important to what I like to call my “sanity-maintenance program”. Like any good Ban Drui, getting nature time is one of my most important spiritual tools. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to head up to Mt. Tamalpais and just take naps. Seriously. Allowing that Mother Mountain to just seep into me, through the fine osmosis of lying on Her sacred earth,  worked amazingly well.  Now that I live in Los Angeles, I walk in our accessible, local mountains, sometimes seeking a prayer spot, where I make offerings and ask for guidance. I allow the Divine to speak to me, whether God/dess or nature spirit. This brings a sense of the timelessness and grace, which puts my daily work or problems in perspective. Similarly, when I’m working, and feeling stressed or challenged, I reach into that spiritual place I’ve strengthened in nature and ask for help.

I also find some form of metta practice helps me do my work from a healthier place: wishing well for others and for myself, as a spiritual practice. The history/folklore-loving Trad Witch side is pretty practical and “ecumenical” in my practice, so I’ll use many kinds of practices and prayers that work for me.  Any way you can find a breath, a prayer, a tree, bird or breeze that calls you- even if only for a moment – away to the Fair Lands of magic, of creation and of dream, take that instant and recall your soul. Seek someone who supports your spirit and reach out to that person, if only for a brief phone call. A chat at the water cooler with a soul-friend can be a lifesaver when you are stressed. This is why our spiritual families are so important. We require reminders to feed our own souls, so we can keep doing what we must:  to survive and to remake the human world in the ideals of joy, healing and peace that are the true spirit of this deep season. This is the Light, the Sun, that must be reborn, first, in us, at this time of year.

[Photo Credit: Ashley Coombs / CC lic. - edited to fit space]

[Photo Credit: Ashley Coombs / CC lic. – edited from original]

Jacki Richardson

What would you say are the reasons someone should identify effective self care techniques?

As clinicians, our job is to keep our lenses as clear as possible so that we are not projecting our “stuff” onto clients. The more we take care of ourselves, the better we are able to really see what is going on with others (rather than what we want or don’t want to see in ourselves).

As a professional, what do you find are some useful ways to identify and cope with end of the year burnout?

There are two ends of the spectrum – being exceptionally irritable or impatient or negative (it may be different for others, however that negative, flattened emotion shows up for people individually) and the opposite – being unable to enjoy the things that I usually enjoy.  A subtle but important “red flag” for me is when I get “overly upset” when someone I’m working with doesn’t do what I see as in their best interests – self determination is key and my role is to facilitate growth and understanding. If I get overly emotionally attached to a specific outcome then it is a sign that I am missing a “hook” (or trigger) that has more to do with me than with the client.

As difficult as it may be to sustain over a lifetime, making a goal of journaling or self-reflection (meditation, prayer or otherwise) on a daily basis, and keeping a record/track of that is helpful to identify “burnout” earlier so that it can be addressed earlier (particularly before doing something regrettable).

My first mentor in social work talked to me about finding volunteer work completely outside the circle of my “professional track” – at times this has been working with animal rescue, a soup kitchen or toy drive. This year I am working on helping others to be able to give to even others. Whatever brings simple joy, even if only felt “remotely” at first.

How can spirituality play a role in this process?

Spirituality encompasses a lot. I find being able to share and release the burden to generate change in difficult situations (through meditation, visualization, prayer) to be very helpful. I had one client who made heart breaking choices around the holidays – she got on a bus and fled to another  state, leaving her children behind. After speaking with everyone involved she was given the opportunity to come back (she had left her children with her sister).  She ended up deciding to not come back. I remember after the call I visualized packing up a backpack with the blessings and what I hoped and wished and handing it to her.  I visualized her walking away from me on her own path. Being able to bless her and wish her well allowed me to release her emotionally but also hope and believe she could find her own way around a curve I was not able to see.

As we move deeper into the shadow months, inching closer toward the stressful holidays and the finality of 2014, how can concepts of self care result in healthier transitions? How can we use the momentum of the coming new year to identify healthy skills that will support healthier communities? What are the ways that self care activities can make us more capable of enduring the stresses of activism, teaching, and manifesting a healthy society and Pagan community?

As we move into another year, we reflect on the many ways that our version of Pagan spirituality, activities, choices, and responsibilities intersect with personal health, spiritual community, cultural obligations and societal expectations. Those in the field of social sciences are trained to understand that we are no good to our clients if we are not healthy within ourselves. This concept is something often neglected by people within the modern Pagan community, and within many other spiritual cultures.The importance of self care equates to personal and community accountability.

As 2014 comes to a close, the sun is reborn and 2015 greets us on the first of January remember to increase your sleep, eat healthy foods, spend quality time with the people you love, read a good book, practice mindfulness, go for a walk in the elements, watch a good movie, increase your daily spiritual connections, and find ways to give yourself some much needed time to rebalancing.

May we all transition into the New Year with a renewed sense of self, a clearer purpose, and an ability to embrace hope.