Beyond Self Care, Part 2: The solution is community

A 3-part series on the problems with self care—and what going beyond self care looks like.

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I put it out there that self care is fundamentally misguided — and maybe even bad for us.

I made three points:

  1. Putting the ‘self’ at the center of health and well-being is limiting and shortsighted; and as a result

  2. Self care ends up looking like self-isolation; and

  3. The oh-so-Instagrammable self care we know and love/hate doesn’t work.

So what’s the solution to self care? The short answer is: community.

But that answer is, actually, too short. Here, I am using ‘community’ as a kind of shorthand for what it takes to find actual, powerful and lasting well-being. Geographic proximity alone does not lead to this. Neither do shared interests. It takes not just being a collection of selves, but working in concert to transcend ourselves altogether. This means throwing ourselves away, over and over again, in small ways as well as large — but most fundamentally, by taking care of others before ourselves.

I first started to learn this when I moved into a Zen temple in Hawaii called Chozen-ji. For more than a decade prior, I had been meditating seriously, including in annual two-week silent retreats, and exploring different kinds of intentional community, while also managing a career in tech and social change. I arrived in Hawaii still looking for what I sought through meditation, yoga, social movements and even business school at Stanford, but hadn’t yet found.

At Chozen-ji, I found a deep and natural sense of belonging, empowerment, safety and purpose — everything, it turned out, that I had been looking for. This precipitated a remarkable, positive transformation in my physical and psychological health and well-being. No crystals, self care affirmations or digital detox required.

At the same time as I was getting to know Chozen-ji, I was introduced to another community that has been transformative for residents’ well-being. Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae is a houseless encampment of 300 people, almost all Native Hawaiians, on the west side of Oʻahu. When people arrive at Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, it’s often on the worst day of their lives. Whether they’re just losing the roof over their heads or have been on the streets for decades, it is hard to imagine all the things that have gone wrong in a person’s life to lead them to move their family into a tent city with no electricity, no running water and even no permanent structures.

A group of people pose for a selfie around a table, throwing shakas.

But Twinkle Borge, the woman who runs Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae and to whom these 300 people look for love and leadership, knows that caring for others is how someone can best build themselves up from that demoralizing first day. It’s this approach that has allowed her to build Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae up from just herself and seven or eight other residents to a vibrant and inspiring village that resembles the 21st century version of kauhale, a traditional Native Hawaiian way of collective living.

Over the 13 years of running Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, Twinkle has found that many things heal people. It can be cooking food for other village residents, watching kids, or raising plants or chickens. Twinkle’s super power is identifying what kind of responsibility for others is going to, as she puts it, wake up someone’s mana.

Something happens as new residents go deeper and deeper into their new responsibilities, caring for others. They also absorb something from how others are caring for them. Their growing sense of kuleana, or sacred responsibility, to care for the village residents who become family helps rebuild their ability to trust, feel safe and thrive. Their capacity to both give and receive unconditional aloha and care grow and feed each other in a virtuous cycle.

Zen means to transcend all duality — of life and death, self and other. Aloha, while it’s undefinable, can begin to be understood similarly:

“To gain the kingdom of heaven,” said Hawaii’s Queen Liliʻuokalani, “is to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable — that is Aloha. All things in this world are two; in heaven there is but one.”

Zen and aloha, respectively, are at the core of both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae. They are not just concepts or frameworks. They are, in fact, methods for how to live lives full of vitality, meaning, power and freedom — lives that are fully incorporated in and consistent with the natural laws that undergird Buddhism and Taoism, which are the foundations of Zen, and traditional Native Hawaiian spirituality and culture. They are vital ingredients in the sense of caring and well-being here that far transcends the limited and self-centered practice of self care.

Zen and aloha are not the only ways to achieve this. Any method of living that unlocks the ability to care for others before ourselves can result in each of us being taken care of in the ways that self care is supposed to, but fails to do. What is critical in order for a method to result in caring for others before themselves, is that it must develop two traits in people: strength and sensitivity.

It’s easy for most people to understand how sensitivity, which is the ability to pay attention at a refined level and heightening of the senses, can be cultivated by both Zen and aloha. In fact, many assume it’s the entire and only outcome of training in Zen or living with aloha — being in tune with yourself and with nature. But strength has to be developed alongside sensitivity. Without it, you don’t get resilience, only fragility.

The people of Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae have developed strength through different means. Chozen-ji, founded by two martial arts masters who came to Zen later in life, takes the idea of a mind-body connection literally. Alongside the hours of meditation students do inside the dojo, we also train our bodies through ferocious martial arts, repetitive fine arts and manual labor. Even the meditation is physically taxing and sometimes painful, in part because you’re not allowed to move.

For the people of Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, life is their dojo. Much more so than at Chozen-ji, they don’t have a lot of privacy or physical amenities. When it rains heavily, they must stay up all night pushing out the pockets of water that collect and threaten to collapse their tents. For the most part, they lack electricity. Running water is gotten from the public bathrooms and the boat harbor nearby. They take bucket showers and the heat in Waʻianae can be stifling. But their physical circumstances foster a profound mind-body connection, too.

On the other side from what’s challenging about their day-to-day, bodily experience, they rejoice in sharing food, and Twinkle is an exceptional cook. Swimming in the ocean, village volleyball and kickball games, and hula make their bodies strong and centered. And in both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, clear hierarchy, verbal scoldings and physical leadership — including straightforward, simple alpha dominance — are used to mould how people interact with their environments and each other, less through language and ideas, more with their bodies.

This is how strength as perseverance, resilience and power are cultivated at both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae. Students’ and residents’ bodies become familiar with discomfort. Though uncomfortable or in pain, they can stay better connected to the bigger picture. At Chozen-ji, the shorthand for this is being able to feel your feet on the ground, breathe low and slow, and see 180 degrees. At Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, it’s about trust in the love of God and being grounded and in relationship to the aina, or islands of Hawaii. In both cases, it’s about getting out of your own experience to do what needs to be done for others, no matter how you feel.

Spending time with Twinkle and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae’s other leaders, and living and training at Chozen-ji, I’ve been pushed again and again to care for others before myself. It can be as simple as making sure everyone else has been served a meal before I dig in myself, or pausing fully to say hello to someone with a honi, a traditional Hawaiian greeting in which you touch foreheads, share breath and embrace. Caring for others before myself can be much more of a stretch too, like training to telegraph comfort, grace and attentiveness even when I’m exhausted or in pain. And not just in sporadic moments, but as part of the regular rhythm of temple life.

At first, I put up familiar boundaries and retreated when it felt like the demands of Zen training were too much. Because of my chronic fatigue and autoimmune issues, I would bow out of a martial arts class when I was worried it would tax my body too much. I was vocal about my discomforts and ailments, and tracked my hours of sleep. I drew a bath in the shared soaking tubs for myself, first, then anyone else who wanted to use them could. I carried myself in the way that felt right for me and acted in ways that got me what I needed.

One particularly hard day when I’d only slept for three hours for the second or third day in a row, I slumped down for a formal Zen lunch feeling defeated. Though I was already in more of a leadership role than many of the others at lunch that day, I felt so tired and so small.

After lunch, the head priest pulled me aside. “I know you’re tired, but so is everyone else here. When you’re looking down like that and look so miserable, it only makes it harder for everyone else. They see you and they feel that much more exhausted and beat down.”

Among the other students doing this week-long, intensive training called sesshin, there were people in their 60s and 70s. Others had come from the continental US, where they rarely, if ever sat on the floor. Sitting on the floor to meditate for 8 or more hours a day, and even kneeling for a short time, made their bodies quake with pain.

I was struggling, but knew others were having a harder time than I was. I resolved to try harder, to lift my chin up, and to pay attention to those around me rather than be blinded by my own, personal rain cloud. When it came time for me to lead some warm up exercises for the group, I put everything I had into counting the exercises with a bright and energizing voice. Other students perked up and then said I was giving them life. They marveled at how full of energy I appeared — and to my surprise, I actually was.

What had started out as an act of sheer will quickly became a natural, new habit. It was like there was a fifth gear I had never known was there and suddenly now had access to. I just had to stop wasting so much energy telling myself, “I’m so tired” and “I can’t do this”, and focusing on what I wanted.

Other similar moments have followed, but that was the first time I really remember throwing myself away. I had cut through how I usually dwelled on myself. I wasn’t at the point yet of caring for others, but I was at least learning to pay attention to them.

Since that time, I have noticed that there are five things that happen when people put caring for others ahead of caring for themselves.

The first is that these people become really observant. They can take one look at your face and know if you’re exhausted or excited. They take note of which foods bring you to life and remember what doesn’t sit so well. They notice you slowing down and mellowing out as the years go on.

Second, they become less attached to what they want for themselves. They become less set on their way of doing things, especially if their way makes someone else uncomfortable. They need less and less credit for the ways they care for others. They know the difference between needs and wants, and more easily let go of the latter.

This leads to the third thing that happens to people when they care for others before themselves: they find a new source of energy to keep caring and doing when, objectively, they should be at empty. It could be mystical or divine. Or it could just be that the rest of us are wasting more energy than we can imagine ruminating on the past, caught up in ourselves, and scheming how to get what we want in the future.

Fourth, people who care for others first are more willing to jump in, respond and take responsibility when it’s needed. They are also able to let go of what’s beyond their control. As my teacher, Sayama Daian Roshi says, they start to see ‘responsibility’ as ‘response-ability’ or the ability to respond. They become more masterful in more circumstances, agentic and empowered. At the same time, they recognize the importance of following through and are less likely to commit to things flippantly or flake out. They do so without drama. They don’t martyr themselves or make it an issue for others. As the old Japanese saying goes, if they see a weed, they pull it.

Finally, they find it easier to take care of themselves when they need to. They don’t get weighed down by anxiety, guilt or self-doubt when they need to step away to sleep, exercise or be with their loved ones. Like brushing their teeth, it becomes something they do without contrivance and without performance. Someone says to them, “whoah, you look like crap. I got this. Go sleep.” And instead of saying “no, no I can power through” or saying OK but being unable to rest because they feel guilty, they just sleep. They don’t waste precious sleeping time to post a photo of themselves in bed with a witty caption justifying their rest, hashtagged #selfcare. They. Just. Sleep.

Beyond the shortcomings of self care, there is community. When you live in community through a method like Zen or aloha that builds sensitivity and strength, you can start to move your self away from the center of all experience by caring for others before yourself. Stress and discomfort stop being things to run away from or wall off. Instead, you run straight into them and cut through. On the other side are the most important measures of health and well-being: happiness and freedom.

In the final and third part of this series, I’ll share the simple things you can start to do now to move beyond self care.

Next time: Why how you leave your shoes matters — and what it says about your well-being and happiness.