This is a Patreon reward post, though it was a few weeks late. Every Patreon supporter at the $10+ level can have a self-care post written for them, on the topic of their choice, during their birthday month. Sound interesting? Head over to my Patreon! All patrons, regardless of support level, get access to posts early and are able to offer feedback and make suggestions.
Rachael’s requested topic was “mindfulness and self-care.”
I was inspired by Rachael’s ability to successfully inhabit multiple roles, which gave me the idea of integrating various selves through different mindfulness practices. I’m really drawn to narratives and frames that incorporate the elements as metaphors for and aspects of the self – I use elemental interpretations of my tarot spreads really frequently, and I find that it’s helpful for viewing myself and my situations as parts within a whole. By explicitly pulling the mental, physical, emotional, and creative/spiritual selves out, I’m better able to see how the different parts of me influence the whole.
I used this framing to build the structure for my online courses, and leaned on it again for this post. (And on the topic of the online courses, keep your eyes open for the fall course, on emotional self-care, launching soon!)
One reason I wanted to use the elements in this prompt is because mindfulness so often so often, the idea of “mindfulness” is connected exclusively to ideas of meditation or deep breathing. It doesn’t always show up in how we understand other aspects of ourselves, and it can seem out of place in our emotional or creative lives. Although meditation and deep breathing are valid (and important) mindfulness practices, they aren’t the only ways to bring mindfulness into your self-care routine. So, here is my woo-influenced four-part mindfulness and self-care post. You can ignore the woo and just go for the self-care strategies if that’s a better fit for you.
The air element (the sword suit in tarot) is all about the mental self.
We’re starting with the air element and the mental self because “mindfulness” is all about being present, but that’s tricky when we’re talking about our mental selves. For so many of us, being present in our minds looks more like over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-intellectualizing than anything else. The mind overtakes, and mindfulness takes on a new meaning – full of mind, full of thoughts and thinking. The swords are sometimes called the “suit of sorrow” and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Swords are not just about the mind, they’re also about the truth. They’re about insight, knowledge, and awareness.
They’re double-edged. The truth hurts, indeed.
So how do we practice mindful self-care when it comes to our mental selves, especially when we often find so much pain in our minds?
My favourite tarot blogger, Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot, says this about the swords – “Don’t let your mind be your own worst enemy. Laugh at it when you can – the swords and all the insecurity and strife they represent can be helpful, even when you think you don’t want to know… Seek the truth. Face the truth. Accept the truth…or change it.”
Based on that insight, here are a couple mindfulness exercises for mental self-care:
Laugh at it when you can.
“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back in on the inhale.” – Will Durst
Many of us (I would venture to say most of us, in this current political and social climate) are operating under persistent, pervasive, chronic stress, anxiety, and existential dread. We are definitely living in the swords – the painful edges of the truth are cutting so many of us as we realize (or re-realize) how hateful and cruel our fellow humans can be, and are.
Laughter feels challenging in this context.
It can feel disrespectful to laugh in the face of so much danger, violence, and hate. And it’s a fact that too much comedy has become disrespectful, leans too hard on punching down.
But laughter itself is powerful medicine. And, although mindfulness often brings connotations of Very Serious Business, mindful laughter is a real thing, and can be really helpful!
So, find a way to be present with your current experience, and, if you can, find some way to laugh – at it, about it, despite it.
If you need tarot inspiration, turn to the Nine and Ten of Swords. In these cards, everything is so awful that sometimes you just have to laugh. These are the nightmare cards, but together they become mockable. Is it really so bad, they ask? Yes! Yes. And still, it’s possible to laugh at them, at ourselves within them, at the situation that calls them out.
Make a list of all the things that are wrong and horrible in your life and in the world right now. How many of them are so wrong and horrible that even five years ago they would have seemed like a parody?
Find a way to frame them as being as ridiculous as they truly are.
Draw them as a cartoon.
Write a story that highlights the what-the-fuckery of the situation.
Or even just look at the situation all around us, see it, and laugh.
Find a way to laugh – for yourself, in a way that is healing and mindful for you. Use laughter as a tool to pull yourself out of the dread, and to allow yourself to be more fully present with your experience.
(Laughter can also be used as an avoidance tool, and that would be counter to this exercise. It can also be used as a weapon against people more vulnerable than we are, and that, too, would be counter to this exercise.)
Tell the Story
If you can’t stop yourself from overthinking – and seriously, welcome, join me, this is where I live – then stop trying to stop yourself and simply observe yourself. Rather than rejecting and shaming your overthinking mind, start watching and narrating what it’s doing. You might find that you’re overthinking a specific issue because your mind is (wisely) trying to get to the root of it, or find a new way out. You may discover that the overthinking is triggered because the current situation mirrors a situation from your past, and by making the links explicit, you can start to see the differences between the two situations.
So, when you start overthinking, just take a small step back, and start narrating the story of your brain in its activity.
Imagine yourself narrating what’s happening in your own mind (picture Morgan Freeman or Ron Howard’s voice, if it helps). Be gentle and honest.
Your initial narration might look like – “Right now, I am thinking about what happened three years ago. The story I am telling myself is that this situation is the same as that situation. I can’t stop thinking about how it felt. I am worried I’ll feel the same way again.”
Once you know what’s happening, you can make choices from a place of compassionate self-awareness.
The earth element (pentacles/coins in tarot) is all about the physical self.
Mindfulness and the physical self is the entire focus of my summer online course, so this has been my life for the last 6 weeks! (It’s also, by far, the most challenging element for me – dissociation has saved me so many times in so many trauma responses, and I spend time in this body only reluctantly and hesitantly. I’m working on it, but it’s still tough. For my other trauma bbs out there, who use dissociation as a valid and effective coping strategy, solidarity. It may not be where we want to stay, but it’s where we are sometimes.)
Despite all of the work I’ve done to bring mindfulness to my physical self-care, and even the many successes over the last year of focus on this, I still find that my favourite mindfulness exercise when it comes to my physical state is an old one. The new skills I’ve learned – breathing exercises, grounding exercises, body scan meditations – are useful and valuable, but this simple three-step process is still the one that is most accessible to me in difficult moments.
Breath, Posture, Grounding
A couple years ago, I went through an extended period of depression, anxiety, and general Life Suck. My friend, Jim Tait, would send me regular messages – “breath, posture, grounding” – whenever I seemed to be spiraling. It was a gentle, non-judgmental reminder to come back to my body, and I found it easier to engage with than more elaborate mindfulness exercises.
I would sit up a bit taller, let my shoulders drop down from my ears, and gently coax my spine back from its question-mark hunch.
I would take a breath and feel the air fill my lungs. Sitting up opens up so much space in my lungs, and I would feel the tightness across my clavicle as the air filled me up (or tried to, anyway).
I would feel myself on the earth – either my feet on the ground, or my hip bones on my seat. Grounding is always the hardest for me, especially when I’m spiraling in anxiety or lost in depression, but finding a way to connect back down to the physical world and to my physical body within that physical world is always so valuable.
So, that’s the exercise I leave you with as well.
Just a gentle nudge to be present with your physical self, even more a moment – breath, posture, grounding.
Touch the Earth
Emily Goss (from groweatgift) suggested this additional exercise, and I love it.
“Dig your hands into the soil in a forest. Trees are all connected through the wood wide web. Feel the connection with something larger than yourself by joining the conversation. When you return home, plant a seed (perhaps a tree seed you’ve collected) and nurture it into growth.”
The water element (cups in tarot) is all about the emotional self.
It is incredibly difficult to bring mindfulness to our emotional selves. When we’re angry or afraid, we lose connection to our mindful selves when the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system kicks in. When we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, we disconnect not only from ourselves but also from anyone around us. When we’re having a trauma response, dissociation is an incredibly common reaction. And even when we’re joyful, we often get caught in what Brene Brown calls “fearful joy” and anticipate the loss of our joy.
So, how do we bring mindfulness to our emotional selves, and how do we do it in a way that is compassionate, intentional, and self-aware? How can we practice mindfulness in our emotional lives without completely letting go of the necessary coping strategies that get us through difficult emotions?
It takes practice. And it takes an awful lot of gentleness and patience, because it isn’t easy.
Emotional Mindfulness (in five not-always-easy steps)
1 – Pause. Notice that you are having an emotional reaction (good or bad or awful) and take a moment before proceeding. It can be helpful to practice this when you’re having positive emotional reactions at least as often as you practice it when you’re having negative emotional reactions. It’s often easier to bring mindfulness to our fear, anger, or sadness because we notice them more easily. But bringing mindfulness to joy, happiness, and calm can help us recognize those feelings in our body and practice accepting positive emotions when they come (which is surprisingly difficult for a lot of us!)
2 – Name the emotion. Give words to the experience. Not only does this help you understand the experience, it also acts as a reminder that you are the expert in your own experience, and you are at the centre of your own story. You are the narrator. You have the knowledge and insight to be able to name and know your emotional self.
3 – Accept the emotion. For me, this one is hard. It is helpful for me to remember that acceptance is in this moment. If I am afraid, I can name it (“I am afraid”) and accept it (“I am allowed to be afraid, my fear is acceptable”) without committing to it as a permanent state. Accepting that I am feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean I have failed or that I will be caught in this feeling forever. And, if the feeling is joyful, accepting it doesn’t “jinx” it. Acceptance just means intentionally and compassionately allowing the emotion to be what it is.
4 – Remember that the emotion is temporary. Whatever it is, it will pass. This is where all of the ubiquitous river imagery comes in – life flows along, and our emotions flow with it. Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same forever. This can be an impossible truth to hold when the emotions are overwhelming us, or when we are terrified to lose the feeling, but it is true, and once we accept it, we can allow the emotion to flow through us without getting stuck. Imagine yourself on the shore of the river, the emotion flowing past you. If it is a joyful emotion, let it continue to flow without trying to trap it, because the act of trying to hold it changes it and often stifles it. If it is a fearful, angry, or shameful emotion, also let it continue to flow. It will pass, and you will still be here.
5 – Once you have noticed, named, accepted, and allowed the emotion to flow, take a deep breath and consider your response. What, if anything, do you need to do with this true and temporary emotion? Allow yourself to act, with awareness, compassion, and intention. Trust yourself. You are the expert, and you know what you need.
Have a Bath
Another suggestion from Emily, that bridges the physical and emotional selves, and ties more directly to the element of water.
“Have a bath with oils that feel right to you. Slough or scrub your skin while imagining your frustrations being shed with your old skin. Make your own toiletries from sea salt and oats, or other natural products to reduce the strain on the planet. We are all part of the same world and respecting the planet shows self respect. After your bath, use the water to water plants – your dead skin sells can provide nutrients for the plants (and it avoids water waste).”
The fire element (wands in tarot) is all about the spiritual and creative self.
This element is all about passion – fiery energy that fuels creativity and connection. Not everyone has a spiritual self, and not everyone identifies as creative, but we each experience passion. This part of ourselves shows up in unique and beautiful ways.
Because creativity and spirituality are both so individual (and come weighted with so much narrative baggage – who is allowed to be creative, what spiritual experiences are valid), I found it difficult to choose a mindfulness exercise for this element. But because this element is so important to my own experience, and because I associate Rachael so much with this element, it felt important. So, you get two.
Pick a creative activity. Pick anything – drawing, writing, painting, dancing, singing, baking, origami, game design, coding, songwriting, guitar strummin’, flute whistlin’, knitting, crochet, etching, woodcutting, Lego, gardening, science experiments, beadwork, jewelry-making – any activity that feels creative for you. If you’re really stuck and this pokes you in some vulnerabilities, pick something ridiculous. Macaroni art, for example.
Clear some space.
Get your materials out.
Take a deep breath.
Set your timer for 15 minutes.
And then just keep breathing and doing your creative work. Stay focused on how it feels to be creating something, whatever that something is.
When your judging mind leans over your shoulder and says “Really? Rotini? I thought we were going for more of a impressionistic rigatoni look here,” just lean back in your chair, look that judgey self right in the metaphorical eye and say “Inner critic, it’s okay. I know that you are afraid someone’s going to laugh at this, but it’s okay. We’re creative and we’re doing this. I appreciate the penne for your thoughts, but I’m going to re-fusilli to respond with anger.” (And then laugh at those sharp swords of self-doubt dulled to dry spaghetti by your wit and self-awareness. Look, we’re back at Air!)
Keep doing your work. Feel the materials you’re working with, look at what you’re making, be present with your creative self. Keep coming back to that creative self. Whenever you get pulled away into judgement, or fear of the future, or remembering failures of the past, just come back to this moment of creativity.
When the timer goes off, take another deep breath. Assess. Are you done? If not, keep going. If you are, that’s awesome. You did it!
I struggle so much with this myself, as a former evangelical Christian, former capital-a Atheist, current pagan-of-some-flavour, tarot-reading, here-for-the-queer-witches something-or-other.
But after many weeks of thinking about it, I landed on this:
Pay attention to the moments when you feel connected to something bigger and deeper than your normal everyday self. You may perceive this as a spiritual experience, or not. What you’re listening for, watching for, feeling for is a sense of connectedness.
(This is not a “do it for five minutes” exercise – this is a “watch for it throughout the next week” exercise.)
When you feel it, note it.
Just give it a little nod of acknowledgment. Maybe even take a note of what was happening that helped you feel connected. Were you outdoors? Were you with people? Were you doing something ritualized (often ritual allows us to drop into that connected space more easily) or were you trying something new?
Note it, acknowledge it, and keep going.
The more we learn to see these moments of connection, the less alone we feel throughout the rest of our days.
And this is not necessarily a spiritual practice – secular ritual is something I’ve been researching for almost a year now. So, although I am calling it spiritual because I experience it as spiritual, you can dip your toe in this exercise even if you are a staunch atheist.
Build a Fire
Another suggestion from Emily.
“Make a fire by hand and use your breath to turn embers into flames (being careful not to burn yourself – sparks can fly!) There’s something magical about making a fire happen from scratch (but don’t feel ashamed if you need to use a lighter/matches instead of a flint).”
Integration: One Last Mindfulness Self-Care Exercise
Because our selves all co-exist and are each integrated (to various degrees) within a single bodymind, a final mindfulness self-care exercise focused on integration.
This exercise is one that I use when various selves are flipping out – when my inner trauma child is frightened or angry, or when my shame gremlins are on the prowl, or when my Gender Feels are making some noise.
Mindfulness is, after all, nothing more (or less) than being present in the moment. Bringing awareness and non-judgement to the present moment, and accepting that it is what it is. In my own practice, mindfulness extends into intentional compassion, to the acts that weave together into sustainable self-care.
So, in the moments of dis-integration, disassociation, dysfunction, distress – be present. As much as you can, take that steadying breath, take a look across your inner selfscape, recognize the fractures and bends and the negative spaces where parts of yourself have gone into hiding. Let yourself see the disintegrated self, and accept the disintegration, and extend compassion to it.
I don’t believe that mindful integration requires us to heal all the wounds, fill all the gaps, join all the points of disjuncture. I believe that all we have to do is be present with ourselves, accept ourselves in whatever state we are in, and in that process of gentle acceptance we will start to make space for those wounds to heal, for those selves to slowly slide back into the negative spaces they left when they bolted.
So many of us who have trauma in our past have so many of these gaps in our experience of self.
We can be present with ourselves as we are now, because we are still good, now. We have everything we need. The small childself hiding in the closet in the dark corner of our mind is still there – they just need some gentle safety to come back out. We are whole, even when we are broken. We are good enough.
We can breathe and be present with ourselves, however we are, whatever that looks like, and bring ourselves through the experience of distress.
A Tarot Bonus
This is the spread I use most often, and I find it helpful when I’m trying to decide what sort of self-care I need.
I shuffle my cards, cut the deck, lay the cards out (centre card first, then air, water, earth, fire) and then flip them over. Whatever card shows up in each position, I take as an indicator of what I might need in that area, or as an invitation to think about the narrative I’m investing in when it comes to those elements.