DURING my stint in Vietnam in 2008, I became enamoured of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness and joined an informal meditation circle of expats. The Buddhist monk, then in exile in France, was known for creating an engaged Buddhism movement: where monks could practice a meditative life and help those suffering from war (as opposed to choosing one or the other). In those circles, we learned mindfulness was not a tool to get something else but that meditation led to enlightenment which led to collective awakening. There was emphasis on collective action. Hanh said: “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it. But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life.”
Two years later, when I recounted how much I struggled with cultivating a meditation practice, someone recommended the app Headspace. While Zen masters said it can take a lifetime to pursue a practice, the app offers you satisfaction in 10 days. Self-care was made easier by the click of a button.
Fast forward to today and self-care has become a tool for corporations to profit from your misery. Advocates of self-care are also shilling for products they swear will make you weigh less, look younger, feel zen, sleep better, etc. Capitalism has nothing to gain from your belief in yourself as you are, that you are enough. It wants you to worship at their altar of consumerism.
Self-care’s origins can be traced to the medical field which told healthcare workers in highly stressful jobs to care for themselves using diet, exercise and healthy eating. The logic was simple: unless they took care of themselves, they could not help others. Self-care was then a political act in the US during the civil rights movement, when people of colour realised they were deprived of adequate healthcare. They had no choice but to practice self-care. This is where organisations like Black Panthers or queer groups stepped up and offered community services to the marginalised.
Self-care was made easier by the click of a button.
The feminist Audre Lorde wrote in her memoir A Burst of Light about her fight with cancer: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” That a radical thinker’s powerful words have been reduced to slogans on T-shirts tells us about the times we live in.
At the time of writing ‘self-care’ had 47.5m posts on Instagram which consist of affirmations and images of very thin women, doing yoga, in exotic locales, drinking chai tea (an abominable phrase). Is it care if its pursuit on Instagram causes low self-worth? Self-care should be repackaged as self-criticism.
The Royal Society for Public Health in 2017 called Instagram the worst social media platform for young people’s mental health. (YouTube topped the list as most positive.) This is especially worrisome as Facebook plans to launch Instagram for Kids which should top the list of ‘worst idea ever’.
According to an article in Harvard Business Review by Charlotte Lieberman in 2018, the self-improvement industry was worth $11bn. I wonder how much that figure has increased during the pandemic when millions experience anxiety and are likely seeing posts telling them to ensure they are getting adequate self-care.
Do people not have time to pause and ask what is causing us to seek self-care? What/who has failed to provide semblance of care to society? How can self-care be more inclusive and accessible?
When practised as a communal experience, self-care has done wonders for survivors — of domestic violence, assault, displacement, serious illnesses. The current commodified version of self-care is replacing social care and you can see this in vaccine roll-outs around the world. Barring op-eds and a few statements calling out the injustice of rich countries hoarding vaccines, what action have you seen on this?
Self-care so things get better is all well and good for you and I, but for the vast majority of Pakistanis, it’s getting worse and worse. For them, self-care is the last thing on their to-do list because of the rising cost of everything. The disconnect between the haves and have-nots in this country is, in teenspeak, ‘insane’. The rich can download versions of care but the poor do not have access to any care and the supposition that the government can’t (read won’t) provide care is outrageous. We all bear responsibility for this failure. By our disinterest, or electing deplorables with pathetic track records or endorsing dictatorships and then absolving them of reneging on their commitments we are, as Hanh said, “part of the wrongdoing”.
Before it reaches a new level of insanity, perhaps one can advocate ways where it’s possible to practise self-care à la capitalism and provide care for others who desperately need it. One’s self-preservation cannot come at the cost of someone else’s. There is no pleasure or liberation in that — and thankfully no app for it.
The writer teaches journalism at IBA.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2021