Taking Care of Ourselves to Care for Others

10th Ave

Tire Shop, 10th Ave. NYC. Photo by Celia

“Looking after oneself, one looks after others.

“Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

~Gotama Buddha, SN 47:19

“One should not give up one’s own welfare,

Even for the sake of much welfare of others”

~Gotama Buddha, AN 49:5

“If one is drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning,

that is impossible”

~ Gotama Buddha, Sallekha Sutta


Dear Friends,

As children of aging parents, parents of children, pet owners, and citizens of a society that seems to be galloping towards calamity, we are called upon to care for others. The Bodhisattva vow, an integral part of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, stresses the importance of being of service, even deferring our own spiritual liberation until all beings are free from suffering. In the Brahmavihāra practice, we cultivate the mind states of care, compassion, joy, and equanimity for all beings. The Buddha asks us to stretch beyond our circle of ease and offer our care, love, and kindness to all beings, with no discrimination. That is a big ask and requires a lot of practice and training to shift from our protective and defensive evolutionary conditioning to an unlimited mind of love. While we may aspire to this openhearted state of selfless caring, no one is a boundless well of giving. There may be a part of us that asks, “what about me?” We all need replenishing and abundant self-care to be able to care for others.

In early Buddhist teachings, this idea of self-care is clear and direct. In the Aṅguttara-nikāya 4:95, translated by Buddhist monk and scholar, Anālayo, the Buddha describes four types of practitioners: one who helps themselves without helping another, one who helps another without helping oneself, one who aids neither self not other, and one who helps both self and other. The Buddha ranks these four approaches. Not surprisingly, one who helps neither self nor other is the “most inferior person” (A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). The person who helps another without helping oneself is superior to that and higher than that is one who helps themselves without helping another! The one who is “supreme,” predictably, is one who aids both self and other ((A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). Thus, merit is earned as one progresses on a spiritual path that includes both self and other.

As practitioners, we cannot advise others to practice purification if we are not walking that path ourselves. In order to have any type of transformation of suffering, we must attend to purifying our own hearts and minds first. As legendary Vipassana teacher, S. N. Goenka said repeatedly, “You have to work out your own salvation.” When we understand how to cultivate, equanimity, and joy in our own life and practice, we will have a strong foundation to be available and present for others, even when things get tough. If we do not take care of our own stability, we offer an unsteady footing for those who rely on us.

A popular parable from the Buddhist canon is the Sedaka Sutta: The Bamboo Acrobat. The Buddha tells of a team of acrobats, a master and his young assistant, Medakathalika, sometimes referred to as his granddaughter. The older acrobat perches atop a bamboo pole and Medakathalika climbs up the pole and balances upon the master’s shoulders. The master tells Medakathalika that they will need to take care of each other in order to keep safe in their act and make a living. The young assistant has another view and tells the bamboo acrobat, “That will not do at all, master! You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself. Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down from the bamboo pole. That’s the right way to do it!” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Young Medakathalika understands that each person is responsible for their own unwavering stability of mind and that clarity and focus directly influences others we interact with.

The Buddha goes on to describe how we care for ourselves in order to care for others and how to care for others in order to care for ourselves. “And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others). (Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others; and looking after others, one looks after oneself” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Leaving no one out, we extend this patience, gentleness, and goodwill towards ourselves. Being considerate and non-harming may mean we do not do all the things we believe we should, but includes those that help us stay balanced and peaceful.

The paradox of caring for others to care for ourselves involves the cultivation of a deep practice of kindness and gentleness to remove the hearts’ obstacles of hatred, conditional love, disapproval, and intolerance. Practicing in this way opens up the heart space and we reside in what Buddhists call the bliss of blamelessness. This joy and open-heartedness is the reward of self-care that allows for delight in our own goodness and fills up the emptiness and dissatisfaction that may impede caring for all beings. When we practice living a life of integrity and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to being a presence of love and healing we are caring for and protecting ourselves, our community, and all beings everywhere.

May we all trust our light,





Anālayo (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse.

Olendzki, A. trans. (2013). Sedaka sutta: The bamboo acrobat (SN 47.19). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html .

Being a Mother to the World

Dog walk

Dog walk at twilight, photo by Celia

When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, it is possible to have real communication, real communion, with the Earth. This is the highest possible form of prayer. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all beings, there is not one who has not been my mother innumerable times. Each has been my mother in human form countless times and will become my mother many times again. ~ Geshe Wangyal


Dear Friends,

Today is Mother’s Day and for some of us it is a very wonderful and joyful celebration of a loving and nurturing presence in our lives, but for others, it can be laced with sadness, loss, or unmet expectations. All babies need care and we could not have survived without a nurturing and caring presence. Today is the day we celebrate the embodiment of love and compassion that cares in the world, wherever we may find it. Some of us are lucky enough to have experienced the care and protection of a mother’s love. If we do not have a mother or have experienced this source of care from another, that person embodies the qualities of a mother for us. Sometimes, our true mother isn’t our mother.

What does being a mother mean? We have cultural expectations and wishes about the role of the perfect mother that may or may not have come true. But at the core, a mother is the archetypal embodiment of care, compassion, and protection. In the seventh verse of the metta sutta, there is the stanza, “Just as a mother who has an only son would protect her own son with her life, so one should cultivate a boundless mind toward all living beings” (Anālayo, trans., 2015, p. 29). Scholar monk Bhikkhu Anālayo points out that this relationship is based on selfless protection. We can imagine the fierce determination of this mother to keep her child safe at any cost and hear the Buddha’s instructions to extend this unflinching care to all beings.

Tibetan Buddhism reminds us that because all beings live countless lifetimes, all beings have been our mothers and fathers countless times. That means all beings in this world, even the ones whose company we do not enjoy, have cared for us in some way and done the best they could for us. Tibetan Buddhist, translator and Columbia professor, Geshe Wangyal (1973) writes about developing this view of gratitude and reverence for those who appear to be totally unconnected strangers:

“Though it now seems that they have no relationship to me, they have been my mother times beyond number, and in those lives, they protected me with love and kindness. When you have experienced this truth, meditate on those beings who are now your adversaries. Imagine them clearly before you and think: How can I now feel these are my enemies? As lifetimes are beyond number, they have been my mother countless times. When they were my mother they provided me with measureless happiness and benefits and protected me from misery and harm. Without them, I could not have lasted even a short time and without me, they could not have endured even a short time. We have felt such strong attachment countless times. That they are now my adversaries is due to bad evolutionary actions….Then meditate on repaying the kindness of all beings, your mothers” (p. 137). I find this last line really touches the collective appreciation for all beings who care for us, “protected us with love and kindness” and have given us “measureless happiness and benefits” whether in this lifetime, the past, or future (p. 137).

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Earth as the mother of us all who cares for us and also needs our care in return. The Earth is our refuge, our protection, and our solace. Speaking about our connection to the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:

“When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening to look after ourselves and the Earth so that we both can thrive.”

In his 2013 book, Love Letter to the Earth, Thay offers the practice of Touching the Earth. This involves lying peacefully on the Earth and expressing our gratitude and regrets. You can find his writing here, Ten Intimate Conversations with Mother Earth, guided reflections for practicing pouring our joy and sorrow onto the Earth and experiencing the healing of this being who has a boundless capacity to care for all living beings.

I also encourage you to find all of your mothers in this lifetime, all those who supported and nurtured you with their love and care and to reflect on your own motherhood, regardless of your gender or if you have children or not. Mothers are beings who see the value in others, show uncompromising protection, relentless care, and delight in the happiness of others. Recognizing the quality of true care, we can celebrate our own motherhood, and ability to care for all beings including ourselves.

May we all trust our light,


I am in love with Mother Earth


Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge,

UK: Windhorse.

Hanh, T. N. (2013). Love letter to the earth. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.

Wagnal, G. (1973). The door of liberation: essential teachings of the tibetan buddhist

tradition. Boston: Wisdom.



If I Stop, I’ll Be Lost


Azalea, photo by Celia

“I run and then I hop, hop, hop

I wish that I could fly

There’s danger if I dare to stop and here’s the reason why

You see I’m overdue

I’m in a rabbit stew

Can’t even say Good-bye, hello

I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.”

 ~from the White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, lyrics and music by Bob Hilliard, Sammy Fain, Oliver Wallace, Ted Sears, Mack David, Al Ho.

“One of the most significant negative habits we should be aware of is that of constantly allowing our mind to run off into the future. Perhaps we got this from our parents. Carried away by our worries, we’re unable to live fully and happily in the present. Deep down, we believe we can’t really be happy just yet—that we still have a few more boxes to be checked off before we can really enjoy life.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives


Dear Friends,

Yesterday I shared a half day of mindfulness with some folks new to practice. It was a lovely day. We sat, ate mindfully, slowed down and allowed the body to relax and feel safe. Several people spoke about the feeling of concern that arose when they gave themselves the permission to stop, take time to eat, and enjoy the simple acts of breathing and walking. This worry stemmed from the belief that if we allow ourselves to relax and drop the habit of anxiously leaning into the future, we will slip the leash and never return to our jobs or responsibilities. This belief comes from a feeling of distrust, that at our core, we are unreliable.

I see this restrictive guarding growing from the unconscious ground of deprivation. Many people do not have the luxury of scheduled lunch breaks. They eat at their desks while answering e-mails, or in medical settings, grab a few bites between clients. Taking time out from work or uncoupling from social media may set up the fear of missing out (FOMO). We will get behind in our work, not respond as expected and there is the rationale that it is better to keep the wheel spinning as fast as possible since pausing for a moment will create an insurmountable workload we won’t be able to dig out from.

We live in an age of extremes, of deprivation and binging. We supersize our cravings and when we indulge—we go hard.  “Binge-watching,” television is the new norm. We can observe the prevalence of restrictive diets that allow one “cheat day” a week, and the culture of obsessive exercise, work, and food. The Buddha counseled a middle way in life. One that does not fall into the ascetic practice of denial and self-mortification, but does not overfill the senses with too much of a good thing. This moderation doesn’t come from distrust and the belief that left to my own care, I will never get out of my pajamas, leave the sofa, turn off Netflix, or do anything requiring effort. The middle way comes from seeing the basic human need for sovereignty and self-dignity.

As a culture, we do not value time for self-care. It is seen as a privilege or a sign of vanity. The courage to step away from the pull of doing may be an act of self-preservation. A college survey in 2016 showed 62% of students felt “overwhelming anxiety.” Increasing, the expectation of constant response to the boundless connections of work, our online platforms, and social media can create a never-ending cycle of anxiety and insufficiency.

The Buddha is reported to have said, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness” (Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking, MN 19, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). This is what neuroscience calls neuroplasticity, the ability of the mind to increase connectivity and structure based on use. When we train in time scarcity and deprivation, that becomes our belief. Stopping, resting, or calming will feel alien, even unwelcome and frightening. And yes, the world dumps more into our inbox while we sleep. Few individuals get the permission to take time to stop. The 19th Century Tibetan teacher Patrul Rinpoche said, “Preoccupations do not end until the moment we die. They end when we put them down. This is their nature.” The world believes in busyness and gauges the importance of individuals on the fullness of their calendars, not on the contentment and peace in their hearts. This balance is increasingly challenging, especially for young people growing up in a digital world where constant evaluation, comparing, and responding is expected and the barometer of lovability.

I wish I had the magic cure to give folks the permission to trust their wise selves and return to the body that is speaking to us all the time and to the heart and mind that are calling out for attention. The middle way in the Buddha’s time was revolutionary, not falling into hedonism nor deprivation, and it remains so today. It is counter-culture to listen to ourselves with respect and consideration, valuing our own well-being more highly than the approval of the world. It is hard work and sometimes lonely to turn inward, to care, to set aside time to be healed and whole. But this is the birthright of all beings and the work that makes living a pleasure, not a punishment.

May we all trust our light,