Once I had a Zen teacher who liked to say “Contraction always follows expansion.” Her idea of an expansive experience was sitting on a meditation cushion many hours a day, getting up only to do some chores or eat a vegetarian meal. Which is to say, a silent retreat—not everyone’s cup of expansiveness.
But otherwise she was right, and the principle is universal. Boom times are followed by “corrections.” Tulip bubbles are followed by tulip implosions and a layer of soap residue. Love at first sight is followed by those events that, taken together, we know as “The Honeymoon Is Over.”
This is the structure of life: it gets better, just like they tell ya. And then it gets worse. And then it gets better and then it gets worse. Ups and downs and round and round and above all, impermanence: That’s reality.
Now, we know this. But because we evolved to survive today, rather than live long and prosper, we find ways to overlook what we know. We’re not great planners, not really. A lot of us don’t even write wills or save for retirement. In an older part of the brain, we think this clover we’re in right now is going to last forever.
And so we get caught flat-footed at every downturn. Which just makes the contractions that much worse.
What’s to Be Done?
Here’s what I’ve noticed: nothing prolongs a downtime more than forgoing my self-care. Self-neglect will always take me further down, down beyond bootstrap reach, where I need bigger and bigger strokes of luck to lift me up again.
Naturally, back when my self-care was newish and wobbly, it would be the first thing to go when I was feeling low, or busy, or discombobulated by circumstances. But there was a very specific piece of advice my Zen teacher gave me that I’d had good results with. She said, “Never end a retreat without having the next retreat booked. Otherwise it could be years.” I took this excellent advice (and mostly applied it to vacations).
Eventually I realized I could apply it to life altogether. I could get out ahead of this expansion-contraction cycle by anticipating and planning for downtimes. It sounds counterproductive: Isn’t that just going to make us feel bummed out all the time?
I haven’t found that it does. Instead, planning for the lows cheers me up and makes me feel confident, well provisioned, and very much on my own side. Like a grownup, you could say.
Here are some strategies with big payoffs:
- Doing things when my energy is up that will take care of me after the energy has dipped. Example: I never want to spend my whole day off doing chores and running errands, but a couple of hours on Sunday evening can get a whole week’s worth of lunches prepped. I cook a pot of rice, a pot of quinoa, and a batch of chimichurri, bake some root veggies—all I need now is protein left over from the previous night’s dinner and some washed greens. It’s good for my health, my wallet, and my mood—and all of those things feed each other in a cycle of virtue, amplifying the high times and cushioning the lows.
- Reviewing a self-care checklist every 90 days and scheduling appointments—whether I “want” to or not. Example: On a great day I think I don’t need to see the dermatologist; how could I possibly get skin cancer? On a very low day I may be too depressed to care about that weird blotch there. Derm, dentist, gyno, mammography, hair, nails, internist, the lot: If it’s not already scheduled, I make the appointment.
- Lowering my standards—the one thing I want to take even lower when I’m down. Example: I’ve got an A game for self-care that can take a couple hours, including workouts. My D game, for rock bottom days = five items: shaving, stretching, matching skivvies, mascara, and lipstick, The End. I’ve known a lot of people with rigid, exacting and very ambitious daily self-care lists. But no one can do it all every day.
- Picking my battles. Example: I used to think I could control my mood, but now I know my control is limited. Sometimes, no matter how I eat, sleep and move my body, I’m going to have less energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes I will go all the way to actual depression. So I don’t waste my resources bucking the tide; it can’t be fought. I use what fighting energy I have to make things a little better, not to make them meet an impossible ideal. I don’t take on new projects, I don’t tackle the biggest problems, and most important, I don’t try to whip myself into shape. Mama said there’d be days like this, and to cut myself a break as needed. PS I might have some chocolate or a margarita.
What about you? What are your self-care strategies for riding the rhythms of life? Please let us know in the comments, or in the Lounge—we’ll do some communal self-care.
More reading on the topic of getting out ahead of the meal plan: