I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this — but self-care is hard right now.
Many of us who are used to deriving our sense of happiness from social gatherings, going to the gym, playing team sports, or going to concerts are struggling to find our small pockets of sanity and joy. As our sense of well-being continues to deteriorate, so does our productivity. Most of us seem to be coping with this by forcing ourselves to be more productive.
Unfortunately, our attempts at being hyperproductive to compensate for our lack of productivity just seem to kick off a new spiral of frustration which further erodes our happiness. It turns out, we can’t force ourselves into being in a mentally productive state without first addressing our overall wellbeing.
Recently, I was complaining to my mom about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get anything done and that none of my usual self-care methods were working. She laughed and she said, “May, you’ve been living in Western cultures for too long. Stop creating your own suffering. You need to remember the concept of “Wu Wei” again.”
She was right. The Taoist concept of “Wu Wei” is one of flowing with life instead of fighting against it. She reminded me that it’s not what is happening to us that determines our sense of wellbeing, it’s our ability to cope with it. After all, some of the world’s happiest nations have the longest, darkest winters.
I realized that “self-care” in my current life had been distorted by advertisers to mean superficial fixes and indulgences like spas, supplements, and beauty products. While in many other cultures, self-care is deeply rooted in connection — with the universe, with yourself, and with others.
It was a timely awareness that I didn’t need to be limited to the American concepts of well-being and happiness. As a Chinese-Malaysian who had lived in Australia, Europe, and now the US — I have been exposed to a range of well-being practices from different cultures that I could draw from.
I decided to re-focus my self-care to revolve around more sustainable fulfillment instead of instant quick fixes — borrowing a few ideas from Bruce Lee and Russian trains along the way. Here are some of my favorite concepts from around the world that I’ve come across and how you can apply them too.
1. Wu Wei (China) — “Non-Action”
Wu Wei (無為) is a Taoist principle which roughly translates as non-action or without effort. Rather than conveying a sense of laziness or apathy, the real message behind Wu Wei is about swimming with the tide instead of against it. It’s a concept of letting go of our ego and not forcing our will unto the universe. If you were a boat in the open ocean and the wind started blowing, applying Wu Wei would be to put up a sail instead of attempting to row against the wind. So, a better way of phrasing Wu Wei could be “effortless action.”
This quote from Bruce Lee describes it best:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
It’s important not to mistake fluidity for submission or giving up. Anyone who has observed a mighty river carving its way through mountain ranges has seen the awesome power of fluidity and can appreciate that the river did not submit to anything. Wu Wei simply means to thrive by going with the flow.
How You Can Apply This Right Now
Acknowledge that the pandemic has been a huge disruptor in your life and that there are days in which you will just not be productive. Instead of forcing yourself to be productive, allow yourself to just read a book or watch a movie. A big part of moving forward is also accepting that there is now a new normal. Instead of investing your energy into trying to reclaim your old life, find opportunities in this new situation that were never possible before. Maybe you could use your previous commute time to finally launch your side hustle.
2. Pule ’Ohana (Hawaii) — “Family Prayer”
Pule ’ohana translates to “family prayer” and is a simple ritual where a family gathers to talk about their day, to apologize for any wrongdoing, and to express gratitude. At its core, the ritual is about creating a safe and consistent way to openly bring up grievances, resolve them in a spiritually mindful way, and to heal relationship wounds. As we are forced to spend more time together than we previously had, there is bound to be friction between household members which will need to be resolved. However, grievances don’t have to be present for the ritual to have value. The practice could also be used as a forum to validate each other’s feelings, understand personal boundaries, and to have thoughtful dialogues about life.
There are several reasons why this ritual is so powerful right now. Almost everyone on earth has been touched by anxiety, grief, or a sense of isolation recently. This simple act of coming together on a consistent basis alleviates all three emotions. This practice taps into a fact that anthropologists have known for decades — which is that rituals are powerful in reducing anxiety and grief. It also reduces isolation as research shows that structured rituals like this one have the ability to create strong bonds when it is performed together.
How You Can Apply This Right Now
A ritual is defined by a certain rigidity and repetitiveness. Set aside a set time or specific meal and establish a rough structure of discussion. Go around the table with your family (or housemates) and create a safe space to discuss feelings and any grievances. It’s helpful to establish some rules of engagement to resolve differences prior to initiating the practice. Try to end each day with a component of gratitude, especially for one another.
3. Razgovory v Poezde (Russia) — “Train Talks”
The phrase “razgovory v poezde” translates to “train talks” and has its birth in the Trans-Siberian Railway. The concept describes the authentic and raw conversations you are likely to have when a bunch of people are crammed together in a small space for an extended period of time to endure a tough journey. Sounds like a perfect mirror of our quarantine experiences to me.
The part I love most about the “train talks” is the way Russians describe it as skipping the small talk and immediately diving deep. The bond is initiated through sharing food, swapping stories, and experiencing some degree of suffering together but it is cemented by a healthy dose of authenticity. You board the train as strangers but in the end, you leave it as friends. We could all benefit from leaving the quarantine experience with stronger relationships than when we went in.
The reason cultivating connections beyond the superficial is important is that research shows that being able to be our authentic selves is important to our wellbeing. It is also central to our ability to have satisfying connections. What’s more, establishing a sense of stability and alignment with our true selves is actually linked to a higher level of grit and the ability to withstand challenges and pursue goals.
“Small talk is for small people. Conversations are for the elite.” — Salma Farook
How You Can Apply This Right Now
Move beyond small talk and superficial conversations with the people around you. Seek to ask more questions and practice going deeper. If you don’t know how to start, there is a whole movement on authentic relating that provides a host of free resources. In return, allow yourself to be vulnerable and to truly express how you feel and where you’re at with the people that you trust. According to the Russians, a bit of Vodka helps.
4. Fika (Sweden) — “Coffee and Friends Break”
The root of the word “Fika” comes from an old slang word for coffee: kaffi. Transposing the two syllables gives you Fika. Though it is broadly translated as a coffee (and usually cake) break, it is very different from the American version of a grab-and-go coffee fix.
For one, Fika involves an intentional mindset of stepping away and actually taking a real break — not distractedly sipping coffee while you frantically try to meet that deadline. Swedes practice Fika not just to pause but also to focus on indulging. Traditional pastries and sweets are usually an integral part of the break. Secondly, Fika also typically involves socializing and connecting with those around you. You don’t Fika by yourself at your desk.
An interesting distinction between a Fika and a coffee break as we understand it is that Americans tend to use coffee as a means to continue working while Swedes use it as a reminder to take a break. Research suggests that the Swedes may have the right idea as prolonged focus on a task has been found to eventually be detrimental to productivity. Numerous studies have also shown that socializing, particularly informal socialization greatly increases creativity.
How You Can Apply This Right Now
Remember that Fika is a mindset. It involves prioritizing breaks and actually allowing your mind to refresh instead of just physically stepping away from your computer. The other key components of Fika are companionship and a yummy, indulgent snack. Try to make sure you always have time for at least two Fikas a day. It will not only help you be more productive but it will strengthen your relationships as well.
One of the best things we can do for our mental and emotional well-being right now is to try and embrace the opportunity for change. Take this disruption as a chance to discover new practices, create new habits, and strengthen the things in our lives. Don’t aim just to survive, but to thrive.
Here are four concepts you can apply today to help you get started:
- Wu Wei (effortless action) — Don’t fight the forces of nature. Find ways to swim with the tide instead of against it.
- Pule ’Ohana (family prayer) — Create a ritual of talking about feelings, mindfully resolving grievances, and sharing gratitude with your family.
- Razgovory v Poezde (train talks) — Go past the small talk to build deeper and more authentic relationships.
- Fika (coffee and friends break) — Prioritize breaks instead of taking them only when you are at a breaking point. Practice refreshing your mind and strengthening your connections at least twice a day every day. And finally, eat cake!