Care vs. Comfort

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-care lately: what it means, where it’s found, how to do it well. As I’m figuring this out (sort of), I’ve been contemplating the distinction between care and comfort – one I picked up a couple years ago at a mindfulness workshop.  At the mid-morning break, our instructor encouraged us to use the time for care rather than comfort – to really consider, in other words, what would give us actual nourishment, as opposed to a temporary hit of pleasure or distraction.

This seemed really wise and everything, but even as I nodded earnestly in agreement, I felt the magnetic pull of my iphone, gleaming in the corner of my eye, as it drew me toward the sugary comfort of exciting new emails and facebook notifications.  I felt a sudden surge of rebellion.  Hey, what’s so bad about comfort anyway?  Sometimes I just want the easy and unwholesome thing, dammit!  Is that so wrong!?

Not wrong, I decided – just something other than care.  As I’ve come to understand it, the essential difference between the two is this: care is the leaning into the thing, and comfort is the leaning away from the thing.

When I choose comfort over care, I’m likely distracting myself and checking out of the work I need to do to be okay over the long-haul (work that will still be there waiting for me after I’ve done the comforting thing).

Not that this is necessarily always bad.  Things like the Netflix binge, the hours surfing the web, or the slow-paced doing of nothing in particular may not seem especially enriching, but they also sort of are, sometimes, (and for God’s sake I’m only human!)  There are times when comfort is exactly what I want and need, times when the intentional choosing of comfort eases my reentry into home life after too much time in civilization or clears space and energy enough so that I can unwind and get to real rest.

So comfort isn’t a problem – unless your comfort is something really destructive (like there’s really no place for, say, heroin in the spectrum of health and wellness) – but at the same time, I’m attentive to its dark side: how it can morph into patterns of numbing and addiction; how it can take me out of myself in high doses; how it can make what I actually need feel even more strenuous and out of reach.

When I choose care, on the other hand, I’m engaging the work (or play!) of healing, restoring, and mending.  I’m moving trauma, emotion, and energy, flushing it out of my system.  I’m burrowing into truth and filling my tank.   For me, care specifically looks like moving my body (preferably in densely wooded areas where the bird to human ratio is approximately 200,000 to 1), sitting on my meditation cushion, stepping into creative flow, and (perhaps most challenging of all) going to bed at a decent hour – the things that when I don’t do them, my sweetheart notices right away and kindly asks me to return to (immediately, if possible, for all our sakes).  Care feels good, but sometimes it takes effort, discipline, or physical exertion to get it moving; sometimes it means going into pain or facing exhaustion and dealing with what’s real inside.

I’ve found that even though comfort can seem slow and lethargic, it often moves at a manic tempo and lightening speed – especially when I ask it to fix or fill (not its job).  But care is a slow thing, and this is how I recognize it.  While comfort asks me to grasp, spin, click, and consume faster, care asks me to tune in to the energy of my body, the earth, the quiet – all of which hum at a slower vibration than my thinking mind and day-to-day responsibilities.   It kindly asks me to feel, sit, listen, and breathe (to not outrun my humanness, in other words) because, as I’m beginning to learn, that’s where all the good, true stuff waits to be found.

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