Monday, September 27, 2010

Healthy Self-Love

After my husband and I were married, our first home together was an apartment in Kurt and Victoria Singer's house in "downtown" East Burke, Vermont. I put downtown in quotes, because if you happened to be driving through town and blinked, you might miss it! Kurt was an English professor at Lyndon State College, where Don also taught and managed the meteorology lab.

Kurt was the most generous landlord I ever had. Compared to what, you may ask? There is no comparison. What other landlord never raises your rent after four years' occupancy? Babysits your newborn son while you and your spouse slip out for a quick dinner at a restaurant? Leaves the local newspaper on your step every afternoon after he's read it? Almost always has something witty or encouraging to say when he sees you?

Kurt was a man of strong opinions. A lifelong educator, he believed the trend toward raising self-esteem in students as a vehicle toward higher achievement got it all wrong. I'm not against people having higher self-esteem. I get downright militant when I see anyone putting somebody down. Valuing oneself and others is, after all, one of the themes of this blog. He was overstating the point, but I think Kurt what meant was that cultivating self-esteem too frequently gets in the way of holding kids to high educational standards. You risk having kids who think they're all that, when they don't know anything.

I think a lot about self-esteem these days, sometimes indulging myself in reminiscences of when I had little to none of the stuff. I ran into a woman I've known for sixteen years last week who said, "You're looking wonderful. What have you been doing?" I was in the middle of a conversation with another lady and promised her I'd let her know my "secrets" another time. I saw her again in passing yesterday and still haven't given her an answer.

This post is a beginning. Her question got me thinking. I could simply say I've learned to love running again and am watching what I eat. Both are true. But I wouldn't be telling her the whole truth, because healthy self-regard is the bigger part of my "diet secret," to use the vernacular.

How did I get there? Conventional suggestions, like a food diary, have certainly been helpful to me. Stepping up the intensity of my exercise has also been effective. I've always been active, but I also love to cook and eat and drink wine. My weight was slowly creeping up. When I admitted to myself that there weren't enough hours in a day to exercise in proportion to the calories I was taking in, there really wasn't any other option for me. I had to eat less.

But what drove me to eat too much? Or more to the point, what was eating me? Once I began exploring that topic, I discovered reservoirs of self-knowledge, self-acceptance and ultimately increased self-confidence. And even a little courage. I started running 5K races, which led me to train for the Bolder Boulder, a race where 50,000 mostly local folks walk and run every Memorial Day. I never really stop training. I know some marathoners who encourage me to try the Everest of running, but this girl knows her limits. The 10K is a good distance for me, challenging my body and mind while not pushing too hard. After all, I'd like to still be at this for quite a few more years.

For me, however, getting in touch with my physical self is deepest when I check in with my spiritual self. I was introduced to meditation at age 21, when I started doing tai chi at the mission in Santa Cruz in Sherry Seidman's rose garden class. Standing meditation doesn't look strenuous, with your arms encircled in front of your heart--until you try staying in the pose for five minutes. Persisting with anything strenuous, whether it's running or tai chi or a difficult patch in a relationship, builds strength. Later I added yoga to my repertoire. Most people know yoga asana, the series of poses. But most people don't know that asana was developed to facilitate meditation practice. Your body has to be supple and relaxed to sit in meditation long enough to reach those higher states of consciousness all yogis and yoginis aspire to.

I can tell you from many years of experience it's worth the investment of your time. In the process of discovering who you really are, rather than what you'd like to be or what others tell you they'd like you to be, I can guarantee you will be grateful for the place you occupy in the world. Even if it's less exalted, as has been my experience, than what you had previously hoped for. That's what I mean when I refer to healthy self-love. Not the crass self-esteem we see expressed everywhere in American culture, the kind that causes sensitive souls to run screaming in the other direction, saying, "Is that all there is? Because I ain't buying it."

I'm here to tell you you don't have to buy into anything. You can, however, earn healthy self-love. Start today.