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Self-Care & Spiritual Practice: How the Inner Smile Supports Your Health


June 8, 2017 By William Bloom
Self-Care

Visiting my GP a little while ago

he began talking with me about his own health. This was not unusual as we had known each other for twenty years and he had read my self-help book The Endorphin Effect. He was committed to a holistic and mindful approach and believed that good medicine supported patients into self-care.

‘If only I had practised what I preach,’ he said wryly, ‘I would have caught my own condition much earlier and probably avoided surgery. ’

We then chatted for a while about the archetype of the wounded healer and the self-sacrificing hero; and that doctors have a calling to relieve the suffering of others, but hardly look after themselves. Self-care is not in their medical training.

‘You could do your self-care in the bath or lying in bed or even commuting to work,’ I nudged. ‘You know exactly how to self-examine.’

He sighed. He nodded in agreement. He then had to see more patients and I left.

*

Self-care is not just an issue for healthcare professionals.

It affects all of us. It is a crucial part of spiritual practice as we develop mindful compassion for ourselves and others. Our hearts and minds open and grow. In fact, obviously, without self-care it is only too easy to burn out and that benefits no one!

Having taught self-care for a long time I am particularly interested in those of us who know all about holistic development and complementary medicine, but just like my friend the doctor, we do not do the core practice of careful self-examination.

It is very simple. All it needs is that we regularly just take a few minutes to pause and mindfully scan our bodies for signs of ill health.

This can rescue us in advance from awful crisis. We all know the crucial importance of early diagnosis and appropriate adjustments in behaviour, diet, exercise and lifestyle.

*

So — How do you feel?

Your main piece of scientific equipment here is your own mental ability to scan, sense and notice what it feels like inside your body. All this requires is an intentional pause. You then deliberately focus your attention down into your own body.

This sensory, felt awareness of yourself is crucial. It is you and you alone who can really know and experience your own state. It is only you inside your body! Who else? And only you can sense and scan around inside yourself and catch early signs of threatening symptoms. Who else can notice those signals that require just a tad of relevant adjustment? A bit more exercise, regular stretching, earlier nights, less caffeine, better food, more fresh air, less people, more people…

All over the developed world surely the long-term viability of our healthcare services is based in this self-awareness: early diagnosis and preventative self-management.

*

Self-care as preventative medicine is not new.

In classical Chinese medicine the art of being in a friendly clinical relationship with your own body is considered the foundation of good health. There is even a clear set of instructions on precisely how to conduct this practice. At its heart is a relaxed and friendly attitude towards your own body.

Sometimes this self-care practice is translated from Chinese as The Inner Smile, which may sound quirky to a cynical ear. But unpack the Inner Smile and we can see that it meshes extremely well with a modern understanding of the integration of brain, nervous system, endocrine system and gut ecology. The Inner Smile is in fact a good example of mind-body-spirit medicine, psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI), put into practice.  

It is recommended that the Inner Smile is done daily and always when the body is at ease. There is a particular focus on letting the abdomen drop down and sink into relaxation. Then with a calm and friendly attitude we then direct our attention down into our body and scan around it.  We especially check in on all the major organs and notice how they feel. More than that, Chinese medicine prescribes that we do this in a very friendly and caring way. We come into direct and personal relationship with each organ, greeting it with a smile.

Greet your liver with a smile!

Is this hippy-dippy?

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of anatomy will understand that the Inner Smile triggers events in the brain that send messages through the nervous system which then trigger the endocrine system. So it is crucial that your attitude be friendly. Be like a loving god or goddess radiating benevolence into your creation, your body.

If our self-examination is conducted with a clinical, unfriendly or judgmental attitude – like an internal judgmental deity –  threatening messages are sent through the neuro-endocrinal system. This triggers the production of cortisol and adrenalin, the hormones of tension and anxiety.

If however our attitude is friendly and affectionate – like a good parent with a loved infant – then the neural signal is reassuring and soothing. This triggers a cocktail of wellbeing hormones: endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. This relaxes tissues and supports an open and flowing system of good health.

 

Scanning our bodies with the Inner Smile therefore serves three purposes.

  • It brings into our conscious awareness the state of our bodies – early diagnosis leading to appropriate early intervention.
  • It self-soothes, opens up tissue, integrates heart rate variability and balances gut ecology — all of which support health and a strong immune system.
  • Psychologically it boosts our sense of self-management and confidence.

Done on a daily basis the benefits of the Inner Smile are terrific.  

Just spend a few minutes every day scanning your own body with an attentive and caring attitude.

*

But people are predictably human

and, despite how sensible and positive this practice is, people can be resistant to adopting it.  I opened this article describing that conversation with my doctor who was bemoaning that he had not followed his own advice and caught an early diagnosis on his own illness. He provides an excellent example of the many folk who fail to self-care even though they know precisely how to do it and how beneficial it is for them.

So why is there this resistance?  Why do people who preach self-care and the importance of early intervention completely ignore their own advice?

In my opinion it is good to be realistic about the sources of this self-sabotage, because recognising them makes them easier to manage.

So here are a few possibilities which I learned from listening to people in my groups. See which ones might apply to you:

 

WHY I DON’T SELF-CARE

  • Can’t break old habits
  • New behaviour to learn
  • It wasn’t in my training or education
  • Its embarrassing and awkward to care for myself
  • There’s an internalised authority figure judging me for appearing soft and narcissistic
  • I pretend there is not enough time
  • Am frightened to look at what might be wrong
  • Am addicted to the role of stoic hero and healer
  • Am scared of feeling my feelings – I would get too emotional or overwhelmed
  • Lazy and lack discipline
  • Am depressed and have no energy or motivation

Those are all extremely good and normal reasons for avoiding self-care, aren’t they?

What therefore might motivate us to push through the resistance? We could just wait for a harsh health crisis to prod us into action – the stick. Or — and I write this carefully after decades of experience in the field — we could just exercise sensible self-discipline and get into the rhythm of a new habit that supports our health. This would be similar to washing our hands after going to the lavatory.

So don’t procrastinate! (Forgive me sounding so bossy, but I have recently been babysitting two boys, five and six years old, and getting them voluntarily to wash their hands was like asking a Siamese cat to swim.) Just do it!

*

To summarise.

Self-care and early intervention are the foundation of good health.

So do the Inner Smile self-care practice:

  • Daily — perhaps in bed; lunch break; watching television; whenever suits you.
  • Allow your body to sink down into being at ease.
  • Let your abdomen slump and let your breath soften.
  • Switch on the attitude of good bedside manner, like a friendly parent, like a loving deity surveying its cosmos.
  • Focus down into your own body and scan it.
  • In whatever sequence works for you, give awareness to and feel into each organ and each region of your body.
  • Have a conscious, friendly and caring relationship with your body.
  • Notice how it all feels.
  • Be conscious of anything that feels unwell.
  • Think about the appropriate health benefiting action you need to take.
  • Put into action whatever you know is necessary.

 

The long-term benefits for you and those around you are immense.


William Bloom will be teaching a diploma course in Practical Spirituality and Wellness at Findhorn College beginning 14 October, 2017.

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