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What is Self-Care?

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

– Audre Lorde

Skin care, gym memberships, fancy diets, and lavish retreats are self-care icons. These high-visibility ideas of self-care are well-marketed and tend to be expensive. Honest self-care may look more like taking the time to create and stick to a realistic budget. Self-care requires discipline. As always, take time to check in, listen to our needs, and establish supportive routines: allowing nature to guide us back to health is the wisdom of Ayurveda.

What is self care? It can be challenging to tell the difference between selfishness and self-care — and on the flip side, to know when to draw boundaries. Let’s explore how to navigate this.

Self-less Folly

When something is necessary for our survival, it is responsible to prioritize that. Consider the oxygen mask trope that comes up every time we listen to a flight attendant go over the airline safety procedures. The idea is: you must put your mask on first, before helping others (even babies) with theirs. This is because you’d probably pass out before you could finish helping them, and then everyone would be in greater danger. Bodhisattvas aside, it’s incredibly important to care for oneself and avoid a “heroic” choice which unintentionally harms everyone.

Selfish Pitfalls

On the other side of the coin, it’s important not to go to far and become self-absorbed. All too easily can a person lose sight of how self-interest may be harmful to another, and ironically, to themselves! What we need is a breather to check in with our own values about each situation.


Each case is nuanced and personal. Only you can do the work of looking honestly at what’s driving the decision to know: is this what hurts or what helps? It may be incredibly necessary for someone to rest in the stereotypical sense of cucumber-over-the-eyes. For another, it may be psyching up to interview for a dream job.

Imagine two archetypes within yourself. First, imagine yourself as totally “selfless” — you are an altruistic saint. Then, imagine yourself as heedlessly “selfish” — and we’ll examine how to mitigate harm in either case.

  • Let’s imagine ourselves selfless — always prioritizing the needs of others, in some kind of caregiving role, like a parent or caretaker of an ill relative. In this case, it is useful to remember others can only depend on us so long as we can depend on ourselves. That is to say, if we’re willing to make difficult choices in order to maintain our own mental, physical, spiritual order, we can effectively sustain caring for others as well as ourselves. In this sense, there’s truth in tough love: when making these choices, sometimes we let people down. Establishing boundaries can include admitting imperfection, or accepting someone’s disappointment. It can be scary — and yet, being vulnerable about what we need often brings us closer to those we love.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

– Brene Brown

Ironically, sometimes we are so involved with caring for a person that we forget to empathize with this person. We might lose sight of what this person actually needs — so, ironically, tuning into what we are needing in a radical moment of self care can resolve unseen issues before they boil up. 

  • Let’s imagine ourselves selfish — totally absorbed within their own world. To practice good self-care, it is useful to remember two things:

    • The material world is temporary. Pain, pleasure, food, sickness, life itself will end. If we are too wrapped up in our own desires and needs, we are liable to cause harm and never know it. It is useful to reflect on the temporary nature of self-satisfaction, and the enduring feeling of helping someone in need. For instance, spending time watching silly videos might be relieving and fun for awhile, but committing to working honestly fuels an enduring fire which can lead us to life-changing opportunities, healthy well-being, and self-confidence in relationships. The first primarily affects ourself-interest, and brings pleasure, while the second affects ourselves and others, and brings harmony. It’s a form of self-care to maintain awareness of our affect on others. In this way, self-care is self-work: developing characteristics that bring peace to our lives and the lives around us.

    • Everyone is the main character of their own mysterious world. Empathy is a test of the imagination, because we only get to see, breathe and feel from our own body. It isn’t easy to imagine the world of experience happening in the head of the person beside you. And yet, we must. Life consists of more than the sum of our own experiences — its an infinitely expanding combination of happenings and expectations and feelings and events. Like Aristotle reflected — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. The humility brought by the wonder of empathy allows curiosity to overwhelm self-absorption. And in this way, our curiosity for each other brings heart-opening relief from the illusion of isolation.


A huge part of self-care is asking for help.

Our part in another person’s life can be anything we choose. Most people in our lives don’t care about how attractive, intelligent, or impressive we are — they care whether we care about their experience. If we are willing to stretch ourselves and imagine, with compassion, what another is experiencing, we have the power to be vulnerable and trust that they are willing to do the same for us.

In essence, there is no self or other, only a stream of consciousness flowing through life, and the separation experienced as a way to learn. Tuning into the universality of life, one finds peace, truth, and clarity in serving this whole. To serve all in the name of what is good is to honestly take care of oneself. In this way, self-care is incredibly difficult. It’s a practice of watching ourselves, forgiving ourselves, and continuing to choose what we trust is truly good.

Here is some clarifying wisdom regarding self-interest versus self-care from Baba Hari Dass, who helped establish the school of Ayurveda at Mount Madonna Center, where our in-house Ayurvedic doctor received his certification to practice Ayurveda.

Q: In this country, there doesn’t seem to be much survival value if a person doesn’t seek for any self-interest.

A: It’s a universal thing. In every country, every person is running to seek for self-interest. The question is how to liberate ourselves from the effect of seeking for our own self-interest. The answer is by being nonattached to the fruit of actions. To take action to help others with no self-interest brings a greater sense of peace. That creates a desire for more peace.

Q. How do we develop discrimination in daily life?

A. You have to see what helps in your self-development and what harms. If anything harms, that you have to reject. That rejection may harm worldly life, but will help spiritual life.

Q. If you are performing action with no expectation of return for yourself, but we are still acting with some purpose. How do we know if it is a good purpose?

A. There is a purpose of self-development. If a person steals and says ‘I am stealing for God, or for poor people, then it will not work. Because the person is stealing for his or her own desire which is not spiritual.

Q: Could you explain what it means to be selfless?

A: The Self has two forms: individuality and universality. Every living being lives with the sense of individuality but, except humans, no other species has the concept of universality. Individuality is established by selfish actions, desires and attachments. Universality is established when selfishness is wiped out.

-Baba Hari Dass

Article by Luisa Rounds

Q& A Sourced from

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova 


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