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Nourishing yourself when you 'don't have time'

Updated: Feb 2

“I don’t have time to (insert behavior that would be beneficial to one’s wellbeing).” This is something I hear often from friends, family, patients, and at times is something I myself am even a culprit of.

Being a father, commuting, and working full-time has taught me just how precious the minutes are that I can purely dedicate to myself. I often find those minutes in the wee hours of the morning, before anyone else is awake, though if the preceding day was particularly taxing, I may have to sacrifice that morning solitude to get some healing sleep. On days like these, I can sometimes move about the world in a way that embodies the belief that I am out of time: all actions are fast, efficient, and impediments are a nuisance, patience runs thin (though this is never outwardly expressed), sitting in traffic is particularly irritating, my shoulders sit a little closer to my ears, I tend to lock hips while I’m standing…

It is days like these that I feel I can relate to patients saying they don’t have enough time to nourish themselves; what I am sometimes able to remember is that while a day might be totally slotted, there is always a choice in how I approach any given moment. Once I remember this, I am then able to access several tools for reconnecting my body and mind that bring me into the present moment and nourish my spirit.

Bringing awareness to the breath

This is often my first choice because it is always available, no matter the circumstances. If I am alive, I am breathing. Bringing my awareness to my breath without any intention or desire to control is the quickest and most reliable way to integrate mind, body, and breath in the present, and reliably has an immediate calming effect. Even if all I have time for is one fully aware breath, there is still a noticeable shift towards calm and peace; if I have time for several breaths or even a couple minutes, then this effect is magnified. If my breathing has become rapid, and bringing my awareness to my breath does not seem to be helping, then I will generally shift to one of the other techniques below.

Bringing awareness to soles of the feet

This is a close second, because like the breath, my feet are always with me. Regardless of whether I am standing, sitting, walking, or even laying down, bringing my awareness to the soles of my feet has an immediate grounding effect. Many problems from a Chinese medicine perspective are cause by excess qi rising to the chest and head. The qi follows the intent, and the intent is the movement of awareness: if I move my awareness down to the soles of my feet, this is my intention, and any wayward qi that has floated up to the chest or head causing discomfort, irritability, or distraction, will naturally descend to the earth, and my head and heart will be freer to make clearer perceptions and decisions.

Bringing awareness to the shifting of weight

Maintaining awareness of a single autonomic activity (like breathing) or physical location (like the soles of the feet) can be particularly challenging sometimes. If the motion of my mind is so much that it wanders incessantly, then I find a better practice is to bring my awareness to a continuous motion that is regular and fluid. The easiest way to do this is standing in place, starting with the awareness in the sole of one foot, and shifting the weight slowly from foot to foot, following the change in weight like a slinky up one leg, across the pelvis, and down the other leg to other foot, ad infinitum. A similar process can be done while walking, though it’s best if the pace is quite slow.

Intentionally slowing any movement for just a few seconds

When I feel like “I don’t have time…”, then I tend feel like I’m on autopilot. This is a state that relies on previously learned patterns that is good for some survival situations, but is not ideal for clinical situations when I need to be open to the possible changes and novel information that come with each patient that walks through the door. Intentionally slowing down any movement just for a few seconds brings my awareness to my action, whatever it is, and shifts me out of autopilot into a state of present, fully conscious awareness. Here I am more likely to be patient with myself and others, more likely to have clearer perceptions and analyses, and less likely to make mistakes.

I hope any of these techniques can be of use to you the next time you feel like you don’t have any time in your day to nourish yourself. Learning to make time for self-nourishment when your life has been sustained by self-discipline, grind, and grit is a gradual process. Just remember, there is always a choice.

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