The Science of Self-Care

Defining the field

If you Google it "self-care" appears to connote either diet, exercise and other medical attention, or massage, manicures and spa treatments. Self-care in these senses serves to keep us in the kind of physical shape and mood we want to be in to put in a productive day and perform our duties in the world. Is this all there is to the "self" of which we are charged with taking care? Clearly we not merely bodies, but creatures with minds that we 'feed and exercise' as well, namely with the literature we read, the work we do, the television programs we watch, and the conversations we engage in. As creatures requiring mental treatment and rest, too, taking care of ourselves is not just about diet and exercise, but also about time- and life-management, communication and relationships, and perhaps even enriching ourselves psychologically, intellectually and spiritually.

This somewhat broader science of self-care is in recent times often called "self-improvement." Witness some of the most burgeoning shelves of your local bookstore. The people who write these books, make these CDs or give these talks generally call themselves coaches. Many coaches specify an area of expertise, like relationship coach or business coach, as do coaches in other fields, like vocal coach in music, or tennis coach in sports.

What goes on in coaching?

What you find out fast when you hire a coach, or listen to a self-improvement CD, is that, regardless of how specialized the domain, the guidance received in that domain impacts many other aspects of life. Whether I hire a swim coach, an executive management coach or a violin coach, I can count on changing my eating and sleeping patterns, budgeting differently, and shifting the people with whom I hang out. It is for this reason, and to distinguish themselves from advisors of one sort or another, that many generalist practitioners especially call themselves "life-coaches."

Not since the Ancient Greek and Roman doctor-philosophers has there been so much attention on self-care as we are witnessing today. It would appear that somewhere in The Enlightenment and The Industrial (not to mention The Corporate) Revolution, Western Culture generally lost track of the need that productive citizens seem to have to be mentored, and-if the individual means to excel in a particular field--to apprentice under a master.

This rise in the practice of the science of self-care would not be occurring were it not for the fact that companies that have used professional coaching for business reasons have seen a median return on their investment of seven times their initial investment, according to the International Coaching Federation's Global Coaching Client Study (available at, conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Association Resource Centre Inc in 2009.

Coaches distinguish what they do from advising or consulting. An advisor or consultant has a particular expertise that the client lacks, the implementation of which leads directly to change. A coach's expertise is at helping people understand themselves and work through obstacles (internal and otherwise) to accomplish things themselves: goals or projects the client cannot yet see herself fulfilling on. Tom Landry, the famous Dallas Cowboys Football coach is supposed to have said: "A coach is someone who tells you what you don't want to hear, so you can see what you don't want to see, so you can be what you've always wanted to be."

What Landry was pointing to is that coaching is effective when it gives us a perspective on ourselves that we would not have otherwise. There are many things we cannot see about ourselves. In the same way that we cannot see the way we look from certain angles, we often cannot see why the people around us are affected by us the way they are. It also usually takes someone else's pointing out how differently we spend our time, for us stop and realize what we are doing with our life. Every one of us exhibits certain behaviors or patterns of thinking that most other people readily recognize, but that we cannot see about ourselves.

"Seems like you always take the underdog's side, Martha."

"I do?"

Or, "Why do you constantly wring your hands, Fred?"

"I do what?"

Or, "Do you realize you're a contrarian, George?"

"I am NOT."

The Value of Coaching

Although we each have our personal versions of them, blindspots are inherent to being human. Apprenticing with a mentor gives us access to recognizing these blindspots, and thereby to know ourselves more fully. Allowing another pair of eyes to observe us, we avail ourselves of a view of ourselves we could not have had otherwise, and thereby acquire more understanding of what is and is not working for us vis-a-vis the life we want. The process of discovering who we are, and taking a broader view of what we're doing with the time of our life, clearly impacts not only the care of our physical self, but moreover the care of our emotional, mental and spiritual self.

Accordingly the science of self-care is not only an inquiry into what is to be included in a regimen for taking care of oneself, but also a question as to what The Self is, and how best to approach taking care of it. Coaching ultimately boils down to the age-old directive to "Know Thyself" and lead "The Examined Life."

The human being's generic blindspots arise out of conditions on all experience acknowledged by philosophers since ancient times. In any given phenomenal experience, there are three elements: a quality, a subject, and the interpretant in virtue of which the quality and the subject relate. Let's say black is the quality; kettle is the subject; and in a well-lit kitchen I notice, "This kettle is black." In synthesizing the quality and the subject of an experience in a given context, we create our experience. These elements of the phenomenon also correspond to the levels of knowledge Plato describes in the "divided line" passage of The Republic (509d): Eikasia (image-making), Pistis (belief; based in the predictable occurrence of an object of perception), and Dianoia (thought). A fourth and last level of knowledge is Noesis (intuition).

Like Pythagoras before him and Aristotle after, Plato also suggests that the whole of society is divided into i) people who are predominantly body- or image-oriented, ii) laborers working with established technology, iii) professionals generating and moving information, and iv) the "philosopher-kings" (the wise ones who head the community). In like manner, our experience (as individuals) of a given phenomenon in a given instant is usually dominated by one of the three elements involved, while we are blind to the others. For instance, I'm so shaken by the loudness of the bang that I don't yet recognize that it was the door that slammed shut. Or, I don't know exactly what it is about what you said, but it inspired me. The demonstration that a straight line bisects parallel lines at equal angles is so compelling, that I fail to appreciate that this will only hold true as long as space itself is flat.

In a coaching conversation, the person being coached might come to countenance a) that the real subject of her daughter's not calling home at the appointed time last night was not her daughter's irresponsibility but her own (since the phone she gave her daughter needed recharging); b) that it wasn't the content of the revenue-generation plan she presented at work that had it not go over well, but the fact that she presented it with a tone of fear and hopelessness; c) that there are several other ways she could make a living, and these lie in areas of life where she feels confident and hopeful; and d) that she had been pursuing a career in social services because that's what people in her family had always done, even though her "heart" (her intuitive self!) is really in engineering.

The science of coaching can be divided into four main subjects corresponding to the four major potential blindspots we all share. As long as we are living life as mind and or body exclusively (and self-care is left to imply merely dietetics and physical training), we can't see all the dimensions of our potentially fully-conscious Self. Because they bring to light those aspects of phenomena of which we are not aware, these four are the domains in which we can broaden our experience, or to which we need to bring attention, if we are to become fully conscious and thereby 'know ourselves.'

The Blindspots

The first blindspot is to the basic character containing the phenomenal event, its quality. For example, 'Why am I having so much trouble concentrating on what she's saying? Oh, it's because she's saying it in such a panicky way that I feel nervous, scared and want to do something to fix the situation, before even coming to understand what is wrong.' Another example: Gerry can't figure out why his projects keep failing. He doesn't notice that what he's paying attention to is how he might fail, as opposed to focusing on how to succeed. Very often we don't realize that the quality or image that the mind assigns the experience is not necessary, and can be altered. In such cases, we are blind to our power of autopoiesis, i.e. that we create the quality of the reality we experience, and we have the capacity to change it. We are blind to the fact that we are both cause & effect of our life.

This self-creative power lies largely in where we put our attention. It's common to hear people say, "I see the glass as half-full where you see it as half-empty," or vice versa. However, attention to body-image / quality actually cuts very deep. If the presenter (example above) focused her presentation on avoiding dangers, saving face, surviving upsets, it would not have nearly the appeal as one accounting for the same facts, but creating a vision of possibility, ingenuity and success. A friend of mine's mother just passed away; he noticed he could focus on her final illness, his missing her, and the complexity of handling her estate, or he could take care of all of the above whilst enjoying the great spirit his mothers was and is, the wonderful things she accomplished in life, and the awesome legacy of charity everyone at the wake acknowledged that she left behind.

Second Blindspot

The second element of all phenomena, to which we can be blind at times, is the dynamism of its object, the Newtonian mechanics of it. It is very easy for us to lose sight of the real statistics and the true probability of our beliefs proving true, when we allow our desire, our attachment, or our ego to sway our thinking. Imagine, for instance, that you're trying to give up smoking. Now someone offers you a cigarette. It doesn't matter how you feel or what you think about lighting up, what makes a difference is that you not smoke a cigarette this time, or the next, or the next. This is how you become a non-smoker.

Consider how the following example is similar. You might feel like, or even believe, that your best friend has just abandoned you by not showing up at your birthday party. The fact of the matter is that she is not here at the party right now. However, the fact that she is not here at the party now probably does not mean you've been abandoned, given the commitment to your relationship that she's demonstrated many times over. It may even be cause for concern about her safety and welfare. In both these examples, what is hidden from view is the indeterminacy of the phenomenon we're experiencing, the difference between what is fact versus what is interpretation. When either of the other elements of the phenomenon dominate our attention (i.e. when we are more taken by the quality or the interpretation of the experience), then we are blind to the believability/habituated nature of the reality we're experiencing.

So, if the person who is endeavoring to give up smoking simply goes by the feeling that it'd be nice to have a cigarette, or the interpretation "One cigarette never killed anyone" (say), then she will fail to heed the fact that she just needs to say "no" if she is going to establish a new habit of not smoking. Or, take the case of the birthday celebrant who is upset that her friend is not present at the party. If she allows her personal feelings to rule, and leaps at the interpretation that she's been abandoned, she overlooks the fact that her friend's not showing up most probably signals an extenuating circumstance, especially given the general rule, according to which, as friends, they attend each other's parties.

Third Blindspot

The third aspect of the phenomenon, our third potential blindspot, is the interpretant in virtue of which the quality and the subject relate. We usually assume ourselves to be the interpretant, and we cling to "our" interpretation of the phenomenon precisely because we think it is ours. In fact we hold it as part of our identity. In reality, we are largely not responsible for our interpretations; they are imprinted upon us by our parents and upbringing, the culture and media in which we live, the developmental age of our science and technology, et al outside forces.

Most of the time, we assume and behave as though we are our mind. This is egoism. If you have a thought that is clear and powerful, you think, "Boy, am I smart." Actually you possess a mind, like you possess a foot. It is more accurate to say, "The mind is free and functioning well." Likewise, if you experience challenges thinking (because of fatigue or insufficient nutrition, e.g.), rather than jumping to the conclusion, "I'm such a dummy; I don't know what's wrong with me," you might simply observe, "The mind needs rest." Who or what you are is really something much more than that albeit powerful neurological organ you've got between your ears. To identify with the mind is to set yourself up for a constant cycle of self-negation and pride, of egoistic death and resurrection. By contrast, when you identify with the purpose of the task or project at hand, then rather than taking them personally, you can navigate mitigating circumstances in a detached, powerful, creative and free way that better ensures success.

For instance, if I allow myself to be personally affected by a decision, then the whole process is misdirected. I might push and manipulate the situation such that my great and trusted friend becomes our business' strategic partner, but he doesn't really bring to the table the resources needed to further our company's growth. If, instead, I dedicate my thinking and actions to the health and success of our business, I put my personal preferences to the side for the sake of a sound choice for the business.

One of the most potent techniques for discovering blindspots is to request that a committed listener or coach reflect back at us what we are saying. "So," using the example above, "What you're saying is that, because he's a good and trusted friend, he's the right strategic partner for the new venture. Is that right?" Suddenly, I am shown the faultiness of my thinking, and without anyone having to say, "Your reasoning is faulty." This is important because hearing that would only cause me to dig my egoistic heals in deeper, and push my agenda even harder. This is the key contributor to our blindspots around dianoia, the third potential blindspot: because we so narrowly associate our identity with our thoughts, we fight to the death to avoid blame, pain, responsibility or looking bad. Likewise we let it "go to our head" when our thinking is praised.

Fourth Blindspot

The fourth blindspot we can have is that of the most basic and enduring order from which we and our phenomenal experiences emerge. The ancient Greeks called this nous, often translated as "intuition." To "Know Thyself" ultimately is to eat, breathe and play on the basis of one's participation in the larger intelligence of the universe. To know ourselves must include experiencing ourselves as the universe. Our experience of intuition has a texture different from phenomenal experience; it is not conditioned by the mind. We can be blind to our power of intuition because mental activity, pistis (belief) and dianoia (thought) dominate our lives: opining, analyzing, judging, strategizing, cajoling, worrying, justifying, regretting, etc..

Notice that in all of these states of mind, we are seeking, stressing or striving to get somewhere, achieve something or accomplish something, if only to feel better about ourselves. In intuition what-is and the consciousness of what-is are one. There is no strife outside the mind in intuition. This is not a matter of mystical conjecture either. You can access intuition within yourself at any time by simply turning your attention inward, noticing sensations in the body and thoughts. Focus your awareness on that fundamental aliveness that you are, and that connects to the world around you. From this nonverbal awareness that we can access when we turn our attention within, we witness the "space" of consciousness, inside of which our own thinking, behavior and emotions arise and pass away.

Here is an example. I know from my own childhood how much it means to have your father at your baseball games. I've been at all of my son's games so far this season. He has a game Thursday evening. However, I've also promised to be the person on the church's steering committee who is accountable for the new windows project. Thursday evening is also the best night the steering committee could find to have its meeting regarding the new windows. I put down everything I'm doing, turn away from computer and phone, sit up straight but easely with feet planted flat on the floor, close my eyes and bring attention to my heart or intuition.

It takes a few moments to get out of my head, but then from the tranquility within the sense bubbles up that what I really want, both in following my son's baseball career and in serving the steering committee as head of the new windows project, is to empower everyone around me, as well as myself. I tell my son I want to spend more time one-on-one, and not just sitting in the bleachers watching him play baseball. I tell him I will not be at the game Thursday, and we schedule a hike to our favorite meadow in the mountains to have some good quality time together on Saturday. I talk to each of the other members of the steering committee at church about the role they each see themselves playing in the new windows project, and ask them to present their ideas at the upcoming meeting. I set it up so that, even if I were to not show up at the meeting (and I will), the project would be moving forward.


When a coach points out any of the blindspots of our phenomenal experience, it is like we are given a fish; but learning to employ the enormous power of intuition is like learning to fish. Intuition illuminates all of our other blindspots. Understanding that coaching is a science offering valuable insight into those areas of potential experience where we are currently lacking awareness, helps bring some order to the stacks of self-improvement books gathering in our households. It also sheds light on why the coaching we may have received was, or was not, effective. It allows us to better know ourselves, and to take better care of our Whole Self.

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