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Sustaining Yourself As a Care Provider

by Phillip Moffitt, Co-Guiding Teacher

Being in a care-providing role brings joy and fulfillment in numerous ways. It provides us with a feeling of connectedness with another. While we’re helping another, we step outside of our own narrow point of view. We get to be useful, so it gives us the satisfaction of doing what needs to be done. We have the privilege of relieving another person’s physical or emotional suffering, which imparts meaning to our lives.

There are also less obvious benefits to being a care provider. Each moment that we act with kindness and compassion, these qualities are being reinforced in us. In other words, we’re becoming kinder and more compassionate. Plus, we’re bathing ourselves in kindness and compassion. The ability to have compassion for another helps us have compassion for ourselves, and having more compassion for ourselves allows us to have more compassion for another.

However, just as there are rewards to being a care provider, there are also challenges — stress, fatigue, tension, not enough time or support, and sacrificing our own life and needs. There are also external conditions that can add to the challenge. For example, we may care for someone who is difficult, unappreciative or deliberately self-destructive, and that’s discouraging. An excessive workload, repetitive tasks, and not enough break time are also external conditions that can be very difficult.

Additionally, there may be internal conditions in your mind and heart that may have come about because of external conditions. You may feel doubt, bitterness or frustration, or your nerves are frayed, or you’re really reactive. These internal conditions can make what’s difficult in your external conditions far worse.

In the first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught that dukkha — which can be interpreted as suffering, including emotional and physical pain, anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction — is intertwined with life. In the Second Noble Truth, he taught that whatever degree of dukkha there may be in your external conditions it is your relationship to it that determines the amount of suffering you experience. Your relationship being your reactive mind — what the Buddha called clinging or attachment. The resistance that’s formed by clinging constitutes a whole other level of suffering than what we actually experience in the mind, heart and body.

For example, you might be experiencing 5 out of 10 degrees of physical pain, but you have 10 degrees of resistance, so you end up with 50 degrees of physical discomfort. This isn’t mathematically exact; it’s just an analogy! But it’s really true, isn’t it? And we discover this in our sitting practice and in our daily lives, when we’re mindful.

We see that our reactive mind makes whatever challenge we have much worse. Learning to not fall into a reactive mind is why we practice. Otherwise we are always reacting to the pleasant or unpleasant moments of life, wanting to have or not wanting to have something, like puppets on a string.

As we learn to notice our mind states, we can begin to move from a reactive mind to a responsive mind. As care providers, when we get caught in clinging, we get caught in a reactive mindstate so we’re making what’s already a challenge much worse. Our minds and hearts become trapped. By “trapped” I mean we get stuck; we start having a sense of limitation in our thinking and our behavior. Applying the Buddhist teachings of freedom of mind and heart, we can learn to move ourselves out of these traps. Does this mean that difficulty goes away? No — it’s tough being in a care provider role — but our experience of it can become different. We can move from a reactive relationship to a responsive one that gives us choice and a sense of empowerment.

Phillip Moffitt is a Buddhist meditation teacher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is Co-Guiding Teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and leads meditation retreats throughout the United States. Phillip is also the founder and director of Life Balance Institute where he trains leaders and professionals in how to skillfully make major transitions in their lives. He is the author of two books, Emotional Chaos to Clarity and Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering.