The Warrior and the Caregiver

A version of this piece originally appeared in The 10% Happier newsletter, here.

Things are hard right now.

As I write this in December 2020, the second wave of the pandemic is surging around the world. Frontline caregivers are overwhelmed, families are reeling, and many of us are facing lockdown. It’s cold and dark in the Northern Hemisphere. People are feeling anxious and isolated and under-supported.

My own mental health is definitely taking a hit, along with the mental health of pretty much everyone I know. To manage this crisis, I need a model for managing myself. I call it the Warrior and the Caregiver.

The Warrior is the part of you that goes out into the world. The Warrior dons her doctor scrubs every day, takes a deep breath, and steps into the ER. The Warrior hears her baby cry in the night, and even though she hasn’t slept in six months, she gets up to offer comfort. Or, to give a recent personal example, the Warrior, cleaning up the kitchen after a long day, breathes through his seething anger at the oversized ceramic plate that refuses to fit in the cupboard – after trying five times to put it away! I hate that plate!

Obviously we’re not only talking about frontline heroics. The Warrior gets up in the morning!

The Warrior is where we expand our natural capacity in the face of challenge, just as our chests expand on the inhale. This is not about being tough—on the contrary, too much rigidity and resistance creates friction, inside and out.  It’s about opening.  In a dignified and courageous way, we acknowledge and accept our fear, our anger, our grief. The more we fully accept, the more space inside we create.

The Warrior, in other words, is about equanimity.

Equanimity is a superpower. It is a skill both for managing the moment, and transforming the self. With every pulse of equanimity, we dissolve old limits and conditioning. With every pulse of equanimity, we retrain our nervous systems away from reactivity and towards space.

We can observe this in meditation, where each push and pull of aversion and distraction is a tiny test of equanimity. We practice staying centered and present in the formal setting of meditation, so that we’re more likely to stay centered and present in our daily lives.

There’s something thrilling about aspiring to this kind of Warrior-hood. Also – let’s be honest – something a bit deranged. Because who can actually live up to this?  Something is always lurking just around the corner, waiting to kick our butt.  We all find ourselves losing it one way or another.  Because we’re human. And humans have limits.

What happens then?

Then our Caregiver comes in. If the Warrior is our in-breath, expanding our capacity for whatever’s arising, the Caregiver is our long, full out-breath: sighhhhhhhh.

The Caregiver is where we accept our limitations, back away from intensity, and take care of ourselves. It helps us turn to the places we feel nurtured.

Maybe that looks like taking five minutes to lie on the floor and focus on your exhale. Or maybe it’s going for a walk in nature, or feeding pigeons, or bingeing on Netflix. Who am I to critique your coping strategies?

What matters is the reset. What matters is giving the nervous system time to settle and relax, so that you’re more likely to hold it together through the next frustration.

The Caregiver’s strengths are discernment and self-compassion. Discernment to notice when you’re beginning to get crispy. And compassion to care about that. Compassion and humility – because our limits will not look the same as someone else’s. The Caregiver knows how to get real: Where am I right now? What are my limits? And what have I learned about how to care for myself?

Meditation is an essential part of this training too. Mindfulness helps us see when we’re at our edge. It teaches us what being over-extended feels like in our bodies and our minds. And compassion teaches us it’s ok to pull back, to take care – it shows us what actual care looks and feels like.

We need both the Warrior and the Caregiver.

Life often doesn’t let us choose. Often we’re forced to stay with some challenge well past the point where we should be taking care of ourselves. So we do the best we can, and hope any screw-ups are outweighed by our positive efforts. This, too, is an equanimity practice.

The pandemic is our collective training ground. We don’t get to choose the timing, or how long it lasts. We only get to choose how we exist inside it.

Good luck out there my friends.

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