One of the very first things they teach you in Zen is a little slogan:
May I and all beings be happy and free from suffering.
Two interesting things here. First, suffering does not necessarily mean something like pain or hunger or sadness. It can, but it’s more usually intended to mean the narratives that we tell ourselves that expand those things into an internal drama. For example, I am sick and have to take a day off work, and I spend the whole day being both physically sick and telling myself over and over that I am going to be so behind at work, and I am never going to catch up. My coworkers are going to think I’m just lazy, so I’ll never get that promotion I wanted. Me never getting the promotion is not my sickness; it’s my (entirely imaginary) suffering.
Secondly: As it was explained to me, the I doesn’t exist in the original; it had to be added to the translation when Buddhism came to the West. It’s not because we are selfish and insisted on putting ourselves in, but rather because we come from a cultural and religious background that values martyrdom. When westerners heard “May all beings be free of suffering,” they didn’t automatically include themselves.
Zen’s relationship to the self, the I, is complicated, and it’s beyond my beginner’s vocabulary to explain it well. In its essence, though, Zen insists that we are not separate from one another, so obviously reducing our own suffering is for the good of the world. In the cosmic scheme of things, one less instance of suffering is great, no matter whose it is, because it is all actually everyone’s. We’re also just more useful in the world when we can give it our best attention.
It seems to me [note: switching from a fairly standard, if imperfect, explanation of the teaching to MY OWN EXTRAPOLATION] that what this leaves us with is an ethical duty to attend to ourselves to the best of our ability. Not exclusively, but definitively. This is both because no one can fix our suffering as well as we can, but also because we don’t want to visit all of our garbage on to the world. If I am hungry and skip snack time, then I become a mean and hateful person who will externalize my crankiness onto other people. If I listen to the news in my car, I will be twice as annoyed when someone cuts me off in traffic. Obviously not every way that we suffer is something that we can quiet so easily, but sometimes we can, and to the extent that we can, it is an ethical good to do so.
I find this to be a really compelling way to think about self-care beyond the truisms.