“‘Tell me about exhaustion,’ I said.
He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me.
‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’
‘What is it, then?’
‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness‘”
(David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, 132).
As often happens when an important idea or awareness is developing somewhere in our psyches, we start to see evidence of that idea all around us. It’s like when you are thinking about buying a new car, maybe a model you never paid much attention to before, and suddenly you see it EVERYWHERE. My own system for deciding when to pay attention to something is: if I hear about it three times, I will take notice.
This happened with the book Eat, Pray Love, for example, though in that case it took more than three times because no way was I going to read a book about someone who gets to solve their life crises by traveling around Italy, India and Bali on someone else’s dime, and then getting famous by writing about it. Not that I was bitter.
But one day that book turned up in the middle of my desk at work with a note from a co-worker that said: “You should read this. Sorry about the blood stains.” Like the book had fought its own private battle to get to my desk or something. So I read it, liked it okay, and learned some stuff, but that’s not what I wanted to write about today (perhaps still slightly bitter).
My main point is that it’s important to pay attention to things when they arrive in your life, and though it is so deeply fatiguing to hear about someone else’s fatigue, I’m sorry to report that exhaustion is a guest at my house, has in fact been here for some time, and appears to be sitting at the kitchen table making itself a snack, in no big hurry to leave. When you’ve been depressed, anything can seem to herald the return of depression–a cold that leaves you a little tired, not feeling hungry, feeling too hungry, whatever it is; you become a hyper-vigilant monitor of your own personal psychological weather systems in a way that lends itself more to alarm than accuracy. It is good to learn not to pay so much attention to these little fluctuations. But the exhaustion that cuts you off from your own sense of vibrancy or life force, that is a sort of exile from the feeling of belonging to the world—that is something to pay attention to.
So wholeheartedness, if it truly is an antidote to exhaustion matters. Understanding what it means matters. Knowing what it feels like matters. And being able to tell when you are doing something from a place of wholeheartedness and when you are not really, really matters. Partly this is because love is an inexhaustible resource, or at the very least, a renewable resource. Will power is not. Wholeheartedness is solar or wind power; will power is a fossil fuel.
And like other renewable energies, love, or wholeheartedness is both easier and harder to live on. It is more expensive and may take an enormous shift in perspective to rely on, but it is really the only way to go if we have any chance of not burning ourselves out.
Parker Palmer writes, “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place” (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 49).
For me that place of nothingness is the assortment of identities I believe I need to have in order to be a normal, useful person in the world: competent, intellectual, critical, stylish, productive, fit, in control, right. Not much different, really, from what anyone else tells themselves about who or what they should be. But alarmingly lacking in any real human qualities. Utterly devoid of heart. The Darth Vader approach to life.
Wholeheartedness is not easy. It’s not all hearts and flowers, if you will forgive a terrible pun. But really, it isn’t. Yeats wrote, “I must lie down where all ladders start,/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Hearts are often armored, frightened, wounded, broken, or three sizes too small, like the Grinch. Living from your heart means you can get hurt, which is why we don’t do it very well or often enough. Living from your heart means forgiving yourself for your Grinchy little meannesses, to yourself as much as to other people. Who wants to know, really know, that they are not living wholeheartedly? It’s piece of information that once known, can’t be unknown or ignored. And if taken seriously, it can change everything.
As I mentioned above, when a new idea starts to take shape in our consciousness, we may begin to see little glimpses of that idea all around us. I have been seeing lots of hearts lately. And here is the most unbelievable, embarrassing, delightful “sighting” of them all—the name of this blog. I originally chose the name “From the Heart” because it is connected to my therapeutic writing practice, Heartland Writing. But I didn’t really see it until YESTERDAY. David Whyte says that writing is often the act of overhearing yourself say things you didn’t know you knew. I didn’t know, but now I do, that what I am really trying to do is to teach myself how to write from my heart, how to live from my heart, how to live wholeheartedly. There was the antidote to exhaustion, right in front of me, all along.
A short, powerful piece today excerpted from a longer poem by Rumi:
“Where Everything is Music”:
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks