Exhaustion & Whole-Heartedness

20th September 2020

The Japanese have a word for it. Karoshi. It means, 'death by overwork'. The major causes of karoshi are suicides, heart attacks and strokes induced by work-related stress. In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford University organisational behaviour professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that some 150,000 deaths in the United States each year, and as many as 1 million in China, can be attributed to overwork.

Increasingly, in my online engagements with senior corporate clients and their teams, I am seeing the frenzied signs and symptoms of overwhelm and exhaustion. To be honest I am feeling a few of them in myself too. Small wonder when our current context is forcing open the fissures of a workaholic business culture.

The question I am facing in to, as a consultant to these teams, is what to do about it? Some bumper-sticker wisdom I came across years ago said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going!” Yes, but… I don’t want to collude with dysfunctional workaholism by ignoring reality.

For a while, I have been engaging with the increased workloads, anxieties and uncertainties of home-based working by enacting the masculine myth of running against enemy fire… just charging ahead and dealing with all that is being thrown at me. This masculine framing of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is wonderful and deeply important – but limited when it’s your only recourse. So, I have also been pondering another myth, of ‘The Women’s Dance’. This myth symbolises a different form of courageous engagement – of really getting to know the ‘you’ that you were born in to and have become disconnected from…

The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness

The poet David Whyte told a story on a seminar I attended years ago, of lamenting to a friend of his, about how utterly exhausted he was. His friend’s rejoinder? “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest, it is wholeheartedness”. Anyone who has experienced burn-out will tell you, that rest is not enough. You can’t just recharge your battery and keep going as before, like some demented Duracell bunny. There has to be a deeper process of realignment. In my own experience of overwhelm, this has to do with the twin disciplines of Cultivating and of Letting Go. Cultivating has to do with creating something positive, of bringing something to life; while Letting Go has to do with removing encumbrances, opening our clutch and grasp on how things should be so that dead weight drops to the ground and our hands can receive something new and renewing.

What is wholeheartedness? At one level I see it as ‘engagement without misgivings’ - the capacity for unconditional commitment, unstinting devotion and unreserved enthusiasm. Yet when I feel into this, there is also something of the Hero’s Journey about it – I could be ego-seduced into striving for commitment, devotion and enthusiasm. Perhaps trying harder to feel things I am not naturally in touch with, is part of the problem…

I like Brené Brown’s reframe, that wholeheartedness is about living our lives with authenticity and openness to our vulnerabilities. It is about cultivating courage and compassion, holding courageous conversations with ourselves about who we really are and what we really want, and being willing to move forwards without guarantees. After all, we become exhausted not only physically, mentally and emotionally but also when we become disconnected from our values and from our sense of purpose.

Wholeheartedness is an attentional discipline that aligns us with the deeper wellsprings of our flourishing

I don’t think of wholeheartedness as a destination, a point of arrival. For most of us, there will always be some lingering sense of inner fragmentation that gets in the way of our peace and wholeness. Wholeheartedness is more like an attentional discipline that we get better at over time, so that we become more increasingly and steadily more aligned with the deeper wellsprings of our flourishing.

What are some of the micro-practices that might help us experience more wholeheartedness? By the way, they have to be intentional practices, because we don’t just wake up one morning and hear the angels singing!

  • Connecting with the you that is not your ‘strategist’ self. This could be as simple as leaving your To Dolist alone and carving out a space of silence and solitude each day.
  • Having a more honest conversation with yourself about what you love and long for in your life and work.
  • Exploring how to feel more connected to yourself and those around you. In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen – really seen – and this involves embracing our vulnerability. This will bring up fear, but it is also the birthplace of our belonging, joy and creativity. When we connect and belong, we come alive.
  • Face what scares us if we stop and do things differently. There is no short-cut past the discomfort and consternation of not knowing what will happen when we lean in to the unknown.
  • Try something new and different – open up a space when we are not there in our usual ways. Without the experience of novelty, we cannot feel revitalised!
  • Have boundaries – they keep us safe and make us safe. Revisit your values, and find out where your ‘No!’ is.

 These are some micro-practices I’ve engaged with, but there are many more – what do you do, to keep close to yourself and your wholeheartedness?

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