In this post I’m exploring the latter half of the four areas of personal sustainability, Mental and Spiritual, as well as sharing a few themes which apply to all.
Sustainability is defined as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In this way I view sustainability as not just doing something as long as you can, but doing it in a way that promotes well-being (ecological balance) and prevents burnout (depletion of resources).
Mental (focus of energy)
When most people use the term burnout, I think they are referring to mental exhaustion. I don’t know anyone who intends to be burnt out by their work, but I know plenty of people who feel that they are. Here are some helpful ways I’ve found to address this:
90 minute working/computer sessions: I’ve written about this before, but after three years of trying to consistently limit any one computer session to 90 minutes, I am just now beginning to get the hang of it. I’ve found the first session of the day is quite easy: I have a good understanding of what I’m going to be working on, my music is queued up, and I feel fresh. The second and third sessions (if I get that far) are much more difficult to keep track of, as over time diligence can wain. A low willpower makes one susceptible to maintain the inertia of working well beyond the point of positive returns, and thus it is especially important to be aware of working later in the day.
Few supports for this intention:
-Physically getting up. Sometimes I allow my “break” to be checking facebook, reading news, watching videos, etc. but after such a pause I don’t feel refreshed, and thus, it doesn’t serve the purpose of a break.
-Starting at time intervals which are easy to keep track of. If I start a session at 9am, whenever I glance at the time I have a easily identifiable indication of where I’m at, versus starting at 8:52 which requires more effort to be aware of.
-Starting the session with a 3-minute breathing space. Every single time I have the diligence to do this I am glad I did.
Posture while working: This may seem like a minor point, but it isn’t. Many people spend the majority of their working day not paying attention to how they are using their body. Poor posture means over time more attention is being re-directed to aches and pains of the body; some minor, some serious. The most helpful posture guidance I’ve found is by exploring the Alexander Technique, through lessons and books . While working at the computer I use a laptop stand with an external keyboard and trackpad. I’ve recently been experimenting with a standing desk as well, and am finding it beneficial.
Diversity: When I was a child I discovered that if I ate just one kind of food I would quickly tire of it, but if I ate multiple types I could keep going. (I was kind of a chubby kid.) I’ve witnessed the same rule applies in other realms of life: reading is different from writing is different from watching. Varying the medium of consumption allows me to digest more and focus for longer.
Spiritual (purpose of energy)
I once heard enlightenment defined as simply remembering. Socrates put it as “All inquiry and learning is but recollection.”
When I began walking down a spiritual path I think I implicitly assumed that once I had been able to embrace a certain type of suffering then I would no longer need to be concerned with it again. I thought I could just “learn the lesson” and move on…in my experience this has not quite been the case :)
I am finding that each situation presents its own particularities which must be welcomed, held, examined, and released in order to be transformed. There is no one size fits all, no magic bullet, no secret. It’s simply showing up: minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and being present, as fully as I can, with what arises.
Because each moment is unique, in order to sustain this type of energy I need to be constantly reminded of why I am doing what I am doing. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I find extended stays at mindfulness practice centers so rewarding! This work can be done anywhere, but some conditions are more favorable than others. Being steeped in an environment where there is an explicit directive to practice a path of compassion helps me to remember. I still forget, daily, but I am supported by those around me to keep coming back to my deepest intention…
Themes across all four areas (Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual)
Under-estimating externalities of a single behavior change
When making a decision to change something, I am often surprised at how many unexpected considerations appear which need to be dealt with.
For example, last year I wanted to increase the amount of physical activity I engaged in…so I started running. In my mind I thought the +/- was simple: the benefit would be long-term health and the cost would be the time spent running and pushing past fatigue in the short-term.
After running for a while I saw much more benefit than I anticipated: I started having more energy during the day. I slept better. I built my physical endurance. I was able to more easily release mental tension. I begin to appreciate my neighborhood more. My connection with my parent’s dog increased as whenever I was home I would take her out with me. I started paying more attention to where there were sidewalks and how large they were. I started waving at strangers more.
I also saw unexpected costs. There were relatively harmless things like needing to do laundry more and buying more socks. There were also higher costs such as my ankles becoming sore and needing to invest in a physiotherapist. When I didn’t exercise I now felt lazy. Then when shopping for new shoes I found there to be quite a lot of contention on what types of shoes / support was best, and found myself needing to a lot more research to feel good about a purchasing decision.
My lesson here was to start expecting the unexpected, knowing that a small change may trigger many unforeseen considerations. The best way I could prepare was by being open for them.
Having sufficient capacity to process that which arises in experience is a necessity for sustained well-being. The more capacity, the faster the processing, the cleaner the system, and the more it can take in. If things aren’t processed, even if they are accumulating slowly, they can get ‘stuck’ and soon no more will fit. A blockage.
In a physical sense this occurs with exercise; after a good workout your body is more efficient at processing food.
Emotionally, if you are feeling worn down your ability to be there for others, and yourself, is clearly limited. Mentally if you are feeling fresh you are likely to respond better to an unplanned surprise at work.
The ability to process an experience requires being in touch with what is actually happening inside in each moment, and acting from that place of awareness.
This can be difficult at times.
Meditation can help in expanding this capacity for awareness over time. At first it may take weeks to process something ‘bad’, then days, then hours then minutes and then eventually, perhaps, no time at all.
Investing energy in core versus expansion
When deciding where to spend energy on any dimension, I noticed I was often faced with two choices: doing more of what I’m already doing or trying out new experiences. Some examples:
-Physical: Current exercises vs. new exercises
-Emotional: Current friends vs. new friends
-Mental: Current music vs. new music
-Spiritual: Current mindfulness practices vs. new practices
Of course the answer is a bit of both: investing too much in existing activities comes with a risk of stagnation, investing too much in growth risks stability
By observing my activities over time I recognized a tendency to invest more in new experiences, and as a result, often feeling unbalanced. By digging a little I uncovered a fear underneath this impulse that said what I had wasn’t good enough. If I could only find the next-big-X then I would be happy. But, of course, mindfulness practice teaches that there are more than enough conditions to be happy, just as we are. That doesn’t mean new experiences are bad, far from it, but it does mean than placing happiness on a future condition is likely to lead to disappointment.
To put it another way, if you haven’t found something meaningful in this post yet, then you’d better stop now :)