Spiritual Exhaustion or Renewal -
‘I Am So Tired’
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Life is exhausting. We seem to be running from morning to night. We never have enough energy. Often we wake up tired and we go to bed even more tired and in between we never feel really on top of life. We feel as if our energy is stolen, our joy of life is undermined, and the place where our energy has drained away is not at all clear.
It is often not clear to our thinking mind because this is a holistic issue, in which the source of tiredness can come from any or all levels – from the physical level such as the food we eat to the emotional level such as chronic anxiety, mild depression or despair, the social level such as continuous tension and conflict within the family, the psychological level such as stress and unconscious friction, to the spiritual level such as meaninglessness, or spiritual over-ambition. And they all may interact. For example, the state of our energy in meditation and yoga is influenced as much by emotional tension as by spiritual laziness. In all this web of possible causes where do we begin?
It is a general rule in holistic self-care that we begin with the physical and the ground and work our way towards the subtle and the spiritual. Sometimes it is obvious that we are working too hard and we are drowned in an atmosphere of intense activity. We know we need a rest. But often it is not that simple; for example we expect that a holiday will press our ‘reset’ button, but it may not be enough, and anyway we bring our exhausting tendencies on holiday with us. So, starting from the physical, we should look at our diet. Is it in balance, am I eating wholesome food that provides the full range of nutrients? If we eat too much and too often, this can make us tired as the body uses up energy to deal with all this consumption. Excess carbohydrates, too much sugar especially in soft drinks, and too many coffees, are very common sources of chronic tiredness. Regular exercise is crucial, and we cannot do without it. It is as simple as that.
On the next level is stress, a basket word that covers many kinds of pressures on our receptive selves. It is helpful to remember that our body-mind may experience stress even if we think we are fine. Research has shown for example, that people who live near busy roads have much higher levels of stress hormones than others, even though they may not notice it and are quite adjusted to their daily life. Stress is not necessarily an issue of direct pressure. It can simply be the total amount of stimulation we experience day by day. If we work all day, and ‘switch off’ in front of the TV at night, it may be that there is far too much input besieging our poor sensitive brains and hearts, and it would have been much better to properly shut the shop, and allow the inner turmoil to gradually settle down. But there is a personal balance here, and everyone is a bit different. For some, too little stimulation, such as unemployment, creates stress, and for others too much. There are some tough nuts, such as Winston Churchill, who managed the Allied war effort, with little sleep, vast overstimulation, plenty of brandy and cigars, and who died of natural causes well into his 90’s. There are others who feel fragile and nervous. We need to carefully know ourselves and the nature of our vulnerability. Then we can work externally – reducing the level of stress to the level which we can cope with, even if it means moving house or changing jobs, and at the same time internally - building inner resilience and calm. Appropriate ways may include deep relaxation, or a daily walk by the sea. Methods of meditation which help here are those in which we reach a quiet concentration, in which we drop into a calm and empty place. Whether through following the breath, an object, sound or music, the return to our center is a return to a place where neither we nor the world makes demands on us.
Yet often even this too is not enough; it is a recharging of the batteries in order to go out in the world and get exhausted again. We do not want to be like swans, which seem to be so serene above the water, but under the water their legs are paddling like mad. For one of the most important source of tiredness is the underlying patterns with which we confront the world. Patterns for example of worry or suppressed anger, of perfectionism, of compulsions, (including the compulsion to be of benefit to others), of ambition, guilt, confusion, and so on. Here is the self in all its glory creating resistance at every opportunity and eventually burn-out, whether at work, home or in daily life. Here we need a deeper work in which we expose and liberate ourselves from the tyrannies of our patterns. This is partly a psychological work, but also spiritual. Methods of meditation here need to be deeper, to work with content, not just with calmness. It needs a spiritual and psychological purification which gets to those deep places and frees us from the kinds of inner conflicts and stormy climate that drain us. This is a life journey. With heart, clarity, commitment and some good authentic teachings, we can go way beyond the proverbial ‘recharging of the batteries’, to find a natural freedom and original joy.
But there are also energetic issues within the spiritual path itself. We usually approach spiritual life with exactly the same group of patterns and issues which we bring to daily life. We can be striving and ambitious, trying to get somewhere fast (though we often are not quite sure where it is that we want to get to) or we may be passive, expecting others to do it for us, or we may be restless, or negative, and so on. One day, the gaunt ascetic Siddharta Gautama, in the midst of intense practice and austerities, was sitting meditating by the bank of the river, and along floated a boat with a student who was beginning to learn the sitar, and his teacher. The teacher said to the student “if the strings are too tight, they don’t make music, if they are too loose, they don’t make music. They have to be just right”. That was a turning point for Gautama and he loosened up and awakened, to become The Buddha. It is important that we too learn the Middle Way in our spiritual life, learning to refine energy and not to squander it. When the Dalai Lama visited Israel recently, he showed this energy. More than 70 years old, he taught from morning to night, with a playfulness, ease, and lightness of being. These are qualities which we can bring to our spiritual life, whether it is prayer, meditation or any other practice. Let us have the patient steadiness and persistence of the swan sitting on eggs, rather than furiously paddling up the river.