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Going elemental: Gifts and secrets of burnout

Prayers tied to a tree

In the autumn of 2009, I burned out. Like most enthusiastic people, I was still peddling in mid-air, not realizing why i had no traction in life. Then a few odd symptoms: a little jittery, energy spikes and flags, dark moods and withdrawing. By Thanksgiving, I couldn't walk more than a mile, which is just a warmup for a runner. I had dizziness, and after a few simple tasks, I had to just lie down.

Burnout has many symptomatic names - adrenal fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, hormonal imbalance, breakdown - and hosts more, but the experience feels crazy. It's as if life just says, "no more of that now." All the things I wanted to do for people, all the "extra miles" I was willing to walk, or work, or carry as badges of industry or love -- no more. And then begins the peculiar adjustment to a new set of priorities in life -- what gives energy, and where do i find, within, trapped energy stuck from childhood or trauma? How do I feel the peaceful settlement of not living a life to please others, while also deeply caring for their joy and well-being? What happened?

This led me into a period of deep inquiry that i would call a psycho-spiritual pilgrimage. First, I needed to recover the joy of life. THEN, I needed to continue to inquire about the quantity, and quality, of energy i used, inside, and outside. I began to go elemental.

This one, seemingly small, radical shift, changed everything. And I began to shake off the shackles of exhaustion, becoming intimate with what sustains my spirits. What I found in those radically limited times, was that becoming elemental nourished my life. What do I mean by elemental? Making fires. Pouring water into a kettle. Taking short walks, barefoot. Sowing seeds. Pulling weeds. Setting the sprinkler. Doing the ironing. Mending buttons. Praying. Listening to good, and only good, music.

For some time, I took refuge at the family ranch, and decided, with my limited energy, to bring back my mother's garden. I harvested what i grew and ate it. Simple.

Zen and the art of harvesting lettuce.

By simplifying my life, I was able to purify my systems. No fancy thoughts, no thousand emails, no late-night googling. No over-promising. No breathless team meetings at 8 a.m. after a two-hour caffeinated drive. No products to sell or customers to satisfy. In fact, they didn't even contact me.

Life was asking me to simply become a new kind of human with a keener understanding of what nourishes and depletes me, and why. This is the gift of burnout. My brother called it "a total loss of perspective." Perhaps he was right. But anyone who has been unable to work has profound fears about how to sustain themselves. Or I could say, I had profound fears that emerged when i couldn't work. So I decided to treat all of the whole situation as an alchemical chamber, like a big brew pot, where fear could turn into excitement, or fatigue could compost into fertility again. It was the pot of Patience and Possibility. This allowed me to face ego-flattening failures alongside elevated meditations, and get up the next day, able to love the one (namely, me) who made some big gaffs.

Here is a page from my notebook at the time, where life and exhaustion were all on the same page:

Art brought me back to life. Not just art like big beautiful paintings -- I'm not that kind of an artist - but the kind of art that means, tender care of the lettuce. Tender attention to firebuilding. Tender completion of letters, laundry, baths. Mostly though, the simplest things were the best -- that's why I say, for burnout, go elemental. All the false fullness of our lives actually depletes and dizzies our inner compasses. I hope that my meanderings and collapses along the path support you in yours.

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