What are you left with when things fall apart? What is at the heart of things for you? What truly guides you?
Gentle reader: When was the last time you felt true exhaustion? Wiped out, both mentally and physically. Nothing left to give. Everything gone. Spent.
When was the last time you were honest with yourself about feeling exhaustion? Did you feel it was something that you could share with others? Was (or even is) exhaustion something to hide? Something that you keep or kept a closely-guarded secret, in case anyone learning that you have such a human weakness might be your undoing?
When things have fallen apart, when you are at the point of exhaustion, you get to see what is at the heart of things.
I have felt exhaustion for most of the past week. At the end of June, my stress and anxiety levels hit a crescendo for a second time this year.* I sought medical help. First, the doctor increased my dosage of antidepressants. I had to return to him a week later, as – while I waited for the increased dosage to take effect – my anxiety continued to escalate out of control. Before this year, I had never been on antidepressants. I have now passed another medical milestone: the doctor prescribed me heart medication for the first time in my life. Beta blockers. Mercifully, a very low dose (and hopefully not for very long) to regulate my heartbeat, to reduce my anxiety levels and to restore my sleep.
The heart medication started to take effect quickly, just as the doctor said it would. The adrenaline in my chest felt as if it was at last able to dissipate. At the peak of this latest wave of anxiety, I had a physical feeling in my chest that I find hard to describe. If I had to put it into words, I would definitely not describe it as any kind of pain. Rather, it felt almost like finding it hard to breathe out. Almost an inability truly to exhale all that has somehow got stuck inside you.
As the adrenaline and the stress began to feel as if they were at last reducing, a profound exhaustion set in. The adrenaline was what was holding me up right. I must have been running on fumes for the preceding weeks. I should really be able to recognise the signs of burn-out by this stage in my life. I should have recognised what was staring me in the face.
When will I ever learn?**
How to love without conditions
I am thankful to have had the opportunity to rest as much as I have needed to this past week. For most of this past week, I felt near-total exhaustion. My brain had all but checked out. You would not believe how long it has taken me to write this post, nor how hard it has been to force my mind to focus on trying to find something resembling the right words.
When I cannot find the energy even to think, then things truly feel as if they are coming apart for me.
Where do you turn, when you feel as if everything has gone wrong for you?
In times like these, I always reach for Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart. I first learned of this beautiful book way back in 2014, via an online conversation with my dear friend Heather Bussing (a conversation recounted in my March 2014 post My every incarceration). Discussing Buddhism, Heather said:
“Most of my practice is with Zen, but I also love Pema Chödrön who comes from the Tibetan lineage. A nice way to start is with Pema Chödrön. Her book When Things Fall Apart has saved me many times.”
I immediately bought When Things Fall Apart on Heather’s recommendation. I now know what she meant about her relationship to this book. I am delighted to report that it has saved me many times these past eight years.
When you choose to give yourself over to chance, the results can take your breath away. During difficult times, I turn to this book, and open it at random. Somehow (against all odds), the words I find when I open this book on a chance page are always the words I need to hear in that moment. They always get right to what is at the heart of things.
It is fair to say that when I reached for this book on Tuesday this week (5 July 2022), the words I found took my breath away. My copy of When Things Fall Apart fell open on page 116. Here, Chödrön writes about Bo and Sita Lozoff, two souls who chose to teach meditation in prisons. She writes about what Lozoffs choose to teach the incarcerated:
“The practice of tonglen – sending and receiving – is designed to awaken bodhichitta, to put us in touch with genuine noble heart. It is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite.”
“Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy. It’s a practice that allows people to feel less burdened and less cramped, a practice that shows us how to love without conditions.”
When things fall apart, when you feel as if you are at the end of something, when things feel as if they are exhausted… At these moments, you are left with more than you could ever know. You are left with the most valuable things of all. You are left with what truly guides you. You are left with your breath. You are left with your life. You are left with your values, your code. You are left with the choice of how you will use these gifts of infinite value. Should you so wish, you can use your breath, use your life, in pursuit of the wish that everyone might be free of pain or might feel joy. There is no reason why this cannot be your code.
If I could ask you to do one thing today, it would be to be truly honest with yourself about where you are in life, right now. If you feel as though things are falling apart for you, share the burden. Be open and honest with yourself and with those around you. If you need any kind of help (professional or otherwise), please seek it. You are never alone. No matter how much you might feel otherwise. You are never alone.
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
- Mental health (NHS) Information and support for your mental health from the NHS.
- Information and support (Mind) Resources from Mind, the UK mental health charity.
- NAMI Homefront (NAMI) Online resources from US charity NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- SANE Australia Visit the site of this “national mental health charity making a real difference in the lives of people affected by complex mental health issues”.
* I have written about my ongoing mental health journey (begat my spiking stress and anxiety levels) in the following posts: Into the infinity of thoughts; Renewal; and No words?; Mental health first response; Glorify; and In our darkest hours.
** “When will I ever learn?” As I wrote these words, they suddenly came to my mind’s ear (if such a thing as a mind’s ear is even possible) in the voice of Bill Murray. I still find it hard to believe this event really happened – and that I was ever in the presence… But I had the privilege of hearing Bill Murray sing Van Morrison’s When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God? live at London’s Royal Festival Hall in June 2018, as my excellent friend Nicola Texeira was able to secure us tickets for this once-in-a-lifetime show. You can hear his performance of this song and more on the album New Worlds, by Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends. And you can read about that 2018 Bill Murray live show in Bill Murray live in London 2018: When will I ever learn?
- Ilya Zankovsky – Kazbek at dawn via Wikimedia Commons.
- Hearts on a window sunset via Wikimedia Commons.
- Ilya Zankovsky – Khunzakh Village via Wikimedia Commons.