When the Engine Breaks Down

The other day I called my sister in tears. The emotions associated with the tears were hard to make sense of right away because absolutely nothing was wrong. I had been as eager as could be for my quieter summer time reprieve from the sacred hustle (as Octavia Raheem calls it) of teaching yoga, coaching and mentoring new teachers here in New York, and facilitating yoga trainings and workshops all over the country. Yet once upon me, instead of feeling joy and freedom for summer, I felt an odd tumultuousness in my gut. After the fast pace of my busy school year, the eminent hard stop of “doing nothing” sent my insides all a flutter, like a car engine puttering just before it breaks down completely. I have been here before. Emotion and bodily sensation are always the first clues that indicate there is something important for me to pay attention to. And yoga and mindfulness are the tools that I use to explore my mysterious internal life in a kind and nonjudgmental way. Sitting still for longer stretches of my morning and practicing mindful breathing before bed helped clarify one source for my tears: “busyness sickness”, or perhaps more aptly put, busyness addiction.

When Busyness Becomes Addiction

For me, busyness addiction looks like teaching six days a week for up to ten hours a day for weeks at a time. It can also look like 4-6 flights a month from one (sometimes extreme) climate to the next, and consuming foods I have little control over that contain energy-depleting contents. I suffer greatly when busyness addiction means I get six hours of sleep per night for weeks, when what I need to restore my body and voice after teaching and traveling is closer to nine. Under circumstances like these, it’s a miracle that my digestive, circulatory, neuroendocrine systems, and overall insides haven’t completely shut down. I suspect that good genes and an age-defying yoga practice have a lot to do with that feat. Yet, for the past few months, my body has been operating beyond its natural capacity to perform optimally. Under such circumstances, the obvious choice to support my wellbeing would be to lighten my workload. But this year I found myself repeating, “June is almost here. Real rest is coming. You’ve just got to get to June”. As a wellness professional, I confess to being guilty of ignoring my needs, and since true ignorance is not the actual villain in this tale, clearly there is more to the story.

When physical, emotional and mental demands are overwhelming, all bodies are hard-wired to enlist the help of our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS is like an emergency response system that releases the stress hormone adrenaline, and to get through the last several months to do the work I truly love, this naturally occurring chemical is what I relied on to fulfill an over-scheduled workload. As if a drug, I became dependent on adrenaline and a “Flight-Fight” state too often this past year. All my body’s resources (including my immune system, my digestive system, and capacity for cellular repair and renewal) were being diverted to help me survive my heightened state of work, work, work, as if it were a real threat, despite yoga teaching being work I actually love. Under less heightened circumstances, we all function most optimally when our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) is online, also known as the “Rest and Digest” counter mode to Fight-Flight. When my PSNS is online, I can think more clearly, be patient and kind, listen mindfully, and all my physiological systems are, “Go.”

The Ever-Elusive Notion of Work-Life Balance

Needless to say, I’ve spent the last four months noting the remarkable parallels between symptoms of substance abuse and symptoms of being run down by toxic stress hormones that throw the body totally out of balance with some unpleasant observations to report: 1) I stopped sleeping through the night; 2) my voice became perpetually hoarse; 3) I experienced acid reflux symptoms and a couple uncomfortable stools; 4) my right shoulder started showing foreboding signs of potential injury. With time now to reflect on this pattern, I confess that the toughest truths for me to accept were these: 1) circumstances of my own creation would not allow a real pause when I needed it most; and 2) even a wellness professional can get addicted to being busy and needs support in cultivating work-life balance.

Work life balance is a brilliant idea when you have unlimited resources. However, I live in New York City. My rent is high and it takes a lot of resources, internal and financial, to sustain living here in a comfortable and humane way. So I have this habit of saying yes to every job that comes my way. I definitely bit off more than I could chew this past six months because those little devils called fear and ego on each shoulder were constantly nagging: “What if the well runs dry? Shouldn’t I take every private, training opportunity, school yoga class, speaking engagement I possibly can to ensure I don’t starve?” Reasonable questions, I know. Yet, I recognize the black hole of scarcity consciousness when I see it. When work and wealth are flowing abundantly, it occurs as a result of the alignment of many spiritual, personal and professional intentions, and a trust that a source much greater than me supports me with every breath to help me realize those intentions. Abundance flows when my faith and connection to Spirit is matched with intentional effort. On the other hand, when preoccupied with to-do lists and keeping my calendar of events, limitations and decreased vitality grows. Two yogic principles, known as abhyasa (determined effort) and vairagya (detachment or surrender) also echo the virtue of striking this balance, but are more easily stated than practiced and embodied. I’ve got abhyasa down pat. But how do I master the practice of detachment, to “let go and let Spirit”, and cultivate a kind of faith and ease that is equally matched in strength to my most concerted efforts?

This summer, I intend to check depleting willful effort at the door and let my faith in abundance and Spirit catch up with my compulsion to be busy, and even take the reins. To do so, I’ve had fun exploring twelve guidelines for re-establishing wellbeing in my body, mind, and spirit, inspired by the 12-Step Recovery program.

12-Steps to Support Recovery from Busyness Addiction

1. I admit I am powerless over the lure of being busy from money-yielding work, my iPhone and all its pings and alerts and notifications; to my laptop and the glow of the screen revealing an impossible number of tasks and correspondences to complete inside a single day; to Facebook, Instagram, and social media in general; to news media—that my life has become unmanageable.
2. I came to a deep knowing in my bones that I am more than the sum of what keeps me busy, and that a Spirit greater than my fear and ego can restore me to sanity and overall balanced wellbeing.
3. I made a choice to turn my professional ambition, my to do lists, my social media personae and professional agenda over to the care of Spirit as I understand her.
4. Took a kind and curious emotional, mental, physical, and moral inventory of myself using mindfulness practices, prayer and yoga.
5. Admitted to Spirit, to myself, and to the human beings I’m in relationship with the harmful impact and obstacle that busyness has had on my body and mind, and my ability to connect authentically and empathetically with them.
6. I make myself entirely ready to have Spirit heal the harm and remove all these obstacles to surrendering and becoming my highest self.
7. Humbly asked Spirit to support me when my physical, mental and emotional capabilities may fall short so busyness won’t have to.
8. Made a list of any people who suffered due to my being busy.
9. Reconnected with and made amends to any people wherever possible, who suffered due to my being too busy to see, hear, and truly connect with them in an authentic way.
10. Continue to take personal inventory, and when getting sucked in by distractions and to do lists, more work than I can handle, promptly admitted it and allowed Spirit to support managing the balance of work and my life.
11. Sought through yoga, mindfulness, prayer and sacred study to improve my connection to Spirit as I understood her, intending only for knowledge of Her will for me and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, I embody radiant vitality, loving kindness, and creative self-expression of Spirit that empowers and supports others to do the same.

My goal with these guidelines is to explore fully and with a light heart the art of balancing not just my “work” and “life” but also my “effort” and “surrender” and my trust of Spirit to find a summer time flow that lasts the duration of the year.