How often have you got to the end of the day feeling frustrated by what has been left undone? How often do you feel as if you are carrying the burden of the unticked boxes on your to-do-list like a physical weight that won’t release you from a nagging tension that hinders you from feeling truly present with your evening – your family, your unwind-time, your ability to fall peacefully into sleep?
There is a reason why our minds refuse to let us get easily off the hook of getting-everything-done. It’s important to understand that reason and to see why it doesn’t serve our capacity for relaxation, pleasure and healing – the vital components of a physically and emotionally healthy being. It’s important to have alternative strategies to simply being seduced by stress.
Imagine, if you will, you were once among the earliest inhabitants of Earth. There you found yourself, without a map or guidebook for survival except for your instincts and experience. At that time, you were effectively responsible for the entire creation and longevity of humanity. You were the architects of the world we have now, billions of years later.
This is a big job. I’ll bet this job is bigger than any job you have in your life right now.
Whoever or whatever created you has ensured that you will get the job done right. You will need to be alert and awake most of the time, taking a schedule of shorter sleeps and even while resting, vigilant for the danger of being carried off in your sleep, or killed. You needed to be on a kind of permanent emergency button. As Rick Hanson says in his brilliantly-elucidating Ted Talk “Hardwiring Happiness”, our ancestors were probably nervous, cranky people, constantly on edge for danger. The catastrophic effects of stress that we are seeing our populations dealing with these days – heart attacks, mental health problems and stress-related immune-system diseases – were not an issue or a warning sign for our ancestors who were only living until about thirty years old. No. They needed only to focus on getting the job done and getting the job done well.
In the simplest of terms, our emergency button is alive and well. We have the same brains as our ancestors. We also have the same capacity for rest and healing and unlike our ancestors, a much wider range of opportunity to collaborate with that part. We don’t need to rely on short sleeps and we can’t afford to either. Neither do we have the advantage of a highly-physical life, as they did.
Our needs have changed but our brains are still giving us the “get it all done and get it all done well” cue, with the same level of accompanying stress hormones aimed at keeping us safe and alive.
Here’s where it gets interesting, and profound. Humans have two natural states of being: the action state and the recovery-from-action state. The action state is our motivation and enthusiasm and “get-up-and-go” feeling, with all the accompanying neurotransmitters and biological processes such as increased blood flow to organs and pumping heart. We feel comfortable in this “stress” state for periods of time, which is good, as it is what allows us to do the things we want to do in our lives with enthusiasm and vigour. However, we also need to balance the stress state with the rest/repair state – the one we go into naturally when we are feeling relaxed or in a state of pleasure – the one you hopefully get into when you are on vacation, making love, listening to music you enjoy or enjoying time in nature, and all the other myriad gateways we have to joy, pleasure and ease.
Our bodies will remain in the state of action for as long as we allow them to, or until we collapse. They will also give us cues, little nudges, to release the pressure and take a mini break from action. For those working in an office at a desk, that prompt can come as an urge to look up from the screen and gaze out of a window, stretch or daydream, for a few minutes. A few minutes of these kinds of “mini vacations” here and there throughout the day adds up to a super-dose of soothing and repair for the nervous system. Our bodies have the ability to refresh quickly. Basically, we are collaborating with our intuitive processes and reminding our muscles, cells and nerves that there is an “off switch” to our emergency button and we can come off it at any time we choose.
Indeed, our job is to choose. Every time we agree we should be getting everything done, and all the time, we are resisting our capacity for healing the wear-and-tear that every single body experiences in daily life. After a while, after years, of such behaviours, the backlog gets harder to fix. The build up is similar to the difference between having food residue and hard plaque on your teeth. One can be cleared with a quick brushing and flossing, the becomes inflammatory gum disease that risks us losing our teeth. We know we have to clean our teeth every day. We have to remember that we must come off the emergency button every day.
We need to be able to emphatically down tools with a happy heart that is satisfied with all our efforts and totally comfortable with things left unfinished.
If you are a perfectionist, you will find this hard. If you are someone who believes-without-question a voice which tells you that you are only as worthy as the amount you achieve in a day, you will find this hard. If you have not practised relaxation for a long time because you cannot resist the pressure of the emergency button, you will find this hard.
Like everything, it takes practice – lots of practice – for something to become intuitive and second nature.
In the case of the emergency button, we are fortunate that we get to practice every day. Every day we will be called by our love of action and called by our love of healing and rest. Our job – our empowerment – is to be discerning about answering each call in a way which brings us to a balanced energy body and a satisfying, productive and peaceful life.
Here are some ways to come to terms with your unfinished business and allow yourself to down tools and relax at the end of the day.
Just knowing we can be an ally to the natural rhythms of our bodies and remain in a constantly-healing state can bring us a deep sense of confidence about life. We can flow from action to healing seamlessly, as we are wired by nature to do. Rather than feeling we are always running behind our lives, trying to catch up, we can allow a full life to become a fulfilled life, without any need at all for everything to be completed.
Photo credits – all on Unsplash:
Atharva Tulsi, Tyler Lillico, Rob Mulally, Anton Sharov, Jeremy Bishop