On exhaling

A deep breath in.

Taking in a deep inhale – you tune out the world and drift into another one , feeling powerful.

The first few seconds feel great. You enjoy the rush, it feels relaxing.

The next few seconds bring stillness, one you’ve been craving to find.  And so you hold it in, this inhale.

Then the discomfort starts, but you fight it. You want to prove you can go on – longer.

You fight the pain in your lungs until you get used to it. 

But you don’t.

Your body is operating on the last few reserves of oxygen, but you always think there’s more (to give). 

Now you feel fuzzy and lightheaded. You need to let go.

Blackout – the body takes over, forcing you to exhale.

Deep breath out.

So often we focus on the inhale. And sure it has an important role in breathing, doing all the work to bring the air we need to survive into our body. But the exhale, it has a very (and equally) important role – to let out the harmful waste, to live.

I’ve been reading this book – Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress by John Fitch and Max Frenzel – and becoming aware of a “rest ethic” has been a life-changing insight. 

Your work ethic, they say, is like your inhale. It is essential to create and manifest all the things in your life.

But you can’t hold your breath in forever.

And so, the rest ethic, like your exhale is crucial to let go of what you don’t need, rejuvenate, and make room for new ideas and inspiration.  

The past few months have felt like I’ve been holding my breath in, depleting the reserves in my body and mind until I’ve been forced to give in.

As someone who prides herself on a stellar work ethic and is used to working 16+ hours a day yet feeling more energised than ever, I felt blind-sided by the long inhale this time around.

I’m familiar with burnout, I thought. I’ve recognised it in the past and taken the necessary measures to take care of myself.

But moving to Europe from New York wasn’t going to be the magic answer to finding balance. I may have found a way out of physical burnout, but what I was suffering now was far more insidious and dangerous than that.

As I learned from the book, your life is divided into three key components – work, rest, and leisure. 

While a rest ethic has always been a concept quite foreign to me, for so long the line between work and leisure has also been a blur in my life. I never realised that I was drawing energy from my leisure which kept me powering through work. 

As a member of the passion economy, I’ve obviously (subconsciously) subscribed to productivity porn – I was told my passion is contagious and that became my biggest blindspot to worshipping the lifestyle brought on by performative workaholism.

I love what I do – fact and blindspot.

Work, as the book explains, will always be utilitarian. One cannot draw meaning from it. 

My first exhale – letting go of this tenet.

Rest is recovery, and building a rest ethic requires equal discipline as does your work ethic.

Another exhale – letting go of the badge of busyness.

Leisure is what is noble, and the answer to finding true meaning in life. Leisure is what gives you energy, is intellectual, and the foundation of culture.

Exhale – letting go of past ideologies.

She who has a why to live for can bear almost any howMan’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has a whole new perspective for me.

For decades I’ve lived without the distinction between work and leisure. Because I love the work that I do I tied meaning to my job, often quoting “I live to work.”

Today, I realise how misguided I was.

I find meaning in making sense – of the essence of things, people, stories.

My work offered me one outlet to do just that.

And I sustained from that energy (but it wasn’t from the work).

The cure to my physical burnout was rest – I needed, and still need, a rest ethic. But no place on earth can offer me that. Only myself.

I could power through 16 hours because I was living my leisure, and that is a noble life.

Being deprived of that in these past months I’ve spiralled into a burnout (rather a blackout) of my mind, my heart.

And the only way out is to exhale.

Let go of what is not serving me.

Find my way back to meaning – not in my work, but my life.

This time of lockdown in a pandemic, where rest seemed so readily available yet elusive, has been a period of self-confrontation – facing the distinctions I needed to make. 

What brings me meaning, that is my purpose.

This past week I spent some time in the mountains, away from distractions, and notifications, and all the seeming busyness that we glorify today. I spent time recovering – from the deprivation of rest, from the dilution of knowledge by attaching a purpose (not meaning) to it, from the attachments of learned behaviours that were now operating on auto-pilot.

I took a pause.

And I let a deep breath out.

I have been holding my breath in for such a long time, waiting for something (external) to take my breath away.

Up there in the mountains, amidst the vast magnitude of nature and solitude, I realised the only thing that could take my breath away was myself.

All I had to do was exhale.

I first learned about Time Off on Nicole Ingra’sshrtcttng – a platform for turning stories into skills. You can watch shrtcts from Max’s talk (Why taking Time Off will be a key skill in the future of work) here but I highly recommend reading the book which is an invaluable resource to reclaiming the noble (leisure) life.

Bonus read – Salmon Theory edition on the one about serendipity and how we can all do with a bit more of peace and quiet to gain the real depth in life. 

5 Comments

  1. What a breath of fresh air…in every sense of the thought. I have spent my 30+ year professional life sacrificing at the altar of work to find meaning and approval. It is a false god and a breath taker in the worst way. I highly recommend Ryan Holiday’s book, Stillness is the Key. And I hope you will keep breathing out words of wisdom and truth.

  2. This was such a sigh of relief. Gives a strong will to compartmentalise your time here and make sure those those line dont get blurry along the way . Your words of practical wisdom keep that reality check to stay sane . Keep it flowing 🙂

    1. Losing sight of those different compartments is most often what causes us so much suffering, it’s only when we respect each for what it is can we truly LIVE our life fully. Thank you for taking the time to pause and read 🙂

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