Writings on the Blog at BodyHappy.com

A Surprising Cure for Burnout

A note from Erin:

Before I get into today’s missive, I want to remind you that our upcoming Art of Sitting class starts on Monday! It’s our first online offering where we’ll be teaching the powerful movement lessons we do at in-person classes and retreats. We’re very excited to be able to share these transformational learning opportunities far and wide! We’d love to have you join the wonderful group of folks who have signed up to journey toward more embodied and comfortable sitting. Details here.   Can I also add? We so love hearing from you. It’s so heartening to receive emails of thanks, or run into people who share how our newsletters have touched them. Many of you have shared that you love to forward these to friends. We’d love to humbly ask your support in spreading the word on this class, if there’s anyone you know who might benefit. We’re thrilled to be donating 25% of earnings to the Tsoknyi Nepal Nuns, a cause dear to our hearts. You can forward this newsletter, or pass along this link with class details if you feel so moved. Thanks so much! 
Years ago I heard David Whyte telling a story about being in deep burnout after months of running around doing too many things at his job at a non-profit. He met with his friend, Brother David Steindl-Rast, sharing his burnout woes and Brother David said, “The cure for exhaustion is not necessarily rest. It is wholeheartedness.” 


At the time, it blew my mind.
And then something happened over the past 10 years. Well, many things happened… including the takeover of email and smartphones and Facebook.
And also, I forgot.


Just last week I listened to an interview with Brother David and Lynn Twist talking about one of my favorite topics, gratefulness. In the process of the conversation this question came up from the interviewer:

You two are so busy, with so many commitments. And Brother David, you’re 90 now! How do you do it? You don’t seem burned out at all. 

Here’s an excerpt of their answers:

“[Lynn]: I live what I call a committed life, where my commitments wake me up in the morning, they tell me what to wear, where to go, who to meet with, the highest commitments that I have. I don’t have to make decisions, I just need to follow and be true to what I’m committed to. And it makes life so much more true, so much more fulfilling, it actually makes it easier, in a way. But it also gives it such passion and life and vitality… The not-committed life is an exhausting life.


[Brother David]: Beautiful! I think this committedness also has to do with not getting burned out. Because when you’re not committed, so much energy leaks into the question, should I or should I not? And it’s wasted energy. But if you’re committed, all the energy goes in that direction……I think David Whyte asked me once about exhaustion and burnout and so forth. And I said, all you need to do is do the same thing that you are doing now but wholeheartedly. And this wholeheartedness is with all that energy that comes up from that deep well within us. The heart is, so to say, the taproot of all our being, where intellect and will and emotions and body and mind and all is all one. That is what we call the heart. Put all of that into what you’re doing. I think that is a good recipe against burnout.”

Once again, my mind was blown.

“All you need to do is do the same thing that you are doing now but wholeheartedly.”


Last week I had an amazing experience. My dear friend, Nan Seymour invited the lovely Lauren Stern to share the experience of tea ceremony, which she’s been studying in China. So Lauren and eleven other women, including myself, gathered in Nan’s River Writing studio. Lauren had a gorgeous handmade cedar tea table artfully set up with a pot in the center, a bowl of tea leaves to the side, a fresh rose, a hand polished stone tool to scoop the tea into the pot. She had two kettles of water boiling on burners to the side of where she sat. We sat in silence as she elegantly poured a bit of hot water into each cup. Then picked up each cup, turned it so the hot water cleaned its entire surface, poured the water into a large bowl, dried the teabowl and set it in its place on the table. 12 times, with wholehearted care and precision in every gesture. Then she heated and rinsed the teapot, artfully scooped the blended Puerh tea leaves into the pot. Poured the boiling water into the pot of tea. Poured tea into each bowl, one by one. Each moment was imbued with such reverence and connection. She handed each woman a bowl of tea. It would take more words than I have room for to tell you of the smell or the flavor of this gorgeous tea.  But what I really want to tell you is the profound beauty of being in a context where one simple act after another was done with such care and presence. Not 18 tabs open in a browser and a bursting to do list. One bowl of tea. It was profound.

A few days after the tea ceremony, that hour of timeless ritual beauty, of wholehearted attention to simple details which became so much more than the sum of their parts, I heard Brother David and Lynn Twist’s interview, and I was once again struck by his comment about wholeheartedness being the cure for exhaustion.

I thought of the 18 tabs I usually have open in my browser – the articles I want to read, the tabs for the 3 different online classes I’m taking, the Airbnb reservation I need to complete, the photos I want to print, the list of projects on my to-do list. It might seem to me that I’m exhausted because I’m committed to so many things. But that’s not really true. I can be mostly committed to many things. Not exactly half-hearted, but maybe more like 75%-hearted. Or even 87%-hearted… But not wholehearted. And that makes all the difference.

To be fully with a sip of tea, a sip of wine, even a sip of water… it’s the fullness of presence and attention that makes the ordinary magnificent. How amazing to remember that it’s available in any moment, if I show up wholeheartedly. It’s humbling to realize how often I miss it by trying to read while I sip, by listening to a podcast while I wash dishes, by checking my phone while doing anything else.

What happened?! When and how has this multitasking and fractured attention become the norm? Who signed me up for this? Somehow I seem to have slipped into it. How to resurface in sanity? I think Brother David is onto something: Wholeheartedness. Presence.  I especially love that he doesn’t say “Quit what you’re doing and do something you can be wholehearted about. ” He says, “Do exactly what you’re doing now, but do it wholeheartedly.

One of the things I keep needing to learn is something my friend Willa said to me when I was in my early 20s. “Time will not keep expanding for all the things you want to fit into it. You have to choose. And that means letting go of some things.”
Say it ain’t so!!! This is hard for me. I have so many curiosities and passions! I want to do all the things!!! So much!!!

The paradox is that time DOES expand when I show up in any moment wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why one day spent in the desert of southern Utah feels like 3 city days. Time expands with my undistracted presence. And that is the opposite of exhausting.

I’m intending to grow my everyday practice of One Thing At A Time.

Like tea, ordinary moments become profound when we show up with wholehearted attention. I know this. I know it when I sit with presence on my meditation cushion, or on the bench in my front yard, sipping coffee and watching morning birds. I know it when I pause to admire the anemones or hens and chicks in a neighbor’s garden and feel the moment with my whole self. I know it when I do a Feldenkrais lesson with that expansive, focused attention permeating my body – the experience is amazing! I’d like more of that wholeheartedness and less of the scatteredness and exhaustion. And, I’m compelled to admit it…. I know I’ll forget. And then when I feel exhausted or burned out, perhaps I can take it as simple and wise feedback that it’s time to get wholehearted.


Thank you, Brother David, and Lauren, for reminding me.

Now I’m off to make one wholehearted call to the Department of Justice.
Wishing you a wonderful day,

P.S. You can still sign up for Carl’s beautiful summer offering of Tai Chi in the Park – a superb way to practice being embodied, moving in a relaxed way, growing your groundedness, centeredness, and presence. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Details below.

We’re so thrilled to offer a weekend retreat in one of our favorite wilderness areas, in Boulder, Utah, just outside of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (one of the National Moneuments newly under threat.) Save the date for a powerful weekend exploring the Wilderness of The Body with us at Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch, August 11-13th. We’ll have more details and registration open next week. One day in Boulder is worth 3 days in a city – time expands in this spacious place. We hope you’ll consider joining us!

And you can still join me and Nan in another timeless place – Ghost Ranch – for our amazingly wonderful retreat: The Encouragement of Light. Not to be missed! Details below.

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By training and profession, I am a somatic educator. Over the past 25+ years I have trained in and taught modern dance, tai chi, Indian and Tibetan yoga, yoga therapy (specializing in back pain). I completed a 4-year professional Feldenkrais training in 2007 and a 3-year Embodied Life training in 2014. I also study and work with somatic meditation and the profound practice of embodied inner listening known as Focusing.

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