Moving out of exhaustion and into pleasure and joy; Week 7 in our mindfulness journey for expat aid workers (

Courtesy of Guan Yin in My Garden

It’s week seven in our eight-week mindfulness journey, and whether you’ve been practicing with us week-by-week or just reading along, welcome. I want to thank you for being open and willing to explore making space for mindfulness in your life. The text we’re using for this journey together is Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” If you’re just joining us now, please start with week 1 here. And to sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.

This week, we’re taking steps towards developing a personal practice of mindfulness that is truly our own, and grounding it in something you might not associate with meditation – pleasure and joy. In addition to the mindfulness meditations, we add back to our daily lives things that we used to do that deeply nourished us, but that we’ve slowly cut out of our schedules because of ever-increasing demands on our time.

Far from being frivolous and optional, things like our social life and our pleasures are actually essential nourishment. Feeding ourselves regularly with things that bring us joy is one of the best things we can do for our health and happiness. So, let’s get to it.

The Exhaustion Funnel

Here’s the bad news about what happens when we start to ration our joy. Burnout expert Professor Marie Åsberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm created the Exhaustion Funnel to illustrate how seemingly small sacrifices create massive impact on our health and happiness over time.

Let’s look at an example.

First, you start to feel tired after work, so instead of going to meet your friends for a sunset session of football or a walk outside, you cancel at the last minute and go home to watch TV shows on your laptop and fall asleep. The next time you feel tired, instead of adjusting your work schedule to leave yourself time for pleasure, you cancel again, and soon you stop making plans after work entirely, telling yourself you’re just too busy and besides, you need to get all this work done. Then, you might start taking work home with you and checking your email in bed. This disturbs your sleep pattern, which leaves you feeling irritable because now you’re even more tired. At this point, you might start curtailing your weekend social life as well, because the truth is, you haven’t really caught up on everything you need to do yet, and there’s a deadline coming. Soon, decision-by-decision, your friends evaporate, you can’t remember the last time you exercised or did something nice for yourself, and all you have to look forward to is work and more work.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all been there. The Exhaustion Funnel is the slippery slope of refusing ourselves pleasure and self-care because of external demands on our time. It may seem selfish to make space for the daily practice of joy, but without it, life may feel claustrophobic and pointless. And this state of hopelessness and despair can easily lead to depression, anxiety and exhaustion. Welcome to burnout.

Mindfulness and Pleasure, the Exhaustion Funnel, courtesy of Professor Marie Asberg (

The Exhaustion Funnel, courtesy of Professor Marie Asberg of the Karolinska Institute

Clearly, there’s a better way – but it goes against our cultural conditioning of being achievement-oriented and “serious” professionals. To do it, we need to truly listen to how we actually want to rest and play – not how we’re told we should, but how we actually want to. And that might look a little different than a game of tennis with the boss or jogging at the club after work. True play is an expression of who we are and what we love, and it can look silly, strange, childish – and it’s easy to self-judge so that we never let ourselves do it.

I love to sing and dance – both make me relaxed and happy. But I feel stupid with my guitar, like an amateur, and I tell myself a story that no one wants to hear me sing. Or, that I look ridiculous Bollywood dancing or belly dancing on my balcony, and that everyone is somehow laughing at me. But so what if they are? My joy gives others permission to be joyful, and we all could do with taking ourselves a little less seriously.

So, instead of narrowing the circle of pleasure in your life next time you feel the demands of your job closing in on you, take a step back and use some of the mindfulness tools we’ve been practicing. Notice how the tension feels in your body and breathe into it. Practice our 3-Minute Breathing Space Meditation and center yourself; then consider what you need right now to self-resource and self-care.

An anecdote about the Dalai Lama has someone asking him how long he meditates most days. “One hour,” he replies. “And what about when you’re really busy?” they ask him. “Two hours,” he replies.

It seems counter-intuitive, but setting good boundaries around your personal time for pleasure and joy is essential to staying healthy and happy, and allowing yourself to be truly present to enjoy the life you have right now. So, whether it’s cooking dinner with your kids or spending extra time with your partner, reading a book in bed or trying out a martial arts class, nourish your joy each day. Make time for activities that bring you pleasure in between the depleting ones, even if it’s just stepping outside the office for a moment to feel the sun on your face.

Rebalancing our Pleasure

Maybe you don’t know what brings you joy right now, because it’s been so long or you’re in a duty station that doesn’t have the community you usually rely on to support your favorite activities. As aid workers in challenging environments, sometimes it takes extra creativity to find ways to nourish ourselves that feel authentic and truly pleasurable for us. After all, one person’s play is another person’s nightmare – please don’t force me to play softball, and I won’t make you do yoga.

But finding the balance between doing things that feed us and doing things that don’t is essential to avoid spiraling down the Exhaustion Funnel. There are a few ways to do this.

First, we can actively create more time for nourishing, pleasurable activities. This can mean a shift in schedule, saying a firm and gentle “no” to voluntary activities we don’t enjoy, and asking for support from friends and family to create more space in our lives for play and pleasure. It helps to get clear on what, for you, nourishing activities actually are. What do you enjoy? The wider a menu you create for yourself, the more options are available when you need them.

Second, we can practice being fully present with ourselves when we are doing something that feels depleting and that we don’t enjoy. Breathing deeply and feeling our bodies can create unexpected compassion that often lightens the burden. Instead of disassociating and wishing we were someplace else, we can gently inquire about what we might need to make the experience more enjoyable and be open to what we discover.

Shifting the focus from “helping people” to “helping ourselves” can be a hard one for us aid workers, but it’s essential to be fully-resourced – and there’s no shame in learning how. Rather than waiting until we’re exhausted and at the edge of burnout, we can make small adjustments with the new awareness that comes from the practice of mindfulness. By showing ourselves that even the most seemingly intractable situation can shift simply by inquiring around it, we empower ourselves to make choices that nurture our health and happiness.

Mindfulness Practice Week 7: Remembering our Joy

Please read Chapter 11 in “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World” for more about this, including exercises to help identify what brings you joy. As I’ve been saying each week, my post here is a companion, not a substitute, for the program in the book.

Our daily practices for Week 7 are a bit different than what we’ve been doing until now:

Two of any of the meditations we’ve done so far. Pick one that you found to be especially nourishing and one that you feel you haven’t dropped into yet. You can practice them at different times in the day, or back-to-back – whatever you prefer. Download the complete set of guided audio meditations here if you need to.

3-Minute Breathing Space Meditation: This one is likely becoming a familiar friend. Download it here if you somehow haven’t yet! This week, after you take your Breathing Space, follow the meditation with a simple action that impacts what is stressing you —even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. This could be something that brings you pleasure, that helps you feel a sense of satisfaction or mastery, or it could just be to continue mindfully with what you were doing before the meditation. The idea is to shift into action to affect your mood, rather than letting your mood affect your ability to take action.

Setting Mindfulness Bells: Select a simple action you do every day and turn it into a reminder to practice with mindfulness. This could be eating, preparing food, getting dressed, walking or evening listening to others when they’re speaking. Whatever it is, decide to use the occasion to practice mindfulness during it, for the whole week.

Again, there is much more detail about this in the book, which I hope you’re reading! And if you’re journeying with us as a reader but not putting these practices into action just yet, I encourage you to stay with us but invite you to return to this journey when you feel you’re ready. Set the intention, and the time will present itself.

If you’d like to get Expat Backup straight to your Inbox but haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that here. And please do share this with someone you think might benefit!

We’re almost at the end of our mindfulness journey. See you next week!

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