The following article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Inquiring Mind

Getting Real About Exhaustion
by Chris McKenna

“As modern humans, our average, day-to-day nervous system set point [is] hovering somewhere around the edge of the fight-or-flight response,” Steve Hoskinson, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert, noted at a recent training. To put it another way, the state of low- to medium-grade anxiety and stress has become so pervasive in us that it is “the new normal.” Even for those of us who have been practicing a long time, it can be shocking to really check in and see how much of our daily life we spend in some kind of low-grade, contracted stress response.

Our collective inability to ground and discharge this accrued stress creates the backlog that we get to “enjoy” each time we practice—the somatic knots in the abdominal area, the ghost-like pressures in different parts of the head and body, the cascade of disorganized and repetitive images and thoughts.

This accrued backlog in our biology births “the great companion” of chronic stress—a sense of being tired all the time. Our biological system gets stuck in an oscillating cycle between various forms of stress arousal and a deeply under-resourced state of exhaustion.

I currently spend the majority of my professional life designing and implementing mindfulness programs for some of the most mentally, emotionally and physically dysregulated environments in this culture—public schools, juvenile detention facilities and youth and family service agencies. This stress and exhaustion “package” is the first thing I’m presented with in 99% of my training work in these environments, and I’ve had to fundamentally change how I introduce mindfulness practice to accommodate it.

One change, which I’m sharing here as a stand-alone practice, is an emphasis on the mini-self-retreat. With a few modifications, it tracks Shinzen Young’s idea of doing extended doses of practice about once a month in your own living space.

Given the chronic exhaustion many of us carry, we need a long, insulated period of time where we can let ourselves completely soften, ground and recalibrate. After this system reset, right mindfulness and right concentration become more accessible because we have reestablished basic, normal physiological functioning. Here are my basic guidelines for doing this:

The Bathrobe Hermit—Becoming Intimate with Unstructured Time

These practice recommendations are definitely part of a larger context. Within the Indian, Chinese and Tibetan traditions, there is a long-established focus on the hygienic aspects of being human—particularly on how we sleep, eat, rest and move around. Whether it’s Tibetan texts on sleep, or the aspects of the vinaya (monastic code) that provide structure to the daily routine, there is a kind of right conduct of caring for the body that is built into many of the Buddhist practice lineages.

In working with the stress of modernity, I believe that these practices take on a new level of importance. Far too often, we overlay meditative practices (particularly concentrative practices) on top of chronic depletion and exhaustion with the idea that we can cut through these states with sufficient effort. What’s happening in many cases is that we’re confusing chronic exhaustion with sloth and torpor (thinamiddha)—one of the traditional hindrances to practice referenced in the Buddhist suttas. In the process, we’re also adding an additional layer of unskillful, contracted effort over an already exhausted and dysregulated nervous system.

In reality, most people sleep through the first few sessions of a retreat because they are chronically overtired, not because they are struggling with the third hindrance. An easy way to verify this is to follow the practice guidelines above and simply let yourself “go under.” My experience is that rather than being taken further into some dull, disassociated state (what the sloth-and-torpor hindrance is warning us against), most modern meditators emerge with a calmer, more stable physiological base on which they can develop skillful meditative states. I’ve come to see this process as one of the key preliminary practices of our time.

Chris McKenna is program director at Mindful Schools (www.mindfulschools.org), a leading organization integrating mindfulness into education. He has a passion for bringing contemplative practice to the great, “metta-starved” institutional environments of our times—schools, juvenile detention facilities and mental-health agencies.

© 2013 Inquiring Mind