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Burnout recovery from the bottom up
an ecology of practices
At the end of my three-year story, I left my job. The plan was to take as long as I needed to recover from burnout. Despite the turbulence of the time, I already had a clear idea of how I was going to get there.
Most burnout advice focuses on getting you back to your desk and re-establishing productivity. My tussle with burnout left a different impression; confident gestures in unknown directions. I was aching for some deeper engagement with the world.
Whilst the No-Tech Job Diet has been remarkably effective, a zero-day workweek can't last forever. Rather than just getting "back to how things were", I wanted to deepen my roots whilst stretching my branches out. Burnout offers us the opportunity to do this.
Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion in response to long-term work stress. It brings with it detachment, cynicism and, if not tackled, depression.
Our response to burnout is often a top-down, cerebral struggle: I need to work harder, I need to figure this out, I need to get back on top of things, I need to be better organised, I need better tools.
This stretches into recovery, as I discovered during CBT therapy. My patterns of trying to “figure it out” were not only unhelpful: their incessant activity was now a core contributor to my exhaustion. Making progress meant bowing out of that process and returning to what was actually happening in my body and how I was feeling: a bottom up approach.
What I've found most potent in recovery are the kinds of activities that work from the bottom up, starting in the body. These are activities that engage our somatic, relational, emotional and ecological modes, alongside the over-used cognitive default. This means more moving bodies, more collective effervescence and a deeper immersion in more-than-human worlds. It means deploying what John Vervaeke calls an ecology of practices that can bring dormant parts of ourselves back online and re-root the tired, frantic mind in its embodied context.
You may not be struggling with burnout at the moment, but this kind of cerebral dislocation is endemic for modern knowledge workers. Participating in activities that engage your full being is therapeutic and may engender a runaway wonder at the world.
I've been off for nearly three months now. Here's what's been fun and restorative for me.
Note: I'm using Amazon affiliate links for the book recommendations. I own and have read each of the books mentioned.
Forest bathing at the Wise Woods project
The Wise Woods project is set in a serene beech grove just outside of Box. Run by Michelle Hawkins-Collins and Sue Judge, the grove is a living cathedral with towering beech trees framing Mindful Mondays, craft days and other events.
It's the perfect place to re-awaken all senses and bathe in the swaying stillness of the trees. The Japanese term for this immersion is shinrin-yoku, literally "forest bathing". The research on its therapeutic effects continues to grow—see The Nature Fix for an overview—and my experience is that the rich sense-scape of wild spaces is a direct antidote to the frozen holding patterns that characterise burnout. I often feel I don't have the time to visit but whenever I do I realise how much I needed it.
Walking, every day
Walking has secretly buttressed our health and happiness for as long as we have been humans. Only in the last few generations have we abandoned our bipedal inheritance, spending inordinate amounts of time sitting and staring at screens.
It's hard to think of something that isn't improved by walking: posture, muscle tone, insulin sensitivity, stress levels, aerobic fitness, psychological well-being and of course sleep because if you're not moving, you're probably not going to be that tired.
Walking sounds simple and underwhelming but its effects are complex and restorative. It's more enjoyable in parks and green spaces but a good podcast will see you through a concrete gauntlet.
I walk first thing every morning. This stops me from sitting with screens right away and makes my body less dependent on caffeine and food to wake up. It also means I get sunlight in my eyes which is critical to kicking off your circadian rhythms. I'll usually walk again in the evening.
Walking is also easily gamifiable if that's your thing. Steps are simple to measure and your phone is probably already doing it. Whether you measure or not, remember: solvitur ambulando—"it is solved by walking."
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Each Monday, I practice Tai Chi. I'd been exposed to Tai Chi a long time ago, but after hearing John Vervaeke talk about his practice, I decided to find a class near me. Tai Chi ticks a lot of boxes, combining movement, somatic mindfulness, relaxation and other human souls.
There are various flavours of Tai Chi; the class I am a part of teaches Li Family Style Taoist Arts.
I also started this practice to better meet the energy that has built up inside me over years of insight meditation practice, particularly the powerful and unpredictable energy at my throat.
As well as flowing movement, we regularly aum at the end of sessions: the vibrations are particularly helpful for throat tension and the resonance as people pick up and draw out the humming is mesmerising to sit amidst.
Lifting heavy shit
Silence and flow are nice, but I also like to heave and strive. I lift heavy things twice a week, once at home and once at a local gym. I find the post-lift buzz intoxicating and it's rewarding to see the multi-year trend of increasing body fat and shrinking muscle go into reverse.
As my own burnout deepened, I felt more and more trapped, a victim of circumstance. Lifting connected me with a stronger, almost heroic sense of self which is the polar opposite of this. I do not mean heroic in the sense of competing with others, but the empowerment of uncaging of a hungry physical energy that needs to confront and conquer.
PSA: Resistance training is also essential for good health and longevity, especially as you get older.
Lifting heavy shit, cont'd
Alongside our innate need to move, humans are also uniquely gifted at carrying things. Whether or not we were Born to Run is still up for debate: many traditional communities did little running in practice. But all of them were lifting and carrying things: water, wood, animals, children. Loading your body with weight is another simple yet broadly effective intervention for a world crippled by poor posture, weak bones and bad backs.
This simple idea has spawned thousands of rucking groups around the world. My only advice is to start slow. I put too much weight in early on and while I felt able to handle it, I picked up foot arch injuries: after all, they are essentially dealing with a sudden 25-30% increase in your body weight.
There is a reason rucking is a perennial staple of military training: it is easy to scale up and it will make you strong. Some endurance companies have replicated some of the more arduous military tests if you fancy walking up and down a mountain with 30kg on your back.
Rucking helped fix my shoulders, which were a total mess after finishing work. My right shoulder is raised and often uncomfortable, as if it’s no longer welcome in the shoulder girdle.
In search of help, I found a wonderful massage therapist called Philippa Hart. She helped me understand that my right rhomboid (the sheet holding spine and shoulder blade together) was too slack, made worse by a very tight pec minor on the same side. Underneath the rhomboid is a large and deeply buried trigger point. We're still working on this, but after a few sessions, it's feeling like the shoulder can melt down properly for the first time in years.
It's a lot to reverse, so at home I'm also rolling my back, doing pec and neck stretches in doorways and using my trackpad with my left hand. I also started consciously puffing my chest and letting my shoulders drop back. It feels unnatural at first but has interesting effects on how you feel about yourself.
Besides its remedial aspects, a good massage is a powerful means of reconnecting with your body, something sorely missing if you're pecking away at a keyboard most of the day.
Wild dips and cold showers
I've also returned to taking cold showers. Having done this last year, I learned to relish the total reset it affords. This is an easy time of year to start and makes the transition into Winter temperatures more tolerable.
Immersion in cold water is a fast, full-body intervention and its hormetic effects are now well-documented and popularised by people like Wim Hof. There are many groups across the globe that meet regularly for cold dips.
Wanting to get a little wilder than the downstairs shower, I also started jumping in a local river after a run. (Yes I am running. A little. It's tough.) My river of choice is the Avon, as it runs through Conham River Park. It’s a popular bathing spot in the Summer and there are groups of local dippers campaigning for better water quality. They have also pulled together essential data on recent sewage spillages in the area, so you know what you’re getting into.
Tangentially, bobbing in a river at 8 am is a great conversation starter for anyone strolling past.
Since leaving my job, I have been drawn back into the natural world, consumed with the wonder and beauty of living things.
Like most stories on this blog, it starts in an Airbnb. This time near the Black Mountain in Wales. With a view of a field and time to slow down, bird songs and plant outlines started appearing large and urgent in my awareness. Swallows flew into the barn, seeking nesting spots in the rafters before departing in disappointment. I was captivated.
There were binoculars, so I started watching closely. I bought a book to identify plants on my hikes. An insatiable craving emerged to understand what was happening around me. How had I missed this?
My interest has continued since returning home and it feels as though a new world has been appearing right under my nose. There are now apps to easily identify trees, bugs and birdsong. I can tell you the name of every weed in my garden and I’ve come to appreciate how many different spiders are busy working in it. I’ve also found a mortal enemy in the grey squirrels that have repeatedly terrorised my bird feeder.
Naming something has a way of elevating your relationship with it: the morning is a richer place when you can pick out goldfinches from chiffchaffs.
Plants and building beautiful spaces
My biophilia quickly spread indoors. I already had houseplants but felt compelled to surround myself with more and more of their beauty. Experiments with propagating plants also felt like a backdoor into experiencing the miracle of new growth.
Finally, I set my sights on the garden. It was until now an astroturfed emptiness. It is also rented and neglected by the landlord, so I thought my options were limited. But containers, planters and hanging pots still provide a lot of options that can easily move with you in the future.
After a frenzied fortnight, I had a space I loved, packed with lavender, Japanese maple, golden bamboo and star jasmine. Somewhere to notice new shoots emerging, bees buzzing and the sound of bamboo rustling in the wind. This was probably the best investment of all these interventions: a sanctuary of movement, colour and sound.
There is a philosophical take on this: burnout is all about control and the lack of it. Growing plants is about cultivation: setting down the right conditions, standing back and watching the miracle unfold.
As part of doing the garden, I started building things with wood. Listening to Nick Offerman talk about woodworking may have had something to do with it. Shame also played its part: I was probably the first generation in my family unversed in building physical things.
I started with a simple planter for my bamboo. After that, I built a compost bin with pine decking. I invested in good tools and now have a Pinterest board with 783 other woodworking ideas.
Working all day with your hands and then being able to sit amongst your creations is incredibly rewarding. 10/10.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) self-study
Meditations hot cousin, IFS has been on the ascendency for many years now. It says that people are made up of many distinct personalities—each with its own burdens—interacting in a system. It rejects the idea that we have one fixed self (a "mono-mind") and provides tools for conversing with our parts and bringing them into harmony.
I wanted to go deeper so I've been reading No Bad Parts by Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS, and working through the exercises. They are surprisingly powerful, even on your own. Asking a part what it wants you to know felt strange at first (what bullshit will I conjure up this time?) but many of the answers have genuinely surprised me. What has also surprised and moved me is feeling spontaneous compassion when hearing the justifications of my Protectors.
I can tell you that a burned-out psyche will have many estranged parts that need to be listened to. I’m still new to this, but I believe IFS as a whole is an ideal complement to meditation practice, bringing conversation where before there was only observation.
Sitting with a Zen group
Meditation is generally a solo affair, and I have not had great experiences with meditation groups in the past. However, I enjoyed the warm welcome of the Bristol Chan Group.
The ritual of the group extends beyond individual practice. Candles and incense are lit. We read the liturgy together. A quote is offered for contemplation. We sit together in a beautiful hall. We do some walking meditation. We sit again. And then we come together at the end to discuss the quote, a kind of dialogos. At first, I was preoccupied with getting the right interpretation, but I've learned to relax and participate in the more-than-me phenomenon of a group mind digesting meaning.
Time with no inputs
Even without work, I am still seduced by the drive to always be doing something: writing, studying, note-taking. There is a pervasive push, perhaps even more so in spiritual and self-development communities, to always be consuming the latest teachings. If you're taking a shit without listening to a podcast, you're missing out.
The prevalence of smartphones makes it very easy to spend your entire life plugged into information and feeds. Reflecting on this, Cal Newport says we are undergoing a global pandemic of "solitude deprivation", and millions of overloaded psyches are suffering the consequences.
The antidote to all of this is carving out pockets of solitude. Solitude means time without any inputs: sitting without agenda, walking without headphones. You must actively create this space, otherwise the torrent of the trivial will fill every crevice of your attention.
This one is still very much a work in progress for me. As a reminder I have printed this guy out, my temporary spirit animal:
I hope these snippets of recovery present a more positive image of what getting better might look like. Or maybe just the fun it’s possible to have outside and among others.
Of course, it’s not feasible to squeeze all of the above in regularly, and the only reason I can explore so widely right now is that I’m not working. I also omitted my essentials: meditation, time with family and friends, reading and writing.
Over the next few months, I will be sharing more practical posts of this ilk, alongside some deeper dives into what burnout is, how it manifests and what it means for you. If you’ve read this far, I’m curious: what rituals, places or practices help you stay grounded?