What to do when enthusiasm leaks out a torn back muscle…

When I came up with the framework for What Makes You Come Alive, I was looking forward to an autumn filled with rock climbing and connecting with old friends. And then…my back, which had been sore for the entire summer, got worse. I stopped climbing, and tried a light jog. Only to wake up the next morning with sharp jabbing back pain as I tried to put on my pants. The diagnosis – a torn muscle. Not horrible or completely debilitating. But I’m out of rock climbing for six weeks, my three-day weekend road-trip became impossible, and work started picking up. Without my outlet for creative mind-body expression, without my social circle of friends from climbing, with pain in my back, with fatigue from several busy work-weeks in a row, I feel old and tired. Not alive. But cranky.

I found a kindred spirit in innovation writer Scott Berkun, when he wrote about what he learned from losing a leg (for a while), while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon:

My mind follows my body. I’m a productive writer because I have a healthy body. I go to the gym nearly every day to clear my mind and let my subconscious work on problems for me. I haven’t been to the gym in almost a month. I’m still struggling to find a new way to balance stress and find physical relaxation.

Mind-map focusing in on the mind-body connection of the "what makes you come alive" framework

Mine is broken. This connection is broken.

Well, I can only hope to push myself to be as productive a writer as Scott Berkun. But I know one thing – my energy, my creativity, my enthusiasm is completely lost to me without my climbing routine. Without some physical way to prying the grip of the work day off of my mind, I’m struggling.

If I’m lucky, the problem is manifest in my synapses refusing to fire. When someone at work tried to engage me in witty banter to choose a name for an internal website they were building – I couldn’t muster the wit. I’m quicker to get frustrated or irritated. By the time I get home, all I can do is zone out. I can only imagine what it would be like if my injury had been worse, or if I had a serious illness. I know I’m lucky, but my brain synapses don’t care.

At least I keep finding validating articles. After Scott’s admission that he’s struggling, too, Fast Company published an article, Psychological Fatigue Is The Silent Productivity Killer. Psychological Fatigue. Oh yeah. What I have has a name, and it’s not just a torn back muscle.

Psychological fatigue is an erosion of enthusiasm caused by obstacles, roadblocks, or added rules and constraints. Not to be confused with sleep-related brain deficiency (haziness or memory loss, for example), Psychological fatigue is a diminution in emotional, spiritual, or attitudinal components of our skills, our contributions, and our output.

Usually, rock climbing gives me an outlet to overcome those obstacles, roadblocks, added rules, or constraints that I face at work. When I climb, any obstacles that present themselves are mine and mine alone. They can all be figured out. It just takes mental and physical practice. Now I have even more constraints and roadblocks keeping me from my outlet. I need to find a new way to practice that mind-body connection.

Enter stage left my improv teacher, yogi, and friend, Lisa Austin. One of the things that renews enthusiasm is just in time delivery of something you need. Today, she kicked off her yoga and improv workshop. Yes, you read that right. Yoga + improv. The first session is about cultivating trust and grounding. She started by asking us to write out the endings to three sentences.

“When I feel unsafe, I….”
“When I feel ungrounded, I….”
“When I feel unsafe or ungrounded, I can do …. for myself.”

Then she described how our bodies tend to emulate three types of postures – collapsing (folding inward), propping (an aggressively broad stance) and yielding (a soft but appropriate stance required for yoga poses). As we practiced these stances in mountain pose, I could feel “giving up” feeling of the collapsing posture, the stress, anxiety, and hyper-focus or tunnel vision of the propping position, and the peace of the yielding position. Peace. I could feel my body. And my mind.

A yielding posture. This one happened to be on a rock that didn’t require climbing last spring. Note to self – get back here more regularly.

As we moved about yoga poses, I modified some of them for my lower back. I’ve been seeing a physical therapist, so my back no longer hurts, but it’s not strong enough to get back in to climbing without risking re-injury. As I moved into triangle pose, I felt my posture tightening. There was no pain, but there was an unseen threat of it somewhere, I just knew it. With the forewarning, my body turned into the stressed, tense, hyper-focused, shallow breathing propping posture. Nothing happened. The triangle pose passed without incident. But my mind and body had communicated with one another with me as a witness. How I miss that from climbing.

Thoroughly relaxed after yoga, we moved into the improv section of the class. Most of us in the class had taken at least one intro to improv course, but this wasn’t a pre-requisite. We played “buggy bumpers,” where one person with their eyes closed plays the “buggy” and the other person steers them around the room. Remember, our theme is trust and grounding. As we play, we practice the collapsing, propping, and yielding body postures. If you’ve ever done any kind of dancing, you know that a good partner has just the right amount of tension through which the lead can communicate to the follower. Too tense, the follower tries to seize control of the dance. Too loose, you can hear Patrick Swayze telling Baby she’s got “spaghetti arms,” and it’s hard to steer anyone anywhere. With a soft, yielding posture, you can have fun.

A yielding posture and mindset having fun. From my first improv class with Lisa in 2010.

With a soft, yielding posture, you can have fun. Let that mantra take me into next week. Nameste.

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