“You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’ ‘The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,’ I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence. ‘What is it, then?’ ‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’” – From Crossing the Unknown Sea, copyright 2001 by David Whyte, published in the UK by Michael Joseph.
I remember how this passage hit me when I first read David Whyte’s profound book on work as an identity. I was feeling that kind of exhaustion, the kind that is from the inside out, the kind that you feel might be endless and irrevocable.
I had never thought of it as anything more than physical or mental. I was busy building a career, traveling all over the world, and working hours on end with little sleep and no self-care. But hey, I was successful. I was making lots of money and had a pretty nice lifestyle in Boston. And I was traveling to wonderful places like Paris and San Diego and the Caribbean.
Then one evening while having dinner with friends I literally fell asleep at the table.
I mean FELL.
I could no longer hold back the exhaustion and my head collapsed into my meal. I’m not kidding! I know you may be laughing but it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life.
And a great wake-up call.
‘You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.’ ~ Brother David speaking to David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea.
Wholeheartedness. What did that mean to me? I kept coming across a void in my life and I didn’t know how to fill it. I stole moments at night before I went to sleep to write in my journal. Just to write because I needed to write like I needed to breathe. All my writing during the day was business writing – useful but boring. I wanted to write poetry, essays, and prose. I needed to give voice to my soul.
To do that I would have to find the space in my heart where the words could find a channel to flow out through the pen to the paper. It often took a half hour or more – and a glass of wine – for the soul to appear. The author of my writing needed a safe place to emerge.
Those stolen moments kept my writing alive and my heart connected even as I continued on the relentless path of success.
“‘You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.’” ~ Brother David speaking to David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea
Where did I belong? What elemental waters did I need to find to transform the life I was living? Every time I thought of leaving my corporate job I immediately panicked, thinking that if I left I could not support myself. The story of my life would inevitably end as a bag lady on the Boston Common.
It wasn’t that I hated my work. I actually enjoyed my work, which made this process so much more difficult to understand. But I was driven to create an illusion, sacrificing myself on the altar of commerce and media that demanded I have certain material things to be seen as successful and win certain awards to be seen as credible. I had meticulously planned my career rising onto a national platform where my ego received nourishment through the numerous accolades bestowed on me.
Sitting in the restaurant with mashed potatoes on my face I knew I could not keep going like this. I knew that something had to give. I knew I had to take charge of my life or something more serious than a humiliating face full of mash would occur.
“‘This nervously letting yourself down, takes courage, and the word courage in English comes from the old French word coeur, heart. You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon. Let go of all this effort, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself. It’s all right, you know, to support yourself with something secondary until your work has ripened, but once it has ripened to a transparent fullness, it has to be gathered in. You have ripened already, and you are waiting to be brought in. Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermentation. You are beginning, ever so slowly’ – he hesitated – ‘to rot on the vine.’” ~ Brother David speaking to David Whyte in Crossing the Unknown Sea
I was afraid of so many things yet the light inside kept flickering relentlessly calling me to another life, my life. No one was going to give me permission to be myself; only I could do that. It took another year for me to “let myself down”. I sought out the help of others and I began to do one thing every day that would support me in my next endeavor.
But most importantly, I decided.
Then I committed to a future I chose to design based on those soulful things that really did matter to me. I knew they mattered because they came effortlessly when space opened up for them to emerge.
My authentic life was there all the time, ripening, waiting to be harvested. Calling to me in the twilight of sleepless nights. Whispering to me when I walked in the woods.
I became an entrepreneur so I could express myself fully through my work. I committed to seeking out clients and colleagues whose resonance with my values kept me sharp, learning and engaged wholeheartedly.
Now, it’s time for another shift, another voyage on the changing elemental waters of my life. This time, I embraced it, allowing the space for the new normal to flourish and draw me into a new life whose source goes deeper than before.
Every phase of life brings a deepening of who we are if we are paying attention. When the effort is too much we know that we have left our elemental waters, the house of belonging that the poet David Whyte often writes about.
Find your house of belonging.
Waddle courageously off the safety of your territory into the graceful movement of your elemental waters. Embrace the swan that lives in you, gliding through your life and know that your heart will find its voice.
It’s your time to live wholeheartedly.