Recently, I asked a client if she would rather think about her job for twelve hours or go run a marathon. Without missing a beat, she said “Oh, the marathon would be way easier.”
Almost everyone I talk to lately is experiencing some sort of mental fatigue: COVID fatigue, social media fatigue, politics fatigue, homeschool fatigue, parenting fatigue, or worst yet, the I-already-watched-everything-on-Netflix-fatigue. Which means, in a nutshell, that we are exhausted because we are over-thinking.
Don’t get me wrong, our intellect is amazing. It is like a supercomputer allowing us to access all of the things that we know in order to retrieve stored data and utilize it in our daily lives. We use our intellect to memorize a work presentation or a yoga routine, to know all the lyrics to the latest Lizzo tune, and to recite the second law of thermodynamics.
The key about the intellect is that it is best used for what is “known”, quickly retrieving what we have already stored in our mental vault. Just like a computer with massive amounts of data but no internet connection, if the data isn’t saved in the files, it cannot be located. We cannot retrieve what we don’t know.
With an unprecedented amount of “unknown” happening in our 2020 world, it’s no wonder that our batteries are drained trying to figure out the unfigure-out-able. There are the unknowns of the pandemic, the American election, social and environmental issues, just to name the obvious large ones. With the onslaught of larger unknowns the safety and security of our individual lives seem untenable and unhinged.
There are the more personal unknowns being excavated and moved to the surface. Am I in the right job, relationship, house? What will happen if I get Covid? How can I help my kids with school when I’m so busy? What will happen if my political opponent doesn’t win? Why is it so warm this winter? Why can’t I stop checking Instagram?
Unlike a marathon, there is no finish line in sight. It’s worrisome. Not knowing sucks and is uncomfortable. Our intellect is turned on and ready to go. Like the best in class, it really wants to do a good job, to receive its gold star for finding the known.
Since most of these topics are actually unknown, our intellect just circles in a never-ending loop, like a dog chasing its tail, never finding the answer it seeks. It keeps searching over and over for the data that just isn’t there. And as a result, we experience fatigue, burnout, and mental exhaustion. Like my client mentioned, this mental fatigue feels way worse than physical exhaustion and can often lead to real health concerns.
What many people don’t realize is that the intellect is not our only mental tool. We also possess something I like to call the deeper mind. You might call it intuition, wisdom, inner knowing, presence, or peace. It is found in the quiet space before thought is formed. We often feel it in moments throughout the day, usually when our mind is distracted by rote tasks like chopping vegetables or walking the dog.
The tricky thing is that the deeper mind has a hard time operating while the intellect is running at full speed. It tends to turn on once the intellect turns off. If our intellect is like a computer with a large hard drive but no internet, then our deeper mind is like a tablet that has high speed internet but no storage. It can only retrieve information for the present moment, because it is a real-time responsive intelligence. But it requires your presence.
Many of us have been living with our intellect on full blast for our whole lives. We forget what the connection to our deeper mind feels like — like a vacation on a white sandy beach, toes dug in the sand, and an extra-large Cadillac margarita in your hand. Once we become more familiar with the deeper mind, we begin to trust it more. We gain a confidence in navigating the “unknown” knowing that we will know when we will know. We can begin to press pause on the over-processing of our intellect.
It may come as a surprise but the feeling of fatigue is helping us to wake up to our current state of mind. We can recognize when we’re stuck in an intellectual loop of thinking by the exhausting, draining feeling. If a computer begins to run more slowly, make funny noises, or the image gets pixelated — those are signs that it’s overheating. Similarly, our feeling of mental exhaustion helps us to know that our minds are running too hot.
What do we do? STOP!
Really. The more important or hurried that our thinking feels is the signal that we’re going in the wrong direction. It is the 404 error of our mind. That mentally draining feeling is helping us to know that we’re stuck in a loop. And the only way out of the loop is to stop, shut down the computer, take a reboot.
Don’t worry, I’m not talking about stopping our life and all of the tasks that are required to live it. I’m talking about slowing the internal setting of the mind. Simply notice that we’re over-using our intellect and trust that we’ll be OK if we set it down for awhile. In other words, relax our mind.
We often think of relaxing as a doing. It requires a vacation to Mexico or going to a yoga class, or drinking a glass (or seven) of wine. The truth is, relaxing is an un-doing. If our thoughts are like the snow swirling in a snow globe, set down the snow globe and allow it to settle at the bottom in between the plastic trees. Even if just for a few moments.
Just as with the snow globe, when the thinking settles we can see the scene more clearly. Once we relax into a slower mind, it allows access to the deeper mind where creative ideas, clarity, wisdom, and intuition reside.
The deeper mind responds to what you need in the moment. So if there’s a resurgence of the pandemic and we need to lock down our country again, we will pivot and know what to do in the moment. We don’t have to spend countless hours exhausting ourselves with endless worry, running an unknown calculation into our intellect over and over again. Instead, we wait and we trust that as soon as we know, we will know.
And until then, we can relax in the not knowing and hopefully enjoy a more restful state of mind, even if for just a few peaceful minutes.