The Deeper Causes of Fatigue
I recently heard a quote attributed to Dr. Vasant Lad, a well-respected Ayurvedic physician. He was roughly quoted as saying, “A migraine headache is an intervention from God, telling us that we have become too wrapped up in the ways of the world.” Fatigue is no different. When we tire, the first message is from our body, a warning that we must rest and restore. When we become chronically fatigued, the message is from a deeper source. We are being told to change our ways.
Ayurveda tells us that the root of life is consciousness. All physical manifestations begin at the level of consciousness, progress to a level of detectable energy, and come into our physical form over time. Chronic fatigue has its root in consciousness long before our batteries run down.
In thinking about this problem, I recalled a phenomenon that occurs with batteries. Maybe you've experienced a phone battery that just won’t seem to charge? Or one that seems charged and runs down after only a few short calls? Batteries seem to “wear out” in some way. This process is called the "Memory Effect."
To summarize, the charge and discharge cycle of batteries affects their long-term storage capacity. And when we treat batteries in a certain way, they develop a "memory," which keeps them from reaching their full potential. Humans are no different! Our body has a storage mechanism for energy. Subtle processes allow reserve energy to flow where it is needed. Energy is depleted as it performs work. We require "charging" from external sources. Our body chemistry affects the way energy is received and stored. That mechanism can become impaired, temporarily or permanently, if not maintained properly. Like batteries, we develop a “memory.”
Of crucial importance is that we are the cause of our suffering. It's rare that this is all forced on us by outside factors. Most often it is a combination of our daily choices and long-term patterns of living that are causing our troubles.
We all experience variations in our daily levels of energy. Are you like the energizer bunny? Going and going and going, seemingly never stopping? Is your internal battery permanently run down, barely getting you out of bed in the morning? More detrimental is the human battery that wakes up charged but seems to run down in just a few hours. We are not an endless supply of energy, and our bodies need renewal, rejuvenation, and maintenance. But we must knowingly participate in this process!
Ayurveda and Yoga are wisdom traditions. By learning and employing their techniques, we become better skilled in the “art of living.” This “art” is the application of creative and practical skills, acquired through experience, to the process of life. Most of us receive basic training in life skills as we grow up. But basic training does not always cut it. To live more skillfully, we must seek out greater resources for living.
Basic training said, "Get a good night sleep. Eat a healthy breakfast." Basic training advised, "You pulled a muscle? Walk it off, keep moving and get back in the game." That was it. If you suffer from fatigue, in any of its forms, you can benefit from extending your knowledge with the methods of the yogi. These traditions have much to teach us about our internal energy. If I had one overriding theme for people seeking relief from fatigue it would be: CHANGE SOMETHING. You cannot expect to get results by continuing to be in this world the same way you are now. There are dozens of tips and tricks for preserving energy—but I am going to emphasize the deeper root causes, a few surface level behaviors that make the situation worse, and a possible intervention plan.
Starting in a place that may seem unusual by Western standards, you can ask yourself if you are living a life based around social disciplines. These disciplines are often at the energetic core of our troubles: the “memory” that stops our energy flow. I'll put forth a series of questions to help you do an inventory of sorts. Write down the answers in long-form.
- Are you grounded in a non-violent life—including non-violence toward yourself? Are you abusing yourself with substances or causing self-harm in any way? Or harming others?
- Are you hiding anything? Cheating or lying in a consistent way? Do you have past deceptions that are causing guilt or shame?
- Are you stealing? Including stealing away relationships from others or taking resources from your job or family in an impure manner?
- Are you in supportive, fulfilling relationships? Are there people in your life causing strife? Are you treating those around you in respectful ways?
- Are you feeling greedy? Protecting your resources from others or coveting what they have? Striving to rise to the top of the heap or burrowing to the bottom in self-pity?
- Is your environment, home, and work area clean, clear, safe? Should you clear away clutter, change your situation, or just clean?
- Are you practicing gratitude? Taking some clear space in your day and making a gratitude list several times per week?
- Are you practicing self-discipline? Or is your ego and its cravings dragging you through your day?
- Are you examining your motives and behaviors? Doing a short inventory several times weekly, recalling situations where you behaved skillfully and other times when you behaved in a less mindful way?
- Are you practicing devotion in some way? Reminding yourself that you are not separate from other beings or the greater universe. Do you have practices where you exhibit devotion and gratitude toward nature and the world?
Looking over this inventory, see if any of these issues strikes a chord for you: CHANGE SOMETHING. One very healing practice here is to discuss these areas with a trusted mentor. It’s like unloading rocks from your backpack. These areas of our lives have an enormous impact on our ability to reserve and use our vital energies. We can often trace the source of many illnesses back to these roots. Failing to adhere to spiritual principles, we become overly involved in worldly issues and forget that we are spiritual beings, having a human experience. That is the message from your higher self.
A Period of Activity Must Be Balanced by a Period of Rest
It seems obvious, but we “energizer bunny” types can often minimize the need for rest. And rest means more than just sitting down. We need to withdraw from the input of our senses to get the rest we need. Is this just code for meditation? It may be! But we don't have to sit in lotus pose under a Bodhi tree. I am advocating a less formal, freer form of meditation these days.
Let’s unplug from our devices, find a comfortable seat, relax our minds, and focus on our breath for 10 minutes. After eating our lunch may be a nice time to do this. If you feel drawn to work or distractions, repeat in your mind; "Soon. Not now. Now I just breathe." Ten minutes will be over before you know it. Back to work!
What Role Is Exercise Playing in Your Life?
I know many people who are over-exercising. I can’t say why they are doing it. Maybe it’s Olympic fame, or Facebook fame, but they are wearing their battery out in the name of fitness. If you suffer from fatigue, consider your exercise regime. But one size does not fit all!
If you are fatigued daily, and you do not exercise…
Start a daily practice or some form of gentle movement such as Tai Chi, Qigong, or yoga. As a yoga practitioner, I lean that direction, but I have also had great experiences with Qigong.
DO NOT go to a “butt kicking, leave it all on the mat,” class with your super fit friend. Resist that temptation. Instead, go to a gentle yoga class that may feel too easy. You might be the youngest person in the class. You may be sitting in a chair while doing the yoga. It may feel dumb. Don’t tell your friends about it. Don’t tweet, post, or blog about it. Quietly go about finding a class with a teacher you respect and keep attending. Pay particular attention to the breathing techniques that your skilled teacher will almost certainly emphasize. If you have the means, find a yoga therapist and have them teach you a routine you can do on your own.
The wisdom of yoga (and these other forms) relates to the knowledge of how energy flows in your body, and how it is maintained, restored, repaired. These forms do not employ “exercise science,” but rather an "energy alchemy" of sorts. Do it. But don't do it hard. Do it gently, focusing on flow.
If you are fatigued daily, and you do exercise…
Change something. You have to consider the possibility that what you are doing is not right for you as a person. I have another blog post on this very topic.
Caffeine Is a Liar and a Thief
Caffeine is running a Ponzi scheme. It fools you into thinking you are not tired by blocking the messages from your body which tell you to rest. It is incredibly useful when you must drive late at night, study for a big test, or not fall asleep at the opera. But if you are chronically fatigued you absolutely must get off of caffeine. Consult a practitioner of some sort if you need help.
Panchakarma—the Deep Cleanse and Rejuvenation
As 21st century people, we know little about rejuvenation. It may mean taking a few days off and getting a massage. We take a vacation and then joke that "we need a vacation from our vacation." While visiting an Ayurvedic hospital in India, I was amazed at how strict they were with the clients doing panchakarma, a deep cleansing. They were not allowed in the sun or the wind at all. They received daily bodywork and herbs, yoga nidra, attended satsang, did gentle walking, and had meetings with their doctors. They were truly resting. If you have chronic fatigue, consider a trip to a reputable Ayurvedic clinic in India for a real panchakarma cleansing process. Don’t just choose a place from the internet, get a recommendation. The minimum stay should be about one month. It will teach you what real rejuvenation is.
Will you take the phone call from your higher self? The message is that fatigue of all kinds is rooted in the patterns of our lives. Our small worries, fears, regrets, resentments, and the physical patterns of our lives all contribute. The additive effects can manifest as fatigue, chronic pain, and many other maladies. When it occurs regularly, or constantly, it is no longer just a warning—it is an intervention. CHANGE SOMETHING.