No matter how fit you are, how healthy your lifestyle is, the demands of life and the limitations of our body mean that we’ll get tired at times during the day. Unfortunately our conscious mind tends to get the message quite a while after we first actually become tired. As a result we usually continue to do work or other activities while tired, making us more tired in the process.
The body can, of course, also become tired, usually when we do a lot of physical activity such as sports, running, gardening or heavy lifting. But physical tiredness can often co-exist with mental alertness, the bodily exercise causing the brain to become more rather than less sharp. What interests me is mental tiredness.
Tiredness of the mind is a very interesting state. As with so many aspects of how we feel and who we are from moment to moment, the practices of mindfulness gives us deep insights, and raises even deeper questions. Why does the mind get tired? We can answer instinctively that it does so because we have overworked it. But that begs another question. How much work is too much work? Biologists and neuroscientists can explain the chemicals and pathways that are used or created or depleted when tiredness develops in our mind, but these don’t explain why we feel this strange sensation we call tiredness.
What we do know is that it is debilitating. People who suffer from long-term conditions whose symptoms include chronic tiredness testify to the near full incapacitation of their daily lives when mentally exhausted. There’s not enough mental energy to even want to do something, let alone the physical or mental energy to do it.
We need to learn to recognise our mental tiredness much more swiftly that we currently do, so that we can rest and recover before returning to our activities. I know from personal experience that such an approach, when I am sharp enough to notice and respond with a short break, results in a far more productive and enjoyable life than attempting to work through tiredness.
So the first skill to learn is to notice periodically how alert or tired your mind is. This is pure mindfulness, noticing what going on from moment to moment. It takes time to develop this trait of observation but it does develop.
Then when you notice your mind is somewhat depleted you have a few options that can help.
The first is to close your eyes. This is not because you are tired and hope to take a nap. Rather it is to remove all the potential visual distractions from your mind’s view. With less to distract it, the mind gets more of a break.
My favourite technique is, with eyes still closed, to use awareness of my breath to help my mind recover from its fatigue. I use just a sing in and out breath. I let the breath slow down significantly, so that it feels almost like it is happening in slow motion. But it is done without any force or artificial effort. The breath just flows in lightly and softly, and as it does I create the word “clear” in my mind. The inner utterance of this word lasts the entire slow in-breath, which can take as long as ten to twenty seconds.
I then do something similar with the outbreath. As it starts to flow outwards I manage its pace so that it seems to seep out more than flow, again without any sense of pressure or force. This time I create the word “peaceful”. I let this word stay in my mind during the whole period of the outbreath.
Finally I gently and slowly open my eyes again, and I feel refreshed. It only takes less than a minute yet it recharges my mind’s batteries in a significant way.
This is my own method, which over the years I have found is more effective for me than any other techniques I’ve tried. That doesn’t mean it’ll be best for you. Mindfulness is not prescriptive because each person’s mind is unique, and an individual’s mind changes throughout the day, so a particular method will work better or worse for different people, and maybe work well at one part of the day but not be as effective at another time. In other words you have to try different things to see what help you specifically.
A more common way is of course to have a hot drink. It’s so common we have even come to call such a time of rest at work our coffee break or tea break. With mindfulness the point of a tea or coffee break is not so much to catch up with colleagues or friends but to experience what you’re actually doing, namely drinking the tea or coffee.
In winter we tend to do this more naturally than in other seasons. When it’s cold we like to cup the mug in our hands, and enjoy the warmth from the drink as it spreads through the mug. We also tend to savour the first sip of the drink.
But then the mindfulness vanishes in a puff of distraction. We start thinking of other things, what we’ve got to do next when we return to our workplace, or what happened earlier in the day. By doing so we miss the rest of the drink, and we miss the restful, restorative qualities that we experience when we focus lightly but clearly on the drink, its smell, its temperature, its taste, and the feeling of the cup or mug.
So build up the skill of noticing when you are tired, and use mindfulness to help restore your energy levels more effectively and quickly.