This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 3 - Fatigue
Throughout our day-to-day lives, it takes energy to control our emotions, maintain a positive mood, be open to learning and experiencing new things, and to perceive the world with a lens of gratitude. And when events happen that trigger negative emotions, it takes energy to process them, manage them and (possibly) glean lessons from them.
When we’re tired or exhausted, we lack this energy. So, when the fog of fatigue descends upon us, it changes the way we view our world.
Everything seems more difficult. We lose control over our emotions, becoming more irritable and impatient. We don’t have the energy to manage our mind – it begins to run on autopilot, overthinking and over-analysing situations, often to our detriment. We may also become bitter and melancholy, wallowing in negativity instead of proactively taking steps to move beyond it.
We’ve all experienced this.
There are many factors that can help us to avoid fatigue, for example:
Physical factors: Getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, drinking plenty of water, engaging in exercise and physical activity, etc.
Mental factors: Doing fulfilling work, spending time with people we actually enjoy being around, briefly returning to our comfort zones, etc.
The last example - returning to our comfort zones – is particularly important in the context of my experience...
When we travel, we’re rarely in our comfort zone. We’re often in our stretch zone – we’re in new, unfamiliar environments that we’re constantly having to adapt to, but it’s not overwhelming to the extent that we enter our panic zone.
Or to use an analogy, we’re in a pool where our feet can’t touch the bottom and are swimming slowly towards the deep end – but we haven’t been dropped in the deep end and been told to ‘sink or swim’. The stretch zone offers a wonderful opportunity to challenge ourselves to learn and grow at our own pace.
That being said, even though the stretch zone encourages us to perceive the world through a lens of curiosity and receptivity to new experiences, our mind is also constantly scanning for threats and trying to anticipate potential challenges. This is why staying in the stretch zone for too long becomes exhausting.
The fulfilling nature of travelling means that fatigue doesn’t strike immediately – but eventually, it will hit. It might manifest itself physically in the form of illness, or mentally as a lack of desire to engage in any activities. Experiencing amazing things in an unfamiliar environment is immensely rewarding – but to do it for weeks on end is also exhausting!
If you travel, you’ll sometimes come across long-term backpackers in hostels who are reading books and watching Netflix on their laptops. You’ll wonder why they’re wasting their precious travel time in such a mundane way. But reading books and watching Netflix in a hostel is the closest that they can get to their comfort zone – it’s necessary for them to simulate a comfortable environment that allows them to rest, recuperate and recover their physical and mental well-being.
Life, like travelling, is a balancing act. We need to step out of our comfort zones in order to grow – but we also need to return there after a period of intensity in order to recover and replenish in a comfortable, relaxed environment.
Before entering the meditation retreat, I’d spent a few days on the island of Koh Phi Phi to recuperate after the intensity of my Chiang Mai adventures! I went into the meditation retreat feeling fresh, and considered it likely that I would emerge feeling even more fresh! After all, I’d be experiencing 10 days of nothing but meditation, nature, wholesome food, peace and silence. Only 6 and a half hours of sleep a night, but it wasn’t as if we were expending much energy during the day…
I underestimated two things.
First – I was fully out of my comfort zone as a result of the living conditions. My mind had perceived these conditions to be threatening (see Insight 2), and living in a state of threat becomes exhausting. The thoughts that I had during the first 2-3 days were particularly influenced by the build-up of fatigue, to the extent that I considered quitting the retreat on multiple occasions.
Second – 8 hours of meditation a day is mentally draining, especially at the start. Once the ‘threat’ of my living conditions wore off after day 3, I spent days 4 and 5 experiencing ‘meditation burnout’. It was only on Day 6, when I changed my physical environment and decided to accept my fatigued state (instead of being frustrated at myself for my 'weakness' in succumbing to it), that I was able to meditate again with ease.
I’m grateful that the self-awareness that I’d cultivated over the years allowed me to recognise when fatigue was sinking in and influencing my thoughts in a negative manner.
Being aware of my fatigue didn’t make me any less tired, but it helped me to recognise that these particular negative thoughts were a by-product of exhaustion – following which I could dismiss them, tell my mind to shut the f**k up, and then go and take a nap knowing that I’d wake up with a different outlook on my situation.
Learn how fatigue manifests in your mind and body. Understand how you think when you’re fatigued. Recognise when you’re actually experiencing fatigue. And then permit yourself to rest and recuperate.
Whatever you do - never, ever make key decisions when you’re tired. Don’t quit that job. Don’t say those words. Don’t send that text message. Take a few deep breaths. Drink some water. Go for a walk or change your physical environment. Go the f**k to sleep. And then wake up with a clear mind and a fresh perspective to address the problems that you’re facing.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.