As the energy crisis bites, I am navigating a parallel process. I need to learn to better manage my own energy. Following a Covid-19 infection earlier this year, I run out of steam more quickly. I now have to pay greater attention to how I use - and waste - my energy throughout the day. This enforced pacing and prioritising of activities is teaching me a lot about myself.
For me, my health is causing these limitations. But there are many other crunch-points in life that bring this issue to the fore. New responsibilities also mean we have less energy for other things. A friend told me how, after the birth of her son, she could no longer keep up with everyone in her former friendship circle. She had to make some difficult choices. Although painful at the time, it also gave her greater freedom in her new role as a mother. As we age, some things have to be let go of, or adapted. The skill of using energy wisely is relevant for everyone.
The amount of energy we use corresponds to the effort we bring to anything we do. Sometimes things seem effortless, at other times they can be heavy going. The difference reflects how easy something is for us, how interested we are, and how much we enjoy it.
Meditation is a good opportunity to notice these factors at work. Over the years, I have learned to spot a habit of trying too hard. At first, I believed that the more effort I made, the more successful my meditations would be. Over time, I started to notice habitual tension in my body. I furrowed my brow as I tried to concentrate; I tended to lean forward as if reaching for something. It seemed I was trying hard to get somewhere else, rather than simply being where I was. I gradually learned that making less effort was often more helpful.
Of course, there are times when we need to make more effort to meditate in the first place. Initially, we need to deliberately gather ourselves into the present moment. But, further into a period of meditation, we can start to relax the effort to focus. Birds need physical effort to lift off into the sky. But once up there, they can make use of thermal currents to glide with minimal effort.
Try experimenting with effort in your meditation practice. When you make more effort to focus, for example on the breath, what happens in your body, your mood and your thoughts? Contrast that with what you notice when you reduce the amount of effort. Sometimes greater effort is needed. But, if your tendency is towards trying too hard, it may surprise you to find the positive effects of letting go.
Sometimes we need to be clearer about why we are meditating. It can be confusing to follow instructions without considering how they work for us. We may need to question the guidance to see if it is right for us in the moment. And we may need to be more curious about what resonates, or not. With greater clarity comes increased motivation and a natural lift in energy.
Seeing ourselves in meditation helps us to notice habits that are harder to spot amid everyday life. Though, we do still need to notice ourselves during the day.
A recent visit to an Alexander teacher was an eye-opener for me. I was able to see how the muscles in my hips and shoulders habitually contract when I am sitting at a desk. This is something I do for hours, most days. I am now making a practice of releasing these tensions whenever I notice them. They often creep back, but slightly less than before.
When we receive a sudden shock, such as an unexpected loud noise, the body goes into a stress response known as the startle reflex. We tense up to protect our vital organs. This is a basic survival strategy and once the stress is over, the body relaxes. But in our modern stress-filled world, we are often unable to relax and the stress builds up. Holding chronic tension in this way takes a lot of effort and is one of the biggest wastes of our energy we can have.
Maintaining body awareness while doing other tasks is not easy. This is especially true when working at a computer. The activity requires the use of our thought processes and we often forget about the body. I recently came across the term 'screen apnoea'. This is about getting get so fixated on words and images, we forget to breathe. Most of us know to take frequent breaks – to take a breather! But we can easily get so caught up that we forget to do this.
Some people use timers or mindfulness bells on their phone, to remind them to take breaks every 20 or 30 minutes. These give us the chance to shift our body position but they also provide a valuable mental break. The human brain is not well suited to continued focus on close work. It also needs time to roam free; to muse and to dream.
My current way to take a break is to get up and do two or three gentle yoga stretches. I also get movement going with some Tai Chi swings. A recent addition is to lie down in the Alexander technique’s ‘semi-supine’ position.
Allowing contraction in the body is the opposite of 'standing tall' and 'taking one's space'. Both of these phrases have positive physical and emotional connotations. They suggest confidence and self-respect. Our emotions have a strong connection with our bodies; freeing up the body leaves us feeling better all round.