I have been a workaholic all my life.
For years, I lived in a realm of pushing, doing, and trying to get somewhere. The idea of achieving academic qualifications, gaining a place in reputable organizations, or accumulating more wealth was glamorized throughout my upbringing, setting me up for a lifelong path of chasing something that does not represent the real me, to impress people who were irrelevant to me.
Throughout my 20s, I suffered from migraine headaches, chronic fatigue, compulsive eating, and unwavering anxiety on an almost daily basis.
Back then, my definition of “self-care” was to look outward for ways to fix things: I sought nutritional advice, supplements, massage, acupuncture, and all forms of therapies, and I considered myself a diligent yogi with my endless pursuit of cures.
When nothing worked, I conveniently blamed it on whatever authorities I’d discharged my responsibilities onto: “Ah well, I have tried. It did not work.”
But as many of us who have been through a mid and quarter life crisis would know, life has its way of plunging us into the truth.
When my body finally pushed me out of my stable job, relationship with a trophy partner, and the endless pursuit of credentials, I was forced to face reality. I woke up to the roots of my chronic burnout and learned to become accountable for the consequences of my denial. It turned out, my body is not a vehicle to be exploited, nor an enemy that is holding me back from my ego’s need to achieve. It is more like a garden that was given to me—and it will yield weeds or crops depending on the seeds I sow and what I do with them.
The first module in my learning journey is to work with rather than against my body—and to learn to catch the first signs of pain, angst, and tiredness as they arise.
Our battles with life all have humble beginnings.
Our deep depression, anger outbursts, panic attacks, physical pain, sickness, and chronic fatigue all began as subtle, quiet waves of tenderness. Emotionally sensitive and intellectually intense people, however—with our speed, drive, and complexity, swayed continuously by one mental whirlwind after another—are just not good at catching those moments when tenderness first enters.
When tenderness first arrives, it is like a slightly bruised child—helpless, quiet, humble. But as we judge it, condemn it, and shut it out, it has no choice but to grow bigger and scream louder, and eventually, it transmutes and haunts us as the beast we most fear.
Many of us are familiar with the Buddhist wisdom that says “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Our suffering arises when there is a split in us—caused by some part of us judging, condemning, and resisting some other parts of ourselves. What we resist persists. In contrast, when we can embrace everything as parts of a whole, the pain naturally dissolves and resolves.
It is much easier to embrace our wounds when they are still in their infancy, and not too disguised or distorted from their original forms.
That’s why we might want to learn to catch the first wave of tenderness. If we can learn to catch tenderness, attend to it, and love it so thoroughly that it melts into a part of our whole, there will be no need for it to metastasize into depression, addictions, compulsions, and fury.
Some days, we wake up energetic and elated; other days, we open our eyes with a layer of fogginess, sadness, and grief. Some days, we are ready to take on the world; other days, we can do nothing more than curling up to weep.
On these “other days,” the old me would just have pushed through and beat myself up for not feeling healthy enough, productive enough, or energetic enough. The new me knows to sit back, and call it a “tender day.”
On a tender day, it really is not about doing very much. I think of my friends who have been through despair, sickness, and fatigue, and they remind me that some days, just surviving is a triumph.
On a tender day, productivity means embracing the full catastrophe of our human experience.
Perhaps success is measured by our ability to love the very cells within us that are underperforming. When we look closely, we can see that the vulnerable, sick, slow parts of us are just like that clumsy, well-meaning, and kindhearted child lost in the crowd—endearing and longing to be loved.
On a tender day, instead of fighting, pushing, and asking our body and souls for more, our only job might just be to let the tenderness pass through us. Without interfering and resisting, we can allow the current of grief, of uncertainty, of the poignant existential angst about sickness, disaster, and death to float around us while we remain still. But this is not the stoic, rigid, tough kind of stillness. Not like a building that would not bend, but more like a tree that sways a little with the wind, while remaining deeply rooted. Yielding, not breaking.
We can embrace tenderness, but at the same time, know that it does not define, trap, or threaten us. As long as we remain open and steady, like a smooth tunnel, the tenderness will pass through without much trouble.
Tomorrow will be a new day. It may be a tender day again, or it may not.
What I know is that I will remain still, and let the current of life carry me. I am watchful, but I keep my hands off.
We can all learn to notice and welcome tenderness as a way of tending our inner gardens.
Is today a tender day for you? If so, give yourself permission to do nothing but tend to your tender day.
Author: Imi Lo
Image: Wikimedia commons
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron