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Seeking transformation, inside out

With each passing year, instead of a sense of urgency, I feel a strange pull to do less, measure differently and to absorb the gifts of this life by simply ‘being’, instead of always ‘doing’.

One word that accurately describes me is ‘doer’. From embarking on projects requiring a long commitment (pursuit of a Ph.D.) to a brave foray into writing, first as a hobby and then as my preferred way of understanding myself, I have always maintained a list of things that are under the categories of ‘to-do’ or ‘to-try’. 

Learning something new stimulates my brain and makes me feel energized. Yet, constantly being on the move – planning, practicing, and mastering something is like being on an alternate hamster wheel when I’m not on the regular one that involves work-home- family- community.

The high cost of burnout

But the body knows. It whispers when it is being overworked and underappreciated. And finally screams when you don’t respond. Mine tried to speak to me exactly a year ago. When an excruciating pain took hold of the lower half of my body, I tried to figure it out logically. Although the medical establishment threw up their hands at my undecipherable condition, I intuitively knew what had happened. I was suffering from burnout

Yet, knowing something and taking action to rectify it are two separate things. 

The moment I started feeling better, I lapsed into the same behaviors that had brought me to burnout in the first place. Not only did I resume all activities, my to-do grew as I added things (take mindful breaks, go for a walk outside everyday) in order to bring back balance into my life.

In need of rest

In her book, “Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity,”  physician and researcher Saundra Dalton-Smith writes that we often equate sleep with rest but that does not explain why we feel exhausted even after we get adequate sleep. 

The world we inhabit makes multiple demands on all aspects of our life. While sleep may be one way to get physical rest, we need seven different types of rest on a regular basis if we are to lead healthy lives. From mental rest (to stop the chatter in our heads), sensory rest (from devices and demands of digital life), to emotional, social, creative, and spiritual rest, by paying attention to each one we can maintain our bodies in a state where we are fully functional without incurring a huge deficit in any of these areas.

Each of us may receive different cues from our bodies but the fact remains that unaddressed rest deficits take a toll that can be explosive (like my painful episode last year) or insidious (like the slow decline of my drive this year). Fortunately, this time I paid attention to the whispers and called for a complete timeout. I did not wish to once again end the year by being advised complete bed rest. 

Hitting the reset button

I signed up for a weeklong solo detox retreat in Phuket, Thailand. My goal was not to lose weight but to gain a clear perspective on what I wanted from my life in the year ahead. 

Solo vacations are a great way to build a friendship with yourself. Most women take on traditional gender-based roles in relationships and tend to put their own needs at the bottom of the pile. Whether that involves choosing what to eat, where to go and how to spend their time, they tend to defer to others. When you travel alone, you get to choose. 

Although I was on holiday, I woke up before sunrise each morning for a solitary walk on a desolate beach, and waited for the sun to rise from its hiding place in the clouds behind the island in the distance. It was difficult to miss how the water level flowed and receded at high and low tide at different times during the day. 

Phuket sunrise (image: Ramjani Rao)

Life is dynamic

The soft lapping sounds of the gentle waves soothed my nerves fraught with the sounds of urban life. Each wave brought forth unexpected treasures and associated epiphanies. Sometimes I spotted a pretty red piece of glass, a yellow feather, or purple seashells. At other times I came across plastic cups, a moldy green coconut shell and even pieces of a dead fish with bulging eyes. Even while walking the same path, each day can hold surprises if you stay open to various possibilities without judging any of it as good or bad just like nature accepted each of these into her fold.

Once I found a stunning leaf worn translucent by the water, leaving behind just the shape of the edges and veins with all the green connective tissue sloughed off. When you immerse yourself in the moment, how easy it is to shed the mass of anger and resentment that we hold on to even though it hurts us? You can discover and retain your essential beauty once you discard excess baggage that doesn’t serve you.

Footprints in the sands of time

I walked back and forth along the same stretch many times, observing my footprints, hoping to leave an imprint here, just as I hoped my actions would remain embedded in the world that I ordinarily inhabited. Yet, the waves were unforgiving. They obligingly erased my footprints soon after I planted my feet in the wet sand. 

Life is always dynamic. My presence on earth is a mere fleeting breath on the sands of eternity. 

The days were rich with many such moments of clarity that I documented in my notebook with a pen, reluctant to open my laptop or even my phone, for anything other than taking photos.

Although my other accomplishments may be valued by those who track targets, for me the greatest joy of the year has been the week I got to know myself better. And my body thanks me for it.

How was 2022 for you?

Wishing you peace for the rest of 2022 and for the year ahead!

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Ranjani Rao

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Her latest book, Rewriting My Happily Ever...