The Buddha Walks into the OR Part 4: Exertion

In our continuing quest to bring more fierceness to our lives and how we live them, today’s blog will dig into the 4th Paramita: Exertion.

We don’t mean exertion in the sense of running 200 meter repeats in 94 degree heat, even though that’s what I did yesterday evening.

We don’t mean exertion in the sense of working yourself into a state of exhaustion, depleted of all energy.

What we do mean related to the idea of making a joyful effort. Exertion in the Buddhist sense is finding the energy to do all of the things that you do. It’s understanding what your motivation is, and using that to sustain you during those times when your energy wanes. How many of us can think of those days when it’s been a long, hectic day in clinic or in the OR that leaves you completely drained…then you find a thank you note from a patient or their family, or from a mentee? How many times has some small reminder of why we do what we do, particularly on the days it’s not easy, suddenly helped you to hang in there an hour or two longer? Suddenly we find our endurance…our sustenance…our ability to forget about how tired we are and just focus on what we’re doing right here and right now. The slog transforms into a (relatively) joyful effort, simply with one small thing that pulls us back to our purpose and back to the present.

Exertion includes the idea of persevering during failure, and viewing a failure as a step towards success. This recent publication from a Princeton professor has been met with some controversy, particularly by those who hold that you can only afford to catalog your failures if you are viewed as successful. He openly acknowledges that each and every one of his failures in academia has been a building block for his success- and perhaps that in some ways the failures have been more important than the successes. It’s an ideal example of exertion in action (and I’ll confess that I am particularly fond of his meta-failure; I related to it since my Blog is read far more than all of my academic publications combined!).

Exertion, perhaps most practically, comes back to that critical idea of managing your energy so that you can do all of the important things.

Think for a moment about things that deplete you of energy. How many of them orient around fear, doubt, anxiety, not knowing, trying to “force” things to meet expectations? I’ll admit that for me that last piece is critical- it’s often the things I feel like I should be doing to meet some external expectation (real or made up) that drain my energy the most. I’ve learned that any sentence that includes the phrase, “Well, I should…” is an indicator that danger is lurking.  Shoulding all over yourself is inherently a bad idea and if I may give you one piece of advice about this behavior, it would be to stop it.

Now think for a moment about those things that provide you with energy. Some of them are probably quiet and peaceful- laying in a hammock somewhere listening to bird calls, falling asleep in a tent next to a river, meditating. I suspect that more than a few of them are not things that are quiet and peaceful, and that some of them are in fact incredibly challenging from a mental or physical perspective.  How is your energy level at the end of a big, difficult operation when you KNOW you’ve been able to help someone? At a rock and roll show with your favorite band (I’ll humbly suggest a Jason Isbell concert as an example)? At the end of a track workout with 200 meter repeats in blistering heat with friends who make it fun, even when it’s hard (I left mine giggling last night)?

Show up. Work hard. Remember your motivation. Stay present. Mind your energy.

Or, as my favorite running tank says, “Nothing about this is easy. Everything about this is worth it.” If that’s not a phrase consistent with creating a joyful effort, I don’t know what is.