Why Productivity is Killing Us All
And How Eastern Medicine & Philosophy Can Save Us
How often do we rest? I mean TRULY rest. Without input, stimulation, without guilt that we should be doing this or that? No phone or computer in sight; no emails to be sent, appointments to schedule? In fact, how many of us are running around filling every second of potential down time with shit just so we can stay busy and productive?
I know I’m guilty of this.
As an acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese Medicine- I do my best to practice what I preach. I know for a fact that stress is a top causative factor of illness and disease and that our modern lifestyles are literally killing us.
As an entrepreneur who has been raised by baby boomers within the paradigm of the American dream and the “you only get ahead if you work your ass off” mentality; I struggle, A LOT. I feel like I’m fighting a constant battle against the deeply-ingrained ideals of a culture driven by productivity and capitalism. It doesn’t leave much space for rest without guilt.
Several years ago when I began studying Eastern Medicine and Philosophy it quickly became apparent to me how vast the dichotomy truly was between Eastern and Western ideals and lifestyles. I use the term “Western” loosely because after spending time living in Europe, I can truly say that the United States is on another level when it comes to stress, productivity, burn-out, and quality of life.
I see this with my patients daily. Throughout the years of looking for root causes and how to address them with acupuncture & herbal medicine, I’ve learned one thing is certain- being too productive is killing us. I get all kinds of complaints and symptoms walking in my office door. I often get the off-the-wall, random mystery symptoms and the patients who have been to every doctor and specialist and who have been on every medication and still feel like they’re not getting anywhere. It’s provided an interesting vantage point to assess some of the common threads and cultural health trends we face in modern times.
The conclusion I’ve come to: I’m never just battling back pain, migraines, autoimmune disease and the like; but rather, I am always treating the side effects of stress, over-work, and the chronic state of inflammation that comes with it. This is not to say that there aren’t other contributing factors to these issues and illnesses, but there is ALWAYS a stress component.
On a physiological level, we know what stress does to the body. The sympathetic nervous response (or “fight or flight”) is a mechanism that is intended to be engaged for a short period of time so we can literally survive a life-threatening situation. All of our other systems like our respiration, digestion, and bladder function are inhibited to create the optimal chance for survival.
The problem is that our modern lifestyles keep our sympathetic nervous system constantly engaged in a way that we are not built for. When this mechanism is activated over a longer period of time it starts to wreak havoc on the body. These other systems stop functioning optimally and our threshold for stress-response is much lower. This means that our bodies start registering even minor non-threatening occurrences as threats, and we end up in a chronic state of fight-or-flight and inflammation.
So where does Eastern Medicine and Philosophy fit into this? And how can it create value for us here in the West?
One of the core tenants of Chinese Medicine is the concept of yin and yang. It’s a term we’ve all vaguely heard of but that a lot of us don’t truly understand or perceive as relevant to our lives. I beg to differ; I think that this simple yet profound concept is a key to leading a life of longevity and vitality in modern times. Let me explain.
The concept of yin and yang states that there are two opposing yet interdependent energies in all of life. These lie within us and around us. The way I relate these to our modern lifestyles is that yang can be defined as the exertion or output of energy while yin is the input, restoration, or reception of energy.
At any given time, both yin and yang are present. They operate in a constant state of balance with one another. We are all always dancing between input and output; action and passivity. The problem for most of us is that we are always exerting WAY more than we are restoring. This idea of “filling your cup” and the fact that “self-care” is a buzzword are indicative of this.
My question for you is this: how can we exert energy at an optimal state if we aren’t refilling our tanks enough? Much like the gas tanks in our cars get low and we must refill them constantly, our bodies work in a similar fashion. This has to happen on a regular basis in order for us to maintain balance and create longevity and vitality in our health and lives. Just like a car, optimal function and increased longevity occurs with proper maintenance and regular re-fueling.
This can be applied in the workplace for companies as well. Employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity can directly be tied back to creating a culture that values input and restoration as much as it does action. This is why creating initiatives that allow for employees to disconnect and recharge (i.e. disabling company email at off-work times, providing incentives for taking vacation days etc.) is crucial to optimal productivity. If a company is constantly demanding output and productivity from it’s employees without providing sufficient opportunities and space for the input and restoration to occur; how can optimal results be achieved? We have seen this play out recently in Japan when Microsoft piloted a 4 day work week for it’s employees and saw a 40% increase in productivity. This would no doubt positively impact a company’s bottom line in a significant way.
We are addicted to being busy. And it has to stop.
If there’s one thing Eastern medicine and philosophy has taught me it is that the times of rest are just as much part of the action as the action itself. How can we create, innovate, and be productive if we’re never recharging? If we’re never creating space and we’re just constantly going and exerting our energy, how can we show up in the world in an optimal way? We can’t.
It’s time to start placing equal value on restoration and preservation, before we kill ourselves.