When You’re Tired of Trying: Lessons in Mindfulness from a Woodpecker

“The antidote to exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.” ~David Whyte

Crouched down in a cold clump of leaves in the woods, I watch a woodpecker. Persistent, unbothered, moving up and down a tree next to me. It is methodically tapping its beak bit-by-bit looking for something to eat. I watch and wonder… Aren’t you tired of this relentless pursuit? Tired of smashing your face again and again with the odds stacked against you? How fleeting disappointment must be for you.

Not me. I take one bump and the disappointment reels through me. I desperately seek ease, my eyes always halfway gazing elsewhere looking for relief, wondering when I can stop trying so hard.

My mother used to talk about her own persistent struggles like “smashing your head into a brick wall.”

But you, my woodpecker friend, don’t seem to be struggling or frustrated. You simply move on moment by moment in pursuit, unbothered by the repetition of trying again and again. Not worried about what happens next, what the outcome of each tap against the tree is. This is your life, the persistent pursuit of nourishment moment by moment.

Tap, tap, tap—look for food. Tap, tap, tap—try again. Tap, tap, tap—no time for disappointments. Tap, tap, tap—that would be silly, counterproductive to living.

Today I sit and watch you. It’s early morning and my body is already buzzing with stress. My baby crying, children fighting, another night without sleep.

I am six months postpartum with baby number three, and I have been struggling to adjust to my new life. All my energy has gone into trying to cope, provide for, and nourish my growing family.

I am supposed to have it together at this point in my life, I should have made some progress by now. I wasn’t supposed to have to try this hard. I teach people how to manage their stress through art, the daily grind is my muse! But today I can’t step out of my own fog. I can’t prescribe myself time to create and breathe, I am just too tired.

We hear the word “grind” a lot these days. A collective acknowledgement that daily living in the western world is full of bumps, abrasions, and sparks. The notion that not all stress comes from the big dramatic life moments of life and death, pain, and suffering. Much of it comes from the momentary energy we put into trying to shape and survive in our day to day lives.

The details of my life’s challenges are specific and particular to me, but most of us can relate to this feeling of a boiling point—where we can’t take it anymore, where the stress is too much, and we are tired of trying. Each of us dances between our own tiny stories of struggle and joy in a day.

Sometimes coffee isn’t enough.

Sometimes more sleep can’t help.

Sometimes it feels like all my trying is only making it worse. Like there is no influence, no mark I can make in this world, or in my life.

Sometimes all my therapy, self-help books, and good advice are just beyond my reach.

Sometimes I am locked in a moment where showing gratitude feels like a boulder I just can’t lift.

It’s so hard to pick yourself back up when all you want to do is close your eyes and find some quiet.

Usually, I am the kind of person who thinks that change is always possible, that my pain is fleeting, that improvements can always be made. That it’s my duty to try and make the world a better place.

My husband and I joke that we are constantly tweaking things searching for a better flow in our lives. We are always informing each other that we have made a new change for something in our home, moving a pot from its old drawer to a new one, trying to make new systems for managing the chaos of laundry, children, and our lives. We just keep trying.

We each hold a sincere belief that with each new tweak it will improve things for us. It’s easily one of our best attributes as a couple, we are both persistently interested in bettering ourselves, our lives, and our community. We know that we have agency and influence in our world, so we try to use it for good.

But it’s also a trap. A set up for disappointment. Call it attachment, call it the grass is always greener. Whatever you call it, the outcome is the same: You become swept away looking for something better, more, or just different. All this trying and lifting and doing can be a setup just weighing us further down.

And then before you know it, you find yourself on the verge of tears, fleeing your life, huddled in a cold clump of leaves in the woods with no resolve or ounce of resilience to be found. And this is the morning I found the woodpecker, the morning I fled my house in exhaustion. Tired of feeling like I can’t catch up.

On this day I was tired of enduring the grind of wanting more. So, I sought refuge in the bluff behind my house. I closed the door and walked away from my family and the stress, setting the intention to find a place to just be still in the woods, hoping it would offer me some peace.

And this is the morning where things shifted for me, where the woodpecker came to me showing me how to be in between each tap of its beak. You, my persistent woodpecker friend, have come at just the right moment…

Tap, tap, tap, the persistent woodpecker calling to me. I watch and I listen. It’s showing me how it’s done. To keep showing up in each moment. Tap, tap, tap, a genuine presence. Tap, tap, tap, just try again. Tap, tap, tap each moment born anew.

What if I never get it right, never quite arrive, never work it out? But what if it’s actually just about showing up again and again, finding little treasures in the moment and continuing on? No past resentments, no future longings. Just a willingness to show up each day and try, and try, again and again and again.

I watch and listen to the woodpecker. I watch and see that it doesn’t stop and wallow in disappointment when it works so hard without reward. It moves on persistently trying because it has to, because that’s what living is. Tap, tap, tap.

It felt like the woodpecker was here to show me how to be. Reminding me that with each moment I feel amiss, that all I need to do is show up again to the next. That this grind is temporary, that I can feel it, notice it, and come to the next moment fresh and continue to try. I don’t need to endure the grind; I can use my influence and agency in this world and keep trying to find the nourishment I need to thrive. Each moment is a new beginning, a new chance to shape my world again.

So, I took a breath and decided to do what I know helps me be present and whole—I created. I walked for a while and then hopped off the path… and that’s when all the magic began (and just for the record this is always where it happens, in that moment when we hop off the regular route and move to the land of curiosity.)

I found something I had been longing to find all summer and fall. Wasp paper. A bird had found an old wasp nest and torn it apart. Tattered little bits of the former hive were strewn about. It felt like a gold mine. It was a piece of magic right in my hands.

So, I breathed. I tinkered. I made a few installations with all of the wonders around me. I tried. I showed up in this little pocket in the woods. I let my thoughts and stress fall to the foreground, and I found my breath.

I tried again looking for stillness. I let go of the desire to brood, to wallow, to hold onto the fretting that occupied my morning. I found my breath and I just tried to be in the woods with these treasures. I spent time with them, slowed down, and played with their arrangements taking a few photos.

As I began to create with presence, I could feel a shift happening inside me. I was shaping the world around me, and as I did, I could feel my inner landscape being shaped to. I felt relief. I felt my fog lifting. I began to feel calm, but my gaze was already tempted to move to what was to come next. The temptation to be anywhere but now, is a constant lure.

Then I reminded myself that today I showed up, in this moment here and now, I actually did it. I remind myself that it’s the act of showing up, not the outcome that’s most important. I release myself from future progress. Today I showed up in this pocket in the woods and made something. Tap, tap, tap because that’s what living is.

About Rachel Rose

Rachel is an expressive arts educator who teaches people how to use creativity for self-care, awareness, and wellness. Her training and research have focused on a variety of mediums including the visual arts, creative writing, storytelling, nature, and music all through a lens of mindfulness. In her own practice every creation begins through the exploration of an emotion and emerges as a symbolic story. Learn more about her supports at www.workshopmuse.com

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