Burn Out, Take Refuge
Over the years I have observed many young activist friends in the peace and environmental movements becoming overwhelmed and suffering deeply from stress and burn out. Despite my best efforts, they have not always been open to mindfulness practice. I firmly believe that activism without mindfulness practice will lead to burn out and disillusion of one form or another. At the other end of the continuum, I consider spirituality without an engaged expression to be equally unbalanced.
I encourage all of us embarking on this 21st century adventure in Peace and Planetary Care to root ourselves deeply in mindfulness practice on a daily basis. Touch the stillness of non-action first of all so that our ensuing actions come from a place of effortless abundance and clarity. This is how we can take care of stress, burnout and disappointment. Guidance is essential. It is there in abundance from Thich Nhat Hanh, as he specifies very clearly how to reach out for help. He encourages us in times of adversity, despair and burnout to take refuge in the sangha – the community of spiritual practice. Elder brothers and sisters in the community who are steady, patient and wise can help us step out of despair and anger by practicing meditation with us, returning us to mindfulness in order to take care of our distress. Be sure to take refuge in wise and steady friends. There is no point in taking refuge in folks who are as bummed out as you are! Then there is taking refuge in the dharma – through practices like Deep Relaxation, Touching the Earth, of heeding the Mindfulness Trainings to protect us from making harmful decisions. There is also taking refuge in the Buddha whose awakened mind is in the sutras that guide us step by step from despair to happiness. Each Refuge encourages us to foster positive and wholesome mental formations rather than fostering further despair and angst. Instead of running away from our fear and distress by hiding it under addictive behaviors, we learn from Taking Refuge just how to embrace and transform our fear and distress – first of all by clearly recognizing it.
We have to become good gardeners of the mind to do this. It takes skill, mindfulness and
retraining to become a good organic gardener, so that the garbage in us is turned into rich compost rather than rejected or repressed. It also takes much understanding based on a non-dualistic view – accepting and recognizing just what is there in the mind. So if our mind is dark with sorrow or anger we recognize that this is just so. With awareness we know how to practice walking meditation to take care of the mind-state recognized. Without the darkness and sorrow we would have no idea about the light dance of happiness. Instead of being overwhelmed by darkness, which can so easily happen, we use our skills of practice to recognize our mental states, nurture and transform them to a state where there is no danger of being overwhelmed. This non-dualistic way of looking at our mind states makes good sense, particularly as the alternative of suppression, of not practice, of not mindfulness, keeps us caught in the burnout, deeply mired in suffering with the conviction that there is no way out of this misery. This “not” alternative rapidly leads to depression, mental illness and damage to others as well as to ourselves. The mindfulness alternative of developing the necessary skills is a very wise and therapeutic option.
You may see for yourself the value of taking refuge in sangha eyes to guide your perceptions; of taking refuge in the practices, trainings and sutras for guidance in order to apply the energy of mindfulness to the energy of burnout. With the assistance available through taking refuge in the Three Gems – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – the practice comes alive as a highly strategic set of tools and skills to produce transformation of the suffering caused by difficult and painful circumstances that lead to burnout. Activism is full of crises, curve balls and disasters. But even so we do not have to be overwhelmed and crushed by them. Mindfulness practice helps us. Understanding and compassion hone our skills so that we become excellent gardeners of the mind.