Burnout and fear of life/death

I’ve been reading some buddhist perspectives on death and dying and some themes keep coming up that I think have something to do with my experience of burn out. While I think that my grief was a particularly salient factor in my personal experience with burnout, I think some of these buddhist concepts might apply more generally. I think that this buddhist thought on death and dying — which is ultimately really about living — has relevance for thinking about what happens in a burnout situation. Burnout is a symptom of our struggle with living itself in a culture that denies death as part of life. Or maybe, burnout is a symptom of our struggle with living itself in a culture where we construct our identities in resistance to change, which is the constant condition of reality, and denial of the certainty of uncertainty.

In my case, even while I was going through it, I realized that part of what was happening to me was because of my own resistance to — I hate to say, “reality,” because “reality” was being shaped and defined by so many players, and I don’t think any of them ever achieved hegemony — but maybe the reality that I was attached to. I had identified with a specific idea of what my job was and what my organization’s part should be in the bigger political picture. I had a lot of capital E ego invested in my particular version of success. I resisted mightily any efforts to define us differently or move us in a different direction. And, as in all things, those efforts were constant.

I was attached to and identified with a certain idea of who I was and how things were supposed to go.

We harden around these ideas of who we are as a way to control our fear the unknown. In the death and dying literature I’ve been reading, how we encounter death at the moment of dying will reflect how we have encountered all of the unknowns in life. Every next moment is unknown. The extent to which we cling to our ego identity and resist the constant and inevitable movements of life will be reflected in the fear with which we face the ultimate unknown — death itself.

It makes sense that I would grasp onto the stated goals of my new job for stability as I dealt with the grief of losing my mom. I needed to be able to count on that fixed objective, and the clear and straight path that I had decided would lead us there. My sense of myself depended on it. It’s like I had a vision of the flow of life going in a particular direction, and when the currents changed — and there were some real gully washers! — I fought them with everything I had just to stand still. Imagine straining against fast rushing waters or leaning into a strong wind. All my energy ended up getting focused on this outward struggle against what I could not control. As the forces of change, the flow of life, continued unabated, my sense of self became smaller and harder, defined rigidly separate from and in opposition to the world around me. I was afraid to let go. All this resistance to forces more powerful than “me” over time created friction, a psychological heat that sparked the fire that eventually burned me out.

In my case, this resistance to the continual motion of life, this attachment to the ego identity was especially strong, and maybe more recognizable now, because underneath it all I was grappling with THE big questions of our existence and my own fear of the unknown. But I think it may be a factor in burnout more generally.

Feeling like you have something to prove definitely sounds like an example of being attached to a particular idea of yourself and success and how things are “supposed to be.” Stephen Levine says that every idea we have about how things are supposed to be gets in the way of being in the present moment, diminishes the spaciousness of our consciousness and solidifies the boundaries of identity. I think these boundaries then cause friction as we resist the inevitable flow of change. We work harder and harder with more frustration and less satisfaction. This leads to burnout.

Was it Rumi who said we suffer because we’ve forgotten that we are connected to everything? The ego drives the sense of separateness. I picture me, feeling alone and unique with the hard shell of my grief disconnecting me from the world and defining me as a separate thing, a noun instead of a verb, GRIEF instead of grieving. Verbs are so much healthier than nouns! And again, the paradox of aversion and attachment being the same thing. Pushing away my grief I came to identify with the pushing away. My grief wouldn’t define me! But in the end, it did.

My resistance to my own internal flow of emotion and the necessary changes brought about by the loss of my mom mirrored the resistance I gave to the external forces influencing the direction and outcomes of my work. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I spent a lot of energy keeping all change at bay, all to protect some IDEA of who I was and my place in the world. All that resisting eventually burned me up.

Recovery has been a process of trying to let go of attachment. In the aftermath of the closure of the organization I was running, that has meant letting go not just of my identification with the job, but also with the resentment and anger , the disappointment and lack of confidence that came with throwing in the towel. I’ve also had to accept my sadness and the pain of loss — the loss of my mom and the loss of the work I was trying to do. To let go of all those things, I’ve actually had to FEEL them. Feeling them releases them.  They don’t stay gone, but I get a break and can appreciate their coming and going.

I think burnout and recovery from it must be similar for people who didn’t have the double whammy of losing their mom. You become attached to an idea, identify with some story of how things are supposed to go, and then you resist all the evidence that it might not work out that way. It’s probably a normal response in a culture that is so focused on the achievement of  the individual person who IS or IS NOT some certain THING, instead of the person who DOES or BECOMES with others in flow with uncertainty.

I’m pretty sure Benny is not concerned with any of those things.

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