How to avoid stress and burn-out at work
This is related to the article, Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness.
- Do you have to drag yourself to work and, when you get home, do you have no energy left to do much other than flop in front of some entertainment?
- Have you become irritable or impatient, critical or cynical?
- Do you feel emotionally or physically exhausted?
- Do you feel disillusioned, discouraged or dissatisfied with your job?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?
In this article I’ll try and explore an effective solution based on Buddhist meditation practice. There are also external triggers for stress and burn-out that you can find solutions for elsewhere on the web.
Symptoms of stress and burnout
Everywhere, working people sometimes suffer from long-term stress and burn-outs. They push too much, overdo it, and find themselves running on empty. Some hallmarks are that they feel inefficient, unenergetic and useless — their sense of accomplishment and interest wasted — and they feel emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes people get ill, sometimes they have to quit for good, never is it a pleasurable experience. The results can last for years. And it can happen anywhere, in any job, even in a non-profit or Buddhist Center.
We can also become a less nice person when we are burning out. Our tolerance and flexibility diminishes — we want everyone to do things our way because we think that’ll make our life more manageable. Sometimes we hold others at a distance out of a misguided self-protection but then feel isolated, as if we are doing all the work and no one is stepping up to help us.
Not to get too sidetracked from the main point of this article, but this ties in with our (in)ability to delegate and empower others. When we are stressed it seems we tend to delegate less rather than more, trust others less rather than more; but we still might get heavy with them and make them feel guilty because we don’t think they’re doing enough. Overly controlling our job and the people helping with our job is a bit like trying to push a snowball all the way down the hill ourselves — not letting go of it or giving it a gentle push and letting it just roll for a while so it picks up momentum and snow on its own. A snowball doesn’t actually grow bigger that way.
Solving the problem
Luckily this counter-productive syndrome can be averted. If we are practicing Buddha’s advice, we can stay relaxed and centered even in the midst of the busiest or most responsible job. We can maintain joyous effort, the fuel we need for both the short and the long-haul, and bring out the best in others too.
My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a perfect example of this. Even retired, aged 80, he still accomplishes more in any given minute than the rest of us accomplish in a day , yet he is always entirely relaxed, blissful, and patient, and of course the master of instigation and delegation.
Over the decades of being in various positions and jobs, I and others have tried to observe how Geshe Kelsang does it so we can emulate him. In discussion with a good friend and successful long-term meditation teacher (who like me has had any number of “responsible” jobs and positions within the New Kadampa Tradition in the last 30 years), we have come up with the following suggestions.
Identify with your potential, always
The key is to feel centered and happy in the heart, and identified with our potential rather than our limitations.
This entails relying upon at least a little meditation practice, not neglecting it however busy or responsible we feel. Even ten to fifteen minutes sitting quietly before we start work is immensely helpful if we do it properly and take refuge in it. Even a few five-minute breaks through the day can be the difference between a joyful, balanced, creative day and a day that is just stressful and draining. (Make the restroom live up to its name if you need to, go meditate in there!) And even a ten-minute unwind and let-go meditation between work and settling in for the evening or weekend (or whatever little downtime you have) can help you disengage and relax such that you enjoy your time off from work and it rejuvenates you.
You can start with some breathing meditation, such as the simple meditation taught here. If you like, you can combine this meditation with visualization: examine your mind to see what stress, problems and limited self you’re holding onto and then breathe these out in the form of dark smoke, feeling that you’ve completely let them go. Breathe in the peaceful light of wisdom and compassion blessings into your spacious heart. Then spend a bit of time simply enjoying that peace with a still mind, however slight or relative it is. Give yourself permission to be happy.
This is the important part: We need to recognize that this peace is our Buddha nature, that this slightly peaceful mind represents our actual nature, our potential for vast peace and happiness; and that therefore we are not stuck in our unhappiness or frustration, but rather we can change. We identify with this.
The main point here is that we don’t need to be great meditator to discover our potential. In truth, even if we are just able to stay with the breath for three consecutive rounds, our mind will become slightly more peaceful than it was. If we give ourselves permission and a few moments to abide with that slight peace, to savor it with a still mind, to enjoy it, we will discover that the actual nature of our mind is peaceful. It is only the delusions that produce agitation.
If we have time to go onto other meditations, the rest of our meditation, whatever it is, happens from that peaceful, happy place onwards. It is easy to develop any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations.
In fact when we “try” to generate a mind of renunciation, for example, while grasping at ourself as an inherently angry, unhappy or unlovable person, we end up relating to liberation dualistically, as something other than and outside of our own mind.
I am always here, freedom is always there, never the twain shall meet.
Consequently our meditation gives rise to tension or guilt, rather than an authentic and deeply joyful and relaxing peace.
We don’t need to give ourselves a hard time – our delusions do a very good job of that already, that’s why they’re called our “inner enemies”. Don’t let them. They are no match for our pure potential, any more than clouds are a match for the sky.
Try an experiment
To see if this is true, those of you who know the Lamrim cycle already, try this experiment. Meditate on your precious human life while not identifying with your potential but identifying with your limited, faulty self. What happens? Do you feel guilty for not doing enough, do you start giving yourself an even harder time? Meditate on your impending death with a mind of not identifying with your potential and what happens? Do you feel doomed?!
But meditate on your precious human life from the vantage point of being naturally pure, and what happens? You feel very joyful and lucky, your effort increases. Meditate on death from this vantage point and what happens? Your joyful effort increases even more, you know you can make the most of the time you have, everything falls into perspective and your worries and negative thoughts diminish. You can try this experiment with any of the Lamrim or Tantric meditations!
Back to work
When you rise from a meditation like this, I promise you’ll feel far more ready for what comes next, you are ready to be productive at work again. It is amazing how much burn-out will be averted if we actually experience the restorative powers of our own pure natures. And when we are happy, we naturally engage with the world, feel involved, and are efficient.
And when you start to stress out again later in the day, because it is a bad habit, take yourself off to rest in that room for five minutes! It is always going to be worth it.
Please let us know in the comments section if this method works for you and/or if you’ve had other successful ways of overcoming stress and burn-out.
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Anyone can try!
(Anyone who is stressed out can learn to do five or ten minutes simple meditation a day and hopefully get something out of this article. I met someone in the ocean just yesterday who has never meditated and knows nothing about Buddhism, but he is experiencing stress at work due to new bossy middle management, so I gave him advice based on this article and he seemed very ready to try it out.)
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