At the start of the pandemic, I’d ask someone, “How are you?” and sometimes the response was a kind of bewilderment at the question—how could we even answer that? There was so much uncertainty, so much change, so much fear, that I heard a lot of “I don’t even know,” and “Oh, jeez, how do I even answer this?” and sometimes “Maybe…bad?” These days, it’s different. We’re past the stage of not knowing how we feel, and how we feel is, often, maybe bad?
What I see, in myself and in those around me, is burnout. Burnout can have a lot of symptoms: exhaustion, an inability to slow down or stop working, depersonalization (maybe you start seeing people as categories instead of individuals), lack of creativity, increased sense of failure, decreased satisfaction in things you used to enjoy. For a lot of people, things feel a little flatter, or a little smaller, or both. This isn’t limited to the pandemic, of course; people have always experienced this. But now it’s starting to feel like a group exercise.
That’s hard. We can notice it, we can try to do things that make us feel better, but it’s a hard thing to break out of. Burnout pulls things into it, like a black hole.
That’s the part that’s on my mind today. What I hear often is that people are burnt out in regard to spiritual practice. And I want to make a clear distinction here: there’s a difference between burnout and being burnt out on a particular thing. It’s easy to get burnt out on Buddhism. It’s natural. People say to me, “I try to read dharma books, but I just can’t read one more—I have to get away from it.” Or maybe their community is getting under their skin, for whatever reason, and they feel like they just need a break from it. That’s just the organic ebb and flow of practice, the tension of navigating a practice that also presents as a tradition, with teachings, form, its own lingo, and so on. Everybody goes through that.
What I want to point to is when burnout claims practice. How do you know if that’s happened? The easiest measure is if it has started to feel like another thing to fail at. You look at all the things you have on your plate—work, family, your health—and then you see how you’re not meditating every single day, or you’re not sitting with the group so much anymore, or you’re not studying the text your teacher gave you, and instead of seeing a way of burnout, you see something that’s making it worse. Maybe meditation becomes a box you feel you have to check, right alongside those spreadsheets your boss has been waiting for. Or maybe it’s more subtle: you curse at the guy who cut you off in traffic, and then you think about how you’re supposed to feel in that moment (as a compassionate Buddhist), and you feel like a failure, so now you’re cursing the driver and yourself.
Most of the tips for dealing with burnout are just tips for remembering to do things that make us feel well. Get sleep, try to exercise a little, get away from your screens and the alerts and the checklists for a minute. It isn’t easy, and for some it may feel almost impossible, but it’s also common sense. Do the things that support you.
And that’s the point: practice, in whatever form that takes for you, is there to support you. It’s there to be one of those things that you lean on or draw upon or turn to when everything else feels like too much. Meditation isn’t there to measure you or judge you; the same goes for your community (if it’s a healthy one). However long you’ve been practicing, whatever you’ve been practicing, you’ve been practicing for this—for this moment, for this set of challenges.
If you’re feeling separated from practice—there’s an antagonism there, or maybe you feel like you’re on the outside looking in—trust yourself. Trust what you know, and notice what you need. The path is always right in front of you. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, or not walking it fast enough. Instead, take off your shoes and feel it beneath your feet. Let yourself enjoy it. That’s the first step.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.