what the buddha taught about burnout

The Buddha’s story as burnout and recovery

          The story of Buddhism is at once the story of an individual’s lived experience of his spiritual unfolding and the larger unfolding of a paradigm shift in conceptualizing suffering and its transformation (Suzuki, 1996).  For the purpose of this thesis, the unfolding of the Buddha’s life serves as an exemplar of experiencing and transforming value conflict, the trigger for burnout symptoms. Twenty-six hundred years ago, Gotama, also referred to as Sakyamuni (Humphreys, 1987; Nakamura, 2000), is believed to have lived and taught on the existence, cause, cessation, and transformation of suffering (dukkha).

Given the name Siddhartha, his coming into being was a paradox of loss and gain. His mother died giving him life and, at his naming ceremony, the Brahmins declared him to be one who had achieved the spiritual purpose of all beings (Nakamura, 2000).  They prophesied that if he stayed in a secular life, he would become a great monarch; but if he renounced the world, he would become a Buddha – one who will remove the veil of delusion.  Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father and ruler of the kingdom of Sakka, having no wish to lose his heir to a life of a recluse, asked what would lead to his son’s renunciation; he was told that Siddhartha would see four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate.  In an attempt to prevent this loss, Suddhodana ordered that all such persons be kept from the sight of the young prince.  Although more legend than fact, this story of the future Buddha’s developmental years is an exemplar of way in which reality can be constructed for an individual and how it subtly creates a resistance to change.  Old age, illness, death, and the need to release ourselves from all forms of bondage become natural transitions we deny and life is lived as if youth, well being, mortality and possessions are eternal.

Siddhartha, growing up in his father’s kingdom, was sheltered from these realities and groomed for a life of statesmanship and power.  In his position of heir, he would have been trained in the craft of caring for the people in his kingdom although distanced and disconnected from them.  Politically and culturally, it is likely that Suddhodana and Siddhartha ruled not as protectors of their citizens but as protectors of the land and commodities they possessed (Armstrong, 2001) against the neighbouring kingdoms.  In that sense, their world would not have been very different from that of a corporation whose mission is to provide care to those in their jurisdiction but whose actions may not account for the human face of the organization.  However, Siddhartha inevitably encountered the human face of his kingdom in the form of an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate (Lopez, 2001).  The cocoon constructed by his father fostered a hedonistic lifestyle and it is likely this lifestyle cultivated a set of values removed from the attitudes and struggle of the ordinary person (Wallis, 2007).  Unable to reconcile his life of protected splendour with the harsh truths of aging, illness, and death, Siddhartha found his worldview challenged.  As his realization deepened he understood that despite his privilege, he was not immune to the way life unfolds; he and all beings suffer the same fate (AN 3:35, I 138-40 in Bodhi, 2005; Nakamura, 2000).

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©

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