what the buddha learned about burnout

Karen Armstrong (2001) and Wallis (2007) point out that Siddhartha’s story is very relevant to the struggles of 21st century society as both external and internal representations of current challenges.  Wallis (2007) in particular places the reader of the Buddha’s journey in the position of observer and practitioner of his teachings, not being seduced by the flamboyant language yet open to the potential of transformation.  Just as the man who would become Buddha was confronted with the inequities of his society and the common fate he shared with every human, we too are challenged by the glimpses of incongruence in our lives be it at work, in the home, or in our personal realm.  The clash of values experienced by Siddhartha parallels the value conflict individuals experience when they encounter the incongruence between their organization’s stated mission and its actions or attitudes.  Nakamura (2000) describes the moment of disillusionment and arising distaste in Siddhartha for the life he had; he suggests that the vivid detail of the texts is strong argument for an actual occurrence underlying the legend of renunciation.

Obsessed by the disparity between his beliefs and the reality of life, Siddhartha is said to have become despondent and emotionally numb.  Unable to love his wife and son, unable to take part in the things that once gave him pleasure, at the age of 29 years he resolved to leave behind his royal life to seek the truth of human existence.  However, his decision to leave behind family and privilege may not have been unusual or solely motivated to seek a spiritual path.  Both Armstrong (2001) and Nakamura (2000) point out that the social climate of the times were challenging.  Political upheaval and societal change were harbingers of the eventual destruction of kingdoms and traditional values.

In the face of this erosion of power and culture, Siddhartha stepped into a growing movement against clannish warfare and exploitation.  Although Nakamura (2000) states that he chose to engage in a greater good by deciding to forego his life of privilege and take up the robes of a mendicant, it is difficult to say whether he set out to transform the world and later scriptures suggest altruism was not likely his motivation or intention.  Whatever the rationale, his decision reflects the difficult choice between maintaining the status quo through a wilful blindness to reality and cultivating a willingness to bear witness to the truth of life as it is.  In the context of resolving a values conflict, his decision to seek a deeper truth points to engagement in and not withdrawal from life as the potential resolution to the imbalance.

After many years of practice, Siddhartha, now referred to as Gotama, began to understand the truth he sought was as inaccessible through severe ascetic practices as they had been through a hedonistic lifestyle.  In fact, the process of denying the fundamental reality of nourishing the body was an obstacle to calming the mind and seeing into phenomena with clarity (Hanh, 1991).  Continuing the theme of facing incongruent values, Gotama recognized that living by the values of his rigidly ascetic community had lead to his weakened state; in a moment of physical exhaustion, he accepted nourishment from a young woman and incurred the censure of his ascetic community.  Nevertheless, gaining strength, he resolved to attain deep insight to the truth of living life in balance and sat in meditation until he achieved the realization that he and all beings are already enlightened to the truth of the world (Lopez, 2001; MN 36:12 in Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2005).

He became a Buddha, one who is awake.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©

5 thoughts on “what the buddha learned about burnout

  1. “In the context of resolving a values conflict, his decision to seek a deeper truth points to engagement in and not withdrawal from life as the potential resolution to the imbalance.”

    This comment really hits home with me — as it’s always been my natural, unmindful tendency to withdraw rather than engage with <<<>>>. I am so grateful for the Buddha’s example of how to achieve balance & peace.

      • That sense of yo-yoing is EXACTLY how I’ve felt much of my life!! wow ……… insight ………. Thanks for this great exposition on ‘burnout’. good work, you!

  2. this is so interesting! I’m hearing that in any aspect of our lives when we experience distance or disparity where there should be coherence or unity we can experience burnout if it goes on, unresolved for any length of time? It makes me wonder how much of illness and general malaise is the result of this disparity.

    • That’s it in a nutshell. There’s a load of stuff on the impact of prolonged stress on immune function. The other interesting thing is that the biomarkers for burnout are different from those for depression. i.e., different brain chemical systems are involved. All of which to say, imbalance is far more subtle than we think yet has massive effects on our physiology.

      There’s an interesting experiment I ask my patients to do. Pick up a glass of water. Easy, right? Now take that and hold it straight out and see how long you can keep it there.

      That’s how the burnout out process works.

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