…and finally, coming home

To reunite ourselves with our soul, to engage fully in our lives beyond the boundaries of work-and-life, we must cultivate three ways of being and they are aligned with the three clusters of the Eightfold Path: Ethics, Mindfulness, and Wisdom.  The first is trust in our values, our Ethics.  When we bring ourselves into alignment with our aspirations, we detach from needing specific outcomes to define our worth or fire our passion.  Breath and body are united; soul animates self and is one with it.  We are in constant conversation with ourselves about our intentions and whether we are falling out of alignment with our aspirations. In the life crisis that appears to be generated from our work environment, we have that opportunity to step back and re-unite with our breath, with our wholeness, to look beyond the dualistic view of work and the rest of our life.  We train ourselves to trust our values and the way in which they manifest as actions.

Second, we cultivate Mindfulness or awareness in the system we are embedded.  Whyte (2001) states that our purpose is to become the captain of our own ship, to cultivate captaincy that is not hinged on any specific person or circumstance for safety and fulfillment.  We must become sensitive to the nuances of change in our environment and respond with only what is necessary.  As Whyte describes, we must from the edge of our experience be able to see deep into the interior to know what is being asked of us and for us.  The art of applying the correct dose to a situation requires clarity of vision and a compassionate hand.  We must become wise to systemic nature of our lives and thereby avoid becoming absorbed into the system itself.

Finally, we nurture our Wisdom by opening to our experience, by setting out on seamless new adventures wholeheartedly.  Work, career, titles, and functionality no longer define our identity.  Home and personal life are no longer defended castles but part of the entire seascape in which we navigate, come to shore, and set out again.  We disengage from producing objects and outcomes in favour of productivity in relationships. Our journey within which we enact our values and the fruits of our compassionate attention becomes the means by which we live our aspirations.  We live in alignment with who we are independent of whatever label we carry or space we occupy.  Leaving behind the concept of work-and-life, we are free to engage fully in life’s work.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

striking at the heart

The shift in the story of Sen-jo and her soul, the unexpected strike at the heart of our assumptions, is the revelation that the split is not what we anticipated; it is not about resolving Sen-jo’s separation from her parents. Sen-jo has been her bedroom all these years since her loved one left. Within the culture, Sen-jo’s actions would have been an affront to the community, perhaps even bringing shame on her parents. The metaphysical analysis aside, the revelation of two Sen-jo’s is important in moving us into examining the dualistic view we have of our roles.

First, we see our suffering as different and separate from the other when it is intertwined. Despite her parents’ right to disown her, they appear to have kept her safe and nourished in their home. The suffering of Sen-jo in her exile has been shared by parents who lived with their emotionally inaccessible daughter. Regardless of the parents’ own conflict between seeing their daughter happy and following their cultural imperative, they have responded with what appears to be compassion. Reunited, Sen-jo and her parents experience Interbeing (Hanh, 1998b); they have an interconnected experience of feeling out of alignment with their aspirations as parents and child.

Second, the appearance of two Sen-jo’s shifts our own perspective; we see differently how deep suffering divides us against ourselves. Sen-jo who left to marry is incomplete without Sen-jo who embodies commitment. Sen-jo who is unable rise from her bed is incomplete without Sen-jo who embodies passion. Although the traditional question asks which the real Sen-jo is, the koan provides the answer before the question was born. Sen-jo and her soul are separated. The Greek word for soul is pneuma or breath. Sen-jo and her breath are separated; the vitality that animates her is no longer there.

The question of whether the Sen-jo who left or the one who remained behind is the real one is, in fact, irrelevant; the paradox is artificial and designed to create discomfort. Neither is animated by their passion and dedication; neither is aligned with their aspirations. Sen-jo and her soul are not separate; in fact, they have never been so (Shibayama, 2000). What had transpired was Sen-jo’s abrogation of her awareness of her true nature. She surrendered her self-stewardship. In a single breath, she had the possibility of becoming whole, of re-claiming her birthright of self-realization. With that we strike at the heart of this koan in our life.

….The heart of the koan is the revelation of boundlessness.  It is in how we sew together the patches of our work and personal lives.  Conventionally, when dealing with issues of burnout, the individual is encouraged to set boundaries, develop assertiveness, learn how to do what is required without becoming caught in the politics and drama of the organization.  These strategies are designed to conserve our role, our territory, and our power.  Although necessary and useful, especially in abusive situations, we remain at the level of rules and protocols of work-related distress.  When we focus on the literal nature of what we do and identify ourselves by these criteria, we risk falling into a separated state, isolating one aspect of our way of being from another.  Defined by the organization or by a narrow vision of who we are, we are held in the thrall of values and expectations that are not always congruent with who we are or want to be.  As we see in the story of Sen-jo and in Maslach’s concept of burnout (Maslach, 1982/2003), choices and questions that are formulated as dualistic ignore the boundless and seamless nature of how we relate to self, family and colleagues, home and work environment, and what represents the transcendental to us.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

something left behind


The koan of Senjo and her soul being separated (Mumokan, case #35) describes and explores the paradox of living our passion and meeting our obligations.  The story of Sen-jo and her soul is a Chinese folk tale (Aitken, 1991; Shibayama, 2000) about a young woman who decides to leave her parents and an arranged marriage in order to be with the man she loves.  Stricken with homesickness and guilt, she and her husband return only to find her parents confused when she claims to be their daughter.  As far as they know, Sen-jo has been in their home all these years, lying in her bed unable to engage with her filial duties or her life.  Which is the real Sen-jo?

The question posed by Zen teachers of their students is not about re-uniting her with her soul but an inquiry into which is the real Senjo, an issue of dualistic identity (Arnold, 2004).  Inherent in the question is the implication that the split is real and that resolving the conundrum requires determining what is real.   This overlooks the story material that wraps around the koan and it fails to appreciate that the paradox in the story is imposed by our own separation from reality (Hori, 2006; R. Sasaki quoted in Loori, 2006).  Current interventions to resolve the suffering of burnout continue to seek resolution without recognizing that the dualism between work and personal lives is an illusion, albeit a sometimes inspirational illusion.  The real question therefore is not which is real Senjo but rather how does Senjo’s work become a pilgrimage of identity (Whyte, 2001) so she can exist fully and in alignment with each of her roles.

….Conventionally, work and personal lives are viewed as separate and much energy is expended holding the boundaries between them. When difficulties arise in one domain, we are expected to keep the emotional turmoil from interfering with our performance in the other.  When conflicting schedule or expectations arise, our choices of home over work or vice versa can bring on criticism, often regardless of which we choose.  The koan of Sen-jo and her soul being separated offers insight to this putative divide between the two realms.  A literal reading of the narrative describes Sen-jo as unable to sustain the inconsistency between two values: her love for her parents and her love for her beloved.  She runs away with her beloved and creates a life for herself.  In current societal terms, this is appropriate individuation and establishment of one’s identity (albeit somewhat unskillful).  However, in cultural terms, the cost is the abandonment of a different set of values: honour her parents, enter a marriage that would bring support and care for herself and her parents.  To stay would mean being caught in a set of values that are not in alignment with her desire or passion for her own way of life and choice of life partner.  To leave would be to defy the rules of family and community, to violate expectations of her as daughter, wife, and future mother.

She is caught at the extremes of avoiding evil and doing good, aware that her actions have deep consequences for herself and her family.  It also exposes her internal values conflict and is metaphoric of choices we make when confronted by two apparently irreconcilable systems of belief.  We try to leave one behind while pursuing another, believing the two to be easily dismembered.  And, the denouement of the story suggests that is not possible, that there is a larger, deeper, and very different reality.  While we may believe we have walked away with all that is essential to us, there is something left behind.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

perfect offerings

You know that eternally beautiful song Anthem by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I don’t remember when the light began to get in.  It might have started when I realized there was no one who could save me.  Except me.  Over the years, my life became privileged: a loving spouse, a beautiful daughter, an amazing career, a home, friends (two-legged and four).  And still, the split endured keeping me from truly connecting with what was right there in front of me.  Until one day.

The horses we had were housed in a barn on the edge of a stream.  It was early Spring and the snow melt had begun.  Walking back from the barn, I felt my body stopped by an unfamiliar sound.  It took a moment before I realized it was the sound of the stream rushing through the culvert in the small ravine.  I’d walked that path every morning for ten Spring seasons and never heard it.  Slowly I looked around as if I’d come to this place for the first time in my life.  And, in effect, I had.  Everything seemed brilliant in the sunlight – the snow, the sky, the pine and spruce trees.  I slid down the slope to the stream which was wild with enthusiasm for the renewed life it had, released from the clutches of ice and cold.  Sinking into the snow and mud, I knew no one could hear this stream except me.  No one could see the sky or the trees except me.  No one could feel the chill soaking wet of the ground except me.  And I could not give this perfect moment to anyone – no matter how badly I believed it would  help them.

The crack through which the light entered was the sincere desire to prevent suffering.  Over the years, when life did not fit my belief that doing good had good outcomes (that’s the “Just World” hypothesis we tend to hold), I modified my experience so that the belief held.  Good didn’t happen for others because I wasn’t good (read: worthy) enough which only caused me to ramp up the intensity with which I tried to “do” good.  Community was also important so I fell into sangha-building as yet another means of “doing” good.  The disasters accumulated and the slope became more slippery than that Spring slide down to the stream as the perfect offerings became warped and unrecognizable.  As did I.

I had to “die” in those waking moments I mentioned yesterday, to die to these perfect offerings.  The reality of perfection is that it is never about beauty or love but rather about fear.  And only when I allowed myself to be consumed by the wolves of fear was it possible to fully experience my life.  Unfiltered.  Raw.  Broken open.

I wrote to my coach about a lovely experience this is currently unfolding in my life:  If we die in every moment, then I have died happy for several in this day.  That, in all its simplicity, is life.

the split that isn’t

For as long as I could remember there were two things that defined my waking moments.  The first was a disappointment that I had.  Life was intense and filled with drama much of which orbited around my parents’ adjustment to Canada.  The result was a home filled with arguments, recriminations, and unrelenting themes of powerlessness folded in with the normal stuff of being a family.  We laughed, cried, played, yelled, teased, ranted, proclaimed, and blamed.  It seemed normal but the growing hole inside me said differently.  And it was the suffocating silence from this empty space that gave rise to the disappointment each morning of having to deal with another day, another futile attempt to sew together the split between one culture and the other, one parent and the other, one way of life and another.

Very few people who show up in my office describing being burned out have had an unremarkable childhood.  Somewhere in the lineage of their experiences, there has been some form of trying and trying to adapt.  And often we do.  We find ways to meet the demands and find the resources to navigate around the obstacles.  And just as often, it takes decades of doing this before the demands outstrip the resources and we crash.  But not before we lose the wholeness of our life.

The second thing that defined my waking moments was that growing hole inside me.  There was a scene in the movie “Death Becomes Her” where the character gets shot but instead of dying she has a huge hole in the middle of her body.  The humour aside, it summed up my daily experience of “self.”  It felt as though all the efforts to be what was needed in the moment (which is different from discerning what is needed) had slowly eroded away the core of my being.  I’d say it was a teenage angst but it lasted well into adulthood and was resilient to most forms of therapy.  In fact, I think I scared off a few therapists unwittingly by talking about it.

At some point I learned that I had to safeguard who I (somehow) knew I was and who everyone else needed me to be.  In the early stages, I understood that this was just a strategy to keep the external forces from becoming chaotic.  But, just as children forget about magic, I forgot.  The two worlds seemed very separate, even disparate, and in my mind that was reality.  I served in one and tried my best to recuperate in the other.  My passions for photography, art, and writing became secret arts I practiced in the dark.  My love of reading “heady” books became something I hid between Gothic Romances and historical fiction (read: bodice rippers poorly disguised as history).

Mostly, I came to believe that there were two of me: the one who performed and one who loved.  And that split was the most dangerous of all.

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©

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©