more lessons from chaplaincy training – being failure

This cartoon was making the rounds on Facebook and it would be really, really funny if it wasn’t so true.  So, it’s only really funny.  In the pre-ordination council, I shared that the most valuable lesson I take away from Chaplaincy is the experience of finally knowing what it felt like to be a failure.  I meant – and mean – it sincerely but not as any form of drama or elicitation of sympathy.  What I would hope is hearing that stirs a sense of empathy – a resonance with that feeling of failing.  OK, the shrink in me is beginning to quibble with the structure of the words: Oh, she says, you’re not a failure; you may feel like one but your feelings don’t define your being!

I don’t like my inner shrink.  She’s annoying and often fails (Hah!  Take that!) to let me feel that thing that lies just beyond the words.  It felt like being a failure because I was failing.  I’ve always held that there’s nothing wrong with experiencing one’s failing, failings, or failures.  Drop into it, shower in it, relish it, and most of all, respect it.  And this is particularly important while going through a process because after you emerge from journey, that experience will be instantaneously reframed.

The most powerful lesson I learned from Chaplaincy is the myriad ways one can drift from the plotted course.  Whether that course is in realizing a dream, fostering a type of relationship, accomplishing a task, or just plain showing up day after day committed to just showing up – failing lies soft and rounded at our feet like our shadow when the light is just over the shoulder.  We drift from that course set in our fantasies of the life we want, the life we feel entitled to simply because our dramatic narratives seem so noble.  And we agonize about what causes us to drift from our values, our ideals, our path.  We think if we only did not suffer so, we might hold more true to the course.

We don’t drift because of our suffering; that drift is our suffering.  Without it, we would lie stagnant with no means of determining where we are.  There would be no practice of returning to the source, tracking and re-setting our course.  No reason to search, to seek, to sit.

That makes the cartoon funny, really funny at so many levels, doesn’t it?  Failure is inexorable, inescapable, and irrevocable.

Aren’t we lucky!

making landfall

This pretty much sums up most of my experiences in life and Chaplaincy most of all.  You have to wonder why we ever set intentions when we head out on an adventure.  Or perhaps the very definition of “adventure” precludes the setting of anything but one’s compass.  In the aftermath of Chaplaincy ordination, I find myself wondering what the heck I was thinking of when I got caught up in the excitement of yet one more “little (two-year) project.”  It seemed harmless at the time; one could almost see the ad.


Intrepid adventurers for two-year voyage in
not knowing

Must be able to withstand long periods of submersion
and own a reliable compass

Organizers not responsible for any loss or letting go

Apply within

If I recall correctly, when I did apply (the popular myth is that I was conscripted), my own compass was quivering and spinning wildly.  I had little hope that anything would reset it and had resigned myself to living out a life of constant compromise.  Apparently encounters with large magnetic events will do that, derailing the intention of travel or throwing it off course.  Resisting the call, I said to roshi, “You don’t want someone in the program who is ethically challenged, do you?”

“You’re not, but who better?” she replied.

Over the course of these two years, I have come to discern between “my being ethically challenged” and “having my ethics challenged.”  Not a nuanced difference but in the fray, they are easily confused.  Sometimes, it’s not until the dust settles that I can determine whether I navigated through one or the other.  And here’s the real challenge: regardless of which it was, both will require a course correction.

The other day someone asked me how it felt now that it is over.  It’s not over, I replied.  It’s barely begun.  Someone else asked if I felt different.  Superficially, no.  But something seems to be roiling around in my gut and I’m quite sure it’s not that wicked flu everyone seems to have.  Another friend asked what the best part of all this has been.

Well, at 0830 the morning after I landed back in Ottawa, I attended a training for the Emergency Spiritual Care Assistance Team (ESCAT).  I’m one of the Buddhist faith leaders (what the heck does that mean!?) but now am a Buddhist Chaplain training to respond to natural and manufactured disasters.  I walked into the room at the hospital feeling jet lagged and worn anxious about meeting 20 Pastoral Care Volunteers and Chaplains for the first time.  There on the table was a cake and on it in lovely blue icing were the words:


The best part.  Not in the eating of the cake but in savouring the community who so generously celebrated my making landfall.

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©

the ta-da list

Burnout is marked by exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of personal ineffectiveness.  It arises when our values are out of sync with the place and people we work with.  It’s a vicious cycle: try to bring it all together and we get tired enough that the worth of the work comes into doubt.  Not only that, the people we serve become the target for our frustrations and disgruntlement.    Slowly, our confidence erodes and we don’t feel like showing up for fear that we will be discovered to be incompetent.  Dissonance in our internal value system can also feed into this depletion cycle.

Somewhere in my long, slow, sinking spiral, I began to see that the connection between what I set as my ideal experience and how I judged my lived experience was doing more damage than any Captain Bligh I could serve.  It was exhausting to wake up every morning to the same refrain of failure and inadequacy.  It was heart-numbing to bear the unending assaults of disappointment and recrimination for the slightest misstep.  It was terrifying to believe that all the years of training, practice, and dedication had not made me good at what I loved.

Caught in the thrall of my fear-fueled ego, it didn’t occur to me to check in with reality which told a different story.  That only came with unrelenting practice on the cushion; it gave me the Ta-Da List.  Not only was I learning to check off the icky, sticky treacle of the mind, I was also beginning to note the neutral and pleasant stuff.  I was learning to observe and study the whole landscape – the real nature of my life.  In truth, my ideal set point didn’t really drop a notch; I enjoyed (still) setting high standards for myself.  My actual experiences didn’t change much either; I got the work done, met demands and requests as best I could, and deadlines were met or not.  However, I did stop becoming harsh in my judgments of the differential between the ideal and actual states of my experience.  I learned that clutching to the ideals was what made me Captain Bligh; appealing only my lived experience was a flight into hedonism.  The path was to be navigated somewhere between the jagged cliff and the whirlpool.

One of the neat discoveries in the Chaplaincy thesis was the relationship between the three burnout factors and spiritual incongruence in the personal domain; the other domains are Community, Environment, and a Relationship with the Divine which were only related to personal ineffectiveness.  People who experienced high levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and belief of personal ineffectiveness also felt the greatest differential between their ideal and actual personal spiritual values.  They felt disconnected from joy, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and meaning.  They had high ideal scores on spiritual well-being and felt they moderately met these ideals.  And, the personal domain showed the greatest dissonance between their ideal and lived experience.

It makes for a good argument for self-compassion, doesn’t it?   But self-compassion is only indulgence without the fierce companionship of our values.  As long as I am willing to be dragged along in the wake of strong forces that are the trademark of organizations and internal cravings to be protected and cared for, I cannot stand true to my values.  And it is only by noticing the differential between my ideal and actual self that I can adapt to navigate the waters safely.

bisy – backson

September 17th was the second anniversary of 108 Zen Books and it closed with a quiet lowing of the transformed Ox.  I think Ox was quite happy to have its story told – although I’m sure it was sometimes unhappy, as Ox tend to be, with my renderings of its transformation.  108 Enso was quite the challenge too.  How hard could drawing a circle be! I told myself when I started.  Well, it certainly was and yet every enso reflected the moment – unfiltered and transparent.  

Thank you to all the faithful followers of the Ox and those of you who wrote back channel to share the pleasure you find in these convoluted missives on life, love, fallings, and failings.

But now.  Onto other pressing matters in my to-do list.  As you can see from the picture below, the art table has been conscripted for a more nefarious project.  The time has come for Walrus and Carpenter to set to digesting the minutiae of the (drum roll) Chaplaincy Thesis.  I hope to accomplish this without becoming a single case self-study of burnout – or would that be a non-self study?  I’ve set aside a day a week to write but have realized that the writing is not the problem.  It’s the “what-the-heck-do-I-write-and-how-the-heck-do-I-write-about-it” part that seems to be a sending my Ox-ish mind off into the reeds.

Interestingly, this will be a practice of beginner’s mind and not knowing.  Having written a couple of these tomes before, I find myself caught in the arrogance of pre-knowledge.  Don’t worry.  It won’t be long before I’m reduced to a weeping, sopping mess, filled with humility and convinced of my inadequacies.  Some of you may wish to start planning the celebrations for my ego downfall now.

That being said, I will have to limit, or better said, divert my love for 108 Zen Books over the next… Oh, let’s not start predicting and committing to relationships with time that can only bring us to misery.  I will send up these electronic smoke signals but not as frequently as I have in the last 730 days (of which – excluding weekends – I’ve only missed 4 or 5 or something ridiculous given my inattentive nature).  Perhaps you may even get a chance to vet some of my thesis thoughts so sharpen those slice and dice gadgets!

In the meantime, I offer you the moral lessons of Rabbit and Owl trying to decipher Christopher Robin’s budding writing skills when Rabbit delivers the note:



Owl breathes an enormous sigh of relief now that he actually knows what they are talking about, and explains to Rabbit that what has happened is that Christopher Robin has gone out with Backson. Rabbit asks what a Backson looks like, and Owl begins to explain about the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson, but then he realises that he doesn’t really know anything at all about the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson, and admits as much to Rabbit, who says thank you, and goes off to find Pooh. (from The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, p. 78)

Let’s hope this does not portend the fate of my thesis!


Thank you for practicing,



It’s good to be home.  We landed back in Ottawa last Tuesday night after driving along winding blue-line roads that blinding rain rendered sleek and sinuous.  It was a fitting close to 7 days of intense work with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) that took us from Fort Drum to Saranac Lake, NY.  After completing the first part of the trauma resiliency training last year, Frank and I were asked to join them for training in the coaching phase of TRI.   This brought us into a tight circle of highly competent people facing the challenge of how to deal with the psychological wounds of war as the US veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sad truth is that where we have never had enough well-trained, informed professionals who could deal with the aftermath of carnage, we now have even fewer with a much higher demand for them.  This is as true of the US as it is of Canada where the extent of our wounded not as overwhelming but the available services is proportionally just as meager.

In Fort Drum, we helped train military and local Chaplains in the skills of dealing with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  It was a fascinating experience at many levels, not the least of which was the tricky process of honouring religious beliefs about the origins of mental distress while teaching an approach that placed the physical/physiological nature of distress front and center.  Although all the Chaplains were Christian, this is a delicate balance I’ve run into with Buddhist teachers as well.

There is a deep part in us that wants to believe that if we simply believe, it will be enough to take away the suffering.  I would truly like to think that is true in all circumstances of suffering.  It would be lovely if 108 prostrations will take my mother out of her wheelchair and restore her ability for self-care.  If only 10, 000 Butsu chants fingered along a strand of mala beads would bring back lost loves, heal rifts, and back-fill ideological schisms.  What if 84, 000 doors all lead to one Truth: just believe and it will be well?

Although my faith in psychological interventions needs well-adjudicated data, my faith in my spiritual path really doesn’t.  And I wonder if I’m being judgemental to wish more people of the spiritual ilk knew that difference.  I’d like to say it’s because Buddhism is different but I’ve heard too many teachers say things about people returning from death’s door that make me cringe.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just jealous.

This stumbling towards nirvana is tough work.  And some days I miss those multiple prayers to St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) or St. Christopher (the patron saint of lost things – before he was de-sainted).  I think I will start a novena to Manjushri; I’m in need of someone to wisely wield a few swords. And for good measure, I’ll go practice a few moves myself!