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Burnout: Is It Really a Problem?
By Sarah Brooks
More than 40 people from 17 countries came together in late October for the FPMT Foundation Service Seminar, organized by FPMT Education Services and hosted by Jamyang Buddhist Centre London. The gathering drew together a wide array of dedicated FPMT staff for five full days of service learning sessions on skillfully offering service within the FPMT mandala. About 20 people stayed for an additional three days of sessions as part of a program to become qualified to facilitate the seminar in their home center, country or region. Sarah Brooks, spiritual program coordinator (SPC) at Kadampa Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, US, attended the seminar and shares some ideas and remedies for burnout that were discussed there.
When we started discussing antidotes for burnout at the Foundation Service Seminar, Ven. Robina Courtin asked the group if this was really an issue for us. All around the room hands went up with voices chanting, “Yes!” There was wide agreement that we struggle with it in our service at our Dharma centers and projects, and see other volunteers and staff struggle as well.
As SPC at Kadampa Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, US, I had faced this exhausted feeling for months before the seminar, and was seeing eight days of training as a vacation – that’s how much I needed to get away for a while! Our center has experienced strong growth in attendance and programs, particularly over the past year (which is fantastic!), but our resources and staff are not growing as quickly. The result has been an undercurrent of burnout running throughout our staff and key volunteers, who were already overstretched.
From what I’ve seen and heard, this is common across the FPMT; we are inspired by Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s huge bodhichitta and never-give-up attitude, on top of which, the needs of sentient beings are countless. When my self-pity kicks in, I start wondering how I can possibly keep up. I have felt like I can never give or offer enough, yet out of dedication, I keep pushing to do more. At times I become overwhelmed, feeling like there’s no more to give. When am I going to sprout a thousand arms?! When I have felt as if I can’t possibly do one more thing on top of everything else, I have sometimes thought that maybe quitting would be the only way to feel sane again.
But thankfully, I learned, there are things we can do that help. The seminar presentations and the discussions sparked by them provided very useful tools for dealing with burnout. The following slogans give some examples of what I found helpful.
It’s not all about me.
So much of the expectation to do more, to do it better, to try to be perfect, is just my own concern about reputation. The more I attach my identity to my work, the more the pressure increases. In the past, Geshe Gelek Chodha (our resident teacher) noticed this and reminded me that as long as we are in samsara, nothing will be perfect. Expect problems. Also, remember emptiness of self – work on that realization.
Did I mention reputation?
There are expectations and criticisms from other people as well – that I should do more, do it better – and as an SPC, my practice should be so good I should be able to handle whatever comes my way. Right? When I’m concerned about reputation, these things weigh heavily on my mind.
Just practice Dharma.
This is a well-meaning phrase that can sometimes really rub the wrong way! I am practicing, which is why I’m not yet perfect. If I was perfect, I’d be a buddha. I will have my bad days, say the wrong thing, people will be angry at me, and more. I have to remember the four opponent powers and do purification instead of beating myself up for making mistakes or making problems worse instead of better.
It’s all about others – really.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche says the path to true happiness is cherishing others. The more I focus on what the person in front of me needs, the less I am caught up in selfish concerns and pity. If I am feeling frustrated, I need to check my motivation, because I’ve probably lost any sense of benefiting others.
Delegate well and let go.
Delegating is a skill. I have to try to match people with roles they are able to learn and do, give them clear instructions and be organized. I have to check in, correct mistakes skillfully and give lots of thanks. I rarely get all the parts right. And then I have to be flexible when people do things differently than what I expected and be OK when things fall through the cracks (that reputation worry again). Otherwise, I get caught in the mindset that I can’t trust anyone to get the job done, and I have to do it all myself.
I am not alone.
It’s easy to feel isolated when holding a lot of responsibility, and I often don’t want to talk about problems within my community out of fear of gossip or disharmony. The seminar gave me a chance to interact with peers and mentors who have similar issues but new ideas and approaches, and certainly empathy. I feel like I could reach out to any of them as new issues come up as a way to safely explore options and ideas. Suddenly my support network just got global!
It can be really easy to lose the big picture and get so focused on an issue that it becomes like Mount Everest. Thinking about the long-term goal can help shrink the mountain down to a speed bump.
If I really knew how to practice tantra, I’d maybe develop the view of my center or project as Rinpoche’s pure land filled with deities, and generate myself as an enlightened being and be filled with wisdom and bliss. I’d visualize how it would all fall into place, and how to help make it happen. If I did this every morning with confidence, I might not get worn out.
Rest and retreat.
Part of joyful effort is knowing when to rest. I have to set boundaries and say when I need a couple of days off email, a weekend off, or a month retreat. It’s not a fault to need a break.
If I truly had faith in the merit I am creating serving Rinpoche, I would be over the moon! I would be thrilled every day to do service and happily face obstacles.
Both the facilitators of the seminar in London and the talented and dedicated people participating in it gave insightful advice. I found that after reflecting on these ideas, I felt refreshed and inspired to come back to work. The advice shared, the discussions had and meditations done at the seminar helped all of us with new ideas and insights and created the environment to develop our support network with each other. And, in my case, all that I learned will return with me to Kadampa Center, where it will help the staff and volunteers there learn from and work with some very good growing pains.
You can read more coverage of the Foundation Service Seminar in the print issue of Mandala January-March 2014.
Learn more about the seminars developed by FPMT Education Services online. The next Foundation Service Seminar is scheduled for August 12-16, 2014, at Institut Vajra Yogini in France.
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To put an end to our samsaric suffering, we must do two things: One is to purify the negative actions we’ve done every day of our lives and in our infinite previous lives as well. We also have to change our minds and actions and abstain from creating further negativities.
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