Burnout to dharma bum: Lessons from a year living in a Buddhist monastery
It’s 4 a.m. I can feel my heart beating and my whole body tensing up. Although I’m lying in bed, it feels like my body is floating some imperceptible distance above the warmth and comfort of the mattress. My mind spins like a fairground ride, falling into mental wormholes of anxiety and obsession, lost in a mental maze of fantasies and yearnings about the working day ahead.
I’m jacked up on cortisol, the stress hormone, and I won’t get much respite before daylight breaks out around 7 a.m. By then, I will be exhausted from the obsessive rumination and will be thankful for the relief of sleep for another two or three hours. Arriving at work later in the morning, I will have neither the enthusiasm nor the energy to make real any of the crazed plans my delirious imagination threw at me in the middle of the night.
I need to put my mental health first and I need to take a radical step to change my situation.
It’s 2014 and I am living and working in Germany, coming to the apex of what I will later describe as a burnout. The causes are numerous: lack of support, isolation, an unhealthy obsession with achievement and perfection, and two romantic catastrophes in quick succession. I have considered asking my boss if I can work part-time, but I increasingly realise that that won’t be enough. The wormholes of obsession are becoming part of my waking life too, and are beginning to manifest as periodic episodes of debilitating pain and nausea. I need to put my mental health first and I need to take a radical step to change my situation.
For several years, I have been meditating, going to retreats and facilitating groups with Wake Up, the youth arm of the Buddhist movement led by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Zen Master, poet and activist. The home of this movement is Plum Village, a small cluster of “hamlets” in the Dordogne in southern France, which falls somewhere in the blurred boundary between a traditional Buddhist monastery, a retreat centre, and an intentional mindfulness community.
The decision has already been made — if now isn’t a good time to go to a Buddhist monastery, then I don’t know when is! I write my letter of resignation.
1. Change the world: Be lazy, be kind
During my time at Plum Village and in the years since then, I have been absorbing some valuable lessons. The first is to do with effort and fulfilment. At school we all learn that to get where you want to be in life, to be successful, you have to work hard, right? Wrong.
“ Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want? Do I really want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy? If you want success, you may sacrifice your happiness for it. You can become a victim of success, but you can never become a victim of happiness.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
I have been practising the art of how to strive and how to achieve my whole life, excelling at school and university, putting in weekends at work, and never settling for less than perfection. Compared with this world of hype and ambition, Plum Village feels like a bit of a let down. There’s not much buzz of activity, no sense that this is the central hub of an Engaged Buddhist movement calling for a “collective awakening” that can transform society. People drift aimlessly around and sometimes stop for friendly chats or cups of tea together. How could anything world-changing ever come from somewhere so… lazy?
Despite the culture shock, during the first few weeks of my time at Plum Village, I am in a blissful haze, with abundant time and space to take care of myself and touch a clearer sense of freedom than I have felt in a long while. Although the honeymoon doesn’t last, this is an experience and a way of living that I return to again and again as I settle into life there.
All of the normal complications of life are stripped away — no job, no rent, no internet, and, for much of the time, no women either. At some level, there is no choice either — everyone in the community is expected to follow a shared schedule of mindfulness practice. The encouragement is to enjoy the daily activities of mindful sitting, walking, eating, and working. The spirit is of ease and simplicity, dropping the complication of striving and touching the joy of a body and mind which easefully, lazily breathe and walk all of their own accord. Easy to say, not always so easy to do.
It all comes back to living moments that are worth living, right now. We know how to do the rat race, and we know how to get hyped about the next iPhone, the next Netflix series, the next weekend that’s coming. But looked at plainly, life is nothing but an unending stream of now. If we can’t be happy now, then when will we be? Mindfulness practice is the art of having enough now, being enough now, living now. The wider culture we live in is often trying to pull us towards the pursuit of a future happiness — that career, that person, that money, that fame which will finally “do it” for us — but they never do quite “do it”, do they? Luckily, noone can ever take from us the potential for happiness and freedom we have right here, right now. It is up to us to find a lifestyle and friends that can support us in learning how to touch that more often.
2. In habits we make our home, but meanwhile the world outside beckons
Being in a monastery is a bit like being stuck in the infinite time loop of Groundhog Day, that 90s gem of a movie (starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell). For those who haven’t seen it (watch it now), it’s a spiritually-tinged rom com about a reporter dispatched to a small nowhere-special town, who is condemned to live the same day over and over again. At first, he’s infuriated by it all, but in the end he understands the potential of his situation and learns to change himself, help the people around him, and win the heart of his dream lady.
Well, a monastery is like that, minus the lady (or man, depending on your taste), and minus the groundhog (though there’s no shortage of resident rodents). The daily, repetitive schedule of mindfulness practice functions like a mirror, reflecting back to you all the habitual ways in which you think, act and speak. Because the schedule is so repetitive, there’s less recourse to many of the usual stories and dramas about how you feel this way because of what he or she said, or because of that weird thing that happened. Instead, you begin to see how you make your world from the raw materials of experience, and how you retell yourself your own favourite stories and play the same games again and again and again… in short, you re-live your beloved habits.
There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Strangely, it also works the other way, as for dear old Bill in the movie. Sometimes, the events of the day seem identical — same breakfast, same activities, same place, same teachings — but everything is magically different. Life glides through freely and flowers stop to wink at you from amidst the grasses. People who were invisible or uninteresting to you, suddenly become alive, fascinating, real. We all have these experiences on a good day, but the space and gentle pace of the monastery give more opportunities to understand why. For me, it was often that I had surrendered to the unfolding and to the unknowing of the day. And in the pregnant space of unknowing, life rushed in gladly.
Often habits are the gatekeepers and the rowdy, chattering guests who refuse to leave this space, carrying us off again and gain on old, tired digressions and keeping out the new. Thanks to habits, we are not floating in a sea of unknowingness all the time. But to practice mindfulness is to cultivate our ability to take a delightful bathe there whenever we want, to let doors open and allow new possibilities to arise in our lives. From there, we can begin to make more conscious choices about which habits we take as bedfellows, and which we decide to leave outside.
3. I’m not really here most of the time
For anyone who has practiced mindfulness, it quickly becomes apparent how good we are at evading our direct experience and how little of our time we actually spend here. In times when mindfulness has an opportunity to grow and develop some stability, we begin to have experiences of actually encountering life.
“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
For me, some of the occasions of encounter which I remember the best are in situations that would otherwise be unremarkable. Passing a beautiful tree standing in a courtyard, I become captivated by the unfathomable depth of its expression. The more I look, the more I find. I am tumbling, swimming into a magical unfolding of this living relationship between me and the tree. Played out across its branches, leaves, buds and flowers, I see the tree expressing the dance of its perpetual movement. I see how this tree is inextricably connected with the place in which it has grown — its form and self-expression mirror the influences it has received from sunshine, rain, earth and shelter. On a normal day, the tree might register in my thoughts for a split-second, before being deemed “uninteresting”; with stable mindfulness, I am really here to “fall into” an encounter with the tree, and it is profoundly beautiful.
Another experience comes eating food in silence with a group of fellow retreatants. All of a sudden, I am struck by the ineffable wonder of the fact that we are here together as humans, enjoying this simple and necessary act of eating. I have taken but a few morsels into my mouth, but I have hardly felt so full in my whole life. My heart expands in deep satisfaction and gratitude for our being alive, being supported and nourished by the food laid out in front of us. I have a deep appreciation, too, of the intimacy that being together in silence awakens in us. We’re stripped of all our stories, our names, our to-do lists, and in that nakedness our fundamental shared humanity shines through brilliantly.
Of course such “peak experiences” are but one small part of what mindfulness can show us (oftentimes it is more a mirror of our own moodiness, daydreams, or random babbling!). But such experiences do reveal clearly the potential for wonder when we are present to life, a wonder that is often far more rich and fulfilling than the “achieving of life goals” which society sells as being the basis of happiness. To practice mindfulness, then, is to become intimate, to encounter all moments, from the mundane to the magical. From this inclusive awareness the deeper aspects of the practice begin to flower — peace, contentment and a remarkable fullness of heart. But these are the fruits, not the path. The path, we must remember, is laid moment-by-moment in the willingness to turn up for both the highs and the lows of life with curiosity and care.
4. No monastery? No matter. Intention is what counts.
Living at a monastery is certainly the best way to shatter all your illusions about how perfect everything would be for your practice if you just had the time to meditate four times a day, regular teachings from monks, or more time to relax and take it easy. Of course, these things do help and that is exactly why monasteries exist. The rules and schedules by which monastics live have evolved over millennia to provide excellent conditions in which the practice can deepen and the beautiful qualities of presence and compassion can flower daily (but the truth is, these are often hard-won through challenging times).
Crucially, the North Star around which these good conditions constellate is that of intention. Even living in a monastery, where you are continually reminded, reoriented, and redirected towards mindfulness practice, complacency is all too seductive and easy. I certainly spent much of my time its enticing embrace, and I understand better now why that happened. Without a deeply rooted sense of intention, it is easy to waver from the path. As much in a monastery as anywhere else, “tomorrow” can often seem like a better time to practice than today! And tomorrow never quite arrives…
I remember one monastic recounting the steps which led to his decision to ordain. He was describing how he wasn’t completely sure if monasticism was the path for him, so he went to the Zen Master to pose the question, “How certain to do I need to be in order to pursue the life ofa monastic?” The answer came swiftly, “You need to be 110% sure!” This was not the answer that the young would-be monastic was hoping for, for sure (fortunately, he ordained anyway). This makes it clear that a clear, strong intention is the very bedrock of a fruitful practice.
Since leaving the monastery, I have appreciated even more deeply how vital a clear intention is to my practice. Intention is not just the sense of motivation itself, it is also the answer to why we even practice in the first place. For each individual this is different, emerging organically from their culture, their life history, their vision of what is most beautiful. Clarifying our intention and keeping it alive day-by-by is an ongoing process of exploring in our heart our responses to questions such as, “What do I feel is the deepest gift I can offer myself and the world? What can I nourish that can best support me and the world through hard times and good times?” These are just some questions that speak to me, so you may discover other questions which speak more deeply to you.
Our intention to practice might be a tiny flame or it might be a raging inferno. Either way it can only survive with fuel and with careful tending; left alone, it is likely to die out. That is ultimately the deepest role of the monastery — to keep the fire of deep intention alive. It is a sheltered space in which there is ample opportunity to receive and offer support amongst a community united in a common intention. But it is up to each individual to clarify in their own heart a deep sense of what that intention is all about. So although not all of us live in a monastery, we are all engaged in the same sacred task of keeping our deepest intentions alive and burning, tending to them daily with the support of friends, family and community.
Three years on since I left Plum Village, and I am still receiving lessons from my time there. The burnout is far behind me, but its echo lives on, reminding me to be careful when I work and to let go of unhealthy obsessions. So I offer these lessons as reminders as much to myself as to you, in the hope that we all can keep our deepest and most beautiful intentions alive, and learn how to live with more ease, presence, and freedom, wherever we find ourselves.