Using The Four Noble Truths To Go From Feeling Burned Out To Blissed Out
In our success-driven culture, we can often end up on the fast lane to burnout. We forget to get our regularly scheduled oil check and we attempt to reach our goals with one foot on the brake and one on the gas. Of course, the “oil change” that I speak of here is self-care. You can literally burn out just like the engine. And just like many of us have a little plastic sticker on our windshields as a reminder to change our oil, we need some guideposts to replenish our spiritual thirst by taking a drink from the resource that is our inner-well. There can be serious health complications from living under constant stress and a great mental burden.
But feeling burned out is not something that is new to our modern culture. Great thinkers have been proselytizing about this since ancient times. But maybe the one historical figure who spoke to this human condition most was Siddhartha Gautama – also known as “The Buddha”. Buddhism reflects on a timeless inner conflict that is inherent to all living beings: the nature of suffering and impermanence. Buddha understood the constant stress and dissatisfaction in life regardless of era, and the energy that we expend on trying to rid ourselves of the un-rid-able. And since The Buddha has mapped the human plight so thoroughly he has also offered us a route back from feeling burned out and towards feeling blissed out.
SEE ALSO: 5 Ways To Start An Ayurvedic Lifestyle
What is burnout?
Physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
Ever so sadly, when we hear the mention of the term “burnout” we get a sense of what it means but what is the larger picture? Is feeling burned out a form of anxiety? Is it synonymous with depression? Or is it its own beast, entirely independent of anything else that we’ve seen before?
One thing is for sure: experts and sufferers alike can agree on the vague definition of feeling burned out as being a type of “job-related stress”. While elusive, we still seem to know what can cause it, its symptoms, and even the phases of it. The good news: where burnout and exhaustion are at all-time highs, we are lucky enough to have more tools at our fingertips to manage this stress now more than ever.
Maybe none so on-point and profound as the tools that have stemmed out of The Buddhas “Four Noble Truths”.
How burnout manifests
Burnout is not something that occurs overnight. We tend to go back and forth with it for a while until we make the plunge into its murky waters. Knowing this is helpful, since we can grab it by the horns before it takes us into deeper waters.
Burnout and exhaustion can manifest as:
- Loss of concentration: Under long periods of stress it is hard, if not impossible, for us to focus.
- Irritability: Short with, or snappy and impatient with clients and coworkers. This carries on outside of the workplace and into our homes and our social lives.
- Cynicism: Developing an over-critical, pessimistic outlook on things work-related and in general.
- Erratic sleep patterns: This could look like insomnia and lack of sleep. This may also look like sleeping too much whenever we can catch a break.
- Detachment: Feeling completely detached from one’s work, simply going about carelessly through the motions.
- Lack of accomplishment: Or productivity. And when accomplishments are had there is a lack of satisfaction from our achievements.
A pending burnout may be due to:
- An excessive workload: An overload of work would be enough to tire just about any of us. This can be OK periodically, as many of us experience this when we must get a particular job done. But prolonged excessive workloads eventually lead us towards burnout – as we tip the scales too far toward work and stress and away from rest, self-care, our hobbies, and our loved ones.
- A toxic workplace: Working around people who make us feel horrible, bog us down with their negativity, or working under unfair management, and not being recognized for our hard work can all chip away at us and symptoms may manifest in many ways that could lead us toward burnout.
- A work-life imbalance: Too much work, not enough rest and relaxation makes us all a bit exhausted. We need the happiness and joy that comes from the things that we love outside of the job for spiritual fuel.
- Lack of support: Social, spiritual, marital, and other supports. Job-related burnout is seen much more often in single people who don’t have anyone to share their life burdens with than people in partnerships who do. Those without a spiritual community, close friends, a counselor, or life coach to talk to may suffer more from the effects of burnout.
- Working in a helping profession: Those of us within the helping profession fields can experience what has been termed “compassion burnout”.
Differing from “compassion fatigue”; burnout is caused by being overworked and underpaid – spending lots of our energy while seeing little return. Also: not having enough time off, lacking resources, and support.
- Trying to please everybody: Or trying to fill too many roles at once. Not only is this impossible, but overwhelming in its attempt. This leads us to neglect our most important role: our relationship with ourselves.
- Monotony: We must remember, because sometimes our employers don’t do this for us — we are not machines! While monotony isn’t particularly stressful on its own, it does cause us to check out and to become detached. We lose our creative spark and our work no longer brings us satisfaction. The continuation of this – day after day – ultimately leads to stress and burnout.
Hint: we can always choose to remember that we do have control over our lives. That sometimes burnout is only serving to teach us something.
It could be a call to re-evaluate what we are doing and the direction that we are headed in. Or it could be that we are headed in the right direction, but we need to relax a little, loosen our grip, and let life unfold with faith and with trust. It could be a call to look after our health or our spiritual lives. And it could be a number of things.
Through the Buddhist teachings of The Four Noble Truths we are able to examine this further.
The First Noble Truth: Life is suffering
This may be quite a big bite to chew on. You can rest assured in knowing that the translation of “life is suffering” or “life involves suffering” may actually be incorrect. According to Buddhist scholars, a more accurate translation would be “life is stressful” or “there is dissatisfaction, discontent, pain, sorrow, sadness, disappointment, etc. in life”.
As I see it, Burnout is a considerable chunk of the pie that is the Suffering that the Buddha spoke of. A factor that greatly contributes to burnout, aka suffering, is the human nature to want to control the uncontrollable or impermanent. How often do we try to hold onto things, scared they will go away — our jobs, relationships, money, status positions, our identity?
Our businesses and careers are fertile ground for suffering as for many, it is their primary source of stress, dissatisfaction, and feeling burned out. The first of the Four Noble Truths is an open invitation for us to be still and take a moment to reflect on our lives and our motivations. To see what our beliefs and our actions are making us feel burned out.
Here are some questions that we can ask ourselves:
- Do we over-complicate things in our mind?
- Do we do things for the approval of others?
- Do we try to rush and control outcomes?
- Are we stuck in the past or off somewhere into the future?
- Where can we lighten up and relax a little?
Finding shelter from the storm through meditation or quiet time can rest and relax and gain the clarity that we need to probe deeply into our circumstances with compassion and wisdom.
The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is greed or desire
An alternate version of the Second Noble Truth is clinging, craving, attachment, and aversion. We rely on and avoid pleasing/displeasing external factors. Desire is both wondrous and natural. It is the clinging and attachment to it which causes suffering or burnout. Think about it; all that energy you are spending trying to attain your desire, all the anxiety, fear, shame, blame that arises on the journey.
No amount of success (however we choose to define the term) can ever free us from our condition.
But The Buddha taught “The Middle-Way”, which is a guidepost to help us avoid any extremes. The Middle Way teaches balance. It’s not to deny our needs and wants, but also not to become too wrapped up in them either.
Here we can ask ourselves:
- Are we striving to succeed for ego purposes?
- To prove something to others?
- To feel worthy of love, admiration, and respect?
- Do we make our accomplishments into our identities?
The Third Noble Truth: the solution to suffering is letting go of attachments
Even the Buddhists recognize the enormity of such a feat. Complete enlightenment isn’t expected of us; only that we may acknowledge what is causing suffering and work towards a shift. There is a fair concern that we may become dull, boring, uncreative, and so forth by achieving (or aiming for) awakening. This is understandable, but also an untrue image of enlightenment. A more helpful way to view this process is of the letting go of the things that do not serve us. This includes thoughts, emotions, objects, goals, and people.
We enter into a more empowered place when we let go of what isn’t serving us. We feel more connected, more loving, more creative, more compassionate, healthier, happier, and free. An easy step is to ask ourselves: What are we holding on where we could be letting go?
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path; the road that frees us from suffering
The last of The Four Noble Truths is the path to end “suffering” by achieving nirvana (awakening, peace of mind, liberation). This is called The Eight Fold Path. It is the action step of The Four Noble Truths, and where the fruit of the practice lies.
The Eight Fold Path
1. Right View / Right Understanding: Through awareness, practice, and study we develop a new outlook. We see things in the material world as being subject to impermanence and understand the four noble truths as a means to eliminate suffering, pain, stress, anxiety, and burnout. This “knowing” can assist us in taking life less serious — becoming less affected by its stress — putting less importance on outer things, and spending more time on going within.
2. Right Thought / Right Attitude: Positive mindset is what this is talking about. When we’re being kind and compassionate to ourselves and to others, stress is much more likely to roll off of our backs. When we change how we look at things, the things that we look at change.
3. Right Speech: Mind what you say. Using speech that is uplifting and helpful to others in return makes us feel good. Negative and hateful use of language only serves to drag everyone down. This may also mean speaking our truth. To yourself above all, and then to others.
4. Right Action: Acting in an ethical way lessens the suffering for ourselves and those around us. It may even be to put ourselves in an uncomfortable position at work, or at home, if it means speaking up for ourselves to protect our health and our sanity. It is “Right Action” to set healthy boundaries.
5. Right Livelihood: In a Buddhist context, this means that we avoid participating in work that harms others (i.e. selling of arms or of intoxicating substances). In the context of this article, it could mean work that harms ourselves. It’s important to look at — and really be honest with — if our job is the right one for us. It may not mean quitting our job. But it may mean changing some of the things about it.
6. Right Effort: Avoid negative thoughts and emotions, including anger and jealousy. Make time for spiritual practice and self-care routines and stick to them.
7. Right Mindfulness: By going throughout our days mindfully and with awareness we begin to have a clear sense of our mental state, physical state, our health and feelings. We are able to view ourselves and the world from our true homes of awareness; with greater love, compassion, peace, and wisdom.
8. Right Concentration: This is also known as meditation. And I’m sure we all know by now — or have at least heard — of its life-transforming qualities. Every day that we meditate is every day that we take out insurance on our mental health and our well-being. Sitting in nature or sitting still is also a great way to follow this path of right concentration.
The Four Noble Truths give us an excellent lens to examine our lives and gives us a new perspective on burnout and exhaustion. It offers us solutions to lessen life’s burdens. It gives us the stress relief and wisdom of mindfulness and meditation techniques, making it easier to cope and reducing the effect that burnout and exhaustion can have on us.
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