Overcoming Burnout

Discussion from Environmentalists' Retreat Randy Hayes (Director, Rainforest Action Network): I was working in the Southwest some years ago, fighting uranium mining on the reservations, and some of us were complaining about burnout In the midst of our complaining, one Sioux Indian looked over at us and said, "'Burnout' is just not in my language. This is a matter of life and death." The way he said it was truly inspirational, and since that time, I rarely use the word "burnout," except to explain why I don't use it. There is an ebb and a flow to all we do, and sometimes the work gets difficult. But when I realize what an honor it is to work on such serious life-and-death matters, energy springs forth in me to maintain the effort day after day, year after year, and decade after decade.

Peter Matthiessen (Writer and Zen monk): I understand what Randy is talking about. I know John Trudell, and I have worked with Indian people for a long time. I am also conscious of what Thay says: "Without peace within, it is difficult to work for peace in the world." One Rinzai teacher told me that working on social causes when you aren't enlightened is like the blind leading the blind. But it is difficult for me to just sit on a cushion while chaos is pounding at the door. Even though we are still rather blind, I think most of us must act. Camus said, "In the twentieth century, it is the obligation of the writer to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves." I think writers, Zen students, and everyone else should be engaged deeply.

Joan Halifax (Director, Upaya Foundation): While trying to save all beings, I really abuse myself, so I am always grateful to be reminded that my work is the practice of mindfulness. It's hard to remember to practice in the midst of serving. We see only one catastrophe after another. I love Thay's image of our planet as a small boat. "If just one person is sane and peaceful the possibility of survival is there." I think our job is to stabilize ourselves so that there can be some quotient of sanity in the world.

James Thornton (Director, Natural Resources Defense Council, Los Angeles office): I have been an NRDC lawyer for ten years now, doing hardcore litigation- and loving it. But about two years ago, I realized that even winning several dozen cases at a time was never going to solve the world's problems. During one Zen retreat, the subject of my meditation was "What would happen if there was a nuclear war?" In my meditation I saw that Gaia, the Earth as an entity, would continue even if life as I am interested in seeing it might end at some point. And I found that I was non-judgmental about that. I reached a place in which it became clear to me that there was no need for me to save the world, and that was a very big relief for me. Now each thing I work on is a little easier. I see that the entire planet does not depend on whether I win my next case. Whether I win or not, there may be a nuclear war. My feeling is not nihilistic. On the contrary, by removing the sense of having to save the world, a freedom has come that has endowed each action with more meaning and a little more freedom.

Peter Matthiesson: As long as we are caught up in the idea of achievement, we are bound to have burnout. Nonetheless, we must always struggle for the good because each little effort has its own reverberations and resonance all around the world. It isn't a question of burnout. We really have no choice.

Betsy Rose (Singer, Songwriter): During the Gulf War, I felt a sense of shame and defeat. I realized that no matter how many small victories we in the peace movement rack up, wars keep happening. We have no control over our leaders. Drawing on the wisdom of the practice of Twelve-Step Recovery, I saw that I was like the spouse or friend of an alcoholic trying to fix the problem, trying to get them to wake up, see the light, and get rid of their addiction. I saw President Bush as a weapons addict, and all this AI-Anon stuff started coming to me about how sometimes you have to let go and let them hit bottom.

I've spent years trying to tum the country in a different direction, but now I see that my job may be to midwife its downward spiral-to be there in a mindful way to ease the suffering if our country goes down as an empire. It may be for the greater good. Putting this different frame around the situation, I feel sad but a little lighter. I hate to say this, because it feels like heresy, but it has freed up some energy for me.

Audience: It is estimated that about 230 million years ago between 75-90% of all species on Earth became extinct. That is very liberating to realize, because it highlights that this issue of extinction and biodiversity isn't the planet's problem. The planet will take care of whatever we do to it. It is a human problem, a question of what kind of world we would like to see for our great, great grandchildren. It has been very helpful to me to look at the struggle we are engaged in in terms of practice. If we can quit being preoccupied with results, we have a lot more energy and are far more effective when we take action.

I had this come home to me a little more than a year ago in Florida. One of my favorite places on Earth is the Florida seagrass bed, and it was announced that a big commercial marina and resort community were going to be dredged right in the middle of it-the sort of things I thought we stopped twenty years ago. On the same day, George Bush was elected President, and in Florida we elected a U.S. Senator who is dreadful on environmental issues. I was really bummed out. All my nice theory about not being attached to the reward vanished in a cloud of steam. I couldn't sit in the Dharma room.

So I went up into a lonely pine forest, one of the native ecosystems in the Southeastern United States that has been nearly destroyed in the last century. I was sitting in this millions-of-years-old ecosystem, letting the steam flow out of my ears, and gradually it became obvious that this was not my problem. This, in fact, was a system that works in terms of millions of years, and the problems would be taken care of by the Earth in its own way, whether I won or lost the fight over the marina. I felt an enormous sense of relief. I came back, and it took a year, but we won that particular battle. Not only was there no marina, but we also set up a grassroots group in that community to monitor the bay and provide assurance against inroads like that in the future.

Lately I've been talking to civic groups, because I've always felt that environmentalists spend far too much time preaching to the already converted. We assume that every one knows what good endangered species are, and we don't even bother to discuss it with someone who doesn't really understand why a little bird should get in the way of the logging industry or why a sea turtle should interfere with shrimping. So I have been talking to people who aren't environmentalists, and at the end of each talk, someone always asks, "What can be done to really solve these things?" I talked to a group in a nursing home last week, and it seemed the best thing they could do was just share their memories. These were people who really remembered an ecosystem that most of us today have never heard of. Someone asked me how I keep going in the face of these overwhelming issues, and I said that I do it because it's fun.

Randy Hayes: Throughout this retreat, doing sitting and walking meditation, I've had a curiously familiar feeling. It feels great, like being in jail. The last five times I was in jail was for civil disobedience, like the time we blockaded the driveway at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. to prevent the limousines from bringing the world's finance ministers in to plan the annihilation of the planet. Once you know that you are going to sit there until they either stop or cart you off to jail, you can kind of relax, and it's very much like Buddhist meditation. When they put the handcuffs on you and stick you in the paddy wagon with a nice white wall to stare at as they're driving you, you've really got a single focus.

Nandini Katre: I am a scientist who is unemployed right now, and I've been practicing Buddhism for many years. I'd like to apply my science to environmental issues, but it's not clear to me how or where to do it. I have been doing fairly narrow, specialized research, but now my heart is in applying my skills to global and environmental issues. Does anyone have some suggestions?

Sister Phuong: Every time I have a problem like this, I see that no teacher can help me. I am my only teacher. In each of us, our consciousness is like a piece of land. We receive many seeds from previous generations-our grandparents, our parents-and also from society and our education. Our seeds are not the same as our teacher's. I am very close to Thay Nhat Hanh, but his land is different from mine, so, ultimately, he cannot advise me on what to do. He can only help me to be calm, peaceful, and relaxed, so I can see more clearly. The gatha, "in/out, deep/slow," may seem elementary, but in the most difficult situations, it has saved my life.

In Buddhist meditation, the first stage is to calm yourself. Breathing in, you become only your breath. Breathing out, you become calm. When you walk, you do it in a relaxing way. Then one day, when you have enough serenity, some clear and beautiful seed in you will sprout and show you the way. No one can do it for you. Continue to pmctice and one day you will find the best solution.

Virginia Coyle: One interpretation of, "Think globally, act locally," is to listen deeply to your own life story and to the voice within you that knows what work you need to do. I was on a women's retreat in a pristine wilderness area, when we encountered Minutemen missiles being launched from a nearby Air Force base. It turned out we were in the so-called "danger zone." We continued our retreat, and with no special effort, found ourselves engaged in a direct action.

Peter Matthiessen: Years ago in Honolulu, someone put up a huge billboard near the airport. One woman called the city hall and said, "This is an outrage. Why do we have to look at this blot on the horizon?" Then she called ten friends, and started a chain telephone call. Within 24 hours, the sign was down.

Audience: I recently learned about something called a "subrudder." A subrudder is a small rudder that is connected to a huge rudder that turns a ship the size of the Queen Mary. The huge rudder can't turn unless the subrudder turns first. We don' t have to tum the whole ship, we just have to tum the small rudder.

Audience: How do we say no to people whom we've already said yes to, to get some things off our plates so we have some kind of breather?

Joan Halifax: Just say no.

James Thornton: I always look for someone else to pass the matter on to. I've discovered that if you give the right description to a project, someone will be interested in helping you. Group enthusiasm really works. Saying no is harder.

Randy Hayes: I'm so bad at saying no when someone really needs something that I go out and raise funds in order to hire someone to do it. Maybe there is something functional about not being able to say no.

Audience: If it's true, as Betsy says, that our whole country is behaving in a dysfunctional way, then we also need to look at our environmental organizations. My son-in-law just quit his job for an environmental organization because the workaholism there made it impossible for him to stay well. We can't perpetuate that. We need to see if we are using the same models that are so obviously dysfunctional on the national and international levels. Our organization has made a commitment to do our best not to be addictive. It takes a lot of looking.

Audience: I had the pleasure of hearing Jeremy Rifkin talk last Saturday. He introduced the concept of sufficiency verses efficiency. We're always trying to figure out how to cram more things into the same amount of time under the guise of efficiency. But like a sprinter trying to sprint a mile, it is not sufficient to go the first 200 yards faster than anybody else if you are going to die on the next lap. So I'm starting to get the notion of sufficiency into my life.

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