I’ve been contemplating the nature of Burn Out, because I’ve been suffering from a hard case and have not been able to cure myself but for brief days at a time. But the nature of these respites is shedding some light on the nature of the condition, and seems to offer a potential way out.
How to describe burn out? Extreme disinterest? A loss of capacity to apply oneself to a job? A State of being over-exposed to / satiated with an unappealing, even repulsive, set of conditions? Or maybe, coming from another direction, an absence of energy and vitality, resulting from having been drained or overworked? I’ve heard burnout described all of these ways, and a few others. But there isn’t often much talk about what the condition is. When someone declares that they are burnt out, it’s usually accepted, without any close diagnosis. It’s similar to when someone comes into the office and says that they caught a bug or a cold, and others immediately exclaim, “Oh, THAT! I had it too”, as though there’s no doubt that they suffer from a malady that is closely related, if not the same.
Of course, the other thing that burn out shares with the ‘bug’ is that half the people who pronounce their sympathy, and their allegiance to the cause of worker self-protection, don’t really believe that you have anything at all. Which doesn’t necessarily diminish the sincerity of their sympathy, since they probably don’t believe that they have anything either.
A key part of both the seasonal something and the case of burn out is just feeling bad, or not feeling right, along with a sense of helplessness, rooted in the inability to feel better.
I’m not a disciplined person. I’ve always found my motivation to go to work in either a desperate need of a paycheck, or a degree of passion about the work. It’s the main reason I’ve rarely stayed in a job more than three years. I’m not the sort of person able to go to the same place, at the same time, and do essentially the same thing, month after month, year after year. As much as I try to recognize the benefits of the sameness – the relative facility of doing something I’ve done so many times before that I hardly have to make an effort – that’s actually the source of the trouble.
Because it’s inattention, it’s not having to look very closely or carefully at something, that I’m beginning to belief is the source of burnout.
I’ve noted, you see, that the times I begin to come out of burnout are usually times of high focus, of close attention. It’s times I’ve taken something on, or had something thrust upon me, when I’ve had to force my attention to the details of a matter, and then to deal with them one by one, that I’ve found myself getting better.
Is laziness a factor? Maybe so. When I become used to a situation, I give it less of my attention. I begin to take shortcuts, assuming some of the details, rather than identifying them one by one. I let myself go with the general, rather than seek out the specific. It’s quicker, easier. It requires less time, effort and attention. And before long, that familiarity becomes a kind of weariness, then boredom. And gradually, what was an interesting and demanding task has become painfully dull.
But what came first? Did becoming used to a situation precede taking the cognitive short cuts, or was it the shortcuts that began to generate to sense of sameness, that led to the adaption of a formula, a pattern, that slowly squeezed out difference and uniqueness and whatever novelty might be in the matter?
My meditation practice touches on this. The practice involves giving close attention to minute details of sensation. And one of the things I’ve learned from the practice is that attention enlivens. I was never aware of the energy constantly coursing through my body, until I took up meditation and learned to be sensitive to it. And I’ve developed a curious relationship to physical pain. Instead of turning my attention away from it, I now focus on it. Because attention lessens pain, sometimes dissolving it entirely away. Because, when I examine it closely with my attention, I have to recognize what a gross, generalization the notion of pain is. In fact, what passes as pain is usually an accumulation of lots of sharp, tiny sensations. And sometimes they are unpleasant, but often they are not. And if I’m willing to be with them, well, often they turn out to be not nearly so overwhelming or uncomfortable as I feared they would be.
So now, I’m turning my attention to the burnout. Instead of staying with that label, I’m trying to do that diagnosis that I referred to earlier as hardly ever happening. What is it exactly that I’m experiencing? What precisely am I feeling, and why? And I’m very curious to learn where this exploration takes me.