Sunday, October 3, 2010

Zen Burn Out

There was a time when I did 1 1/2 to 2 hours of sitting meditation everyday. When I was a fairly regular retreat practitioner, and when I would look around at the people who only attended Sunday services at our zen center and thought to myself "these folks aren't very dedicated." Those thoughts were certainly smug, and that level of devotion wasn't, at least for me at that time of my life, sustainable. I can point to many reasons why "my practice" changed over time, but what I'm more interested in these days is the sometimes huge tension between predominantly lay people trying to practice in Zen communities (or even on their own) from teachings that are predominantly monastic in flavor.

You may notice that my dharma name, Tokugo, is translated as "Devoted to enlightenment." It's a pandora's box once you start paying attention to it. I have a regular zazen practice, chanting practice, study practice. I'm pretty deeply involved in my sangha, as you have seen from previous blogs. And yet unlike in the past - I do almost no retreat practice. It has almost no draw for me right now. At the same time, I have spent the last month unemployed, not rushing, watching myself be a person in the world with no job, no partner, a shifting group of friends - in other words, being a person who is doing his best to stand in the middle of the flow of life as it is.

What does "devotion to enlightenment" mean for a lay practitioner? What are some necessary ingredients and what is simply form that might be helpful and might not, depending upon the circumstances?

When I plunged head first into what I believed was THE correct way of practice several years ago, what I saw was an interesting mix of wise renunciation and madness. Even though I seem to have a lot of tension these days around what "devoted" looks like, one thing I'm confident in is that it involves renunciation. If you want to see into the nature of this life, you have to give up a lot of the "entertainments" in your life. This is not only about ending the video game addiction you have or forging the weekly music concert binge - it's also about renouncing the stories you have about your life and the world, and giving up ownership of the various certainties you have collected over the years.

At the same time, I remember once having to decide if I were going to use the only paid vacation time I had to attend a meditation retreat. And feeling like if I chose to do something else, I was a "lesser" practitioner for it, but also sensing that if I didn't take some time to rest, I was going to burn out sooner rather than later. Although I don't attach as much to this notion of being a better or worse practitioner these days,I still find these quandaries coming up because the line between being lazy and self-care isn't always too clear to me. And when I read the great monks of old, or even many teachers of new, steeped in the tradition of those monks, I find myself thinking Yeah, that makes a hell of a lot of sense when you're in a monastery. What about the rest of us?

To be quite frank, when I hear some Zen teachers say things like "Well, this is why our tradition has always been small, and not for the faint of heart," I'm not terribly impressed. It sounds true, and points to the intelligent rigorousness that I have always been inspired by in Zen. But it's also a cop out, a way to skirt around the real life tensions between what's been handed down to us, and how our lives are in the world today, 2010, as lay practitioners.

Simply put, I don't buy it that the only way to practice Zen in a completely devoted way is to increasingly immerse yourselves in meditation practice, retreat practice, even monastic practice. And when I hear people saying things like "Oh, I'm not much of a Zen student. I don't do such and such. Just look at so and so..." I think - what good is that? How does all this comparing helping you, me, or anyone?

There are plenty of warnings about the trap of "comparing mind," and yet I also think the lack of honest reflection around the tensions between studying and implementing Dogen's teachings and being a lay practitioner set up a lot of ready made comparisons. Those who immerse themselves in zazen - good. Those who take up the various monastic roles in the sangha - good. Those who don't - slackers. I'm saying this as someone who has done some of those roles, been immersed in zazen, and also who has had times where I was definitely slacking and letting myself off the hook too easily.

Now, the black and white dichotomy above isn't what actually happens most of the time. It's more of a subtle undercurrent within Zen communities. Like what's upheld as "good practice" or who is considered a community "leader" and why.

I know I'm not alone in feeling these tensions, and having the kinds of questions that I do. But what I find frustrating is how often conversations about the various issues around the lay/monastic tension either slide into privileging monasticism (and it's forms), or platitudes about how "it's all good." The former is just a fast path to an inferiority complex, and the latter is a niceness that just makes everyone feel good, but doesn't really aid us in living our lives more in a more awakened way.

When I see discussions, for example, about how all Zen teachers should have X number of months of retreat practice under their belts before they are considered legitimate, I think "Is that the only way to wisdom?" It's hard not to view such requirements as akin to standardized tests - these tools we have determined to be the magic bullets that someone prove our children or college students are smart, capable, and ready to succeed in life. The thing is, wisdom isn't uniform. Awakening doesn't follow a single track, nor does it manifest the same for even two people, let alone everyone.

There are times when I think "maybe Zen just isn't your thing," whatever that means. I have seen others facing some of this stuff who have decided to move on, and find something else. But that just feels like going shopping to me. And to be honest, I find this tension pretty fascinating, even if it grates at me at times. And I love those old Zen dudes, and their monastic or wandering Zen ways.

So, in some ways I'm like the famous Catholic monastic Thomas Merton, who spent much of his life questioning and bucking the very tradition he also loved. How odd, but there it is.


Brikoleur said...

What an insightful and thoughtful post here, Nathan. We've been discussing/struggling with some of the same issues in our sangha, and don't have the answers either. Perhaps there aren't any; it's just a matter of trying to muddle your way through anyway. It'd be cool if somebody did find one, though…

Rod Meade Sperry said...

thank you. another thoughtful post that might help folks to reconcile questions about their relationship to practice.

Algernon said...

Some of this relates to a previous conversation we've had about "hero mind" and making something special out of practice. And you are right, some of it is monastic idealism. And oh, that comparing mind.

Paul Haller said to me once, "It happens the way it happens," and I've never forgotten it. I was hitting it pretty hard and pumping a lot of energy into my ideas and desires around practice.

I can't think of a Zen fable in which somebody "gets enlightenment" while sitting. It happens when something takes you by surprise. A clear poem can strike someone who has never taken a writing class; an actor who has not undergone years of intensive training can turn in an inspired performance. It happens the way it happens. No guarantees.

Algernon said...

Sorry, one more thought. Remembered something I wrote in my journal during conservatory. It went something like this: a good performance is like an accident, but the practice and training help make us accident-prone.

Nathan said...

Hey Petteri -

Yeah, it seems when I ask people in other sanghas about these kinds of issues, similar struggles are on the table. I'm thinking there isn't going to a great solution that we all can apply. It's a interesting ride to be on anyway.


"Paul Haller said to me once, "It happens the way it happens," and I've never forgotten it. I was hitting it pretty hard and pumping a lot of energy into my ideas and desires around practice." This is helpful.

And yes, "accident-prone." I like that.

Rev. Trevor Maloney said...

Excellent little essay, Nathan. I will post a link to it on the AZC Facebook page, and hopefully that will lead more folks to read your very insightful blog.
All the best,

Anonymous said...

yes to all above however...

what is "Burn Out" and more particularly "Zen Burn Out".

Abstraction story pointing to... what?

maybe silent resignation a kind of trance state of indecision.

Like the people I used to see at work who quit before they quit and yet remained full of pretense and looking like they are working waiting for the bell to ring.

Like the pixilation of Star Trek humans standing in the trasporter room not yet left, not yet arrived, frozen in their last intention.

I think it is a dis-ease of incompletion a subtle form of ignorance/indifference when you notice yourself saying to yourself I don't know... and I don't care either; I'm stuck here & the next moment remains unchosen.

When I finally wake up - often in the midst of some seductive distraction, I start to notice my immobility & my indecision... and my freedom.

I don't think there is such a thing as "burnout" it is a psudo name for missing my own loving kindness and compassion.

Nathan said...

"I don't think there is such a thing as "burnout" it is a psudo name for missing my own loving kindness and compassion."

Yes, I think this seems pretty accurate. The word "burnout" is probably a label we can relate to, but which doesn't aid in awareness or understanding.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Nathan, it really hits home for me, and speaks to a conversation I just had yesterday with my partner, who finished his first retreat (Theravada) this weekend. Coming out of it, he basically wondered aloud, "What are we aspiring to as householders except to become more and more like monastics?"

I guess for me, the sitting practice has always resonated as a tool for living, rather than a goal in and of itself. It has helped me to find more joyful emptiness in mundane situations, both on and off the cushion. I get excited about experimenting with sila and the paramis in day to day life. I get excited about 'translating' the benefits (and difficulties) of practice into non-Buddhist language, and sharing them as much as I can with others. Looking into them and fussing playfully with them myself.

Maybe this is partly laziness because I don't sit everyday (not since I got back to the US a year ago), but at the same time I trust my connection to the practice and have faith that I'll return to sitting and retreating more when it's right for me to sit and retreat more.

It helps me to occasionally hear accounts of monastics slacking off. You really can't tell much by the outward appearance...someone might be more awake while partying at a concert than while meditating up in a cave for their fifth year in a row. At least that's what helps me to bring compassion to the comparing mind. The comparing mind thinks it can read the situation accurately, but the un-knowing, compassionate mind balances out that calculation.

Anyway, thank you again for this thoughtful, inspiring post.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Nathan,

Perhaps one needs to pierce having a sincere, dedicated practice with "nothing to attain, nothing in need of attaining" ... already always arrived even as one walks forward. Then, practice is a piece of cake, the pressure to push oneself to get oneself is removed ... and so one really gets somewhere.

In practice-enlightenment, sincere and steady practice IS enlightenment itself.

Something like that.

Gassho, Jundo

jundo cohen said...

Relax, but move forward ... I am also reminded of the Lute Strings ...

[The Buddha said], "Sona, you were a musician and you used to play the lute. Tell me, Sona, did you produce good music when the lute string was well tuned, neither too tight nor too loose?"

"I was able to produce good music, Lord," replied Sona.

"What happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?"

"I could not produce any music, Lord," said Sona.

"What happened when the strings were too slack?"

"I could not produce any music at all, Lord," replied Sona

"Sona ... You have been straining too hard in your meditation. Do it in a relaxed way, but without being slack. Try it again and you will experience the good result."

Gassho, J

Nathan said...

Hi Jundo,

Thanks for the Lute Strings story. Not too tight, not too loose is essential - I totally agree. Ever since I read a similar take about zazen in Reb Anderson's book on the precepts, I have done my best to live in that space. Of course, there's plenty of wobbling one way or the other. But that is how it goes.

Oh, and your recent talk online about worrying about other people's opinions was a helpful reminder. Thanks.


Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Really nice post!! Having just discovered your blog yesterday I love your frank, honest and open dialogue about your life and the practice. I relate to this a lot. In my early days I worked up to doing about 4 hours a day. I was even training to become a monk and was even talking to the abbott about entry into the monestary. After a deep realisation life changed and I got busy with lay life and building a career etc etc.

I wrote a post at the end of last month called Conscious Commitments which covers what you discussed here but also takes another angle on the topic.

Now I'm back into my practice and typically do somewhere between 1 to 3 hours a day. And yes I work a full-time job as lead IT manager for a major organisation, have a wife and 15 month old baby boy that definitely keeps me busy. It comes down to choices.

Does leading a committed life to practice mean we could burn out? Well we have to ask, "What exactly is this feeling of burning out?" This angst only exists due to residual self attachment. It's pretty simple, nothing complex. If there was no resistance we wouldn't burn out. Does the sky feel burnt out? No. So why should I feel be any different? It's only attachment to me that creates this problem. It gets to a point we struggle with it so we self-justify the stance not to practice so much. It's a subtle way of telling ourselves our attachment is okay.

The trick here, like the lute metaphor is finding the balance. If we push too hard our egos get fed up and talk us out of the practice. If we are too lapsed then the ego becomes lazy and takes over and we don't practice. Finding this balance isn't easy. My first teacher was a Zen master and she said we need a healthy ego to progress well in the practice. I understand why now, it allows us to find this balance. As we progress we let go more and more as our ego's are willing to accept it and as it changes we move onto the next stage of letting go. And on and on it goes.

While in my early days I used to do 4 hours a day I went through a massive period for years and years where I did next to nothing. For ages I struggled with this (lack of practice) until about a year ago I started to focus again on my meditation with earnest. While I can see the stages I went through in my life during this time, and it all seemed beneficial at the same time, I can't help but feel like it was wasted time and I regret not meditating in earnest. But it is what it is. Where I am is where I am and I can't change that. Looking back I feel I learnt a lot through this period about life and how to apply what I'd learn through the insights and hours of meditation. In some ways I think my spiritual development far out-weighed by life experience and it took a lot of time for me to mature in our areas of my life. But maybe I'm just telling myself that so I feel better about it. Either way, will I ever know what my life would be like if I had continued ... no. It is was it is. It is this realisation that meditation ultimately leads us to ... "the way things are".

So while I'm not a monk now, I feel like a monk leading a lay life. I live and breath like I'm a monk, I'm just not wearing the robes. Previously I felt like the two couldn't co-exist and I've spent nearly a decade coming to terms with that idea, only to realise it was a duality I was sustaining in my own mind. In my heart I'm a monk and I work and live a lay life. No separation, no duality, no problem. :-)

Anyway, really nice post!! Thanks for opening up the topic for discussion. Sorry my response was a little long.


Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...
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Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...
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Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...
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Nathan said...

Hi Dean,

I think your very right that burn out is about attachments. It's interesting that you didn't meditate much for a long period. I'd say for maybe 3 years of the 9 I have been a Zen student, I was about the same - sitting once or twice a week, reading some books, taking a few classes, and applying what I had learned in my daily life. This blog actually came out of the shift back into more commitment, following jukai. And writing it has supported the rest of my life (I've written some about this in past blog posts.)

Anyway, part of this discussion is about the struggles of "western" Buddhist communities to balance lay/monastic practices. I think the muddle is especially challenging for newcomers, who come in seeing a sometimes intense practice, and not knowing how to approach it. And too many communities elevate retreat practice and other monastic trainings above all else, which I don't think is wise.

On one level, the monsastic/lay split is just imaginary. On another, it isn't, and so we have to have that in mind when considering how best to transmit Buddhist practice.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Yeah, I completely agree. I recall going to my first Zen session and thinking "Wow, this is intense" but stayed on and got use to it because I was very dedicated. It seemed almost too serious though. People seemed proud in one way towards their practice, which seemed contradictory to the selflessness that is meant to be the practice. And I'm not talking as individuals, but proud as a group "Look how dedicated we are".

I once bought a friend along and I could see his reaction to it, it put him off. Later I moved onto another teacher who is an ex-Theravadin monk and his sessions were a lot more relaxed. You could see more people were open to coming and exploring and staying.

I agree too, there are other means to evaluate a person's understanding without having to judge it on how much retreat work they've done.

Completely relate to your path. Over the last year I've become more focused and I find writing is my way of contemplating. It keeps me chewing the cudd of life and processing what I'm meditating on.

Keep up the great work.