Ordinary Wonder: Notes on a Zen Retreat

Image: “Awake All Night” by Brett Whiteley

Droplets falling, notes on a pond

Sesshin, “to touch the heart-mind”, is a period of intensive meditation usually performed in a Zen Monastery. My own experience of Sesshin was a six-day silent meditation retreat, held at an old Franciscan Monastery in a nature reserve near Stroud, New South Wales. I have been practicing with the Ordinary Mind Zen School since October 2020, and this was the first time that I felt ‘ready’ for my first retreat. I was very apprehensive as the retreat approached. There is a family history of psychosis on my father’s side of the family stretching back three generations and my old fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the shadow’ and succumbing to a psychotic break resurfaced. Going into Sesshin I realised how much this spectre has informed much of the nameless little fears that have shaped my life in countless unknowable ways. A recurring dream as a young child of a black shadow looming over the foot of my bed still holds an image in my consciousness, and I was anxious about the possibly of seeing this figure again. My apprehension had me prepared for a visit to the underworld, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter”, flashing in my mind as a kind of steeling for a difficult emotional battle.

The liberation of silence

The aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about, the silence, in the end was the part I enjoyed the most. There is such liberation in silence amongst company! This silence removed all social hierarchy within the group. There were no cliques, no in or out groups, no one on top or bottom, no cool or not cool, even male or female felt irrelevant. This silence removed so much of the mental planning, analysis and rumination related to social interactions that fuels so much of our internal chatter. “Should I say this?”, “I can’t believe he said that”, “I don’t like that comment”, “His voice is annoying”, “That’s not what I meant”, “I wish I said it this way”, “I wonder if they like me?”

All this inane, back-and-forth, self-conscious chatter dissolved during the retreat. Interestingly, despite being no talking, there was a real sense of getting to know everyone just by being in presence with one another. Everything outside of the language realm took on much more significance. A small smile whilst crossing paths the hallway. The sound of a turning foot on the floorboards of the dojo. The way a person ate their soup. Through these observations it was interesting to watch how the judgemental and critical part of the mind, could still find the tiniest of social moments to latch onto and use as a way of separating itself from others. Comparing and competing over the tiniest differences in behaviour.

I had a truly wonderful, rich experience during this retreat. Moments of real joy, which were very unexpected. My experience was a privilege of being able to be present and witness the ordinary beauties of the flowing natural world and at times the equanimity and wholeness of my own essential self. Much of that sense of wholeness was experienced during the Samu or working periods, where my job was to wash up after lunch with two other people. I had noticed my impatience on the first day, which eventually dissolved or transformed by the third day. What was formed in its place was a deep sense of compassion and inter-relationship with the two others that I was working with. It was an unusual feeling in the sense that it was as though I had tuned into a sense of compassion rather than it being something I possessed or had cultivated. I had an intuition that whilst I could feel this compassion within, simultaneously it was a universal feeling, outside of me, available to everyone. Around the same time, I noticed that my inner critic and rumbling tremor of anxious internal chatter had also completely died down. I found it interesting that this died down in parallel with the quietening down of the judging mind that constantly monitors social interactions.

The musical flow of nature

With more than 8 hours of Zazen (sitting) during the day, there was so much… nothing happening. Much of the experience, particularly in the first couple of days was noticing the slow-moving lava lamp of discomfort throughout my back and shoulders whilst sat on the cushion. However this nothingness, compared to our everyday rush of stimulation, cleared me out to experience some infinitesimal, ordinary moments of pure wonder. The first, was sitting on a chair during a break with a cup of tea looking out the window. It was a warm, overcast, breezy afternoon and as I was sitting, there was a big gust of wind that led to the puff of a Dandelion dispersing in the breeze, whilst a rusty-red, rapidly rotating gum leaf fell through the expanding white mist. This moment must only have lasted a second, but it is seared in my memory like a painting. Another moment was standing on the bank of a lotus pond in the dusk of the final evening. Looking at the pink and blue lotus, my eyes were drawn to a lotus-free part of the pond, where ripples were emanating from some unseen disturbance. There must have been some unfelt or isolated sun shower that I couldn’t feel, with invisible falling droplets triggering rhythmic ripples that were like notes of music on the pond. I saw the music of the natural world in that moment standing next to the lotus pond and a feeling of melancholy came over me in realisation of how distracted and ignorant we have become of these everyday wonders.

The paradox of change and transformation

Our teacher, Geoff Dawson, gave a fantastic talk on the second day about the three Buddhist personality types, grasping, aversion and confusion. Which interestingly map onto the three Buddhist poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Realising my own grasping nature and how closely I matched the characteristics described by Geoff from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart provided a lot of clarity to past behaviours. At the same time, I noticed how I also grasped at the category of grasping, with a “Ah! That’s the problem!” making it feel like an infinite regress into the past, something inescapable. The nuance (and lesson) in Geoff’s talk that helped break out of this eternal recurrence was shifting the perspective from change, as though we could change into some other character, to one of transformation. Any change in ourselves comes not through a complete negation of who we are but rather an extension of our characteristics into something beneficial, which in the case of grasping is generosity. It is not about becoming someone else, but realising who we are and extending or transforming this pattern of personality into a different shape. In my case, the open palm of generosity, instead of the closed fist of grasping. Nothing about the hand has changed, except the way it is being used. This process of transformation isn’t about a Gatsby-like quest of changing yourself into someone else, a fool’s errand. Rather it is about extending beyond the fixed set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have stiffened through habit. A process that commences with mindfulness of these thoughts, feeling and behaviours. What was common across the transformative gestures for each personality type was the opening to others. Grasping transformed into generosity. Aversion into wisdom. Confusion into vulnerability.  

Return home

The most profound experiences of this retreat occurred once I returned home. Firstly, everything was incredibly vivid, even driving down the freeway back to Sydney, a drive I have done often and always write off as ugly and dull. Everything had a charge to it and a sense of spaciousness, as though everything had fallen into its rightful place. When I first saw my two-year old son, he didn’t look real, almost like he was shining as an angel. There was such a surreality to seeing him and a lightness to holding him, that it took a couple of minutes for his familiarity and weight to register. The following day, sitting at breakfast I could feel a sense of vibration throughout my whole body, gently pulsing up and down. Later that afternoon whilst I was lying in bed with my wife in the summer afternoon, my son napping, I felt a return to the feeling I used to have when we were first falling in love. It was such a rapid transformation to a feeling of another time, that suddenly the 13 years we had been together felt as though it had collapsed into an instant. It was as though, for that moment, there was an atemporality to my experience; 13 years and those early moments together in 2009 collapsing into one instant of feeling.

The difficulties of written reflection

Writing it all of this down performs a kind of reification of the experiences which isn’t my intention. The moments which have held their place in my consciousness from this week were fleeting, at most a couple of seconds. There is an impossibility in trying to pin down any kind of internal experience, even if that experience is nested in the everyday wonder of the world. The danger in writing a reflection like this is that you embellish and, in a sense, betray the nature of what happened. In this article I have tried to be as true to reflection as possible. The paradox lies in the fact that our words are re-presentation of all we experience, and at times a poor one. However, they are all we have to share our experiences with others. In this instance I have written about my experience for posterity, but also in case others see in these words a door they would like to walk through to explore zen meditation and mindfulness for themselves.

Burnout: The long shadow of idealism?

“Almost Once” – Brett Whiteley

In order to burn out, a person needs to have been on fire at one time

Ayala Pines

COVID-19 has shone an overdue light on the indispensability of workers that we often take for granted. Nurses, doctors, social workers, taxi drivers, cashiers, cleaners and many others. Whilst many of us have had to adjust to the comparatively mild inconveniences of working from home, these workers are often putting their health at risk to deliver essential services and care. As this emergency and lockdown continues, these workers will need access to comprehensive support to stave off and manage the effects from burnout. The term burnout is most commonly used with reference to those who exert significant “emotional labour” in their work, which refers to the requirement of managing emotions and feelings whilst dealing with people (i.e patients or customers) with the term becoming ubiquitous across not just healthcare but also professional services occupations.

Burnout, more than just exhaustion

A recent definition by Christina Maslach of the University of California, who originally coined the term and Michael Leiter, currently at Deakin University, provided a concept of burnout as: 

“…the index of dislocation between what people are and what they do. It represents an erosion of value, dignity, spirit and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, pulling people into a downward spiral from which it is hard to recover.” 

For Maslach and Leiter there is a dislocation of what people are and what they do, causing a split where actions no longer reflect values. This split leads to a chasm of meaningless that in turn can become a downward spiral of rumination, self-doubt and eventually depression. The dislocation means that the underlying values that supported an initial devotion or idealism have shifted or dissolved, usually as the result of some perceived or actual failure or a head-on collision with a difficult occupational reality. 

What is interesting about the above is the inclusion of words such as values, spirit and soul. This definition by Maslach and Leiter alludes to the fact that burnout syndrome, cannot be viewed simply as exhaustion but as something related to existential loss of meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and founder of Logotherapy could have the key to understanding why burnout is becoming more common. Frankl’s overarching philosophy of the “will to meaning” suggested that to avoid depression and existential despair, one had to authentically live out one’s underlying values by paying attention to what is meaningful. These values are not necessarily moral, but are related to a deeper sense of what attracts your attention, focus and sustained, conscious action; an integrated embodiment of an individual’s orientation toward and action within their framework of meaning.  

For Frankl, he believed that the decline in spiritual and religious life, what he referred to as the noetic dimension, had led to a vacuum of meaning which had been filled by a new kind of devotion to work and it is this devotion, which can sew the seed for burnout. In research published last year by Norbert Riethof and Petr Bob, in Frontiers of Psychiatry, the initial stage of burnout actually involves very intense experiences of meaningful life and work, a kind of idealism or devotion that by the end of the burnout process has been lost following a perceived failure to live up to impossibly high expectations. 

A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

There is a counterintuitive element here, which is that burnout appears more likely to affect those that demonstrate a higher level of idealism in their work. Idealism can be a valuable trait for an individual and the organisation they work for as it motivates people to make a difference and go beyond what is asked of them. However, the resulting excitement elicited by this acute sense of meaning, can lead to excessive dedication (perfectionism), a lack of clinical or personal detachment and an obscuring of insight into the knowledge of one’s own limitations. A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

Excitement and stress are two sides of the same coin with both of these emotions releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which the body uses to prepare for action. The secretions of these hormones build up over time and if behaviours and work practices aren’t changed, they can have a serious effect on physical and mental health leading to a potential breakdown and in the most extreme cases, suicide. In the United Kingdom a 2018 study found that the probability of doctor’s committing suicide was five times higher than the general population, with a significant factor being the pressure that doctor’s are under due to a lack of resources. 

The difficulty with the term “Burnout”

The trouble with managing burnout partly comes from the difficulty in its definition and diagnosis. In a recent survey of intensive care health professionals the overall number of those categorised as suffering from burnout ranged from 3% to 40% depending on how the syndrome was defined. Part of the difficulty of “diagnosing” burnout is due to its interaction with other mental health issues like depression, begging the question, how much is the term ‘burnout’ simply a socially acceptable label for someone actually suffering from depression? Some of the key descriptions of burnout; loss of enjoyment in things you used to find enjoyable (such as work), persistent fatigue, apathy and cynicism are actually key diagnostic criteria of the American Psychological Association for major depressive disorder. In addition to this, 2017 research in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, found that there was no distinction between the biological markers in the brain of those diagnosed with burnout compared to those diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The ubiquity of the term ‘burnout’ leads to a number of issues. Overdiagnosis of the syndrome leads to a perceived normalisation of this as a necessary occupational hazard, resulting in acceptance and no urgency in developing the appropriate support frameworks. This resulting lack of support can lead to declining levels of work productivity, job satisfaction, employee engagement and increasing levels of stress and depression. Finally, it appears as though using the term is becoming a euphemistic veil for what is actually depression, something which could prevent someone seeking help due to a normalisation of this as a facet of professional life.

Beyond burnout

Mindfulness training has recently received a lot of attention from researchers and organisations as a technique for reducing physical and mental stress. Mindfulness meditation, leveraging present moment awareness, can help to create space between thoughts, emotions and actions. This “space” can help to improve cognitive empathy, otherwise known as detached concern, whilst learning to manage and not get caught up in emotional empathy, or taking on the emotional states of other people (patients, customers). This awareness can also provide an insight into an individual’s limits, informing them of when to take a step back and some time out, whilst also providing a positive perspective on purpose and achievements. The practice can act as a kind of ‘reset’ of the mind, a process that un-conceals values and brings awareness of actions, allowing a restoration of meaning through integration of both.

Beyond personal practices, a broader shift in how workplace mental health is dealt with, including the communication and support for those with occupationally specific depression could also have a significant impact. A comprehensive review of burnout treatments in 2010 found that a combination of personal and group interventions provided by organisations had the largest effect on managing burnout in individuals. This was partially due to a greater level of acknowledgement about burnout and its potential as an occupational hazard, in turn providing people with support and also an implied understanding that those suffering weren’t alone in how they were feeling.

Bringing it all together

The after-effects from the strain of this crisis are likely to be felt most acutely when the lives of most of us go back to normal. The present moment is a critical opportunity for us to re-evaluate the importance of these individuals, putting in place the proper resources and support to ensure that we protect those that are under so much strain at this time. By developing the adequate support structures for those in critical care industries, organisations can reduce the number of workers lost to burnout and workplace depression, in turn maintaining continuity of standards, care and service for those that rely on them.