Lessons in Burnout from a Buddhist Monastery

Instead of a road trip across the country, this summer we took our children to a Buddhist monastery in the south of France. Reeling from parental exhaustion, we craved peace, time away from the devices, and strategies for dealing with increasingly uncertain times. It’s hard to enroll 9 and 12 year old boys for a week of mindful walking, quiet mealtimes and sitting meditation, but we were willing to take the plunge if it could reconnect us.

My family, like most, is struggling. My husband works in education and I am a clinical psychologist. During the pandemic, we guided people through the same issues we faced: overwork, anxiety, irritability and exhaustion.

To cope with the pandemic stress, we found ourselves working more, being too reliant on technology, and feeling increasingly dissatisfied. We were overwhelmed with endless tasks and we had to find our ground as a family.

About Plum Village Monastery

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Zen master, author and peace activist who founded Plum Village Monastery 40 years ago. Thay (as his students call him) took refuge in Thanc, France, after being exiled from Vietnam for speaking out against the war. Thay went on to teach peace on an individual and global level and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967.

Thay’s teachings are simple, accessible, and meaningful for busy modern parents. Well known for saying, “When you do the dishes, do the dishes,” Thay urges us to be present in every aspect of life. He played a pivotal role in bringing mindfulness to the West alongside many Western scholars like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Kristin Neff, who both cite him as a root teacher.

Thay’s message is particularly applicable to current times. His teaching “No mud, no lotus” guides us to turn to our suffering with compassion in order to transform it. At the center of each of Plum Village’s three hamlets is a large lotus pond as a reminder that beautiful things grow in mud.

Source: Courtesy of Dr. Diana Hill

My partner and I first visited Plum Village Monastery 22 years ago when Thich Nhat Hanh was still teaching. I was starting a doctorate in clinical psychology. program, and the experience inspired me to research mindfulness as an intervention for eating disorders. I now use compassionate and mindful interventions in all aspects of my work.

The lessons we learned at Plum Village helped restore our family’s health and planted a seed for the health of their future.

Lesson 1: I have arrived. I’m at home.

We’re spending more time at home than ever, but do we really feel at home? Instead of being present, we spend most of our time in our heads, planning, fixing and judging.

Thich Nhat Hanh is known for his “gathas” or short phrases that you repeat with your breath. The first gatha we learned in Plum Village was:

Inspiring, I have arrived.

Exhaling, I’m home.

A bell rings every hour at the monastery, signaling us to pause, come back to our body, slow our breathing and be present in this moment. Learning to stop and be present can become a new habit. This habit cultivates contentment, clarity, and peace in your body. Slowing down your breathing has benefits at the cellular level and is fundamental in reducing stress, according to UCSF researcher Elissa Epel. And present-moment mindfulness can help you deepen relationships, which many of us crave in our increasingly disconnected and distracted world.

How to come home

  • Choose a cue (e.g., get in the car, start a meeting, or the Plum Village app’s automated bell) to signal you to stop.
  • Pause what you’re doing.
  • Find your breath.
  • Repeat the gatha, “I’ve arrived, I’m home,” and feel more comfortable in your body.
  • Resume your activity with this presence.

Lesson 2: Happiness is here and now.

As an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioner, I teach people to accept and come to terms with the suffering of life so they can act on their values. Everyday life, a pandemic, racial trauma, climate change and war give us plenty of material to work with.

In Plum Village, I learned that cultivating joy and happiness is just as important as accepting suffering. Paying attention to moments of joy strengthens our ability to be present with pain. Research shows that savoring the finer things in life builds resilience and greater life satisfaction.

To cultivate more joy, Sister “Joyful Effort” gave us homework to seek joyful moments in our day and share them with others. I noticed the cool shade of aspens on a warm walk and the sound of children giggling during silent meditation.

Joyful practice will give you the energy to face the pain of living.

How to Cultivate Joy

  • Look for small moments of happiness or ease.
  • Savor your experience by dwelling on it, paying attention to your full sensory experience.
  • Hold them lightly and with relish.
  • Share them by telling someone else.
    Courtesy of Dr Diana Hill

Source: Courtesy of Dr. Diana Hill

Lesson 3: There’s no need to rush.

Many of us are caught up in a flood of business – rushing from one Zoom meeting to the next, having lunch in our cars, distracted by our phones, and increasingly disconnected from nature.

Life is going faster than ever, so we feel like we have to hurry. The paradox is that the faster we go, the more dissatisfied we feel with what we have, so we rush to get more.

At Plum Village, every activity is a meditation practice – walking, queuing to eat and listening to others talk were all done with our full attention. We practiced eating in silence and watched the sun, the rain, the farmer and the plant with every bite. We marched consciously as a stream of over 700 people through plum orchards and aspens. I told the gatha silently with every step, “Yes, yes, thank you, thank you.”

Slowing down and connecting with nature in this way benefits your cognitive functioning and overall well-being.

Simple things become very rich. When you stop rushing through life, you are better able to enjoy the good that is available to you right now.

At first, we all struggled to slow down. My children whispered, “When can I eat? at meals and “Where are we going?” on walks. But we soon realized that there was nowhere to go, nothing to do, but be there and enjoy it. Together we sang the gatha:

Happiness is here and now

I let go of my worries

Nowhere to go, nothing to do

There’s no need to hurry

How not to rush

  • Turn an everyday activity like eating, driving, or walking into a no-rush practice.
  • Do it silently and with your full attention.
  • Remember there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, but to be here in this task.
  • Savor it!

Take a mini-retreat at home and try these three lessons for yourself.

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