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July 23, 2017

The Cure for Burnout was Right Under my Nose.

I used to hungrily eat way-too-late suppers to give myself just enough energy to answer the urgent emails.

I’d scribble a few notes, check Facebook to see that nothing drastic happened in my world, brush my teeth, and finally drop into bed.

As a psychotherapist and someone on the spiritual path, I was invested in the idea of being a “giver,” rather than a “taker.”

All day long, I poured my heart and soul into witnessing and easing the pain of every person who came through my office seeking help. Proud of my stamina and ability to go above and beyond, I disregarded all signs of burnout. I had learned to endure. I was not a wimp.

I read and listened to people I respected—people who warned that multitasking may create the illusion of super-functionality, but actually cuts down productivity and decreases satisfaction. Yes, yes, I thought, but they don’t understand the demands of my life. People depend on me and I can’t let them down.

I practiced mindfulness—meaning I meditated in the morning and tried to be loving and kind even when I didn’t feel it. I was not one of those rude people checking their phone during conversations with someone else. I knew how to make eye contact, listen intently, and fully connect with others.

Or so I thought.

Because then I started noticing “the circles.”

Like when a farmer friend of mine explained the importance of crop rotation for sustainability. One section has a crop to be harvested, one section has a crop that adds nutrients to the soil, and the last section remains fallow. Each summer the sections changed, circling around until the crops were back in their original sections. The land was providing and getting nourishment. It was never depleted.

“Like my life,” I thought. “I work hard, go on vacation to replenish, then go back to work.”

The word “circle” has been defined as “a transcendent, ancient symbol representing wholeness, unity, infinity, original perfection, the life cycle, and the universe.”

This slow-moving circle of energy exchange was a familiar rhythm, requiring patience and the ability to delay gratification, but it did nothing to address my daily sense of overwhelm and fatigue.

Watching a small indoor fountain, I thought about the water circling through the tubes—flowing out and in as one perpetual, unbroken stream. What if the flow of our energy could be like that? No delay, continually refilled in a continuous cycle. Dusty images from a long-ago physics course nagged at the edge of consciousness. Wasn’t there something about energy in equals energy out?

I remembered watching Tibetan monks form an intricate, mystical sand mandala, the Sanskrit word for “magic circle” and “from the essence.” A circle has no beginning and no end. Join hands in a circle and all are included. yin fits perfectly with yang. The ancients recognized the cycles of life on Earth and created the circle of Stonehenge. Mystics apprehend the power of encircling.

In sessions, I was already teaching clients the idea that to be loving and compassionate to someone, we need to be loving and compassionate to ourselves. Love for others without love for self, or love for self without love for others, is not a sustainable system for satisfying relationships. I described the energetic relationship as a “circle of compassion” and explained how important it is to have that flowing, circular connection.

I began envisioning my energy in the form of thoughts, feelings, and associations connecting to another. Then I’d envision the other person’s energy flowing toward me in a continuous circuit. Like my breath in meditation, I realized, this essential reflex connected me to the circle of life.

As my understanding of mindfulness deepened, I began to grasp the benefits available in every moment—even the ones I conceived of as hard or painful. Those difficult moments offered gifts if I was open to receive them.

I reconsidered my idea of being a “giver” and not a “taker” when I realized how much I get out of my sessions with clients who are extremely challenging. Acknowledging, silently or verbally, what I was receiving added to my sense of dialogue and connection. Clients seemed to feel it too. My awareness deepened. I felt invigorated, rather than spent, after a long day of many sessions.

Mindfully, I expanded this approach to all I did during a day. Cutting onions does not just reap the delight of a finished dinner—the very act of slicing and dicing offers satisfaction. I connect to the joy of doing.

Every action in our demanding lives, from important pursuits to mundane tasks, provides opportunities for tuning in and harnessing the natural power of the circular energetic connection. We join the life-flow of simultaneous giving and getting, producing a sustainable way to navigate our hectic schedules and input-laden lives.

By changing the interpretation of our actions and interactions, and by paying attention to all that comes through our senses, we take in the energetic, life-giving nourishment offered in our crazy patchwork schedule of mundane and profound connections. We are not depleted, but stimulated and nourished, at the end of the day.

Ideally, our lives have that sanctified feel in which we are conscious and connected at all times. But if we find ourselves overwhelmed and distracted, then it’s time to give ourselves a loving dose of self-compassion and gently, step-by-step, guide our awareness back to that circular energetic connection.

May we link our inner energy to the energy of others, the tasks at hand, and our life on dear Mother Earth.
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Author: Gretta Keene
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy Editor: Taia Butler
Social Editor: Callie Rushton

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