December 30, 2015

How to Do Good in the World Without Burning Out.

man sad grief tired


“When the world groans for help day and night like it does, it could seem like a poor use of time to explore our motivations in responding. But the untapped potential might surprise us.” ~ Joshin Brian Byrnes

In an Upaya Institute Dharma talk, Buddhist teacher Joshin Brian Byrnes tells of meeting Roshi for the first time several years before and of her asking him a pointed question.

“Why do you serve?” Roshi asked Byrnes.

I could relate to Byrnes’ answer and to his lifelong commitment to working in non-profit organizations, activism and raising children. Like him, there was a point in my life when I too had thought of myself as someone who was committed to serve.

That period however, turned out to be one of the most challenging periods of my life.

I recalled a day in the mid 1990s when I was driving to work. Laid open on the passenger seat next to me was my calendar and when I stopped for a red light I glanced down at it. I’d had so many meetings to go to that morning and had been so frenetically addressing all of the issues my job required of me, that I was concerned that I might be going to the wrong meeting.

Something was off about the way I was feeling.

I’d noticed that while I was as committed as ever, I was also exhausted, strung out and depleted. I seemed not to have the fire in my belly that I’d brought to the job when I first started it.

Shortly before, I had begun to ask myself why I was continuing at such a pace. Why was I spending more and more of my ever less available time and energy on community service instead of in an eight to five accounting job or in selling theater tickets or even cleaning houses?

Yet, I felt ashamed of myself for asking such selfish questions.

How could I be thinking of me and my needs when there were people in hospital beds alone and lonely who needed volunteers to sit with them. What about the children’s hospice that was newly underway, the rape kits recently installed in emergency rooms, the Alzheimer’s walk?

There was so much need. So much to do.

But, “Why do you serve?” Roshi had asked.

I had thought I served for all the “right” reasons. I had thought I served out of right actions as set forth in the eightfold path:

  • without selfish attachment to work,
  • mindfully,
  • without causing discord, and
  • from compassion and understanding

But then I heard Byrnes’ answer to Roshi’s question and I realized his was an answer I could also have given all those years ago myself.

“Serving was a way to stay busy as well a way to feel meaningful,” he said, and went on to describe me perfectly as he laid out all the aspects of being busy:

  • Being busy can be a way for us to prove worthiness to ourselves,
  • It can be a way to assure ourselves that we are living a life that is meaningful,
  • a way of proving to the people we care about that we are “doing good,” and
  • It can cover up the need to ask, “Am I enough?” “Am I sufficient?” “Am I valued?”

He paraphrased the Buddha on the subject:

“Look at the sense of self you’ve constructed that might lead you to doing things out of a certain story that you have about yourself. Maybe your service is self-serving and is re-affirming that story for you—helping you to feel worthy because underneath it you don’t feel worthy.”

Byrnes was saying that he had realized that serving wasn’t only about who or what he served after all. It was about him.

I too had thought serving was about all those I served. But it wasn’t. It was about me.

I remembered that I had gone on a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat to gain clarity and to uncover my real motivations. I was burned out and couldn’t keep the pace I had been keeping yet I also couldn’t allow myself to let go. I knew enough to know that feeling driven and entirely unable to not do what I was doing in the over-busy, over committed, way I was doing it wasn’t the way I wanted to continue.

In a private meeting with the Roshi, I told him that I was struggling with wanting to quit my job while feeling like I didn’t have the right to.

“What is your greatest gift?” the Roshi asked me. I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know. I’d never thought about it.

“Find your gift and use it for service,” he said simply. “That’s what it’s for.” And, with a nod indicated that our session was over.

Ultimately, I did leave my job at the hospital but replacing it by just “finding my gift” wasn’t as easy as the Roshi had made it sound. In fact, it was difficult. I felt I had lost my compass and I wanted to jump right back to what I had been doing—to the feeling that I was doing good in the world.

“What is the antidote,” Byrnes asked, and quoted Thomas Merton.

“Perhaps we should begin to replace results with relationships. To shift our mental model away from this obsessive grasping at outcomes and instead to pay attention to our relationships. To enter into right relationship.”

Today, I don’t work in community service at all. At least not specifically.

Today, I am a writer and today something happened that happens often. I shared a story I had written on my Facebook page about my father’s death when shortly afterward, I got message from one of my readers.

“Your story about your father’s death and how you responded to it was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you so much for sharing so deeply. You really helped me to have a different perspective.”

It was when I listened to the Upaya podcast that I realized everything had come together for me.

Were I to be asked today, “Why do you serve?” I could easily say, to use my gift and to create relationships instead of results.

I have replaced the fire in my belly with something much longer lasting. I have replaced it with a slow, burning ember.




Buddhism’s “Perfection of Giving.”


Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Alex/Flickr

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Carmelene Siani  |  Contribution: 35,660