We all play our part…and act…and burn out…and are helped or help ourselves to stand up again.

– – – Ram Dass

As we get older and hopefully
wiser, we face new obstacles along the path of awareness and service. Have you ever been under prolonged stress that left you wiped out and overwhelmed? Have you ever had to care for someone who is ill, a parent, a relative or a friend? If you have, you know that burnout is a great challenge. Spiritual leader Ram Dass, worked with a lot of dying people, so let me paraphrase some of his wisdom with a sprinkling of my own ideas:

When we decide to be there for someone who needs help, we can do more than just struggle to stay afloat. We can do more than just cope. We can use burnout as a catalyst to look inside, which reveals the foundation of service. When we view our fatigue and doubt as
clues and signposts for our inner work, the journey will become lighter, deeper and fuller. We will not simply survive what we are facing. We will be able to grow and find a depth of caring and love we never knew we had. The pain of others may break our hearts but it will break them open. That is the price of compassion.

In the nineteen eighties, I lost one of my closest friends to AIDS. When he was gone, I was exhausted and devastated. I wished I could have helped him more but I hadn’t known what to do so I decided to volunteer at Chris Brownlie AIDS hospice. I wanted to witness the dying process up close so I didn’t fear it so much and find out how I could contribute something.

When I arrived there for the first time, I stood at the door, paralyzed, afraid to walk in and be with what was on the inside. 26 beds. 26 dying men. I thought about leaving. What on earth did I have to offer these people in the face of so much illness and suffering? I was
about to turn around when someone came up behind me, opened the door and gestured for me to walk in. I exhaled, stepped inside, and began a journey that permanently changed me.

The teaching there was not so much about death as it was about life, about appreciating every waking moment in which I was free from pain, able to walk and able to take care of myself.

“Isn’t it depressing to be there?”a friend asked.

“No,” I answered. “It’s invigorating. I get to leave all my personal problems at the door and feel useful. I get to comfort people who are in pain and bring them things they can’t get for themselves. Sometimes we even have a laugh together.”

When you care for an ailing person, it’s 5% doing things and 95% showing respect and compassion. And 100% listening. The hospice residents were young and unaccustomed to asking for help and they felt ashamed to need it, so it was a delicate balance to care for them
and not treat them like victims. I always stood at the door and asked if I could come in and as I went from room to room, each person needed something different. I paid attention. I didn’t group everyone together. I didn’t bring my own troubles into the mix. I taught myself to stop, to listen and if I didn’t know what someone needed, I asked him. 

One man didn’t want to die alone so we volunteers took shifts with him, holding his hand and letting him know we were there. I delivered food trays. I read to people. I wheeled a man outside who
wanted to breathe fresh air. I played cards. I helped someone call his family and say good-bye. And there were some severe wakeup calls. A man told me he loved peanuts and I arrived the next day with a bag of them, but his bed was empty. He had passed away in the night and I hoped that heaven had enough peanuts to make him happy.

In the midst of it all, I had to keep reminding myself to stay present and be aware of how I was feeling. If I woke up one morning feeling wiped out, I stayed home. Vietnamese Monk, the late Thich Nhat Hanh, said, “We have to know our limits. We have to organize our
lives in such a way that we can continue to get the nourishment and healing that we need. You must have the courage to say ‘no’ or you will lose yourself very soon. If you do what it takes to preserve and restore yourself, that will allow you to preserve and restore others.”

The Dalai Lama advises, “In dealing with those who are undergoing great suffering, if you feel burnout settling in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.”

There is a lot of talk about restoration, but what does that mean? I thought the Dalia Lama was talking about sitting in meditation, legs crossed, eyes downward, thumb and forefinger touching and breathing in and out. But I was pleasantly surprised when he said,
“Sleep is the best meditation.”

If you’re caring for someone or doing too much and you feel a sense of dread, anger or increased irritability, chances are you’re burned out. But there is a cure if you’re willing to take a good look at it, recognize it and do what it takes to heal it. The steps are simple:

When you’re tired, rest.

When you’re hungry, eat.

Don’t become a tyrant and push
yourself around.

Don’t expect too much of yourself.

Be gentle with yourself.

Burnout stems from stress and fear, the feelings that happen when we get closest to the truth. There is no greater truth than someone who needs your help. There is no greater gift than being able to give it. And there is no greater reward than being able to give it to
yourself. In the Asian roots of Buddhist tradition, the word “compassion” always includes yourself. Sending energy out until we are sucked dry is unsustainable. it needs to make a circle and you need to be on both the giving and receiving ends.