Burn Yourself Out

11 07 2021

There is so much to love about Buddhist Philosophy, I keep turning to it every time I get stuck or lost or confused. When I say ‘turn to it,’ that makes it sound as if I spend my spare time leafing through Buddhist texts looking for bright jewels of wisdom to illuminate my day. In reality, it goes something like this:

Question: Will you prepare a workshop on Zen Philosophy for the Sixth Form?

Answer: Sure! (inside voice: when the hell will I find time to do that extra thing in an already crowded week?)

Three days before workshop: I’ve forgotten everything I knew about Zen. I need to read something quick and easily digestible because I don’t have time to read anything slowly and properly. Why did I agree to do this? I’m tired of doing seven things at once. I wish I could just sit down and read some Zen and really find some nourishment in it instead of having to teach stuff all the time. I’m tired of teaching. I’m tired of spending hours preparing material that is eaten up in seconds. I’m tired.

I choose three books on Zen. I light a candle. I sit down with my notebook. My hound lies across my feet and I begin to relax for what feels like the first time in seven months. I take a deep breath. I remind myself that I once fell in love with Zen. This bit of time for research will be like visiting an old friend.

I pick up the weightiest book, the most serious and scholarly book. Just the thought of it makes me want to take a seven year snooze. I put the big book down and turn to the lightest slip of a book. I start to go through it and I see that there are pencil underlinings on almost every page. I start to get excited. I’ve done some work with this little book already. I don’t have to start at the beginning. I’m halfway there.

I read this:

‘In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice.’

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shunryu Suzuki

I feel as if a curtain has parted in my mind, showing me a place I rarely visit. This place is clean, cool, uncluttered. There is nothing in this space except truth. No trace. I’m immediately gripped by the idea. I see that it is the opposite of what most people consider burn out. I see that working at something with full attention is clean work. I also see that when I work, I sometimes leave dirty little traces. The need for acknowledgement, the need for some sort of reward, the need for approval. Like many people, I think a pat on the back for a job well done is a good thing.

Zen doesn’t teach morality. It doesn’t say: don’t work for approval, praise or recognition. It says, in its wonderful Zen-like way, just do your work fully. Leave nothing undone. No loose ends, no corners cut, no nonsense about it being too hard or boring or inconvenient. Sit down and read your book. Take your pencil and make your notes. Write. When you need a mind break, get up and make a cup of tea, finish the job, prepare the workshop and when you have given the workshop, don’t linger waiting for feedback, just move onto the next thing.

I’ve been playing with the Zen way of work for a couple of weeks now, and I already I feel the difference in how I approach tasks. I do them with a lot less effort because I’m not so focused on the outcome. I’m not looking at what comes next. Whether it’s approaching a horse to put on a halter, playing games with a pony, or planning our sessions and long-term curriculum, I’m enjoying the feeling of complete burn-out. I’m also more aware of the signs that I’m starting to smoke a bit, usually around Zoom meetings that I let creep into creative time, and I’m stoking up the fire, which means making guilt-free decisions to switch off, knowing that I don’t have to stay for pointless meetings. What a relief it is to work like this.

It strikes me that horses know how to practise Zen. Watching the herd freely graze and move around together, they do things completely without trace. They have no preconceived idea of how to act. If you allow a horse enough time there is nothing to get in the way of their activity. When Sheranni makes a decision, whether or not to come back into the yard, after I have supposedly turned him free for the morning, he may take a moment to weigh up the situation and may run through a few options. When he has made his mind up, though, he moves with commitment. He is not thinking: I should have stayed in the field where the grass is greener. Naturally, I can’t know this for sure, but observing him and other intelligent thinking animals, I sense a greater connection to what Zen calls the ‘big mind’ of pure consciousness and less attachment to the ‘small mind’ of personal thinking.

Our personal thinking and ideas of what should occur in any given activity means we are often not free to act without trace. We are weighed down by notions. We create intricate, multi-layered stories of how we must be in the world. Suzuki puts it like this:

‘When we practice Zazen our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea, the thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about other activities and things. These traces and notions make our minds very complicated. When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.’

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

I love this. I love the way it lets me drop my complex thinking and yet still offers a strong and straightforward way of operating intelligently. I love the freedom it presents. It takes away the doubting, the second-guessing, the deliberation. This summer I’m dedicating to true burn-out.

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