One misunderstanding I have followed in my Buddhist life is to take the instruction “exchanging yourself for another” as a prescription for not attending to myself and my own needs. To that end, I took “giving” and “giving service” to an extreme that left me burnt out. In the Zen world that I am familiar with, there was no instruction on resting. You followed the collective schedule, had no personal needs, and if you did, that was construed somehow as “wrong” or weak or narcissistic. One person joked, at the monastery, he didn’t have time to go to the bathroom.
When I pulled back from teaching Zen, I was so exhausted that I had to take an extended period away from my role and duties to allow for private nurturance and rest. For me this is ironic as the cultural assumptions about Zen is that you can find your calm and your space to just be. Of course, I acknowledge that this was my own conception overlaid on the practice. I continued the compulsive over-working of my childhood right through my whole career as a Zen teacher.
I was delighted to find Mushim Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and one of the leaders of the East Bay Meditation Center and a community activist’s article on “I Vow Not to Burn Out.” She writes:
“I’d like to see the exchange of self for other re-envisioned as the care of self in service to the community……Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the future Buddha Maitreya may be a community, not an individual. Perhaps your community, like mine, is in need of inventive ways to carve out spaces for what some are now calling ‘radical rest’ ….. I advocate for more forgiving and spacious schedules of spiritual practice that value being well-rested and that move toward honoring the body-mind’s need for enough sleep and downtime.”
In the Tibetan studies I’ve done, there are 4 kinds of effort and the last type is rest and rejuvenation. I am just learning to include that now in my spiritual life. This is so much a part of learning to “just be” and not needing to change or try to be better or “work on myself.” Right now, who I am, right now is enough. What is enough? Sometimes, focusing on improving myself, produces a self-focus that actually hinders my ability to work for the whole of society.
This is especially true if we now add onto our Zen lives – social activism. How much is in our capacity to do? Can we prioritize our needs and the needs of the community to allow for personal rest and spaciousness, especially in the face of the constrictions and violence in the lives of those around us? As I concentrate more on more on how to live a non-violent life, how to enter the world with a vision for change, I see how much violence I do to myself when I don’t notice and attend to my own human needs. This internal violence mirrors the outside world and vice-versa.
Social activist Angela Davis, in an interview in YES! Magazine, says:
I think our notions of what counts as radical have changed over time. Self-care and healing and attention to the body and the spiritual dimension – all of this is now a part of radical social justice struggles. That wasn’t the case before. And I think that now we’re thinking deeply about the connection between interior life and what happens in the social world. Even those who are fighting against state violence often incorporate impulses that are based on state violence in their relations with other people.