Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Joan Borysenko. Joan is a cancer cell biologist, a licensed psychologist, and a yoga and meditation instructor. A cofounder and former director of the Mind/Body Clinic at New England Deaconess Hospital, she has taught at Harvard Medical School. Joan is a pioneer in the medical field of psychoneuroimmunology and she lives in Boulder, Colorado. The author of the New York Times bestseller Minding the Body, Mending the Mind and most recently Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, she’s also the author of Inner Peace for Busy Women: Balancing Work, Family, and Your Inner Life.
With Sounds True, Joan has created several audio programs including A Woman’s Spiritual Retreat, a program [titled] Menopause: Initiation into Power, and an audio program called Seventy Times Seven, where she explains that it’s only through the forgiveness process that we can attain our ultimate spiritual growth.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Joan and I spoke about the importance of resiliency in both individuals and in corporations, and the five most important qualities that create resiliency. We also talked about a recent devastating fire in Boulder Canyon, and what Joan learned about grieving and renewal and the power of appreciation. Finally, we talked about what opens the heart the most and the power of genuineness. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Joan Borysenko.
Joan, I know you’ve written a new book on burnout, and I found the book very confessional. You really came forward and talked about your own experiences with burnout, experiences that were quite heavy, I thought, quite devastating in terms of your description of how terrible you felt. And I’m really curious to know, here, as “the mind-body woman,” the woman who wrote Inner Peace for Busy Women, did you have some sense of, “Will my audience lose faith in me if I confess to my own life burnout experience?”
Joan Borysenko: [Laughs] Do you know, Tami, possibly the reason why, out of 14 books, I only had one bestseller is that I never edit myself, wondering what the audience is going to think. I simply tell what is true. And my feeling has always been when an author or a speaker is real, is vulnerable, and they recognize, “This person is a human being just like I am, with exactly the same kinds of challenges I have. And even she, after years of mind-body medicine and meditating, has burned out, I feel better about myself. I can trust that. Let’s see what she has to say.”
So that’s the basis that I go on. Sometimes I used to think in the old days—I came in once to the Deaconess Hospital in Boston, one of the Harvard teaching hospitals where I was giving a mind-body program, with a cold. And honestly, there were disillusioned people. It was like catching your favorite politician walking out of a brothel. Sometimes people, I guess, just don’t realize that you may have a passion for something, but you’re human nonetheless.
TS: If anything, it made me think you have a kind of core confidence in who you are. And I’m curious about that—a confidence that you can share your experience and that you don’t need to have pretense and impress people.
JB: You know, Tami, I think that’s actually true. I think you hit the nail on the head. I would have to say that one of the things that I have most enjoyed in watching my own self mature over the years is that I do have much more confidence in simply being authentically me, rather than in trying to manufacture some sort of a persona that’s going to make me look good.
TS: OK, so you went through this experience of burnout, and in the process you did quite a bit of research on the topic and understanding the underpinnings of this as a phenomenon in our time. And I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about what you discovered, both about burnout as a phenomenon, but mostly about yourself.
JB: Alright. Well, burnout as a phenomenon has been written about since 1974. There was actually an industrial psychologist who works with corporations. His name was Herbert Freudenberger. And he was looking at the fact that sometimes in corporations, particularly if you’re a really hard-driven person and you want to do a good job, but you don’t have a lot of control over what work is going to come your way, [or] over how things operate there, that people would describe how they lost their motivation, how they started to get sick all the time, develop things like low back pain—which is really a big way that corporations lose money—[and] how these people became alienated, really alienated. Not only from other people, from co-workers and spouses, they got short of temper, they were exhausted, emotionally drained, and it looked a whole lot like depression. And, of course, the final end point was that their productivity and the quality of their work went way down.
So corporations were very interested in figuring out what this was. So Freudenberger was the first to research it and to develop a listing of stages of burnout, which he got from a kind of thematic analysis from interviewing thousands of people. He came up with 12 stages, which we can take a short tour through if you’re interested, in a bit. And then, more recently, a woman by the name of Kristina Maslach, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and her colleagues did a tremendous amount of work on burnout.
And she in particular did the research and validation on a burnout inventory, which is in common use. And that has three scales, and I think your listeners can relate, probably, to what these three scales are. The first one measures your degree of emotional exhaustion and physical depletion. And that’s really the most common reason why people go to their family practice doctors saying, “I’m exhausted, I can’t stand things anymore,” and that’s why we get so many anti-depressant prescriptions for something where those medicines won’t work. So that’s the first scale: emotional depletion and physical depletion.
The second scale is depersonalization. And what that means is you can’t connect with other people anymore. People talk to you and there’s no sense of real communication or connection, and you may become cynical, snarky with people, that sort of thing. And the third scale is lost of effectiveness. And that really is hurtful to people when they realize, “Hey, I can’t do this job very well anymore.”
So that’s the most basic description of the kinds of things that are out there in the literature, and the part of it that appealed to me most, both personally and professionally, is that it’s largely people in human service positions who burn out, and particularly in health care. And since I’ve spent most of my career in health care—running a mind-body clinic, being a psychologist, and even most recently as a spiritual director—I find that that affects me deeply. Because for us health care providers, I would say the relationship is really the medicine. And if we lose our capacity to be present to other people, we lose our capacity for the kind of connection that is actually healing. It’s medicine.
The whole field of interpersonal neurobiology describes how our brain is not only embodied in us throughout our body, but it’s embedded in our relationships with people and the things around us. So if so much of healing comes through relationship and you’re a burned-out health care provider, you’ve really lost your ability to be a healer. And that’s of tremendous interest to me, both personally and professionally.
TS: And what did you find was going on in your own life—we could say psychologically, if you will. What was happening in your own life such that you found yourself burned out?
JB: Well, I’ve been burned out twice. And, you know, my take on burning out more than once is you’ll burn out as many times as you need to until the kind of karma of that is done. Just the same way as you’ll choose the same partner who’s really a bad fit for you, perhaps multiple times, until you finally get it. And it took me two big burnouts and probably, you know, half a dozen little ones to finally get it.
First of all, it’s people who are most interested in success or most committed to an ideal who are most likely to burn out. I found this quote by Thomas Merton that really spoke to me at the time of my burnout, and really described in detail what I was feeling psychologically. And this was Merton—I think it might have been in his letters to a young activist. And he was saying things like—well, one of the things he said is that [in] our society, the most common form of contemporary violence is to think that you have to do more and more, always seeking to do more things for more people. And that’s a form of violence to yourself.
And that eventually you’ll find that it completely—these are now his exact words—he says, “it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” And that’s how I felt. Truly, Tami, I sat and cried. And I said, “I have committed myself”—specifically he said, the tendency in this modern violence is to commit oneself to too many projects, to too many people, to too many things. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I do. I give myself, heart and soul, to all these things. But my eyes are bigger than my stomach. Or, perhaps my heart is bigger than my time.”
And so I end up giving away the time that I need for myself—the time that I need in nature to regenerate; the time that I need to exercise; the time that I need to sit, whether it’s in meditation or to sit to read or just plain stare at some walls and be. And you can’t do that to yourself, or you can’t do it to yourself forever. Eventually, it takes a toll.
And that toll on me, I would say—you know, each one of us needs to develop a kind of inner meter for how juicy we feel or how burned out we feel. And there are certain tell-tale symptoms of both being juicy and being burned out. And for me, the biggest symptoms of burnout come, first of all, in the failure of taking care of myself. When I realized, “OK, I didn’t make the food that I need for the next few days,” —that is, if I’m not travelling, if I’m home. Because normally, I’m kind of looking [at], “What are we eating, what are we doing, what’s prepared.” I hadn’t looked at that.
Another big symptom for me is, maybe I’ve been travelling a lot, it’s travel season, and I know I have to have a doctor’s appointment or have my teeth cleaned or something like that, and I push it off and push it off and push it off, and it keeps going down to the bottom of my list. So when the basic care for your body drops out as a priority, that says something to me.
And then, right at the same [time] with that, I’m starting to notice perhaps I don’t have as much time with my husband, who I love. We’re not doing things that are fun. Or, I’m finding I can’t even find time to call my adult children and grandchildren, that everything else is important, that I open the computer and there’s another friend who wants me to review and potentially endorse their book. And here I am again, back in the people-pleaser mode. I don’t want to disappoint my friend and not look at the book, but if I look at the book, I won’t be able to exercise or call a child or do something else. I realize then I’m way over-scheduled.
So those are the things. Oh, and one more. You know, I am by nature, Tami, a very gentle person. And I just love people. I love being with people, I love talking to people. I love Facebook! I just completely love Facebook, it gives me so much energy. I have a community, and I’m forever talking to them. Sometimes three times a day. I love that, it’s the way I take my breaks. And I find, OK, when somebody who basically gets energy from being with other people—you know, I’m kind of a classical Jungian extrovert in that way—when I don’t want to be with anybody, I don’t want to be on Facebook, I don’t want to see friends, I don’t want to talk to my husband—and if I do, I’m short-tempered and snarky—that’s my lowest self, and when that comes out, it makes me sad. And I know I’m burning out.
TS: Now, you know, you mentioned this idea of sort of committing to an ideal, and this idea of loving other people and wanting to extend to them. And I get that as what could put us into a spin where we’re doing, doing, doing and not taking care of ourselves. But it seems like there could also be a different way of talking about it, which is maybe a little less rosy in terms of the motivation, and I’m curious what you think about this. And you and I know each other, Joan, so I feel comfortable going straight sort of for it, if you will.
But don’t you think also—and this is as somebody who is quite an achiever myself—don’t you also there’s these other kinds of motivations, that, you know, we’re filling an emptiness inside of us, or we want other people to applaud us, or they’re sort of ego-accomplishment drives, or all these other things that have us going, going, going to the point where we’ve, you know, overridden ourselves?
JB: [Laughs] Oh, Tami, there’s lots of drives. There’s ego-accomplishment drives. There’s the drive when you’re an author, if you haven’t had a book lately, you fall off the map and then nobody comes to hear you talk, and then I get my bag-lady fantasies coming up. There are a variety of motivations. There’s no question about it.
You know, you talk about human motivation. In that book Fried, I talked a little bit about probably the mentor who’s meant most to me in this lifetime. And that’s the late David McClelland. I did a post-doc with him at Harvard and David was a psychologist, he was a health psychologist. He was a little famous because he was the one, unfortunately, who had to fire Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert, who became Ram Dass.
But David was an amazing human being. And he studied, what are the motivations for any behavior? And it’s a really, really interesting field. And then he looked at prime motivations. The three he’s best known for are [firstly] the need for achievement. And, you know, as you say, you and I are alike that way. We are very high in the need for achievement.
A second need he’s known for is the need for affiliation. And I’m equal in the need for achievement and affiliation. I love to be friendly. That’s a big deal for me. That’s why, actually [I’d] probably make a bad leader, because my affiliative needs overtake what I need to do to, like, run a company. I would be very bad at your job. [Laughs]
Then, the third need he’s very well-known for is the need for power. And then he looked at 14 other needs, one of them being the need for—there are people who are motivated by unconditional love, the need for caritas. I did a little bit of a study with him on that, in fact. So you’re right, there are all of these needs, we’re not motivated by just one thing. But I think that’s true. People who don’t have a high need for achievement are never going to burn out.
TS: And then, of course, it brings forth this word, the holy grail word, “balance.”
TS: And I’m curious now, at this point, having gone through two burnouts—I mean, do you believe balance is possible? What is balance to Joan Borysenko?
JB: Actually, I don’t believe that balance is possible. A number of years ago—I remember this very well—I went to Atlanta, Georgia. I was giving a talk for the women real estate brokers of Atlanta, Georgia. And just before I get up to speak, the organizer comes up to me, she said, “Just do me one favor. Do not tell us about balance. Tell us how to be a better juggler.” [Laughs]
And pretty much, that’s what it becomes, because “balance” suggests that things are in some kind of—it feels almost static. They’re in some sort of dynamic equilibrium, and the fact is, we drop balls all the time. And we recover. So I’d rather think about it, instead of balance, I like to think about it almost [as] resilience. How quickly are we able to bounce back and make a course correction when we do drop the ball?
You know, I look at people, and I think, “How does Hillary Clinton do it? Maybe she knows something that I don’t!” And then I see her on TV and the poor woman looks exhausted. How would she not be, with all the time zones and tremendous amount of work? And some people have a greater capacity for that, I think, than others. So we really need to know, what is our own capacity? How much help do we need from other people to do what we’re doing?
There’s a lot of variables in the equation, and they change all the time. They change, I think, as we age, Tami. If you’d asked me, “What is balance?” 10 years ago, I might have given you a different answer. Because at this age, I know, I’m 66 years old, and it has started to occur to me that death is not an abstract. It’s a reality. Lots of people I know, who are younger than I am and have taken very good care of themselves, have gotten sick. Several of them have died.
And I look now at my life and I say, “OK. Not knowing how much life I have, what is most precious to me?” I mean, within limits. I still have to earn a living. But given we all have certain things, criteria that we have to make, I want to know what’s going to yield—this is going to sound so corny, I almost hate to say it, but I will anyhow—what’s going to yield the greatest amount of love and joy and service? Because what I think when I feel loving and joyful, the quality of my work is much better. And I am of more service.
But I want more days to walk the mountain with my beloved, who it took almost a whole lifetime to discover. I want more time to see those grandchildren. I want them to be able to remember me. I want more time for creativity. You know, it’s a really cool thing for me to go out and garden, particularly since we had the big fire here. Our whole neighborhood burned down. We were fried, one day after I sent the final Fried manuscript in to the publisher. So if you would [ask] what’s balance for me now, I’d say free time had to be on the top of my list.
TS: Now, Joan, as I’m listening to you, is it raining where you are?
JB: It’s pouring!
TS: It’s pouring down rain. That’s what it sounds like.
JB: Yes, it’s pouring.
TS: Well, Joan, what you said that I might find corny, when you were asking yourself the question, what will yield the most love and service, I find that absolutely beautiful!
JB: [Laughs] Thank you, Tami.
TS: Now, you mentioned this idea of resiliency as potentially a substitute for the concept of balance—let’s look at, “Are we resilient?” And you talked about the fire in Colorado that affected your neighborhood. Now, that seems like quite a test of someone’s resiliency.
JB: Well, it was a huge test of resiliency for people. Boulder itself is a very resilient community. And it’s quite interesting. It seems to me I have to live each book I write—that I write Fried and the day after it’s finished, the whole neighborhood catches fire, and 169 houses went down. Sixteen of those were our neighbors. And our house burned in part, and about half of our view burned off; the view from one part of our house is now thousands upon thousands of black trees called “snags,” a new vocabulary word.
I’m going to talk about resilience in a minute, but the book before Fried was called It’s Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change. And, you know, I had to laugh because every time I write a book, something happens and I have to live the book. You know, I think maybe my next book should be called Great Sex Forever, if I have to live every one of them.
TS: Yes. Super Bliss, something like that.
JB: Pure Bliss, that’s it. But in any case, I’ve been interested in resilience for a very, very long time, because as somebody who ran a clinic for people with AIDS, for people with cancer, for people with stress-related illnesses, I immediately could see that there were some people who would view their illness as a challenge, and who were not only resilient in the sense of, “Yes, we’ve had a set-back and we can bounce back and be as good as before,” but for them, the difficulty was a moment of transformation where there was not “as good as before.” There was more depth, there was more efficacy, there was more love than there was before.
And that’s actually my definition of resilience: that it’s more than bouncing back. I’ve seen that with the fire. I’ve seen the land do that, and I’ve seen people do it individually, and I’ve seen the community of Boulder do it. You know, one amazing thing was one year after the fire— the fire was on Labor Day, September 4, 2010, so we’re coming up on two years after the fire. One year after the fire, the United Way gave a big dinner and music evening for anybody who was affected by the fire. So we saw a lot of neighbors whose homes had been burned down and we hadn’t seen them since.
And it was remarkable to see them, because when we’d first seen them, you know, a few days after the houses had burned down, and we were going to public meetings that Boulder had set up so well, of course everybody was grieving and devastated. But what we saw was, a year later, so many of these people had not only bounced back, but were looking at the fire as a transformational event and had reconstituted their lives in a way that [was] not only as good as, but perhaps better than they had been before.
And that’s how transformation works. The famous Khalil Gibran line of, you know, “pain cracking the shell of your understanding so that something else can sprout,” is so true, literally and metaphorically. So just what I had seen in my patients over many years, I had to practice myself. And, you know, if you’re interested in what some of the qualities of resilience are, I would of course be happy to talk about them.
TS: Well, yes, I’m interested. I’m interested in knowing, how do I develop resilience? I want to be a very resilient person, and I imagine our listeners do, too. So how do I develop those qualities?
JB: Well, there are five or six main qualities of a resilient person. So the question is, how [do] you develop a quality within yourself? And I’ll speak to that briefly as we go through the five or six things. What’s been found, by the way, in the research—there’s a huge amount of research. For example, research has been done on prisoners of war, people who are sick, children who are neglected and abused—which ones grow up to be whole, productive human beings, and which ones turn out to have very, very difficult lives after that.
There’s plenty of research also on resilient corporations, in fact. We laugh, like corporations are not people. None of us like that pronouncement. But they have certain similarities as organisms, because the same things that make a human being resilient will make a corporation resilient.
So here are the keys to resilience. I’m just going to enumerate them and then we can go back through them as time allows. The first one is being a realist, not an optimist. And that surprises people. The second is a sense of faith or trust in the rightness of things; the ability to create a meaning that’s growth-inducing. The third is the quality of radical creativity. The fourth is social support, the care and love of others. The fifth would be having a sense of humor, because that does lift you into the witness position and out of the trenches. And there are a number of other ancillary things, but let’s take a look at those main five. Did any of them particularly pop out at you?
TS: Well, the first one, being a realist, I think is, of course, a great place to start. Just because I think, you know, “I have to be optimistic about this,” or something. And I’m not, so I feel quite validated by this idea that being a realist is preferred. But I’d love for you to talk about why is that helpful for resiliency.
JB: OK. There’s an old sailing quote, which goes something like this: “When the winds turn against you, the pessimist complains, the optimist says, ‘Don’t worry, the winds will change,’ and the realist adjusts the sails.” And what a realist is able to do is stick in with moment-by-moment awareness and see the handwriting on the wall without making excuses, without going into denial, without any of that.
So, for example, when the economy went south in 2008, we all have examples of people who were realists and people who were optimists and people who were pessimists. I have a close acquaintance, who’s a green builder in another state, and he is an optimist and he kept saying, “Oh, green building’s the way of the future, I won’t worry.”
And all his friends were saying, “It may be the way of the future, but the handwriting on the wall is it’s going to take several years for the economy to come back, because nobody has any money to build and houses aren’t selling. Why don’t you get a job, you know, as a barista at Starbucks, or anything to slow the burn of your cash.”
And he didn’t, and ultimately he went bankrupt, lost his house, and lost his business. Whereas, somebody else might have said, “I need to close this business temporarily and do something just to keep myself afloat.” That might be the definition of realist.
But we also know a great deal about pessimism and learned helplessness, so I won’t go into that. But the pessimistic worldview is what keeps you stuck in a rut, because you don’t actually believe there’s a way out of it. When you’re a realist, you do believe that there is a way out of it, but you really track what it takes to optimize the situation, which is why I like to call this “optimizing realism.”
So that’s the first. And you know, there’s a story about optimism that is in the book From Good to Great. And in it, there’s an interview of General Stockdale, who was in fact a POW. And it was very, very interesting, because the author—whose name you will surely remember, and my brain will retrieve in a moment, he lives in Boulder—
TS: Jim Collins?
JB: Jim Collins. When he interviewed Stockdale, it was fascinating because he was thinking that optimists would be resilient—optimistic people and optimistic corporations. And what Stockdale said was, “Oh, who was the most resilient in the POW camps? I’ll start with who was the least resilient, and that was the optimists.” They would say to themselves things like, “America’s a great country, they’ll have us out of here by Christmas.”
Then Christmas would come and go and they’d still be there. And they’d say, “OK, we’ll be out by Easter.” And they wouldn’t be. Then Fourth of July, then Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again, and eventually they’d give up hope. They’d develop a kind of helplessness.
And we know the biology of helplessness. In fact, one of the greatest writers on resilience of all time, Victor Frankl, talked about how when people became helpless in concentration camps, they would sit on the edge of their cots, and either they would die from rapid cardiac death—you know, they’d go into cardiac spasm, have a heart attack—and exit, or their immune systems would be so affected that they’d pick up bacteria, they’d get typhoid or something like that, or cholera, and they would die. And this is synonymous with not being resilient, to be helpless. So you don’t want to be an optimist, you don’t want to be a pessimist. You have to develop that capacity for realism.
TS: I think what I find so refreshing about this idea is that it seems that—an impression I have, at least, from a lot of self-help literature and pop psychology is that, “It’s good for my health if I’m optimistic.” So I think I felt under pressure all these years to be optimistic.
JB: Yes. That’s why I like the word “optimizing realism.” I think it’s a much better description. We want to be able to optimize the outcomes as best we can for the conditions of our lives. Like after the fire, Tami. You know, this has been fascinating to watch how the land renews itself. I’ve learned so many lessons about resilience.
So, for example, we had a very, very large outbuilding that burned down in the fire. They track the heat from these buildings from helicopters. It burned at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, so that the only thing left from the fire of this building were the four concrete footers, the tin roof, and one other thing: an old piece of Pueblo pottery, which had already, of course, been fired under great heat. It was just sitting there on top of the pile of ashes. I wish I’d taken a picture of it.
[So] we looked around that site and looked around it. My husband Gordy kept feeling into it and feeling into it—a kind of mindfulness of the site—what would really be required here to optimize this piece of land given the reality that it had suffered this very bad burn, and it was ugly as sin. So, of course, we had the building cleared and the land leveled, and it wasn’t leveled enough. He had it leveled twice more.
And then he built a labyrinth, a seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth on that site. And it is totally wonderful, because walking into the center of the labyrinth, there’s a sense of letting go of limitations, and coming into what is. And walking back out mindfully, being able to see, all around you, information, beauty—things that can help you tune into different areas of your life and say, “OK, what’s going on here now? And how can I interact with the future that wants to emerge?”
That’s an actual phrase that I’m borrowing from—who’s the guy from MIT, who wrote the book Theory U? He’s a collaborator of Peter Senge. Anyhow, that will come to me also. But he talks about the future that wants to emerge and our ability to cooperate with that and bring it into being. To me, that’s what optimizing realism is. It is a kind of mindfulness. And it’s also related to the component of resilience that we call “radical creativity.” What does it take to be radically creative?
And I think that capacity to tune into what is now, and to see what’s organically starting to merge in different sectors of whatever it is that you’re observing, whether you’re a corporation and you’re looking at trends in the future [and] markets, or whether you’re looking at your land after a bad burn, “How can I help the land? What can be constructed? How can I cooperate with nature in terms of what we plant?”
This season alone, Gordy has planted 33 trees after very careful observation of where they might grow best, how they’ll affect the balance and beauty of the landscape. He’s reseeded three of our meadows twice already. He’s put in hundreds of perennials. And he’s actually just given himself this summer to the re-creation after the fire. And it’s amazing to watch how nature re-creates. It’s stunning.
Anybody who ever thinks that this universe is static would gain a lot of perspective from going through a fire like this. I’m looking out now at some of these slopes with the thousands of dead trees. Underneath them, there are bits of green, but if you go and walk amongst those trees, you see that the bits of green actually are thousands and thousands of leaves of wildflowers as well as grasses. There are wildflowers—I mean, I’ve lived up here for 20 years—there are flowers after the fire that I have never seen before, ever. And it’s fascinating to think that the fire has created, of course, the exact confluence of environmental events that’s necessary for the germination of some things.
It’s been totally fascinating. I would say it’s been the most enlivening thing I’ve ever gone through—after the first six months of grieving and devastation. Because that’s the other thing. If you’ve gone through a very difficult time, you can’t immediately jump into a new life. There’s a period where you have to grieve the preciousness of what has passed. There’s time for that. I think that a lot of the illness of our society is because we don’t take time to grieve what was and to be quiet for a while so that we can tune in, in a real way, to what is and what wants to emerge.
TS: As you’re talking, Joan, what’s coming up for me is bridging the first half and second half here, of our conversation. We started talking about burnout and what leads to it, and here we’re talking about resiliency and what creates a resilient person. And it seems that these two phenomenon go together in some special ways. And I’m curious how you put that all together; something about the power of descent, and the capacity to renew, that kind of thing.
JB: Well, I think you actually just came to the absolute root of this. And that is, I look at an event like burnout, or any big event like that—when your spouse, [when] you thought everything was fine, comes to you and says, “We need a divorce,” r when you get an illness, or any of these things—can be a doorway to transformation.
But I think particularly burnout —burnout is the most isolating thing that can ever happen to somebody. For me, it’s the opposite of a spiritual life. I view spirituality in the same way that Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant view it, which is as a constellation of positive emotions that arise from the way that you interact with life. So spirituality is the capacity for awe and wonder. It’s compassion and love. It’s a sense of gratefulness and appreciation. It is the ability to let go and forgive. It’s a sense of basic trust in the goodness of the universe.
And burnout is exactly the opposite. It’s like, you’re cynical, you’re isolated, your body is sick, you’ve lost the capacity for that deep sense of—you know, David Steindl-Rast talks about spirituality as our deepest sense of belonging and connection. So burnout’s the exact opposite. It’s a spiritual crisis. And it’s almost like the traditional explanation that John of the Cross gave of “the dark night of the soul.”
The dark night of the soul is more than something bad that happens to you—it’s this profound sense of disconnect from the living universe. And that’s what burnout is. I think the capacity—once you have had that extreme disconnection, the capacity for understanding and experiencing reconnection is much more conscious. Probably the greatest spiritual practice I’ve ever engaged in is recovering from burnout.
TS: What would your suggestions be to somebody who’s listening and says, you know, “I feel a lot of the symptoms, maybe not a severe case, but I feel a lot of what Joan’s talking about here in terms of having a case of burnout. And, of course, I’m interested in this renewal and cultivating resilience.” Where would you have them start?
JB: I would have them start by going away for at least a week and taking the time to be absolutely quiet and unplugged. This means leaving home your computer, your smartphone, and everything else, as if you’ve just been sent to the heart of the Amazon [laughs] on a project or something. To completely unplug yourself, and then to really begin to reflect, what is your life like now, truly? Are you really feeling connected? Are you feeling the kind of vibrant passion of happiness? What is it that speaks to you?
And you know, there’s a book that I love dearly, Tami, that was written by Dawna Markova, and it’s called I Will Not Die an Unlived Life. And she went away for six months to a cabin in the wilderness in Utah, this high-level corporate consultant. And every chapter is written so lyrically, and has to do, ultimately, with questions that she asked herself on this retreat about her life and about herself. And there are questions for the reader at the end of the chapter.
So what I would do is get a copy of Dawna Markova’s book and go away for a week by yourself with nothing to do, and simply reflect—not only with nothing to do, I would chose a place out in nature, because nature is the great reconnector, where you can walk outdoors. If you love the beach, go away to the beach. If you love the mountains, go away to the mountains. But you have to take a pause to reflect. We can’t see when we’re up against the daily-ness of life and all of the deadlines.
So we need to start by taking time. I call that “purgatory time” because if you go back to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the best description of burnout is the descent into the Inferno, part one. Then, the recovery, really seeing yourself in a new light, comes in the Purgatorio, and then you get to rise up into the Paradiso.
And I think that’s what I’ve learned from burnout. It’s actually possible to feel like you’re living in heaven on earth, and you know, I do. Some days are more heavenly then others. I’m still human and I have my moments. But since the last burnout and since the fire, I don’t know, there’s been some intrinsic shift inside of me, and I’m grateful for it. I think it has to do with an enhanced sense of appreciation, Tami, which is probably, for me, the most powerful of all spiritual practices.
TS: Say more about that.
JB: Well, I’ll give you a tiny story. When I first moved up to Gold Hill, our youngest son was going to the University of Denver. And there was a tee-pee up here, and I thought, “Oh, so much better than a Marriott.” We stayed in the tee-pee, I had this big, vivid dream of picking up a piece of rock from that land and the bottom half was crystal. Out came a big crystalline spirit wolf—I know, it’s weird, but it’s just what happened. And it said, “Welcome to this land. This land is where you’re going to really mature and develop.”
And the next day, lo and behold, I found a house for sale, and there were many synchronicities. I knew the person who’d built the house, who, in fact, was a film writer who’d written, amongst other things, that create cult classic called Resurrection, starring Ellen Burstyn as a woman who had a near-death experience and came back with the capacity to heal. And the house really called, and I’ve lived here for 20 years and lived through the fire here.
But shortly before the fire, I was thinking, “It’s time to move. It’s cold up here, it’s muddy up here, there’s a lot of schlepping to get here.” The day of the fire, we were out walking, and I was conversing with the wolf in my mind, and saying, “Thanks for bringing me here, but I’d really like to go now.” And then we came home and then there was the fire, and the next thing, we were gone.
And then, in my grieving I thought, “We’re stuck with this house.” I really went into a place of helplessness and depression for awhile. I said, “We’re having a recession, the house has now lost so much of its value because so much of the view is destroyed. Nobody wants to live where a fire was.” And I was in my most constricted, ego-dense, miserable self.
And then, one night, maybe six months after the fire, I’m just kind of resting and the wolf comes. And the wolf says, “Look, you know when you’ll get to leave this house, should you want to. It’s only when you come to appreciate everything about the land and the home and what you have.” And it left me with a spark of possibility, like, appreciate it? You must be out of your cotton-picking mind!
But a few days later, Gordy and I are sitting in the hot tub, and we hear the sound of an owl. And the wildlife—you have to realize that the wildlife is one of the great reasons for living here. We see foxes all the time. There are so many different kinds of birds and owls and chipmunks and rabbits and bears—we have lots of bears—and lions, and sometimes there are kind of amazing encounters with animals. But all the animals were gone because of the fire. Not even any deer were left. I mean, we were living in a wasteland. It was black and stinky and awful, unbelievable here. And the dust was toxic. I mean, [it’s] really horrible after a fire.
But I heard the owl, and my heart just leapt. There was an animal! And I just started to cry. I was overcome with what David Steindl-Rast calls “the gratefulness,” that’s what he talks about, is gratefulness. And it’s like, I used to hear owls all the time, I was never overcome with joy and appreciation before that moment. And what happened then, as spring came, and more animals came, every blade of grass, every sign of life, I got completely sappy. I couldn’t help myself. I was just in such a state of deep appreciation, I would stand there and cry.
I’m looking now at the worst of the burned-out meadows. It was so ugly, and I actually—here’s the hubris—I had no faith that nature could renew itself. I thought it would be all thorny, nasty weeds, and there were some. So we had to pull those out and put in good seeds. And when those came up, weed out the thorns again. But nature had her own seeds. It’s so beautiful here. Now I look out at the burn, and it just seems so right in the cycle of things, so right.
The last thing we packed in the car as we evacuated, by the way, was a dancing Shiva statue that I brought back from India many years ago. I said, “This is a Shiva moment. The wheel of life is turning, things are destroyed, but that’s so that re-creation can happen.” But that was intellectual. The appreciation of the renewal after the fire has made that embodied. And it has, I don’t know, it has sunk into me at some cellular level that I don’t take things for granted.
I look at Gordy, my beloved, and now we’ve been together for nine years, it took almost a whole lifetime to find each other, and I realize our time together is limited some by our age, perhaps. But every time I see him newly in the morning, or I catch a glimpse of him, my heart just flies open. It’s like our love has increased, if that were possible, so many fold. And both of us are in this state of amazing appreciation. And that’s what I learned from the fire and the wolf. [Laughs] And that’s what, I think, is the state of heaven on earth.
TS: It’s very inspiring to hear you talk about it, and it does fill me with a sense of appreciation of this moment. I also know sometimes for people, it’s hard for them to connect with that feeling, that feeling of really genuinely appreciating or being grateful. I mean, you went through this experience of tremendous loss and the trauma, really, of a fire, and naturally, spontaneously, this appreciation was born in you. Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to increase their appreciation?
JB: Oh, I do. It was definitely born in me, but I had been tilling the field for the seeds of appreciation for many years. And I think that’s what we can do. We can till the field, and then when something sprouts, our tilling is met by grace. It’s just like Father Thomas Keating, when he talks about Centering Prayer, he says, “We do it and we do it and we do it and we keep our appointment with God, and nothing may happen until one day, some time, we’re walking through the supermarket and suddenly, spontaneously, we feel this sense of divine union with something greater than we.”
I think that’s what this is. I’ve had a practice for years, and I’d say it was my most important practice for years, Tami, that I learned from Brother David Steindl-Rast, and people will like his website: gratefulness.org. He’s such a beautiful teacher. He’s in his 80s, he’s been a Zen teacher for, what, 40 years or something. An amazing human being. And his idea is that gratefulness and mindfulness really spring out of one another.
And here’s the practice that he suggested, that I’ve done on and off for at least 15 years. What it is, is this: every day, as you go through your life, you find one thing that you really have appreciated. And that night, before bed, you bring it back to mind. I think better, even, to bring it back in an embodied state, if you can.
It’s like, this morning I was looking at my raised bed garden, and it’s become a salad bar for the local chipmunks. And I watched one of them and exactly how he got through the netting and into the garden, and it was the cutest thing that I had ever seen. It just absolutely tickled me—not that I didn’t adjust the netting later. But tonight, when I got to bed, I’ll bring up the scene of that chipmunk and the sense of absolute delight I had and my imaginary “salad bar, five cents” sign [laughs] I need to put on the garden. But if you do that every day—and the idea is, to do this practice, you can’t just be grateful for the same thing over and over, you know.
It can’t be by rote, like, “I’m thankful for shelter, I’m thankful for my family and friends.” You might be, but it has to be something that’s real for you, that’s embodied for you and authentic for you. So every day I’ve practiced that, and what happens, Brother David says—and I can attest, he’s right—is when you’re looking for something to appreciate, it brings about a state of mindfulness all day long. This practice teaches you to look with new eyes, to look for the details of things that might otherwise go unappreciated. So that’s what I mean, this practice was tilling the soil of appreciation, and the fire planted the seed when everything was taken away. And then against that backdrop of nothing, the littlest thing became the greatest blessing.
TS: Joan, it’s been great talking to you. Honestly I have about 20 more things we could talk about, but I’m just going to ask one final question: one thing, I think—probably the biggest thing—that I feel when I speak with you is the purity and the openness of your heart. And I would love to know, what in your experience has helped you the most to open your heart wider and wider and wider?
JB: That’s a really great question. You know, there are so many answers that come to mind. I guess, stream of consciousness, I’ll give you a few things. One of them was my mother’s death, which I’ve written about and talked about, because we didn’t like each other much. But the day that she died, we had a spontaneous forgiveness that happened, where she asked me to forgive her for all the ways she had not been the greatest mother, because she was very critical.
And for the first time, I realized I hadn’t been a great daughter either. I’d held her out of my heart. I’d judged her. I was in my 40s when she died, but in that moment of forgiveness, I pretty much recognized that the obligatory narcissism of childhood had not passed from me until maybe that moment. I had not seen her as a person with her own hopes and dreams and loves and fears. I’d seen her as my supply chain, as a child does. And I was kind of shocked at my own narcissism, and that made me more aware of it in the many places in which it shows up, and it still does show up, of course.
But that helped me. It helped me recognize that there were many ways for the heart to open. And then, at the moment that she actually died, I had what Raymond Moody—the psychiatrist who’s written so much about near-death experiences—calls an empathic death experience, where you actually go into the light with the person who’s dying. So I had a tremendous experience of divine light and love and understanding of my relationship with my mother from a higher perspective. And that shifted me greatly. It was very, very, very powerful.
And then I would say, thirdly, it was the experiences of having been married several times, Tami. And, I think, my own narcissism naturally calling in, finding home with people [to whom] I was narcissistically matched. It wasn’t until I’d kind of gotten over that somewhat that Gordy and I met, nine years ago.
And I truly believe—I mean, this is the first time in my life that I feel I have ever been seen in all of my shadow and in all of my light, and loved despite my shadow. That I can be who I am—and maybe this brings us full circle to the beginning of the conversation, where you said you thought I had a lot of confidence in being able to share the places where I’ve had trouble or failed abjectly or been left in the idealization that maybe some people would hold me in. And I feel like my best self has been brought out by Gordy’s love.
TS: Beautiful. And beautiful to hear the rain, again, coming and going throughout our conversation on descent and renewal.
I’ve been speaking with Joan Borysenko. With Sounds True, Joan has created a series of audio sessions on A Woman’s Spiritual Retreat: Teachings, Meditations, and Rituals to Celebrate Your Authentic Feminine Wisdom. She’s also created with Sounds True a program on the spiritual art of forgiveness called Seventy Times Seven, and a program on menopause about unleashing your creativity and intuition at midlife.
Joan, thank you so much. Thank you so much for your genuineness.
JB: Oh, you’re welcome.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.