Sometimes people ask me, don't you get sad all the time, working with dying people? Well, yes, and no, too. I feel incredibly fortunate to do this work. People say, you must be exhausted. I feel exhausted, sometimes, when I don't work hard to meet my own needs and do what I need to do to take care of myself. Yet even more so: I feel exhausted when I've taken pause from working with clients for awhile. I start to feel a sense of separation, a lack of passion. Moving through the world feeling disconnected from the purpose I've been feeling into since childhood: that is exhausting.
Sometimes people talk about burnout as "compassion fatigue." Burnout is real and scary. But compassion fatigue is not an accurate description. The work is challenging; and it's one of my great healing spaces, too. I become fatigued when I don't feel present, when I can't access the depth of love, anger, sadness, joy, humor, fear--and all the other emotions that come knocking in intense times in folks' lives--that my body is yearning for. I want to be busted open, like the poets. I feel a strong affinity not only with those in the healing professions, but with artists. Healers and artists continually hone their craft, and more importantly, there's a shared sense that getting busted open and getting real embody the most desirable way to move through this confusing world.
Sometimes, my walls go up. That's when I get tired. When my heart breaks, I feel open, I feel intuitive, and I can feel tired without getting burnt out. But when my heart stays closed, it hurts and exhausts me, like walking miles and miles with pebbles in my shoes. Can the work be my own spiritual practice? Can it be a discipline of self-love in the midst of my own shortcomings and failures? Will I stretch my capacity to be with my own somatic experience, rather than avoid it at all costs? Amongst loss and pain, can I rest in compassion, and find refuge there?
When I'm lucky enough to non-judgmentally open the door to the fear, the negativity, the shame, the disappointment that arise within me, the love comes in, too. It's the same door. Compassion is not the enemy. It's the answer.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
This is one of the first Rumi poems I ever read, when I was 17 or so. I didn't know that it would be the start of a love affair with both Rumi and mindfulness.