Raw, Well-Cooked, and Burnt to a Crisp: Recovery from Burn-Out

New Green after Fire…Friends,  I’ve been a long time away 

from my center….

I am still raw

and at the same time well-cooked

and burnt to a crisp.

No one can tell if I’m laughing or weeping.

I wonder myself…

 

                                        Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

It’s chilly and grey on my patio this morning, but the coffee is hot. The birds are kicking the seed out of the feeders and it sounds like tiny raindrops hitting the concrete. I am so grateful for this moment of quiet and solitude and writing, and from this place of contentment I want to share an experience and explore a mystery with you.

The other day, as I was driving home from a workshop, tears began to bubble up unexpectedly. It wasn’t the content of the course that triggered it, but the engaged and stimulating interactions I’d had all day with other professionals in my field. It had been a long time since I felt excited about my work in this way. A very very long time. I pulled over to a favorite spot overlooking the mountains and a potent image of my interior landscape, the area around my heart, came immediately to mind– the aftermath of a firestorm in the California foothills. I saw the charred remains of tree trunks, scorched earth, and tendrils of smoke curling up toward the sky from the fire that remained underground, slowly burning away the roots of things. And yet, there were already shoots of tender green coming up through the devastation. The new life, fertilized and made possible by the fire, was already making its way toward the sun.

“Yes,” I thought to myself, “I KNOW I’m burned out, but is it THAT bad? Still?!”  Clearly, I was more than a little toasty. I was burnt to a crisp. I cried a little more, this time out of self-pity. I tried to imagine more green, some flowers, living trees. Nope. No change. I entertained a little internal whining, “I thought I was doing ok! Months of rest and recharge wasn’t enough? What about the journaling? The reading? The therapy—massage and psycho? The renewed faith in the goodness of the universe, the gratitude I was cultivating?  I’m even EXERCISING for God’s sake!”

An answer came in a quiet, even voice. “It takes a long time.” Calmed, but curious, I drove home and resumed my routine. Feeling a little more compassion for myself.

The phrase quoted above, “I am still raw/and at the same time well-cooked/and burnt to a crisp,” had been popping into my mind for days before this event. It was a line that I had not understood before, filled, as it was with incongruity and impossibility. I’ve been around the Rumi block enough to know that this is the signal of a deep mystery, a spiritual truth, and so I’d been letting it roll around my head and my heart as it wanted, knowing something would come of it eventually. Three days later, as I contemplate the image of my internal condition and this ancient poem, I feel the glimmer of understanding. Ahh.

If you’ve lived anywhere near places that are frequently ravaged by wildfires, you may know that this is a terrifying yet necessary process for the cycle of life. Some plants actually require periodic fires to survive—to release seeds, eliminate competition, and replenish nutrients in the soil. The great Sequoia and Redwoods are a prime example of this. The human soul is no different. It requires us to suffer many losses, real and symbolic deaths over a lifetime in order to be reborn.  This charred landscape in my imagination is not a wasteland. It is a nursery. And, it is proceeding as it should.

Everyone is susceptible to burnout: the stage of a career –or a relationship–where you feel like you have nothing left to give, when the passion is gone leaving nothing but desuetude, exhaustion, and even physical illness. Those in the helping professions and those who are voluntary caregivers for family members are particularly vulnerable, and self-care is an essential, though often neglected skill. Why is that? We all fear burn-out, and yet we often march dutifully toward it for years. Maybe, burn out is a necessary place for some of us. Maybe this is the place we must go to be reborn, to create the right conditions for something new to rise up.

My body is telling me, through its unique language of image, to be patient—recovery is a very slow process. She is also reminding me to patiently observe and listen to the subtle communication and guidance that is always available from within.  As I re-evaluate and make plans for a new direction in my work, Rumi is my teacher. I am raw—as new ideas and longings appear, I am vulnerable to fear and insecurity. I am well-cooked—having studied, contemplated, practiced, and taught for many years, there is a level of confidence and trust in my belly. And, I am burnt to a crisp—ready to crumble into ash, letting go of what I think I know, in service of what is unknown and mysterious coming up from the dark and fertile ground of my being.

 

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