How (not) to burn out

IssueJuly-August 2012
Feature by Emily Johns , Gabriel Carlyle

Gabriel writes:

Gabriel Carlyle. PHOTO: Purshi

The renowned Japanese scholar DT Suzuki was once asked what it was like to attain the Buddhist state of satori, or enlightenment. ‘Well, it’s like ordinary, everyday experience,’ he is supposed to have replied, ‘except about two inches off the ground.’

After a week-long Buddhist-inflected workshop on burnout earlier this year, my feet were still planted firmly on the ground – and I certainly hadn’t reached enlightenment – but I did feel much calmer. Perhaps unconsiously echoing Suzuki’s metaphor, I described it to a friend as a bit like being ‘two inches outside of oneself’.

I attended alongside PN co-editor Emily Johns at the end of April, and though I’ve long since lost those two inches, I’m still engaging with the process we started there.

My decision to go was rooted in a conversation I had last year with an old friend at a gathering of Radical Routes, the network of radical housing co-operatives. She told me about an event she’d attended on the continent, at which a whole bunch of activists had got together to explore why so many of them were driving themselves into the ground.

Anyone who’s had any serious engagement with activism will be familiar with the phenomenon of burnout, defined by one dictionary as ‘exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration’.

My friend – a dedicated activist with decades of experience – had finally reached her breaking point and had found the course to be extremely useful. She was now doing quite a bit of meditation – I remember her mentioning a book with the wonderful title After the ectasy, the laundry – and had managed to make the shift to a more sustainable pattern of work.

It all sounded very interesting, so when the opportunity arose to attend the same course here in the UK I jumped at the chance, and managed to persuade Emily to come too.

It’s probably fair to say that we both set off with some trepidation about what was going to happen.


For one thing, neither of us had much idea about the event’s content or how it was going to be structured. Furthermore, the Buddhist angle – the workshop was being co-run by one group called Eco Dharma and hosted by another called Buddhafield – spurred fears that we might spend a lot of time sitting cross-legged chanting ‘Om’. One activist we know who looked at the web-site in advance told us that it ‘pressed all his sceptical buttons’ – and not in a good way.

Adding to our concerns, the weather forecast was for heavy rain and we knew that we were going to be camping with no fixed structures. A miserable week fighting the elements in survival mode looked like a serious possibility.

As we arrived at the site – a beautiful field on the edge of Dartmoor – the rain suddenly abated, and we all stood around merrily sipping tea (water, in my case) in the sun. It was the last we were to see of it for several days.

Nonetheless, despite the appalling weather, we both left the camp greatly refreshed by the experience. Wellies and hot water bottles both played their part, but mainly it was the course itself that had made the impact.

I once saw a TV recording of a stage show by the illusionist Derren Brown in which he had somehow managed to hypnotise a significant proportion of the audience into forgetting everything but the emotional impact of his performance. In vox pop after vox pop, people stumbled out of the show saying how amazing it had been, but completely unable to recall any of the details.

Such was the seamless, light-touch facilitation of the course (Seeds for Change was the other half of the facilitation team) that both Emily and I found ourselves in a somewhat similar predicament, struggling to recall the exact sequence of activities – or even to remember them all – once it was all over.

Nonetheless, with the help of the journal kept by one of the more diligent participants, we were later able to piece most of it together.

There was a great deal of pair work and ‘active listening’, quite a bit of meditation, some wonderful games, some theatre, some yoga (which I found excruciating) and even an afternoon on which we were forbidden to talk to one another and encouraged to wander up on to the Moor itself without a watch or map (I survived).

Much more than the sum of its parts, the cumulative effect of these activities was considerable, and not least because of the willingness of all the participants to fully engage with the process.

In all, there were around 20 other participants – a remarkable group of people (involved in a wide variety of activist projects) about whom our consensually-agreed confidentiality agreement precludes me from saying more – plus the trainers, who created a safe and supportive atmosphere in which we all felt able to open up.

Together we explored some of the factors – personal, interpersonal and social – that contribute to burnout (‘It’s my responsibility to save the world’) as well as some of the underlying causes driving destructive behaviour patterns. (‘But I like to be busy!’ one person declared early on. But what happens when your mind and body can no longer take the strain, and your whole sense of identity is tied up with being the ever-busy activist?)

Raw emotions were shared, and a small, albeit short-lived and extremely muddy, community was forged.

If I had to boil the whole thing down to two analytical categories and an idea (though it was much more than that!) I would choose ‘self-care’, the cultivation of ‘mindfulness’, and the notion that preventing burnout should be seen as a collective, as well as a personal, endeavour.

‘Self-care’ is what it says: looking after yourself. It sounds like common sense, and the basic elements (see ‘self-care tips’ below) are hardly very difficult. Nonetheless, there’s a strong temptation to view such activities as either frivolous or a distraction from the many urgent tasks that confront us. We neglect them at our own – and our movements’ – peril.

‘Mindfulness’ – the ability to engage with one’s emotions in a skilful and reflective fashion, as opposed to simply being buffeted this way and that by them – is a key skill for dealing with the stresses, disappointments and potential trauma involved in activism, as well as for cultivating the positive and healthy emotional states that enable us to flourish.

Perhaps surprisingly it’s also something that can be developed and practised, and – for some people – meditation, shorn of its religious trappings, can be a useful tool in this regard. (Here I should mention, without further comment, Emily’s and my varying responses to the meditation sessions. She saw colours, heard sounds and experienced a powerful sense of joy. I got intense pains in my legs and had to lie down).

The week ended on the Pagan festival of Beltane, an occasion we collectively celebrated Wicker Man-style with a face-painted moonlit procession with flaming torches around the site and local roads. After seven intense days, I think we all appreciated that this was the start of a process rather than its terminus.

At the outset, one of the participants said that he wasn’t expecting to leave with ‘the golden fleece’, but would be happy to go away with a few strands. I think we found some.

Emily Johns writes:

When I was being cajoled into  attending the Sustainable Resistance week I had two ideas about ‘burnout’: that it happened to better people than me and that when you had it you stopped being able to care.

I didn’t feel worn out by resistance – there was, I felt, scarcely any time for it, and I had become afraid of the energy that it would demand of me. I was worn out by the roaring mass of emails thundering towards me every time I peered into the computer. I was woken every morning at 4am by the panic that maybe I had forgotten something in the diversity of different lists that I had constructed. In the morning the urgency would have subsided but the legacy of broken sleep cumulatively wore me down. The problem was that that state of being had become normal. Once the patterns were set, then breaking out of the edifice was very difficult.

There was a week this year that stands out as energetically satisfying. It was a very unusual week of intense action starting with attending the PN Rebel Clown Army weekend. Then singing for International Women’s Day, then organising a Reclaim the Night march, then co-organising a women’s Occupy!

And perhaps most importantly, for me, I had made pictures – designed a Bread and Roses poster and a locally-themed image for Women’s Day. So it didn’t seem that it was the activism that was wearing. They were all very fulfilling activities because they were intensely meaningful and of the moment.

When we all arrived in Devon at the start of the Sus Res week there was a perceptible difference in the energies of the punters and the facilitators. We were a chattering mass of confident people, slightly nervous, slightly agitated; all putting in the extra energy to deal with socialising with strangers. All using the life-learnt techniques of projecting who we thought we were or would like to be.

I remember feeling disconcerted by the fact that our facilitators were slow, considered, quiet.

They were in a state that we were obviously not occupying.

In many of the sessions we explored through ‘popular education’ processes issues of personal identity and work practices. Sometimes we asked the same question of each other over and over again. And each time it was answered, it was answered at a deeper level. ‘If nothing is ever enough, what can we do?’ It was an excavation of one’s own thoughts. There were a range of very simple and important questions, opening them up for each other seemed to allow us to experience our own minds at work.

Strong, light facilitation engendered trust; allowed catharsis and cleared a way to the slow realisation that we could make decisions about the directions that our own lives took.

We had learnt a set of skills that were invaluable to all people, knowledge that should replace GCSEs.

I returned home with some of that slowness, consideration and quiet and now recognise that it is a state of strength. Now I can face difficult situations with a greater calmness. I can think with more clarity. I can make space around experiences so that I can appreciate them and don’t have to run on to the next one so quickly.

I  realise now that burnout is not ‘ceasing to care’ but ‘being paralysed by care’. The processes of the Sustainable Resistance week began unknotting me, and it is a pleasure to find my strengths again. 

And the rain, flowers, streams and wildness of Dartmoor were a joy.

Self-care tips

Keep being inspired – Listen to other people, activists, the people you work with, sometimes it’s important to keep your ears open and your mouth shut.

Find and appreciate beauty – Films, a walk, a beautiful sight, get out of the city, into the hills, down to the sea, let your gaze stretch out and fall on something other than a computer screen, feel the sand or earth between your toes.

Move your body! – It’s part of you, more than the mousepad or iPhone. Just a big run can jiggle up and out all the tensions and anxiety, clear your noggin, clear the lungs.

Find your inner chimp and express it! – It’s good to be monkey-like, it can help especially if you have children or nieces and nephews, it’s a great way of letting loose and not taking yourself seriously.

Don’t take yourself too seriously – We cannot disappear up our own arses: it is fatal.

You are replaceable – It is possible to step out and back in with activism. There is a sense sometimes that activists need activism more than activism needs the activists.

Spend time with your family and non-activist mates – There are different conversations, realities, perceptions, priorities, ways of having fun, ways of getting pissed off, and sometimes a bit of a rest can keep you grounded.

Taken from Ewa Jasiewicz’s contribution to ‘Keeping on: sustainable art-activism’ on the Platform blog: