Tonight I had a conversation about the Bodhisattva ideal. This is a Buddhist term meaning we work for the benefit of others, postponing our own entry into Nirvana, full enlightenment, until the whole world, all living beings, enter the Nirvana realm.
I feel many people misunderstand the Bodhisattva ideal. Simply doing everything to help, please and satisfy others while putting one’s own well-being completely aside, making oneself smaller. This is not only relevant in a Buddhist context. I see many people wanting to live a life of service, of doing good to others and contributing to society. Nonetheless, forgetting themselves along the way. We forget to take good care of ourselves. The problem is that when we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot take good care of others. With a short-term vision, it can seem better to help, to put one’s own needs and well-being aside for the benefit of others, every time and again. Yet, in the long-run we lose the benefits because it results in burn out, loss of credibility and loss of joy.
Joy? Where did joy enter this argument? Well, I believe that keeping joy alive in the work we do is crucial. When we enjoy the work we do, we can truly contribute from the fire within, from our passion, our heart. We can thrive, grow into our full potential and contribute with all our talents.
Losing joy, gaining weight
Last summer, I made myself very busy. There were so many projects and events I wanted to be involved in. And each of these projects were very meaningful. They provided opportunities for people to experience true well-being, get to know themselves better, heal their suffering, travel to far away and unreachable countries, exchange between different cultures and much more. Off course I wanted to help and contribute to all the different events! However, next to these awesome projects, I also had to keep working in catering to pay my bills. And I committed to an internship in order to gain work experience and hopefully find a job in a field related to my studies. Last but not least I tried to juggle my social life into all this as well. Long story short, I came close to a burn out and lost the feeling of passion and joy in what I was doing. Work became a chore, a task, a burden. The weight of anything I had to do was heavy on my shoulders. Even if it directly related to my heart’s desire. To me, this way of working has nothing to do with the Bodhisattva spirit anymore.
One evening, sitting down with my dear friends, we were talking about the many retreats we had organized together. We’ve gone through a lot together. We have been able to organize some pretty cool gatherings. We’ve also been working very very hard. Many times, when the starting date of a retreat was near, we would be working seven days a week until late at night, resulting in us being very tired. During this conversation it dawned on me: we are doing something wrong. Either we are really bad at time management or the amount of work we take upon us is not balanced with the number of people we are. Even though we are very proud of the results and it shows how committed we are, for me it is also a sign that we don’t manage to take good care of ourselves in the process.
There are two important lessons I’ve learned from this:
Learning to choose and the question ‘Why am I saying yes?’
Learning to choose the work we do, the projects we are contributing to is not easy. There are so many projects that touch our passion, are good, or we feel we want to put energy in, help with and contribute to. Moreover it seems that in our current society, being busy is valued, is approved of and is equal to success. At the risk of burning out our entire society. I think having free time and only focus on one or two missions is the new busy. In order to do something a 100%, to give our best, we need to do less. We need to learn to do less things very well instead of doing many things less well. Ok, at least I have to learn this. Thich Nhat Hanh says:
‘This is the opposite of the way we`ve been trained to lead our lives and run our businesses. We`ve been taught to do many things at once. We answer an e-mail while we talk on the phone; while in a meeting for one project, we work on our notes for another project. Every new technology promises to help us do more things at once. Now we can send an e-mail while listening to music, talking on the phone, and taking a picture, all with the same device. With your energy dispersed, where is your power? Instead of always multitasking, we must teach ourselves to unitask.’ (from The Art of Power)
The second lesson is a question: why are we saying yes to so many projects, or even to each particular project? I notice that I want to be involved in many things on the one hand because of my ideals, passion and following my heart. But on the other hand there are also ego and selfish reasons in there which have to do with being on top of everything, being seen, getting the attention of people I believe are important or amazing. It is very difficult to let go of this sometimes because of the fear and the feeling of not being a part of something, or being seen as less committed or less involved. I tend to feel jealous when other people get involved and take in ‘my place’, and I feel I’m missing out on an opportunity to show my worth.
Doing less, growing more
Anyhow, I have been trying it out. I have been slowing myself down and do a lot less these days. I notice this has created a lot of space. Space for myself to learn the lessons my soul wants to learn. Space for possibilities in the projects and things I am still committing myself to. Space and freedom around my friendships with the people I also work so closely with. Space for self-reflection and digestion which, in my eyes, are crucial for growth and becoming better and better in what I do. Thus becoming better and better in contributing to the well-being of other people and of society.
So this question is very important: why am I saying yes to this request/project/event? Really look deeply into the answer. It is important to act from the right reasons. Your actions become more authentic, and on the long run it is more sustainable because you are less likely to burn out.
This question also links to social entrepreneurship. During the workshops at Knowmads Hanoi I hear many trainers say that we need to work hard and a lot, 24/7 even to make our dreams come true and make our businesses successful. At the same time I heard Marc Kroese and Henrik Looij say that they burned out and learned to take care of themselves. They didn’t elaborate much more, but my question is: What does this mean? I think it’s very essential to ask ourselves this question. How can we work, give a 100% to what we do, without losing our own well-being, health and energy?
When I am doing the work I am doing now, my deep drive comes from a meta-goal, the big picture, of which I really don’t see the possibility of a result in my lifetime, or even ever: I am trying to help more and more people listen to their hearts, the ultimate goal is a society where everybody contributes positively with their talents. A happy and healthy society. However, I can maintain my passion, my drive and motivation for it, because I keep myself fresh, and keep the joy of the work and my own feeling of well-being, meaning and growth in it.
I’d like to end with a quote from Ricardo Semler, a renowned CEO from Brazil, who has been named Brazil’s business leader of the year two times: ‘Every one of us has learned how to send emails on Sunday night, but how many of us know how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon?’ (Ricardo Semler, Lecture at MIT, Leading by Omission, quote at 31:00 min, http://video.mit.edu/watch/leading-by-omission-9965/ )