Today, the phenomenon known as ‘burn-out’, which is an important concomitant of stress, has become a common experience amongst members of the helping professions such as teachers, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and welfare workers. Burnout means to deplete oneself; to exhaust one’s physical and mental resources (*1). People can simply wear themselves out by excessive striving to reach some unrealistic expectation set by themselves or by society. Often an individual, who sets out with great energy and enthusiasm to help people, eventually becomes disillusioned, exhausted and depressed. He or she becomes irritable,’ moody, and a clock watcher or work dodger. Later, chronic absenteeism is apparent.
Stress, strain and anxiety, which lead to the condition of burnout, result in social and emotional distress and pain and unhappiness in the individual. Psychosomatic diseases are also linked with stress. As modem researchers have shown, stress is a product of major life crises (e.g. a death or divorce) as well as the minor but constant worries in life (*2). The latter have a cumulative effect in terms of excessive ill health. What is also becoming evident from psychological research is that certain individuals and groups in society are more vulnerable than others given similar situations of stress.
Thus, the key to coping with stress lies in the individual’s attitude and response.
Karma yoga and stress
The stressors in the environment- the noise, the pollution, the chaos of city life, will not go away, nor will dwelling on personal problems and worries which lead to mental tension. The more one thinks of a certain problem, the greater the anxiety and worry, and the further these negative samskaras are reinforced. According to the traditional yogic teachings, mental tension is due to ego centrism and unhealthy emotional attachment to the environment.
In dealing with environmental and internal stress, yogic philosophy has pointed out the importance of karma yoga, which is based on the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga has developed in response to samsara, the never ending stressful cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Until you manage to escape from this cycle by transcending the personal self, every action, thought and feeling produces positive, negative or mixed karma and further binds you to your egoistic self. Karma yoga, selfless action with awareness, is also an important mental purification process. It alleviates the inner stressors by cleansing the mind of its accumulated debris and by awakening you to the effects of your conditioning with its attendant complexes, phobias and defensive armouring.
Karma yoga is an important technique and above all an attitude of mind with which one can deal effectively with stress. Now, medical science is also discovering that this kind of psychological hardiness gives a very healthy attitude to life (*3). This same attitude as reflected in one’s behaviour and interactions with the environment is particularly appropriate, indeed essential, for those in the helping professions. Karma yoga eases one into the flow of life. When you are one with the process, you find yourself relaxed not tense, helping not hindering, accepting not fighting, showing compassion not pity.
Often, by trying to help, we are really hindering. Perhaps by learning to let people be, we can better aid them in their own growth. One has to admit that the world will remain essentially as it is; after all, it has already done so for thousands of years. To accomplish this effective non-interference and thus relieve ourselves of self-imposed stress, we have to learn to stand back and watch ourselves ‘act’ in the world.
The art of detached observation
Developing the silent, hidden observer or witness within is the essence of the practice of karma yoga. By becoming more aware of yourself, you learn to watch your actions, interactions, thoughts and feelings and your responses to them. At first this may seem a little difficult, but with practice your ability to remain mindful in all situations will gradually improve.
As this awareness develops, one of the first things you will notice is how you emotionally react in various situations. Continually getting upset, angry or frustrated whenever someone says something contrary to your own ideas or beliefs, leads to internal stress. By habitually responding with mental agitation and anxiety, you stimulate the body’s defence system and the vicious cycle of excessive hormone production. This eventually results in high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and, finally, cardiovascular disease becomes a definite risk. Therefore, you must learn to be aware of and then limit your mental and emotional responses.
Karma yoga helps in this way by teaching us the art of detachment. This means neither being attached nor unattached to people, places and things. Detachment implies a state of disinterest; one is neither interested nor uninterested. However it is not an excuse to become cold, apathetic or arrogant. Rather, it is a way of preventing life’s hard knocks from penetrating deeply into our mental, emotional and more vulnerable selves. This is the attitude which all good doctors and nurses have. After all, if they responded on a deep emotional level each time a patient died, they would be unable to-work effectively.
By cultivating this mental attitude you reduce your susceptibility in stressful situations and this leads to greater self-awareness and knowledge of the self. You react outwardly in a natural manner as before, but deep down the peace and inner quiet remain undisturbed. Begin by practising detachment at work and then develop and apply it to your whole life. It will lead you to true emotional maturity.
Selfless activity is fun
Detached observation leads to selfless involvement, and is the core of karma yoga practice. Naturally, you continue to draw your salary, for instance, but gradually selfless service involves having no expectation of rewards, attention, praise or suchlike from the results of your endeavours. You merely do your work, but you become more mindful of everything you do.
Karma yoga develops awareness of each and every individual act. Work becomes fun rather than serious and stressful. By giving up your expectations, you will find that you work more in the present, neither lingering in the past nor looking to the future. You work well, with enthusiasm and with as much skill as you can. You work earnestly, and bring quality into your actions. By concentrating on the work at hand, you become immersed in what you are doing, leaving yourself no time for personal worries and anxieties. This in turn leads to better utilization of energy, clarity of thought, sharpening of memory and a lack of fatigue.
Extend this attitude to all that you do in life and surely you will see the benefits. Do everything in life with as much awareness as you can. Eat, play, rest, relax and work mindfully. The closer you come to living in the present, the nearer you are to contacting the life spring that flows through you and all of nature. The practice of selfless action can bring you to a higher state of perception and consciousness; it can lead to dynamic meditation.
Purification of your consciousness can be enhanced by observing your mental and emotional states throughout the day. Also, witnessing the flow of memory waves that occurs when you are absorbed in a task is a further aid in cleansing the mind of accumulated debris. When thoughts, visual scenes and images flash upon the mind like a film on a cinema screen, they should merely be noted. Allowing old samskaras to continually trigger off unwanted emotional reactions only reinforces them, so you must learn to watch your thoughts with detachment.
Until you realize that it is your own emotional response which transforms stress into anxiety, you are merely covering up or ignoring the origins of the problem. Stress resides in the individual’s response, and karma yoga can effectively neutralize its effects. As the individual becomes aware of his responses to the game of life, tensions no longer lodge or manifest in him.
When karma yoga becomes true selfless service, you are working without ego, becoming merely an instrument upon which the divine plays a tune. True helping can then occur, when honesty, sincerity and love are shining through your actions. For the karma yogi, work becomes effortless, and develops great energy, concentration and willpower. For the spiritual aspirant, this is an essential part of yoga. However, everyone can practise it with benefit.
~ Swami Swayamjyoti Saraswati
* 1. Edelwich, J. and Brodsky, A., Burn-out: Stages of Disillusionment in the Helping Professions, Human Sciences Press, New York.
* 2. Lazarus, R.S., ‘Little hassles can be hazardous to health’, Psychology Today (USA), July 1981.
* 3. Chance, P., ‘That drained out, used up feeling’, Psychology Today (USA), Jan. 1981.