On my second year-long round of burnout, I lay in bed at night as I festered in my negativity, thinking to myself, “What am I good at, what do I like to do, what am I supposed to be doing?” Little did I realize this was a spiritual crisis.
After almost 15 years as a urologist, I wondered, “What else can I do? What am I supposed to be doing because I need to leave medicine? I need a plan B.”
My second round of burnout was long and filled with numerous dental and doctor visits to fix my fractured teeth from stress grinding, newly diagnosed GERD, asthma, debilitating chest pain, weight loss, insomnia, and joint pain. It was also loaded with negative thought loops and an active search to find a path out of medicine.
I was not brought up religious or spiritual, per se. I was baptized at birth, yet I never completed the rest of the scheduled Catholic sacraments until they were a requirement to marry under the Catholic Church. Since my husband’s uncle was a priest and would marry us, I agreed to attend the catechism classes for the 7- and 15-year-olds preparing for first communion or confirmation.
Apart from that, my spiritual life was like a desert. I had not thought much of it, except I felt uncomfortable hanging my hat on a specific faith.
Growing up, I was privileged to have various best friends from elementary to medical residency practice Buddhism, Judaism, and Muslim faiths. I was able to experience their celebrations, rituals and teachings and understand that there was one truth everyone was seeking at the core, which was the source of all faiths: love.
Whether different permutations of the teachings were used, at the core, we all aspire to be the expression of our true selves or in the likeness of God/spirit/soul/ life-force/ energy, which is love.
Our truest nature is to be loving, joyful, and creative beings. When we move away from that, it is when our body begins to send signals, pains and illnesses that warn us something is not right. We are not following our true nature or path.
We are conditioned or taught that we can push through it — that stress and chaos are the natural states we should live in. I mean, who doesn’t have stress? Have you read the latest news? Have you seen what happened to Aunt Sally’s friend? Do you know how much gas prices are? How can you not be stressed?
Doc Childre describes stress as “the body and mind’s response to any pressure that disrupts their normal balance. It occurs when our perceptions of events don’t meet our expectations, and we don’t manage our reaction to the disappointment.” Our reaction to a circumstance varies on our perception of it.
However, since we begin school, we are not given the skills to understand that we have a choice in how we interpret circumstances. When we do, our true choice is to interpret them from the truth that we are loving, joyful and creative beings. Instead, we are taught, “Sally hurt my feelings, or of course, I will be rude to her because she was rude to me.”
This is how we react and interact. We perceive the world as one in which we are not the creators of it, but we are just reacting to outside circumstances, and in doing so, we will lash out with anger, contempt and humiliation toward others. You hurt me; I will hurt you back.
If someone is hurting inside, they will hurt others. This does not excuse their behavior or mean we will take abuse, but it means instead of rekindling or fueling hate, we take a pause, breathe and either answer with or send thoughts of love and compassion towards that person.
When we see every thought or interaction from a perspective based on love and not on fear, our stress response shuts down. Instead, we begin the production of hormones that make us feel joy, love, and connection, such as dopamine, serotonin, or oxytocin when we feel love and gratitude.
Tapping into those feelings, we instantly feel better, and it taps into our true nature spiritually. One cannot access that nature or stillness when we are in stress response. We must quiet our racing thoughts to access this wisdom that comes through meditation. Meditation is not a place where you go to a cave and wear a white robe. Still, it is a place in which any prayer — whether it’s Our Father, Hare Krishna, The Shema or any mantra or variation depending on your faith — or time is used to connect with your spiritual source and remind yourself of your true loving nature.
It is a time to ponder on those essential questions: What is your purpose in life, and how can you follow it? What talents can you share with the world, and what are you grateful for? When we deviate from this true calling, when we deviate from love, from creativity, our spiritual crisis occurs. Our body breaks down with negative thought patterns, pain and illness.
Even though burnout is the end-stage symptom of chronic stress, it is, in essence, the deviation of our spiritual self. How do we reverse this? We begin to ask ourselves the essential spiritual questions. When we practice them during the time of introspection/quiet/meditation/prayer on asserting our truths of being loving, joyful and creative beings, the process begins and continues.
Stress and creativity cannot co-exist. We cannot wait until our health crisis or until we hit rock bottom, deviating into greed, anger, shame or lust. That is not our nature. We must prioritize time to get back to our true selves and, as Gandhi said, “be the change” we want to see in this world: be love, be joy, be creation.
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