A colleague of mine reached out to ask how meditation could help her work with the intense suffering she encounters as a lawyer for a non-profit that works with the indigent. Like many in her line of work, her capacity to relate to the suffering of others was getting thinner and thinner. She was burning out.
It’s easy, and common, when confronted by suffering, to start to shut down. Many of us may sometimes have empathic distress, taking other people's suffering into our bodies as if it were our own. At a certain point, when it becomes too much, we start to try to avoid the suffering, and we can wind up becoming depressed. This is known as burnout.
The first step is to try not to give ourselves a hard time about the fact that we engage in this cycle at all. We can’t really help it – but we can recognize it, and start to come back into our bodies, remain present when our impulse is to flee, figuratively or literally. At that point we are no longer ruled by our emotions – we become the ruler, and can simply remain present despite them.
What’s key here is perspective. If we want to be of use to those around us, we must first and foremost, be kind to ourselves. If we can practice treating ourselves well, we will be much better equipped to effectively working with those around us. It’s analogous to the safety rules in airplanes: put your own oxygen mask on first, and then you’ll be more effective in helping the person next to you
Many people use the negative emotions of guilt and anger as motivators, but that isn't a sustainable way to live -- we will at best be unhappy and at worst depressed, or burnt out. Mindfulness practice can help us first see what we are doing, and give us the tools to make effective change.