June 13, 2014

What you really want to do: the Zen Master’s burnout

I’m surrounded by creators, Wonder. Powerful creators, like you–and forgetful ones.

They forget (or never knew) how to apply their creativity to their lives. So they feel stuck. Victims of circumstances, of their thoughts, of their habits. Forced to do a lot of things they would really rather not do.


“No choice” becomes the mantra summing up their frustration and discouragement. The sign hanging over the endless tunnel they are stuck in.

A few years ago, when I was on vacation at Lake St-Jean, I heard an interview with Zen master Genpo Roshi. I’ll always remember what I heard that day.

This Brooklyn native (born Dennis Paul Merzel), who has been transmitting the Zen teachings of Soto and Rinzai lineages for 35 years, is a very busy man. He supervises the global community of “heirs” of the venerable Maezumi Roshi, runs his own center, and oversees the functioning of affiliated centers in several European countries. He’s not only responsible for trasmitting the dharma in the traditional Zen fashion, he has also developed a powerfull awakening process called Big Mind – Big Heart. He’s also a spouse, a father of two children, and sees to the evolution of monks and facilitators working under his tutelage. In short, the man is not idle.

In the interview, Genpo evoked the cancer that had invaded his body five years before. And explained what had changed for him since it went into remission.

Here’s the simple phrase that resounded like a detonation.

“What the cancer changed for me is that now I only do what I want to do. I don’t do things I don’t want to do.”


I pressed rewind to be sure I had heard him correctly.

“I do what I want to do. I don’t do things I don’t want to do. I am with people I love to be with and I’m not with people I don’t want to be with.”

Interesting… Here’s someone who is supposed to be basically free — or at least internally freer than the common mortal — and who admits that, until the cancer scare, he was still doing things because of a sense of obligation, without fully consenting to them…

Does this transformation imply that suddenly he became egocentric, pursuing nothing but his own pleasure? Hardly.

“I do a lot of things and I’m with a lot of people. But, I don’t waste my time if I can help it doing things I don’t want to do. And I don’t waste my time being with people I don’t want to be with.

Luckily, I like people a lot and I like doing a lot. I probably work from about 8 a.m. everyday until about 11 p.m. and I love it and I work 7 days a week. But it’s not work for me. It’s just a great joy and a great pleasure and yet I’m busy, but there seems to be a tremendous spaciousness within it.

I choose my time to do the things I love doing. I have a great passion for my work and a great passion to see people wake up. And I no longer only teach a traditional Zen way because I found that I wasn’t loving it anymore after teaching it since the mid-70s. Now I teach and I share and I facilitate and I empower people in a way that brings me great joy and happiness and brings them great joy and happiness.”

The Zen Master’s burnout

“I was in burnout for 5 years. And completely fed up with Zen teaching as I was doing it and with the whole Zen way. And I had to have the courage to really come up with something. Reinvent my job.

I saw that what I really was passionate about was meditating and sharing or teaching or being with people and talking to people. But, I didn’t love anymore being a traditional Zen teacher. I didn’t love… I felt locked in a kind of, I called it a party line. That to be a good Zen teacher I had to say this and do this or be this and be that. And a lot of shoulds and should nots.

And I just threw those shackles off: all my shoulds and should nots, all my oughts and ought nots, threw them off and was free and liberated in that moment.

And then I had to decide what I want to do.

I had to reinvent [my work]. And that takes tremendous courage. But it also takes soul searching.

I had to really look at what were my fears of letting go of the job and the way I was doing it to be able to do it in a way that brought inspiration to me. That brought a joy to me and to the people studying it.”

A sudden insight, followed by progress over time

How did he make the switch?

It was sudden and gradual, which really are the two wings of every bird. There is an awakened experience or insight, a realization that always happen suddenly. And then there’s the gradual side or the process side of integration.

[I made a] conscious choice, which allowed me to make a leap from being burned out to being completely refreshed and revitalized by my work. And then there was a process. After 1999, it’s been almost 10 years, 9 years, of process of really embodying that.”

In other words:

Even if you have the well being of a Zen master with thirty years of practice, Wonder, this still doesn’t exempt you from the task of needing to reinvent yourself periodically.

To realize that you’ve fallen back into the trap of seeing yourself as a victim of your circumstances.

To catch yourself having a nightmare, in which you’re the prisoner of your own life.

And to wake up.

To remember that you can create, because you’re a creator.

You can choose to do what you really want. You can focus on what’s really of value to you.

Then put yourself to work, with courage, keeping your focus on what you love.

Enjoy the journey,


p.s. Are you facing such a change? Get in touch so we can talk about it.

p.p.s. Lately I’ve been working on a sort of “game plan” in the form of an interactive list for creating anything, from the simplest to the most complex projects.

Intriguing? Yeah, and I think it’ll be very very useful.

I’m doing it first for myself, but fully intend to share it with you soon. I’ll keep you posted…

photo: Giovanni Orlando