Overworked & Overwhelmed

There are burdens we can’t put down, says Furyu Nancy Schroeder. That fact is the true heart of our human life.

Furyu Nancy Schroeder
22 July 2021

Question: My work and family responsibilities are demanding these days, and it’s not an option to drop any of them. I’m not able to do anything as well as I’d like to and I feel stressed, exhausted, and frustrated. How can I survive this?

Furyu Nancy Schroeder: Reflecting on this very real-world koan, I’m struck by the words, “It’s not an option to drop any of them.” Of course, there’s an option to drop them, all of them—the children, the spouse, the job, the practice—to run away, change our names, and start a new life, elsewhere.

And yet this simple realization, embedded in this question, that running away is not an option, is the true heart of our human life. Not having options is the same as making commitments, of taking vows, of being loyal and trustworthy. For like-hearted people, world round, “It’s not an option” to abandon anyone, anywhere, is what we Buddhists call the bodhisattva vow.

The Buddha taught those overwhelmed by life to tune into the body and breath.

But, though simple to say, it’s not easy to do. It’s a lot of work to keep our vows. Some days, some years, are much harder and seemingly more thankless than others. When we’re facing a crisis, such as the one this pandemic has brought to us all, the feeling of being overwhelmed comes naturally.

The Buddha taught those overwhelmed by life to tune into the body and breath and look deeply into the present moment. So we watch closely for tightening in the belly, the shoulders, and the jaw; we relax as we move from task to task; and we cease the judgments of ourselves in the face of the inviolable assignments of dishes, laundry, paperwork, sickness, aging, and death. Now more than ever, we take comfort in the teachings, in the community of others, and in the awakening of our hearts to the unceasing work of it all. Together.

Then, as time allows, we settle ourselves onto a single spot of earth, with an upright posture and a way-seeking heart, and we question ourselves as Siddhartha once questioned himself: “Might this be the way to enlightenment?” At last, even the question melts away.

Furyu Nancy Schroeder

Furyu Nancy Schroeder

Furyu Nancy Schroeder is the abiding abbess at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, a residential practice center and organic farm in the San Francisco Zen Center community.