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Self-Reflection Fatigue

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Last night I was talking on the phone with a friend. This particular friend and I tend to veer distinctly into conversation of a philosophical tilt, working “recovery” concepts into a broader picture of how we’re progressing as people. We talk about once a month and it’s always exhausting.

One of the things that I brought up is a concern of mine that M. and I also discussed this past weekend. I’ve been struggling to articulate it, but this morning I stumbled through naming that feeling—”self-improvement fatigue” is what first came to mind, but “self-reflection fatigue” is probably closer to the truth.

This morning I finished reading The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith, and one of the things that I’m taking away from it is the emphasis on action over conceptualizing. There’s a passage from Dainin Katagiri’s Returning to Silence referenced in the book which reads, “The world of conceptualization is kind of a blueprint for a house. Through the blueprint you can imagine what the house will be like. Or you can build the house from the blueprint. So the blueprint is important. But a blueprint is a blueprint, and you cannot live there.” Thinking only ever gets us so far.

There are all these phrases that mean the same thing to me—To have what they’ve got you have to do what they did; We are what we do; The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do; If you want to attain such a thing you must be such a person—none of which reference thinking your way into a better position in life. There’s a parallel between this concept and the idea behind Buddhist non-theism: The questions of what God is, or why, “can be very useful in understanding the universe,” but they fail to directly apply practically to daily experience. If my ass is on fire I don’t need to ponder over whether the fire is a metaphor, or why I was the one who caught flame, I just need to put it out. Internalizing everything under the guise of intellectualism doesn’t promote tangible change.

I’m working in a field where the constant focus is on improvement: Helping others strive toward internal and external growth while “recovering” from addiction issues. In my own life, I’ve got my own “recovery” to focus on, as well as other directions (such as this blossoming interest in Zen) which are continually leading me to focus on myself—reflecting, comparing, analyzing. Most of my friends are involved in various 12-step programs and with that comes a looming thread of self-improvement constantly hanging over my social circles. And finally, add to the picture that I’m in grad school, working toward my master’s in clinical mental health counseling. It’s just too much for me right now.

I don’t know what to do with this other than to articulate it and move forward with the day, recognizing when I’m going too deep into my thoughts. That’s rarely a safe place to be. Fortunately, as M. reminded me, I don’t have to have all the answers figured out today.