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In this third post in the Combating Burnout series, we will look at a key set of skills for overcoming burnout.

One of the most powerful set of skills for fighting burnout and enhancing your well-being are what I call the “Core Contemplative Practices.”

Core Contemplative Practices are one of the eight types of skills taught in the BREATHE program to combat burnout, as I describe in an upcoming book, Finding Purpose in a Burned Out World:  How You Can Overcome Burnout.

Core Contemplative Practices involve a variety of skills, each of which has been demonstrated to reverse the effects of stress. Dr. Herbert Bensen and his colleagues at Harvard conducted pioneering research into such skills, starting in the 1960s.

Each of these skills, if practiced regularly, create the “relaxation response”—a termed coined by Bensen to describe a variety of positive effects that counter the effects of stress.

The Benefits of the Relaxation Response

These benefits include basic physiological, biological changes, including a more relaxed heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduced muscular tension, slower breathing.   These effects are the opposite of the typical stress response, which quickens the heart rate, increases blood pressure, tenses muscles, and increases the rate of breathing.

Such stress responses were adaptive during human evolution, powering the immediate flight or fight response, but the chronic state of these physiological stress states contribute to the development of a vast number of physical and psychological diseases for modern individuals.

Core Contemplative skills are also called “stress management” coping skills.  The term is useful, for indeed they help to manage and reduce stress.

man with cap in relaxed pose

By Kelvin Valerio on Pexels

But the phrase stress management only partially captures the positive benefits that come from regular practice of these skills: they also generate emotional and spiritual benefits.  As Bensen reported, these skills also lead to a greater sense of life purpose, higher life satisfaction, and an increased sense of spirituality.

In addition, as experience from a number of BREATHE participants as well as my own use of these skills suggest, these practices can help us to get beneath the business of our own lives, beyond the demands of the day, and past the chatter of our minds to something deeper.

Regular use of the contemplative practices can also help us to get in touch with a deeper and truer self, to remember our own personal dreams, and to create more meaningful, heart-centered, and soulful work.  For these reasons, the term contemplative practices is a better fitting term than simply stress management.

5 Core Contemplative Skills

As described in the forthcoming book, Finding Purpose in a Burned Out World:  How You Can Overcome Burnout, the BREATHE program teaches five primary Core Contemplative skills that you can learn to combat burnout:

  1. Deep breathing
  2. Alternate nostril breathing
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Loving-Kindness meditation
  5. Imagery

In addition, other practices, such as yoga, can also produce the relaxation response.

The relaxation response benefits from contemplative practices result from “regular” use.  What constitutes regular practice has differed across research studies demonstrating the positive effects, but it typically ranges from daily practice of the skill for fifteen to twenty minutes to the same interval three times a week.

At first, fifteen minutes may seem like an interminably long time to engage in the practice behavior. If so, you can start for any amount of time that feels feasible and then build your endurance over time for the skill practice just as you would for a physical exercise.  Also, as you gain proficiency with skills, you are likely to find that even a “mini” exercise during a stressful time of the workday can bring some relaxation and restore emotional well-being.

Learning how to do the Core Contemplative Practices is facilitated by watching and performing the exercises.  Toward these end, you can watch YouTube videos that I created in collaboration with my colleagues Drs. Michelle Salyers and Angela Rollins for a project teaching BREATHE to professional hospital workers (e.g., physicians, nurses).  The links provided in the numbered listing above show a video demonstration of each practice and provide instructions on how you learn and use the skill yourself.  Instructions for each of these skills are also presented in Finding Purpose in a Burned Out World:  How You Can Overcome Burnout.

For now, let’s focus for a moment on Loving-Kindness.


Loving-kindness calls for creating a caring, loving, kind, and friendly attitude of good will toward both oneself and others.

Love and Kindness are qualities that most of us value.  But it is probably also true that we often lose these qualities in the stresses and demands of the day.  In other words, we often don’t always act, think, or feel so loving and kind.

Fortunately, we can cultivate an attitude—and subsequently feelings, actions, and even a presence—of loving-kindness by building our skills.

Loving-Kindness poster

By Ditto Bowo on Unsplash

Loving-kindness is not just a lofty concept.  We can put it into practice in daily life, including at work.  In the process, Loving-Kindness helps us to reduce our stress levels and enhance our happiness and other positive emotions.

One of the best way to build our skills and practice of Loving-Kindness is to do a meditation.

Millions of people of various faiths—and some without any religious affiliation—have engaged in loving-kindness meditations over the centuries.  Loving-kindness meditations vary somewhat.

A Way to Build Loving-Kindness

Below are one set of instructions that I have drawn in part and adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and used with many BREATHE participants.

(It is helpful to first read through the instructions and then to try them in practice. A YouTube video demonstrating loving-kindness meditation that my colleagues and I have used to help workers to overcome burnout is also available:

  • Close your eyes, if your comfortable doing so. (You can also practice meditation with your eyes open, if you prefer.)
  • Go ahead and take a couple of slow, deep, breathes, and let yourself relax.
  • Now imagine that someone who is very positive to you—like a beloved relative or a spiritual figure–is sending you feelings of love and kindness.
  • Imagine those feelings of loving-kindness are coming to you. Imagine they are supporting you, surrounding you, embracing you with feelings of love, goodness, and caring.
  • Let those feelings of loving-kindness continue to flow to you and also pay attention to your heart. Imagine that the feeling of loving-kindness is renewing and boosting your own energy and love and kindness.
  • Say silently to yourself, “May I be filled by loving-kindness. May I be healthy and at peace.  May I be happy and well.”
  • Let those positive feelings continue to support and fill you.
woman in meditative pose

By Deurk Makara on Pixabay

The above instructions are steered toward decreasing your own stress level and improving your sense of well-being.  By taking care of yourself, you will be in a better space to do your work (and help care for others).

But you can also (as demonstrated in the YouTube video) expand Loving-Kindness meditation and follow a similar set of steps to send loving-kindness intentions to others, including your family and loved ones, your coworkers, and people you are concerned about.

Loving-Kindness and Core Contemplative Practices are only one of the eight types of skills in BREATHE to combat burnout (the next blog in this series will provide cognitive skills).

But they are one the best ways to beat stress and improve your well-being while helping to make your workplace—and the world—a better place.


Featured photograph by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash

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