Burning from the Inside: A Return to Life After Burnout
What a forest fire taught Rachael Gaibel about her own resilience.
November 2017: Shambhala Mountain Center
“I don’t know what to do about being burned out at work. I find myself so drained at the end of each day. I’ve loved so many aspects of my career but they have become less and less of what I do. I need to make a change but I’m terrified of leaving without a plan for what’s next.”
I share this with Carrie, the woman sitting next to me during dinner at the long cafeteria style table in the dining hall.
We are at the Shambhala Mountain Retreat Center, now the Drala Mountain Center, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, for a women’s silent meditation and yoga retreat with Sara Avant Stover that will begin after dinner. Carrie looks about my age, in her mid-30s. I am exposing intimate details of my life, things I have only admitted to close friends, with a complete stranger. Retreats have a way of quickly bringing strangers into community together.
Carrie nods; her eyes full of kindness: “That’s tough. What would help you decide what to do?”
Lingering feelings of being frazzled and overwhelmed spun inside me. I had spent the morning working even though I had planned to take the day off. Last minute urgent issues had come up that only I knew how to fix. My mind raced as I frantically troubleshooted. I dreaded all the issues that arose within HR projects and systems I managed. I was constantly in a reactive state. The pressures were endless in the fast-paced, demanding corporate work environment. I was exhausted.
I hastily packed, rushing out of my house to drive the two hours from my home to the retreat center. There was no late check in! I had envisioned arriving leisurely with time to meander the land and get settled before dinner. Instead, I arrived 15 minutes before the office closed. I quickly put my suitcase down in my room and hurried to dinner.
I hadn’t revealed the whole story to Carrie. It wasn’t only the work burnout that I was facing that year. I felt like I was falling apart.
I’d been trying to conceive for years. When I didn’t get pregnant after going through fertility treatments, devastated, I began my own introspective healing journey. It was so hard to navigate my own way, especially at first, but I kept going. Gradually, I did see progress towards healing, towards making internal changes, towards cultivating more self-compassion and wellbeing practices. When I learned how to connect to my own inner wisdom, I began to trust the unfolding more and receive guidance on my next steps. I believed I was on a strong path.
Then abruptly, I descended deeply into the darkness. It was so consuming. My healing route came crashing down. Childhood wounds that I thought I healed resurfaced much more deeply. Vulnerable parts of me wailed for attention, hurting and in pain.
Sleep had been turbulent all year. I felt so run down, yet in the middle of the night, I was often jolted awake—sweaty, with my heart racing. Night after night, I would lie awake for hours before falling back to sleep.
Existential questions haunted me. What did I want for my life? There must be more to life than this. I felt out of alignment with what was true for me. But I couldn't see a vision of what that might be.
I had first discovered Sara Avant Stover a year before, right before plummeting into the darkness. Her book, The Book of SHE: Your Heroine’s Journey into the Heart of Feminine Power, helped me realize I wasn’t going crazy for falling apart when I had been doing so well in my healing. Descending into the darkness was actually good: it meant I was strong enough to heal at the root.
The book gave me a roadmap for embarking on my own heroine’s journey. Descent is an early part of the journey after leaving your normal life. I found it at the perfect time. And now I was about to start a retreat with her.
On the last day of the retreat, during a break, we were instructed to take a mindful walk, inside or outside, where we focused on each step: picking up the foot, moving it through the air, setting it down. Much slower than a leisurely stroll.
I sensed a lightness that I hadn’t experienced in a while. The day before, I had participated in a ceremony to release the year. Vigorously, I stomped on the ground and waved my arms in the air. I was so ready to let go of the darkness of the year.
Maybe it was the feeling of release that prompted me to do the walking meditation outside on a chilly day. I repeated: “Stay” and “Slow.” I focused on each step in-front of me. The wind picked up, massive gusts whipping through the field.
Part of me wanted to run out of this place and get inside as quickly as possible. My body desperately tried to speed up. But I didn’t. I felt the resistance of wanting to move fast but continuing to go slow.
I noticed how uncomfortable it was to be with the intensity of the elements. The cold chill of the wind stung my face. It was so hard to stay. I contracted and tensed up, the knots in my stomach increasing, trying to protect myself.
The wind howled. The tall grasses shook. I shivered deeply in my core.
Something shifted in me. I slowly relaxed my body into the wind. I unclenched my fists, opening my palms to the air. I stood taller. I physically let go of resisting. I stopped fighting against the elements.
I opened to nature’s power and grace. Suddenly, I was fully present to it all.
It was in an open field, with icy gusts of wind over 30 miles per hour, where I learned how to be with myself no matter what. I learned that I could stay. With uncomfortableness. With the darkness. With myself.
The past year had been so emotionally overwhelming. At times it was too much. It felt like more than I could handle. I had resisted and run away from the intensity inside myself. I wanted to jump out of myself.
That single experience showed me I could lovingly be there for myself, no matter how intense. I could stay. It was a powerful encounter of surrendering to what arose.
October 2021: Shambhala Mountain Center
I look around the room at the circle of masked women. I am back for another retreat with Sara Avant Stover, this one called: “Filling Your Well.” With the center only recently reopening, I am grateful to be at a retreat in person again a year and a half into the pandemic. The room is silent. We are waiting for the retreat orientation to start.
Four years ago, I had no idea what was about to unfold after that last retreat. I found out a week and a half later that I was pregnant with our long hoped for child.
The clarity to leave my career came from within after my daughter was born. I cried when I told my husband I had resigned. I was overcome with emptiness, a void. That career was how I defined much of my life and identity. I had worked there for 10 years. I felt lost without it.
It was a time when so much of who I had been ended. A time when I wondered how I could build a life that felt more authentic to me. Being a mother would never be all of me. Neither would my next career, whatever that may be.
During orientation, the security officer shares safety precautions as a result of the devastating Cameron Peak fire, which swept through the land the previous year (the largest fire in Colorado history as of August 2020).
“Stay on the path. The path is safe to walk on. Other areas may look safe but not be. The ground is still weak from the fire. Trees can burn from the inside and you don’t know they’ve burned. If you walk over an area where the tree roots have burned, you can fall in.”
Burning from the inside? That’s what happened to me. It’s dangerous. On the outside, I looked fine. On the inside, I had no more energy to give.
The changes I made helped to an extent but only went surface deep. I didn’t understand until after leaving that I would not renew myself within that career. The position was no longer a fit for me. It was my past but not my future.
I came to understand I would restore my life once I tended to it from the inside out.
The security officer continues: “The Great Stupa opened again last week for visitors. The path had to be reconstructed.”
The Great Stupa is a sacred Buddhist monument, one of the most remarkable in America. It is the heart of the center. The white and gold crowned building stands 108 feet tall, at the top of the hillside. The shape of the building represents the Buddha, crowned and seated in a meditation posture. Inside is a large golden statue of the Buddha. Stupas are said to bring blessings to all around them. While I am not Buddhist, it is a place of significance and meaning to me.
I hadn’t realized the fire had come so close to the building.
The next day, I walk towards the Great Stupa. The path has been rebuilt, and I sense its newness on my feet. It is perfectly paved and smooth. It took intentional actions to restore, bringing more stability, so we can all be in connection with the forest again.
It is an overcast afternoon, with a subtle breeze. I look around at the aftermath of the fire. So much has burned and died. There are patches of black on the ground, where trees or structures once were. There are rags on poles waving in the wind, scraps of ribbons or flags.
So much is vibrant and alive too. There are golden wild grasses all around. I stop as I approach a small aspen grove, with fallen golden aspen leaves lining the path.
The last of the aspen leaves cling to the trees, hanging on until a gust of wind will blow them away. The bottoms of the trees are a little charred. The trees still live, healthy, but have burnt surface deep. Leaving scars. Small sprouting branches, offshoots of the aspen trees, have formed in the bush right next to the blackened tree trunks. Intertwining the web of creation and destruction.
The wild conditions that have aided the forest restoration surprise me. How the forest has burst into bloom in likely and unlikely places without discernment. The gleaming yellow leaves, which sprang on top of the blackened tree trunk bottoms, are signs of nature rejuvenating itself as best it can. Anywhere new life can sprout, it will with the right conditions.
Though the forest has been changed by the fire, it goes in the direction of resetting itself and all its vibrancy.
The significance of the wild conditions within my own renewal were unexpected. When I was coming back to life after burnout, I recognized the importance of taking intentional actions as I designed my part-time consulting business. Doing so strengthened me and started to restore homeostasis in my life and work.
I hadn’t anticipated that the wild conditions would nourish me to grow. The wild stirred me, inviting me more and more into aliveness. My inner creativity burst into bloom in all directions.
I continue on the path past the aspen grove. Around the corner, I glimpse the Great Stupa in the distance.
Soon, I stand facing the stairway to the Great Stupa, fully visible down the path. It is eerily quiet. The adorned monument is perfectly intact. It has been untouched by the fire. The outside glows, contrasting the blackened hill with charred trees right behind. The gold crown shines, contrasting the scorched remains of the nearby Stupa Visitor Center that burned to the ground.
The fire never penetrated the heart of the center. It took the Shambhala Mountain Center a year to intentionally restore what was most sacred. Before reopening it, there was damage from smoke and soot to repair and a path to rebuild. The Great Stupa still stood, in its beautiful wholeness, but there wasn’t a safe way to get there. The heart was unreachable.
When I was in continuous burnout cycles, it was about survival. In trying to protect myself, I built a wall around my heart to guard what was most vulnerable. My heart was still there, beating vibrantly, but, like the Great Stupa after the fire, I couldn’t access my heart’s desires.
By listening to the call to write I started to find my way back to my heart’s song.
“All the buried seeds crack open in the dark the instant they surrender to a process they can’t see.” –Mark Nepo
It is out of the darkness that new life comes into being. It was when I surrendered to the darkness that the seed of my baby implanted and began growing inside of me. It was the spark that changed everything. It ignited my own inner journey of rebirth.
Rachael is an HR and Leadership Development Consultant and Content Writer at Rachael Gaibel Consulting. She is passionate about topics related to well-being and personal growth. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter. Check out more info about her work here: https://www.rachaelgaibel.com/ or you can find her on medium here: https://medium.com/@rachael-gaibel
Cover image by Matthis
Woods, pathway and Great Stupa, courtesy of Rachael Gaibel