David Johnson is a therapist that focuses on helping people recover from burnout and dealing with work-related stress that brings an interesting perspective. He suffered with those conditions and 10 years ago decided to train as a counsellor. Using Buddhism and western ideas of psychotherapy he founded Fruitful Success in 2020. In this interview David explains more about his story, how to deal with stress and anxiety and more.
When did you discover your interest in Buddhism?
I must have been about 12 years old when I found a book of my parents on Hatha Yoga. It focused predominantly on breathing exercises and mindfulness aspects of it and I found it very fascinating. I’d do breathing practices such as the Prana, Pranayama and everything else.
I was also interested in Mythology when I was a kid, so I started looking into some of the Hindu cultural stories. From Hinduism, I started looking into Buddhism and started practicing on an off around 14 years old.
I grew up as a Catholic and I found it very interesting to see such a different view of the world in these Eastern Books, so I dove into it.
What do you suggest as a starting point for people interested in learning about Buddhism and meditation?
There are things out there like Headspace, that I think are really good tools to get people into the practice of it. I don’t think you need to have a religious side to Buddhism to do the meditation. From my experience, people I know who’ve gone into meditation are purely agnostic because some of the Buddhist texts can get a bit mad, there’s some interesting stuff in them.
Do the practice and start with something simple. I’ve seen people talk about meditation and they say you’re not supposed to think about anything or just quiet your mind, and that’s complete nonsense. The mind thinks, it’s what it does. So, when you start to fight it, it doesn’t do any good.
You’ve got to accept the thoughts. A great analogy I’ve seen from a guru called Mooji is to refer to thoughts as clouds in the sky: they come and they go, you just have to see them like that and let them go. The best thing to start, in my opinion, is doing some breathing exercises. There’s a Buddhist one called Anapana.
Essentially, we focus on the breath when we follow it in and out again. It’s really simple and brings the mind into the present moment, we allow thoughts to come and go and don’t attach to anything. If we start going off onto a tangent and recognize it, we just gently bring ourselves back into the present again. There’s no self-criticism, we don’t admonish ourselves for doing it.
Mantras are really useful for starting out because they help to anchor your mind into doing it. Rather than sit down and let thoughts come and go, if you’ve got a mantra, you can use it to anchor yourself into the meditation. Sometimes the mind goes off on little journeys, so keeping the mantra helps to keep us in the present.
In your blog you mention problems brought upon by modern life. When people come to you, what are the most common complaints and concerns?
I’ve got to be honest: the most common things I see are stress and anxiety. There’s a cognitive dissonance between reality and the information that reaches us, such as phone notifications and news. It can be really overwhelming.
When I talk to people around things like that, I use a lot of Stoic philosophy. The important thing to remind people when they often stress about the bigger stuff is, if you can’t control it, there’s no point in worrying about it. You should only focus on things you can control. In doing that, you can sift down the noise from everything else that gets thrown at us. Because it can be intense.
What do you suggest for people experiencing burnout but that still need to keep pushing on with their work or family life?
As someone who went through burnout in my younger years, I think it is really important to make time to do stuff that is for us. It is really easy to get wrapped up in work and in the obligations of the family. Yes, they are massively important but if we spend all our energy on those things and we have nothing left for ourselves, that’s what causes burnout.
It sounds counter-intuitive when you say it but the biggest priority in everybody’s life needs to be their own well-being. I don’t say that from a selfish point of view, I feel that if you are looking after your well-being and are putting time into doing that, it gives you the energy to do your work, support your family and do all other important things.
If you constantly give and never have time to recharge, then ultimately you are no good to anybody. We all have a sense of obligation and I respect that, but in a way I feel like they are a form of psychological self-harm. We put them on a pedestal and neglect ourselves, so we need to make sure to look after us, even in small ways.
How can you find the balance between finding your purpose in the world and external pressures?
That is a really tricky question. There’s a psychologist called Carl Rogers who talked about the actual and the ideal self. The actual self is who we are and who we know we are in the present, whereas the ideal self is the person we think we should be.
When the actual and ideal self are very far apart, that’s when we get all issues feeling we are not good enough and we need to be doing more. In this case, we need to look at what our ideal self is – a self-reflection exercise, essentially – and ask ourselves what expectations are external and what comes from us.
A lot of our expectations of who we should be or of what we should be doing come from our family, friends, bosses, teachers and people we hold in a position of ‘authority’ – who we would allow to influence us. Even, to an extent, the media. All of the stuff coming from Instagram, for instance, is external influence.
My suggestion is to put together a list of things you think your ideal self should be, and then look at that list and cross off all of those that don’t come from you. This isn’t a sit-down 5-minute job, it’s a real self-reflection exercise. But when you get rid of all of those that are external, you come down to the ones that are you.
That’s you being authentic, and I think the most important thing we can strive to be at the moment is our authentic selves. I think a lot of stress, anxiety and issues we have comes from this bombardment of external sources. We have to, as Buddhists would say, not attach to them so much.
Please explain how your subscriptions work and how you connect with clients.
Generally, 90% of the therapy services come from referrals. A lot of it comes from good sessions with clients who recommend me to friends who are going through similar issues. The other way I’d do it is through social media. I love video content and think it is really important. You’ve got to meet your audience where they are and can’t just use a platform because you like it.
Video and audio can be formatted for so many different areas and platforms. The nice thing is, when coming to a therapist through social media, you’ll want to know who that person is, see their blog posts, their body language, their voice and other things. So, for me, video and audio are probably the two biggest things I use outside of referrals to communicate with clients and try to get a message across.
Do you have a special message to share with our readers in these challenging times?
I’d definitely remind people to look after themselves in a positive way. Cherish who they are and just live with some compassion and kindness. If you’re going down the street and bump into someone, don’t be angry if they are rude to you, but think about what’s happening for that person. Turn on that compassion.