Now, more than ever, I have called upon my meditation practice to help me through each day. Every morning, whether I’m headed to the hospital or self-isolating at home, I find my way to my meditation pillow for 30 minutes. This is a very stressful time for a physician. There is no question that I love my job, and I thrive in stressful environments. However, these times are unprecedented. No doctor has trained for this. But my mindfulness practice has guided me through the stressful hospital days and has helped me navigate the challenges with dignity, grace, and compassion.
I remember when I first started meditating; I was living in NYC, 9/11 had just occurred and I felt stressed about everything. I could hardly sit still for even 5 minutes. But regardless of how hard it was (and it was hard!), I would practice every day. Even for just 5 minutes. Eventually, I started to notice the benefits — I was no longer ruled by my concerns about the future or dwelling in the past — I felt more present in my daily life, and consequently, more free.
My meditation practice really took flight during med school. I was filled with so many feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. How could I ever have the knowledge and healing instinct that seemed to come so easily to my mentors? But when I committed to the practice, I found it inside me — that sense of knowing… the confidence and self-love that it took to believe I could be all the things I set out to be. It motivated me to study harder and work longer hours. It took years of practice, and some days are harder than others. But it’s in those moments, I know I must go back to my practice. In moments of doubt and fear, I sit– to stay grounded and centered. In times of discomfort I call upon meditation for comfort and guidance — and it has never failed me. In these times of the
COVID-19 pandemic, I practice meditation daily. And without it, I would be a very different person. Who knows, I may have let the stress get to me. But because of the support of meditation, I know myself better, and I can summon the courage needed to take on these difficulties ahead, and step up to the plate the way my patients need me. You can too.
I’ve just come out of a weekend-long silent meditation retreat, and I yearn now for more silence. There is something about silence that is relieving. You don’t have to worry if you are likeable, or if what you said to the person next to you was the right/wrong thing. There is no awkward silence because silence is the norm. It is amazing and agonizing all at once. The journey is bone-shaking and uncomfortable. At times you feel elated, other times, you yearn to be stimulated and distracted. It’s a constant battle of confronting every feeling, thought and emotion you have with dynamic awareness.
Time can go slow when you are meditating. This retreat was held at a mission centered around a beautiful old cathedral in the hills of Southern California’s city of Oceanside. The bells of the church would tell our time, ringing every 15 minutes; one for ¼ past the hour, two for half hour, and three for 45 past, and 4 times plus the number of hours to tell us the time on the hour. Sometimes, when the bell would ring, I would be surprised and disappointed that time had passed so slowly. Other times, I would hear the church bells and wish I had more time because I was just then settling into a sense of stillness. And then it was gone. We would sit, then walk, sit again, then walk again. The day was broken up by silent meals where I would try to break the habit of shoveling food in my mouth to move on to my next task, and mindfully taste every bite. Then we would sit and walk again. Occasionally, our teacher, Matthew Brensilver, would share wisdom through dharma talks. And they resonated. Sleep was speckled with intense dreams and deep, catatonic rest. All of it in an attempt to surrender.
At times, we retreat to seek refuge in the suffering that is inherent in every life, even among the most fortunate. There is courage in the willingness to look within and evolve. It is just about mustering the courage. Sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-walk. Isn’t that what we are doing in our daily lives? But in the case of retreat, maybe living in that life just a little more mindfully.
The other day, I had the privilege of hearing one of my life heroes and greatest inspirations speak, Atul Gawande. He is a Harvard CT surgeon that has dedicated his life to the betterment of his craft and society as a whole (read his books “Better” and “The Checklist Manifesto”). He regularly contributes to the New Yorker and embarks upon medical missions to Africa and India to provide health care assistance. He is my ultimate hero and I hope to grow up one day to be even half the physician and human he is. In his talk, he discussed the continual need for coaching and mentorship. This struck me as so fascinating, because we don’t talk about this in medicine. We think, once we are done with our formal residency training, and become board-certified, then we are done with our education. Sure, we have ongoing continuing medical education requirements, but for the most part, your time is meant to be spent solely in service of your patients, and you are to be their expert. You continue to learn by reading, not by formal mentorship. Your patients want to believe that you know everything; that if there is even an errant cell in your body, you will identify it and shield them from all the worst case scenarios. Even I want my doctor my Superman! But, she is human too. She’ll do her best with her many years of medical experience and life sacrifices to know what to do when I am ill, and to prevent disease from overtaking. But it still stands that she cannot know everything, and sometimes she may have habits that she doesn’t even know about. The best thing that we, as health care providers, can do, is to know and acknowledge our shortcomings. Because human disease is a completely human process. And often we don’t know our shortcomings until a kind observer clues us in. There are so many subtleties to the practice of medicine, that it may be impossible to see unless it is pointed out to you under the guidance and mentorship of someone who is appointed to the task. And to you, the reader, how can you apply this to your career/life/craft? How we can humble ourselves enough to remember that we will always require guidance, no matter what path we choose? How can we reach out with an open heart and continually ask ourselves, “How, in my life of service, can I be better?”