Last week, I attended a fascinating presentation by a psychologist and his physician colleague from Duke Integrative Medicine on a favorite topic: mindfulness. Since 1989, when I discovered Ellen Langer’s book on Mindfulness, I’ve attempted to integrate it into my life and work. I need more practice and wish I could be more consistent, but I know this much: when I begin my day mindfully, everything works better. Sleep, for instance, and my ability to manage interruptions, break-downs and other challenges. Although my experiences have demonstrated the value of mindfulness, like many folks, I’m often mindless (i.e., unfocused, unaware of the not-helpful ways I’m thinking or behaving, feeling out of control, stressed, or a victim of circumstances).
The Duke presentation inspired me to PAY ATTENTION to mindfulness again (in fact, that’s what mindfulness is about – attending to the present moment, without a judgmental attitude, with the intention of letting it be what it is). Researchers are documenting health-enhancing changes in brain chemistry, the body, emotions and behavior as people in all walks of life and states of health learn to reduce stress or pain and improve well being through meditation and other mindful, daily practices.
It was exciting to learn about the latest clinical implications of mindfulness. Health care professionals are being advised to care better for themselves and others through meditation, practicing yoga and the like. One of the most encouraging things I heard is from a recent study suggesting that doctors who meditate have patients who report feeling better more quickly than the patients who have less-than-Zen-like docs. This makes sense to me. I try to avoid seeking help from health care practitioners who seem tense and unhappy.
For years, I coached and worked closely with hundreds of physicians as part of a contract with a major health care provider. Sadly — and this is hardly a surprise — I witnessed first hand that health care professionals are among the least likely to take good care of themselves. When I suggested a doctor try something that might make his or her life flow more smoothly, I was more likely to get somewhere when I persuaded him or her it would improve family relationships, colleague interactions or patient “compliance.” Now, I’ll have more ammunition (empirical studies)!
I advocate and teach mindful, intentional communication in health care settings. For instance, physician/patient interaction in the exam room is more likely to result in positive outcomes — from both parties’ perspectives — when the former looks the latter in the eye, smiles, listens with empathy and makes a genuine connection with another human being (rather than looking at the patient’s chart while mumbling a list of questions). The patient bears equal responsibility for bringing mindfulness to his or her health care. Fortunately, I’ve found wonderful physicians in my neck of the woods who do their best to take care of themselves as they remind me to pay attention to my health. Let’s hear it for mindful health care!