CANDIDATE WELLNESS: How to Meditate without Doing Nothing
What do you picture when you think of meditation—a person standing under a waterfall or someone sitting in full lotus chanting “ommm”? With so many stereotypes following meditation around, and so many perceived restrictions, it’s not surprising that it prevents many from practicing it; however, it is important to keep in mind that meditation is simply a vehicle with which to still your mind. Practicing meditation belongs to you and does not involve any right or wrongs. There are no pressures and there is no try with which to feel as though it is too hard. To put it simply, meditation isn’t inclusive of sitting down and doing nothing for extended periods of time. Let’s face it, as a medical student or resident do you have time to do nothing while studying or preparing for licensure exams?
While sitting meditation is its own kind of practice, it doesn’t have to be your practice if you don’t have the time for it. We all have our unique ways of getting to a clear, stress-free mind. What’s yours?
As a future physician, and someone whose job is to heal, you will inevitably see a lot of suffering, and there will be times that are difficult to get through. With this in mind, you’ll need to find your own strategy to get through the hard times and prevent those situations or leftover feelings from eating you up inside. All doctors have acquired learned behaviors to help them cope with the feeling of burnout. Meditation is one of them.
Imagine you have to tell someone they have cancer and they only have a certain amount of time left to live. Not all specialties will encounter situations this severe, but the mental fortitude to ‘reset’ yourself and be present for your next patient is important no matter what specialty you choose. You’ll have to let the emotional baggage go, move on quickly, and continue to function. When you are stressed out, when you are anxious or nervous, and facing something that feels impossible—the only real choice is calm.
Meditation can help you find that calm and develop a different response to stress by refocusing your thoughts when you fall into a negative thinking pattern. It’s a practice that will help strengthen your mind and learn how to be with yourself—deeply with yourself, and your darkest thoughts—while you watch them pass by like ships on the water, silently observing, and then letting that go too. As a future physician, you can take the practice of meditation with you anywhere and apply it to all aspects of your life.
HOW TO MEDITATE
Face the Difficulty
Your mind is your worst enemy. Whenever you start something new, there’s always a level of uncertainty. And that’s okay. It’s normal to feel challenged when meeting with yourself. Don’t let you discourage you. This is an open dialogue—a forever conversation with yourself, and it will take discipline and commitment to follow through—just like your commitment to becoming a DO.
Find the Time
There are many kinds of structured meditation that follow forms, such as Zazen, Qigong, or Yoga. These types of meditation involve making time in your schedule. And if that’s possible for you, that’s wonderful! However, we truly know, and appreciate, how frenetic and time-crunched the schedule of a busy medical student or resident is. Not everyone can spare the time to essentially get nothing done. In which case, they will need to take their practice into their own hands and find portions of time in their schedules to meditate—or at least be meditative.
- Between classes or patients
- Driving to or from somewhere
- Walking the dog
Start with counting your breaths and keep letting the thoughts roll away. Let what you’re doing become your mantra, and keep reciting it.
Learn to Focus
Stop for a moment—stop wondering about the results of your last COMLEX-USA exam or how one of your patients is doing.
- Take a moment to focus inwardly.
- Make yourself comfortable.
- Check-in with your body and keep your back straight.
- Don’t move if you can help it.
- Keep your eyes still and about six yards in front of you, soften your sight.
- Breathe diaphragmatically from your core.
- Start to count each of your exhales until you get to ten.
- Start over from one and count your exhales again—rinse, repeat.
- Keep bringing your mind back and avoid wandering down that rabbit hole.
- Be the observer. Let it pass and don’t try to catch it—fish without any bait.
It’s better to meditate for just five minutes every day than to try and clear time for larger chunks of meditation twice a week. The consistency and repetition of your practice are essential to perform maintenance on your mind like you would on a computer. Keep at it!
WHEN TO MEDITATE
Meditation isn’t a prescription. It’s not like taking an ibuprofen that will make your headache go away—it’s more like the reins on a wild horse you need to learn how to tame. With this in mind, don’t just meditate when you’ve had a stressful day; meditate when you’re also having an amazing day. Sit with your happiness as often as you sit with your distress.
WHERE TO MEDITATE
As mentioned before, there are so many different forms of meditation. While many of them involve sitting formally and doing nothing, that isn’t to say you can’t enter the same headspace in a different setting—like sitting on a park bench or in the car. The restrictive and often painful ‘do nothing’ structure is conjured to help you focus on the here and now, but you can also achieve that same experience in other ways:
- Try sitting still on your bed for a few minutes before sleep
- If you’re in the park, steal a moment to sit quietly on a bench
- When you are on autopilot during your commute, start counting your breaths as you exhale
Meditation isn’t just limited to stillness. There are forms of moving meditation that can enable you to sink into a focused state without having to stop moving. “Walk it off” had to come from somewhere, right? Sometimes just taking a beat internally, can help to move you through a stressful space and into calm. And there are so many ways you can fit this into your daily life:
- Walking down the hall
- Walking your dog
- Walking around your office
- Walking on the treadmill
Meditation is also not limited to any action and can exist anywhere within you. Meaning, even when you are doing something, your mind is free and unbound from it. With any type of repetitive motion, you can enter a meditative state:
- Lifting weights
- Cooking a recipe you know by heart
- Gardening or pruning
- Chopping wood
In the medical profession, meditation can be a practice that helps you sculpt a clean bill of mental health. It’s easy for anyone to have unproductive worries, but if you can train yourself to experience those distracting thoughts differently without giving them too much power over you, then you can avoid rehearsing disaster and stressing too much over the uncertain. Meditation will root you in the moment and help you be present not only for yourself but also for your patients.