Following the publication of my short piece on relaxation tips for busy doctors, I heard from a number of readers who were curious about the first two tips – breathing and mindfulness.
These readers correctly pointed out that (as I freely admit in the piece) these tips are rooted in calming and meditation. But some people had a problem with that – because, to them, meditation just doesn’t work. They asked for more help with it.
Well – ask and ye shall receive! Today I’ll give a quick walkthrough of a simple meditative technique that helped ease me into a routine of more consistent relaxation when I was struggling to keep on top of things.
But before we dive into that, it’s worth driving home the point of what meditation is all about. Many people see meditation as a silly or ineffective waste of time. Images of people sitting, cross-legged with their fingers folded, on the edge of a remote mountain immediately pop into your head when you think about it.
In our culture, there’s something of a yuppie rep behind that kind of imagery, and it leads to misunderstanding of what meditation is at its core. No, it isn’t about perching in a prescribed position until you’ve finally meditated enough that your mind leaves your body, transforms into raw stardust and slips the leash of infinity as mind and soul become one with all that is and all that ever was, coasting between the threads of existence in all-encompassing awe.
You’re probably going to need some harder stuff for that.
Rather, meditation is a simple mental exercise that helps coax you into a more peaceful state. It does this by helping bring you out of your wandering thoughts and into the current moment. In a nutshell, meditation helps you quiet the din of worry in your own head, and subsequently lower stress levels – useful even if it’s only for a few minutes a day.
It’s also a skill – and like all skills, it’s something that needs practice before it becomes easy.
Here’s the typical brain trying to meditate:
Oh this is nice, oh I’m not supposed to be thinking.
My nose itches. I’ll ignore it.
Ugh, that’s too itchy! Scratch. Ah, that’s better. Okay, not thinking now.
Belly rumbling. Am I hungry?
What time is it?
I wonder if Mrs. Wilkins will make her appointment tomorrow. She’s an awful one for sleeping in. Wait… did I check her file again to make sure those results were in? I’ll have to get in early and make sure.
Alright, stop it. Meditate. Breathe. Yes, that’s it. Milk. Did I buy milk?
And that’s in the first two minutes! Our brains constantly think about the past and worry about the future – that’s part of the human condition. So even when it’s good to quieten the mind, it is indeed difficult.
Now here’s how to begin your journey toward the benefits of meditation.
The Five Minute Medic Meditation
Start with five minutes. Set a timer on your phone to make it easy. I’d suggest a nice twinkly sound to ease you out, rather than a blaring fog horn – but you do you.
It’s traditional to sit comfortably with your eyes closed. There’s nothing to say you can’t be standing or sat in the cafeteria, just so long as there are no immediate demands on you to act, talk or think. It doesn’t even need to be a quiet area (though that certainly helps in the early days of getting to grips) – but it should be somewhere you feel safe.
So here we go…
- To begin, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, but when it does, bring your attention back to the breath. Force yourself to think only of that.
- Start by counting to four while you inhale, hold for a second, and then exhale for four. If you can, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- After four complete breath cycles, take the length up to a count of five. After five of these, raise it again to a count of six for six cycles. Throughout all of this, focus only on your breathing – only on this task.
- Connect to, and think about your breath. How does it feel to breathe? Is the air cold as it enters your lungs and warmer as it leaves your lips? Where does breathing offer the strongest sensation for you? Your nose? Diaphragm? Lungs? Track this throughout each breath, as you progressively make them longer.
- Now let go of the count, but focus instead on where you feel your breath most.
- When an unrelated thought breaks through – what you did wrong yesterday, or what you need to do later or tomorrow, for example – don’t be harsh with yourself. Instead, redirect your focus back to your breath and let the thoughts drift away. Don’t engage with them.
- As your phone alarm goes off, don’t spring out of the meditative state like a Jack in the Box. Slowly open your eyes, take a deep slow breath in then out. Think about something you’re grateful for – your friends, your loved ones, your health – and then move on with the rest of your day.
Dealing with distracting thoughts while meditating is a challenge everyone faces. It isn’t always easy, and even people who have years of practice under their belt can find it frustrating at times. Your mind is used to planning and preparing, and it needs to be trained to relax. Don’t feel bad, or too annoyed, when you find it hard to shunt those thoughts aside. Learning to meditate is rarely a first-time success.
It helps to go in knowing that, as I said earlier, the point here isn’t to clear your mind and drift away to some ethereal plane of nothingness. Instead, it’s to focus the mind on the physical here and now as a method of clearing away other thoughts for a period.
You’re anchoring your focus elsewhere (present, essential reality) – not trying to remove any and all focus from everything. Make sense?
If you sit down to meditate and try to turn your mind into an empty cinema screen, the struggle against invasive thoughts will be infinitely more difficult. Before you know it, that screen will be awash with projections of every worry and regret you’re trying to get away from. Not good. That’s not meditation – that’s stewing.
When I get errant thoughts, I acknowledge them. Maybe I even nod my head slightly to show I’ve noticed that little worry that’s popped in for a peek. Then I think about my breath again and let the other thought drift away from my door. It doesn’t need answers right now. It doesn’t have an appointment. This is my five minutes of calm.
And when the end of your chosen time comes around, that’s it. You’ve meditated! By spending a mere five minutes breathing deeply and reflecting on a positive aspect of your life, you can calm the mind and soothe the soul – if just for a little while. No, you didn’t ascend to a new plane of existence, become one with all things, and discover the key to universal peace – but you’ve certainly lowered your cortisol levels.
Feels good, doesn’t it?
For a whole range of activities – not all of them meditative – that you can use across the span of 30 days (and beyond), along with the story of my own personal journey into (and out of) physician burnout, pick up a copy of my book Physician on Fire. You can get it from Amazon here, or nab your very own signed and personalised copy directly at my website.
And just like the people who emailed me and asked for a little more support with getting “in the moment” and coming down to earth more often, you can always contact me right here. It’s lovely to hear from you – and if there’s anything I can do to help you out, whatever the situation (and confidentially, of course), I absolutely will.