HEALTH GRADES: MINDFUL SELF-COMPASSION AS A DOORWAY TO FREEDOM AND JOY
BY KAVERI PATEL, DO
The lipid (cholesterol) and Hbaic (3 month blood sugar average) results are released online by my primary care physician. After a few months of changing the exercise routine due to a chronic piriformis injury, and celebrating Diwali, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with so much food, I know the numbers won’t be good.
Taking a few deep breathes, I click on the lab links. The numbers confirm my apprehension. Shoulders slump, the heart sinks in disappointment.
Judgmental thoughts abound. How could you possibly think hiking and walking would be enough? Can’t you control your food choices and intake? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to offer advice to patients you can’t even follow yourself? The thoughts threaten to submerge the heart even more in the brewing anger, fear, and sadness conjured by them.
Mindfully aware of the thoughts, feelings, and effects they have on the body, I recognize an old pattern based on past causes and conditions. The lab values feel like health grades, a kind of report card defining my wellbeing. If the numbers are outside of a certain range, then I have failed.
Ouch! This hurts. It’s unpleasant. Does it have to be, or am I adding on extra arrows of suffering that don’t need to prick so sharply?
I don’t like the numbers, but like final semester grades, they don’t define what I’ve learned about physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. I wonder what a wise teacher, loved one, or good friend might say to me in this moment to help me remember kindness.
Sweetheart, this is an invitation to the biggest wellbeing party of your life! How does your body want to move, to dance? What do you want to eat at this party that is not only sweet or savory when swallowed, but will last to support deep loving connections with self and others?
Radiant, the heart emerges with more care, communicating with a curious mind to expand a narrowly focused lens on experience. With a panoramic view, I think of my colleagues and other physicians who balance the wellbeing of patients with their own wellbeing every day, sometimes to their own detriment. Ahh, others experience this, too.
Though I work part-time, have so much support at home, and cannot attribute a change in health status to work alone, I know other physicians suffer from exquisite burnout. Burdened by the overwhelming weight of patient care, demanding electronic medical records that threaten the physician-patient relationship, and never-ending administrative duties that seem to proliferate at an alarming rate, mindlessness can feel like the only easy way out.
According to Diana Winston, Director of Mindful Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), mindfulness is “paying attention to your present moment experience with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.” For years, I worked with definitions like this in meditation, movement practices, silent retreats, and meetings with a mentor. The “paying attention to present moment experience with openness and curiosity” piece was starting to make sense. The mind got it, but the heart still wasn’t convinced.
When I learned about Kristen Neff and Chris Germer’s research and teachings on self-compassion, and began to integrate them into mindful practices, the heart began to trust the combined capacity of heartmind to communicate with the body, to be in tune with each other and sense when there was an imbalance of thoughts, feelings, and sensations leading to dis-ease. The capacity to stay with these experiences led to internal freedom and joy independent of external circumstances.
To this day, mindful self-compassion gives me the strength to stay with difficult patients and circumstances, to touch intimacy and vulnerability without overwhelm, to celebrate healing with patients in a larger context than ones limited by disease states and problem lists.