As the word "mindfulness" sweeps across pop culture, it becomes vital to root larger discussion of the topic to its practical meaning. Mindfulness isn't synonymous with serenity, or even meditation. It also isn't an empty fad. Not that long ago general physical fitness wasn't widely accepted, and mindfulness is following a similar cultural arc. Beyond the trend, the underlying idea is that when we take time to care for our minds, and in essence our brains, we benefit.
My own introduction to mindfulness was presented almost as a side note to my medical training. During a lunch conference in our outpatient clinic, one of the attendings decided to lead the residents in a mindfulness practice. I found it useful for the stress I was living under at that time, decided to find out more, got hooked and have been practicing it ever since. For years, I kept it separate from my professional life. Now mindfulness is an accepted part of Western medicine. An exponential growth in research has led to publications, for example, from both the American Medical Association and The American Academy of Pediatrics.
Everyone experiences stress in some way or another, and people in caretaking roles do in particular. Our communities rely on individuals who choose these paths, and yet no one has the capacity to indefinitely give. Parents, hospice workers, teachers, psychologists, physicians, and anyone living with similar demands are at risk for exhaustion or burn out. So as a caretaker, time to take care of yourself is essential to sustaining your own well-being. Only then can you be at your best when interacting with others.
Of course, in caretaking roles other people's needs often come first, and there may not seem to be a whole lot of time available for yourself. And that's one place mindfulness has concrete benefit. While you might picture long stretches of stillness, mindfulness actually can be integrated into any job, and any lifestyle. It is not about relaxing for hours somewhere on a quiet cushion, it's about proactively changing how we live our real lives. It's meant to affect daily life, not only to act as (or even requiring) an extended break when you're able to find the time.
While there is certainly benefit to making mindfulness a consistent formal practice, creating any new habit along these lines enables caretakers to remain more resilient themselves. A few breaths when shifting from one discussion with a family to the next is a mindfulness practice. Taking time for yourself before starting lunch is too. So is mindfully walking or eating, more fully focusing on the activity instead of remaining caught up in rumination, anger, or racing through email while rushing through a snack. And it probably isn't surprising to know that people being cared for often report feeling better about their care when caretakers practice mindfulness.
The larger concept of mindfulness is to practice cognitive skills that help you remain settled and to recover more quickly when life throws you off balance. We train in it not because we expect any single session to be life-changing, but because the consistency itself allows us to handle rough situations with more ease. So if you're in a role of a caretaker, take a moment and consider your own state of mind. As you might choose to eat healthy and exercise on a regular basis, how might you focus on your own well-being, for the sake of your students, family or clients, in 2015?
Looking to get started with mindfulness as a health care provider in 2015? Check out this Harvard Health list of resources online. Or join me May 15-17 at the Garrison Institute in Garrison New York, for a mindfulness retreat, Fostering Resilience in Health Care Providers.