A wandering mind can be a tough thing to overcome. There are some meditation sessions where I get so lost in thought, I probably focused on three breaths or less the entire time. Some might think that this is a failed meditation. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an integral part of the meditation process. My mind, in that moment, didn’t want to listen to me. I tried to tell it what to do, but it wasn’t having it. This is the essence of meditation. You are working the “muscle” that gives you more precise control of your brain. Some days you will feel weak and unable to tame the beast. Other days you will get into the zone and you will feel in total control of your focus. The most important thing is to be gentle with yourself if you can’t get focused. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not a failed meditator. You are human and what your brain wants to do is often very different from what you want to do. With practice, the inner beast will be controlled. But realize this is a process that takes time, just like a body gets sculpted in the gym over many workouts.
Good summary of common mindfulness practices
Mindfulness in practice
An interesting thing about a veterinarian’s day is how variable it can be. You might start with a vomiting dog followed by an abscessed cat followed by a limping puppy, then on to some preventive care appointments and plenty of variety in between.
An extreme contrast in a vet’s day is to go from a euthanasia appointment followed by a puppy appointment. The term “euthanasia” breaks down to “good death.” So, the idea is to provide for a pet’s peaceful departure from a family. A puppy appointment is quite the opposite. It’s the start of a pet’s life with us. We typically talk about all the things that need to be done to maximize her health and lifespan. A puppy visit is usually a joyous event. Most of the time, a euthanasia appointment is a very sad event. There are variations, but in general, there is extreme happiness contrasted with extreme sadness.
The problem for the vet is that the family that is introducing a new puppy into the household is coming from a very different mindset than the family that is saying a final goodbye to a family member. The contrast of what the vet feels and observes during the two types of appointments is pretty stark. Interactions with a family mourning are completely opposite from the interactions with the family full of joy. It can feel like you are slamming your foot down on the gas pedal when you get in that puppy visit, but you’re not really getting anywhere close to the speed you should be traveling at. You want to be at the happy puppy level, but you haven’t had a chance to recover from the sadness of the euthanasia. It can feel forced, or not authentic, when travelling through emotion ranges at such a rapid pace.
For me, it is pretty easy to share in the joy of welcoming a new puppy into the practice. How can you not love a puppy? It’s a lot of fun to talk to people about their new family member, to share stories, to help with the list of questions a client might have.
With euthanasia, my feelings are more complicated and nuanced, but there is an overall sense of loss and sadness that I cannot help but feel with the client. It takes an emotional toll on any veterinarian to some degree, and if it doesn’t, they may be temporarily “side-stepping” the emotions to make it through the day. These feelings will come out in some other way at some point in the vet’s life, which may be a factor with burnout. So how do you go from the empathetic feelings of mourning with the first client to sharing the joy of a new puppy with the next client?
One of the things that helps me deal with the contrast is to stop and take some mindful breaths between appointments. Just sitting upright, feet on the floor, and focusing on my breath can set up my mind for a reboot. Instead of letting my thoughts run on with the previous task and emotions while trying to move on to the next, I’m giving my brain a reminder to take in each appointment as it comes, and to give all of myself to that appointment. This technique is also a great way to help you transition from wearing your “at work” hat to your “at home” hat. After particularly stressful days, I have parked in a commuter lot on my way home from work, and just meditated in my car for a little bit before I continued the drive home. It helps to signal that the day is done, I’m putting it to rest, and I can enjoy the rest of my evening.
I think of it as a little gift I give myself that helps me appreciate each appointment for what it is, which makes me feel like I’m doing a better job throughout the day. I believe it can also help you appreciate all of your moments during the day more. Stopping and doing a mindfulness reboot multiple times a day can turn what would usually be a really crappy day into a tolerable day, or maybe even an amazing day, no matter what comes your way.
Let me know how you might be using mindfulness to transition during your day. Feel free to comment below.
Meditation and dealing with programs running in the background
There is something special that happens with meditation if you stick with it over time. I can’t mark the date when my brain converted to recognizing my thoughts are separate from Me, but when I did, a blindingly bright light bulb was turned on by Me on me for Me. My Me became a different me than the me I thought I knew was me for the entire life of me. I became aware that “Me” is separate from the me with the thoughts. Probably the most eloquent way I’ve heard it put is from Peter Sage: “You are not your thoughts.” It’s hard to describe but I’m going to give it a shot.
When you are thinking thoughts, you might feel as though you are in control of them, that they are you, but in actuality, the you that “perceives” or recognizes something as a thought, is not in control of any of those thoughts. Bear with me here. I’m going to explain using some medical terminology, but don’t get too scared if you’re not the scientific type. Most of it should make sense without having a medical background.
Just like you have involuntary reflexes (like a sneeze), your brain generates involuntary electrical impulses that are a result of neurotransmitters (signals between nerve cells) and hormones (signals in the blood) within the brain, the nervous system, and the blood stream. This chemical soup of signals is a result of millions of data points coming in through the senses at any given moment. The senses take in information from the environment that get converted into electro-chemical signals to tell your population of cells to seek pleasure, avoid pain, stay alive, watch Game of Thrones, or scroll Facebook. The soup bathes the cells in signals to give information about what’s going on out there in the world. An example of the cell signalling system is when you put an immature cell in a culture medium (man-made soup in a petri dish). Depending on what the signals are in the synethetic soup, this cell will become a muscle cell, a nerve cell, a skin cell, etc. When you have a fully-formed human, the cell population in that human still receives signals from the soup, but the soup’s ingredients are determined by what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. What you sense in your environment affects the soup your cells are bathed in.
Let’s think of a scenario where the soup changes ingredients pretty quickly. You’re on your way to work. You see a car veering into your lane forcing you to have to think fast. A whole host of neurotransmitters and hormones suddenly flood into your personal soup. Your cells must respond instantaneously or else you might get hurt or die. In milliseconds, your heart rate increases, your breathing accelerates, your lungs open up, your pupils dilate, and your information processing channels open up wide making memory capture completely different than it was just moments before you were singing along to Taylor Swift. The state of your soup completely changed in a flash.
The soup system works really well to save our lives and protect us from harm. But it also can work against us. Let’s say we have a child who hears an argument between parents. The state of the child was happy and playful, chasing the kitty. Voices start to get louder, and an association might be made where loud adult voices result in a sad faces and tears. What kind of neuro-chemical soup do you think might be happening within the child’s body? He hears, sees, feels, tastes, and smells things in his environment. His senses are arguably more acute because kids download their programs by observing the world, at least for the first 7 years. So experiencing his environment through his senses may result in a neuro-chemical soup that results in a whole bunch of physical and mental processes within his entire body, along with the memory of what was observed.
His brain could develop a pattern to avoid the yelling, to protect him from perceived harm (crying), to try to completely avoid the feelings he generated while that particular soup was bathing his cells. Think of the emotional reflexes that came about that may have nothing to do with the reasons the argument happened. It was just a bunch of signals that occurred in his soup. If the observation and reflex happen again, those chemicals and pathways in the brain get stronger and a persistent thought pattern might occur that is deeply rooted in something that has no clear link to the emotion that arises in the future.
Fast forward to the boy as an adult. He perceives that trigger which causes the same chemical soup that he experienced as a child, and now those experiences have built on themselves over many more years, and the thoughts may become dominated by overwhelming thoughts of loss, despair, or sadness.
The particular flavor profile of the soup served its purpose at one point. However, I think that much of our early programming probably isn’t serving us in our adult lives. We don’t have the right soup for the situations we now face. The programming was useful to seek pleasure, avoid pain, stay alive for a specific situation in the past. But the old software versions that probably don’t need to be running in the background of your brain should be dumped. The problem with a brain is that clearing out our useless programs is not as easy as clicking “Delete” or “Uninstall” in order to remove it. The only technology we have today is to become aware of the useless programs, to be mindful of how your programming is running you, and to have You redirect your thoughts to rewire the thought processes to serve You.
I’ve found that meditation is probably the most powerful tool that we currently have to slowly delete the old software. It creates awareness of your thought patterns as being separate from You. It can show You that you might be dominated by negative self-talk throughout the day. However, it gives you the power to redirect those thoughts. You have to become aware of it all first.
Someday we may find ourselves in a “Total Recall” future where the junk can be deleted easily and you can download all the programs you need to serve up the life you want. But until that day, if you become more aware of your thoughts running wild as reflexes that are not the real You, the ultimate overseer of the programs, You have the power to clean up your hard disk, one breath at a time.
Meditation when I’m not feeling it
Mindfulness meditation (the breath-focused type) can occasionally be frustrating for me, even though it’s supposed to be a path to well-being. During a session, you focus on an aspect of your breathing. The in, the out, the air rushing by, skimming the skin at your nostril edges, the sound of breath in motion, the cooler air in, warmer air out, peace, contentedness…cool air, warm air, in, out and….wait, why are you thinking of your grocery list? What the heck just happened, you’re now on a line of thought that is thirty thoughts away from the current thought but what thought started this and who just drove past the house and you’re angry about how the guy cut you off on your way to work and you planned a nice bicycle ride to get some exercise but there’s thunder and lightning and you’re not sure if you started the dishwasher and you have to remember to pay that electric bill and…you somehow stopped concentrating on your breath without realizing it. Did you just fail at meditation?
Absolutely not. The noticing that you noticed the chaotic rush of thought is the purpose of meditation. The observation that you had been concentrating hard and somehow you stopped concentrating without consciously stopping concentrating is what you want to have happen during meditation. That’s the point. If you can get yourself to realize that your mind got hijacked by your brain’s “involuntary” thoughts during a time when you told it to be concentrating on one thing, you did what you’re supposed to do. For that moment, you became mindful. Great job!
My greatest challenge is when my mind is too chaotic to even start the focus on my breath. I want to give up and quit the session soon after starting because it seems pointless to try. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen, it’s really bothersome. The disorganized, reflexive neuro-electrical processes we call “thoughts” become irritating, which derails my focus on the breath.
However, the sessions where I start with a frustrated mess of thoughts are probably the BEST times for me to meditate and try to be mindful. If my brain is generating thoughts at Niagara Falls flow instead of garden hose flow, I should stop, relax, and try my best to be mindful. Those are probably the most valuable meditation periods to have.
So if you’re at the start of your mindfulness practice, and you just can’t seem to settle down, don’t be discouraged! You’re right where you are supposed to be. Observe your water fall of thoughts with wonderment.
A calm New England winter morning
All I need is within me (especially when coffee is in me)
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice, but a practice for what? What’s the end goal? Well, the key to a good mindfulness practice is to have no goal.
Huh? What’s the point then? Why bother spending time practicing something if an end-goal isn’t in sight? You could spend that time being more productive or catching up on Game of Thrones. Why spend time practicing something for nothing? [cue the Seinfeld theme music–“It’s a show about nothing!”]
The benefits of mindfulness are tremendous, and studies are proving more and more that it will benefit your overall well-being. I’m describing something pretty vague, I know, but I don’t want my meaning to become your meaning. I can tell you I have received direct benefits of mindfulness, and that these “side effects” were never really a goal for me. I don’t care what the studies prove.
The trick is to be ok with not having an end goal in mind. Now I know this will be difficult for our type A, task-oriented veterinary brethren to grasp, but I would recommend starting a mindfulness practice without a target. Or at least without a hard target. You’ll set yourself up for failure. Maybe just start with the premise that you should try it because it’s good for you.
The practice starts, very simply, with focus. That’s it. Nothing more than just observing something. I like to focus on my breath. There are lots of reasons to start with the breath, but it doesn’t have to be that. It could be just a word that you like. It could be a nonsense word. Some people like a specific sound. Maybe blade of grass coming out of a crack in a sidewalk? It could be a mantra if you are so inclined. Whatever you choose, make it your focus. Make whatever it is the focus of your complete attention.
Once you know your point of focus, you sit with it. When I started my mindfulness practice, I would lie down to meditate. It’s not recommended to do it that way, but you can, if you don’t fall asleep. If you choose to sit, it’s best to have your back supported. You can sit on pillows on the floor, or in a chair. Try to sit straight, but be comfortable. A quiet place with minimal to no distractions is ideal, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try busy or noisy places if you choose, but the distractions may be too overwhelming. My usual practice is to start before anyone else in the house is awake. I prefer quiet and solitude. However, even in the silence, there will be distraction.
For beginners, just start with 1 to 5 minutes. That’s it. But do it daily. I believe that the accumulation of the sessions rather than the accumulation of time amplifies your results. I don’t have any clue if my observations are backed by science, but I can tell you I don’t feel like my longer sessions make me more mindful on any particular day. I do note that when I haven’t meditated in the morning, my day is a little off. After I meditate, whether it’s for 1 minute or an hour, things seem to get a little more centered that day.
There are a ton of apps out there now that you can choose to aid in your mindfulness and meditation practice. I’ve tried at least a dozen. I’ve settled on Muse because I really like the headband’s ability to quantify my experience. The app also makes your meditation a little bit of a game, with badges and graphs and cumulative total time spent. This appeals to the scientist in me, even though I have no idea what the data really means in the bigger picture. I just know I’m at the highest level of challenges (which is currently 24, as of this writing) and I’ve got 81 consecutive days of meditation with the headband. I will do a review of some of the apps I’ve used in a future post. But for now, I would start with something like Buddhify, Headspace, 10% Happier, or Calm. If you have your own app that you use and recommend, feel free to comment below.
There are many different books, audio recordings, podcasts and technologies that are centered on mindfulness. You can take a deep dive into all types of meditations with any or all the above. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to understand more about it in order to enjoy the benefits. Just start with a minute of mindful breathing, once or twice a day for a week, then start increasing your time. My mindfulness practice is at minimum 20 minutes once a day. On the few occasions where I am tight for time, I do 5 minutes. I strive for a second session before bed, but my willpower is at bare minimum at the end of the day, so the second session is not a priority. I don’t think it matters whether you do a morning or an evening meditation, but it does matter that you do it every day, at least if you think you want to give it a fair chance. A random session here or there will quickly become “Oh, yeah, I tried meditation a few times and it didn’t really do anything.” Avoid that trap and just commit to the 1 minute or so once a day. Set an alarm on your phone. Do it after you brush your teeth. Do it right before you go to bed, or do it right before your first sip of coffee. Tie it to something you already do habitually, and stick to it.
In a future article, I will go over some of the struggles that you may need to overcome while meditating and how I deal with them.
My path to mindfulness
I have always been interested in my mind. It’s the place where I spend every waking hour. It’s where I might spend some dream time. It can generate thoughts of elation, greed, lust, gratitude, anger, fear, terror all within an instant. It’s very open to suggestion, yet there are self-imposed permanencies. A scent can evoke a vivid memory. A place can spark an echo of childhood. There’s the occasional deja vu, and increasingly frequent failure to recall. It’s an amazing machine but it isn’t free from errors. It can get tired. It can completely fail you when you need it the most. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
When I was a kid, I loved to lie in bed and imagine what my life might be like in the future. I would think about things I wanted to do, things I wanted to have, create scenarios that I would picture myself in. It was kind of an escape, a way to have an adventure without leaving the comfort of being under the covers. I vaguely remember doing breathing exercises in my teens, but I don’t remember why I was doing them. Maybe I read an article in a magazine, maybe it just came naturally. Either way, it was something that I enjoyed doing because it brought some sort of contentment that I remember vividly.
As I got busier with more intense education from undergrad to veterinary school, I lost touch with my mindfulness. As new technologies like email and cell phones became a necessity in every day life, the frequency of being alone with my mind dropped off. I could always read a magazine, contact a friend, play a video game, or study. Opportunities to “just be” were few and far between.
At the end of 2013, I had reignited the fire of my vision for opening a veterinary clinic from the startup phase. I had purchased an existing vet hospital in 2002 and I inherited the culture that was already there. Culture change is not easy. Though I worked hard at it, I never really had a handle on it. I wondered what it would be like to start a clinic with a deliberate culture, having a specific raison d’etre, and that dream came a reality in October of 2014. But the steps that got me to that point are what lead me back to the mysteries of my own mind.
I hired a coach to help direct and guide me on my path to starting the business. He recommended some books that triggered a whole new realm of thinking about business and entrepreneurship. I read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which was an eye-opening look into the tendency of the mind. Next I was told to read Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, which was right up my alley. That lead me to his blog and then to the goldmine of his podcasts, The Tim Ferriss Show. I could not get enough of them. My shower time and commute time were filled with Tim’s voice and his awesome guests. And a recurring theme that came up was meditation. I was easily convinced I needed to make this part of my routine. After a few sessions using the Buddhify app, I was hooked. I was back in my mind, cleaning up years and years of debris that hadn’t been addressed. I went through some very emotional experiences, but I pushed through because I was feeling great, in unexpected ways. Veterinary medicine is an extremely emotion-driven profession and I never had really addressed that. I just thought I was doing the job. A lot of the emotional junk was accumulating someplace within me, without me even knowing it.
From there I began my journey into my mind, and this blog is a direct result of my need to share with other veterinarians as well as anyone who gets frustrated, lost, scared, or generally disgruntled with everyday life. I don’t have a cure, but a very helpful treatment exists in the form of mindfulness.
Please comment if you would like to share your own journey and what works well for you to center and steady yourself.