Thich Nhat Hanh, the wise Vietnamese Zen monk and mindfulness teacher, reminds us, “No mud, no lotus”. In order for the beauty of a lotus flower to exist, you need mud. It is often the very muddy, challenging aspects of our lives where our growth and blossoming occur. Within the dark, murky depths, where it is difficult to see, … our healing germinates.
We have arrived at a crossroads in Medicine. While our technologies and treatments have progressed and evolved to an enormous extent, we are faced with an ever-increasing complexity of chronic disease; an epidemic of mental health challenge; and a workforce overwhelmed by burnout, exhaustion and trauma. Our systems are simply no longer sustainable, and there is unfortunately no amount of shuffling of existing resources and paradigms that will bring about the change we need to see. What we need is a transformation in Medicine – one that is both external and internal.
In order to begin this path we must acknowledge and address the pain and suffering that exist within our profession. We need to name it to tame it. This is our mud. Once we can accept our exhaustion and burnout with deep compassion, and re-connect with ourselves — and with each other — then we can begin to heal. We need opportunities to talk about our challenges, our exhaustion, and what we really need, as humans, to thrive. This takes courage and ingenuity…. It requires us to think and act outside of familiar paradigms of thought and process that simply no longer work.
Learning tools of mindfulness and self compassion are essential on this journey of transformation. Mindfulness reminds us to be present with our own suffering, as well as that of each other – colleague, patient, family member. So much of our waking lives is focused upon the past and future when, in fact, the only moment we are truly alive is now. The only moment we can connect with ourselves, or another, is this one. We spend much of our lives in a trance of thoughts, stories and plans. Mindfulness reminds us to be present and wakeful, in order to honor both the blessings and challenges we face — in order to be more fully alive.
Our invitation right now is for physicians, nurses, and other health professionals, to cultivate an internal transformation right amidst the mud of this moment in health care. This is not only to survive the realities of a broken system but, as well, to rediscover our joy, passion and energy that is so easily misplaced in the tyranny of overbusyness. It is this transformation within that is the necessary prerequisite to co-create a health care system that is compassionate, sustainable, and efficient. Frustration, fatigue and blame are not able to create such a paradigm shift. We need healthy minds and bodies; caring and compassionate hearts — working together — in order to meet the challenges of this day. We need a Medicine that is not only patient centered, but people centered. People-centered Medicine would include our patients and ourselves – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, administrators… If we wish to foster and guide a healthy society, we need healthy people at the helm.
But what about transforming our actual system? What about the poor compensation, the overwork, the paucity of resources, the mismanagement and miscommunication? The external transformation of health care can only happen, in a sustainable way, once the internal transformation has begun. The smartest, and most skilled of our health care leaders, can continue to propose innovative ideas; gather meetings; solicit funds and resources; and pilot new programming. Yet, so many of these initiatives will ultimately fail if those people contributing, managing and sustaining them are exhausted, angry or disconnected. You can not grow a garden with depleted soil.
I invite you to be the change you wish to see in the world of Medicine. Let us continue this transformation together — learning skills of self-care, compassion, wakefulness and joy. Let us have courageous conversations, honouring ourselves and each other, and naming the places of suffering and stagnation of our current paradigm. Change is neither simple nor easy, as it requires us to look at our own suffering – our mud—in order to allow the lotus of our transformation to blossom. Please join me in this conversation by participating in an upcoming Mindfulness in Medicine workshop, or meditation retreat. It is here where we learn and practice the necessary skills; engage in meaningful discussion; laugh together; sometimes cry; and reconnect with the blessings and challenges of our work… and our lives. Are you ready?