The Demystifying Physician Mindfulness Series
In case this is your first time here, this 12-part series is a mini-crash course in mindfulness. Maybe you’ve tried it before. Maybe the term itself gets on your nerves. If that’s the case, I hope you’ll take a deep breath and let those worries go. Each part of this series looks at a specific way that mindfulness can be useful for busy physicians like yourself. I typically address a real-life story about a common issue that contributes to stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, overwork, and overwhelm, and then provide practices that cost you nothing but a little time and attention. These can help you find more ease and joy in your work, so you can get back to the reason you’re doing what you do.
In this post, I deviate from that pattern. As we enter this new year, I offer an alternative to traditional New Year’s resolutions: using mindfulness to set intentions.
It’s that time of year again when we decide we’re going to tackle major self-improvement. 2019 is the year I’m going to avoid desserts and lose that extra 10 pounds. This is the year I’m going to stop being such a slouch and start exercising five days a week. This is the year I’ll be saving money the way I’ve wanted to.
If you’re like me, though, your track record has not been great. (And maybe that’s why these things remain on the list.) I typically start off great, then February rolls around and I fall off. Then there’s a sense of guilt and not measuring up. By March, I’m using my New Year’s resolutions to beat myself up. And feeling worse about myself and focusing on my flaws does not typically lead to success in reaching my goals.
Try Something Different This Year
Perhaps you can try something different this year: setting intentions rather than resolutions. Intentions are a kinder and gentler approach than resolutions, which tend to be black-and-white. More like guideposts than goals, intentions set a direction, rather than a destination. They help us on our journey to reach the goals we’ve set.
They set the tone for the year ahead, and become a touchstone to help you move toward what it is that you want to achieve. Goals are future-oriented, whereas intentions can be achieved in the moment. They are effective because they help align you with your purpose. Instead of being something to beat yourself up about, an intention can serve as a guiding light. They can provide a positive motivation for change, rather than a negative one.
How Do I Set an Intention?
1. The first step is to think about what’s been calling for your attention. What would you like to build into your life? What’s something you’d like to let go of? What’s most significant to you, moving forward? What is it that really makes you feel fulfilled? These questions can help you move beyond explicit goals like losing a specific amount of weight. They can keep you grounded in what is truly most important to you.
2. The second step is getting in touch with your values and passions. What do you find most fulfilling? What is it that you’re pursuing in moments when you’re at your best? Reflect for a moment on your deepest priorities.
3. Third, accountability is critical. You may have an accountability partner, or make a commitment to yourself in a journal. At a minimum, declare your intentions to another person. Place them on your calendar so you’re reminded of them on a regular basis.
What Intentions Should I Set?
Be More Mindful
There are endless choices here, but one might be increased mindfulness — to be more aware and pay attention to the moments that make up the fabric of your life. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, reminds:
“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your life deeply.”
By being more aware, you can stay more present for yourself. You also come to understand your inner workings in a deeper way, and become more familiar with your own patterns. And the more you recognize your patterns, the more you’ll be able to intervene to effect change. You’ll see what it is that is really stopping you from losing that weight or saving that money. Being mindful sets the stage for action.
Another intention could be around compassion. We can get so caught up in our own problems and challenges that we forget what other people are going through. We lose sight of what it is that they’re struggling with. Our focus becomes narrow, and overly self-focused. It’s said that if we want to be unhappy, we should focus on ourselves, and if we want to be happy, we should focus on others. So there’s a double positive in being compassionate to others. In addition, compassion activates the parasympathetic nervous system, not only leading to decreases in blood pressure but also decreasing levels of inflammatory hormones decrease that contribute to stress.
Grow the Muscle of Self-Compassion
Perhaps this is the year to be more compassionate with yourself. In addition to compassion for others, we can set an intention to include ourselves in the circle of compassion. Many of us who are caregivers can be all too skilled at caring for others, yet habitually leave ourselves out. Caring for others, in the absence of caring for ourselves, sets us up for burnout.
Just as we can turn toward the suffering of others, we can begin to see our own moments of anguish and suffering. Instead of blaming or chastising ourselves, we can try to address our own pain. Like compassion, there’s increasing evidence of the benefits of self-compassion, from reduced psychological distress, increased sense of self-worth, increased happiness, and greater motivation. And motivation is certainly a key ingredient in our ability to reach our goals.
We can practice saying the following to ourselves: “What I’m going through is difficult and this is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of the human experience: we all go through it. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
In North American culture, we have many myths about happiness. We often fixate on ways we or our circumstances are flawed — that if only they changed, then we’d be happy. We tend to think that happiness lies outside of ourselves, rather than being something we can cultivate from within. This vantage point can fuel a hypertrophied focus on flaws, and leave us seeking perfection. Yet, when we seek perfection, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Setting an intention to accept our own imperfections, we move toward greater acceptance and peace of mind.
This doesn’t mean accepting things that are unjust or hurtful. Rather, it means leaning into the reality that imperfection is simply part of the human condition. Perhaps our imperfections might actually be what makes us unique.
Question Your Thoughts
Another intention we might set is to question our own thoughts. We all have ways of viewing the world that may not be accurate, yet we assume that just because we think something, it’s a fact. In reality, though, our minds are busy producing thousands of thoughts per day, and these are simply mental events, not reality.
You can set an intention to notice your stories and begin questioning their veracity. By doing so, you step into more direct contact with your experience.
What Should I Do With My Intentions?
Keep your intentions close, mentally and physically. Write them down. Journal about them. Consider a ritual to honor your commitment. Start your day by reading over your intentions so they can set your course for the day.
I hope these tips help you leave behind the anguish of New Year’s resolutions. Please leave a comment and let me know.