What is mindfulness? It’s a common buzzword today, but do we really understand what it is? Wikipedia provides the following definition:
“Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment.”
Yet this definition leaves room for interpretation. What I have learned is that everyone’s understanding of it is as unique as their individual mind, body, and soul.
I have elected to dedicate my lifework to the concept of mindfulness: to provide a framework to help others find their unique, authentic path to sustainability within veterinary medicine. I call this framework living the path toward Recognize, Embrace, Connect.
When I first thought of living in a mindful state, I pictured a Buddhist monk up on a distant mountaintop, sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed, where birds flew around him while he was in a blissful trance— a “Zen state of being.”
As I pictured this—being the high-achieving, anxious individual that I am with a drive for organization, routine, and super-perfectionism—I saw it as a state completely beyond my reach. The first step I found toward everyday mindfulness is that recognizing where we are and the emotions we have does not mean living in a calm Zen state all the time. It doesn’t mean that we will never have “negative” emotions. I realized that not only is it okay to feel anger, sadness, resentment, frustration, and even despair at times, it is normal. I am normal.
In the past, when these emotions presented themselves, I found myself in a space of what I call Name, Blame, Judge. When I felt fear or sadness, I wanted to blame or judge someone for how I felt. Often, I blamed people around me, but more commonly, I blamed myself. I was a bad human being for not being that monk on the mountaintop, living in that Zen state no matter what came my way.
Before I could even come close to the next stage of embracing any situation, I found I had to recognize how I felt and then give myself permission for the space I was in. I had to be mindful of my body’s reaction to the stress, whatever situation was upon me, and then recognize that it was a situation that would pass. I had to allow myself to find the space to not judge myself for my reaction; rather, to let my reaction be present and acknowledge it. This allowed me to fall into the next stage, Embrace.
As I work to embrace a situation, there is one tool I use to help me be more resilient: meditation. I’ll be honest, I don’t meditate the way some people might picture it, like someone sitting on a pillow in a corner in front of some candles and a Buddhist statue with their eyes closed, looking similar to that monk on the mountaintop. I’m not against that method, nor do I deny the benefits it can provide. It’s just that my preference for meditation involves a pair of running shoes and an extra large dose of nature.
“Meditation is a practice where an individual operates to train the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content or as an end in itself.”
This definition, also from Wikipedia, says nothing about pillows or candles. Again, it’s open to interpretation. Running in nature brings a certain peace and quiet to my mind that I don’t achieve with anything else I do. I am not pushing my athletic ability, I am just one with my surroundings, taking in smells, sights, and sounds as I work through some unknown distance and often some unknown emotion that comes up during the run.
As we recognize our state and embrace our situation, the final stage in the framework is to Connect to the space around us. What does this mean? Say a client has limited resources (money). We may immediately judge them: they don’t love their pet, they waited too long, clients are stupid and you can’t fix stupid, etc. This reaction stems from feeling inadequate in not being able to help the pet. We feel shame and unworthiness, and we turn it into anger with the client.
How can we connect to the situation instead of allowing it to represent us? One path might be to find a reason to justify the client’s position and to relate to the human in the equation. Another might be to acknowledge our frustration and anger in a way that restores us at the end of the day—instead of attacking the client, attack the pavement with a run.
Personally, I fight to stay on “a” path every single day. It is an active process. When I feel “negative” emotions begin to present themselves, I ask myself: Am I running toward name, blame, judge and spiraling down to a place of disconnection with the world and an overall desire to not continue on? Or do I choose to move toward Recognize, Embrace, Connect and find a place of mindfulness?
Our solutions to internal happiness and wellbeing are unique to each of us, and I do not have the answer for your personal mindfulness. But the framework I’ve outlined can allow you to find the unique path you deserve.
So I ask you, in your journey to mindfulness and in finding that authentic career in veterinary medicine, what does Recognize, Embrace, Connect mean to you and how does it show up in your career within the veterinary industry? And more importantly, how will it show up in your life in general?