The following manuscript was submitted to the May 2017 Mental Health Themed Writing Contest.
Prior to starting medical school, I meditated for an hour every morning. There is a Zen proverb that goes something like this: “If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour everyday, you should meditate for two hours.” Before medical school, when I heard this quote, I would smile and nod wisely.
When hearing this quote after just a month of medical school, I scoffed and shook my head in frustration. An hour everyday was time I needed to travel between hospitals, review for rounds and presentations, scarf down food, make some attempt at exercise, and, of course, study.
In my first year of medical school, my meditation routine dropped to half an hour every morning. And in second year, it was down to 20 minutes. I managed this if I wasn’t on call or post-call until my first year of residency, when I fell off the meditation wagon altogether.
A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who I respect for her calm, centered approach to daily life and her strength in the face of the many adversities I know she has faced over the years. I asked her how she did it. Her explanation began with a description of her new job, where she could leave work at the office at the end of the day. Furthermore, her hours were such that she could meditate for an hour in the morning, do an hour of yoga every night, and include either a physical workout or a long hike every afternoon. Her strength came from all the time she spent taking care of herself, her body, and her mind. Simple.
So, when my mom’s health recently declined, and I was answering phone calls from her doctors and family members at all times of the day and night, I decided to take a leave of absence. Not just to help out with the care of my mom, but to take care of myself. I knew that things weren’t working as they were and that something needed to change. I had just begun my first year of on-service rotations. The Canadian licensing exam was fast approaching. I was living five hours away from my partner and even farther from my family, with no time to travel. My stress cup was full with drops spilling over the edge. I had no time or energy to dedicate to emptying my stress cup, let alone to care for my mom. In fact, most residents have even more on their plates and just as little time to take care of themselves.
A staff physician once spoke candidly with me about burnout and said the only cure was time away from medicine. A beach vacation, a trip to Europe, a holiday with family, anything to physically get away and to maximize the chance of mentally getting away, to hit the reset button.
Having now experienced real time away, I know it works. My leave of absence allowed for the time I needed to look inwards and heal myself. I was able to meditate for that much-needed hour every morning, journal, exercise, eat right, and do all the things we tell our patients to do. Although I lost my mom, I’ve been able to deal with the peaks and valleys of grief better than I could have imagined. A drop of stress does not feel like a downpour because I have the time, energy, and awareness to address emotions as they arise. I’ve hit the reset button and am ready to face the world of medicine once again.
So is this a story of hope or despair? Or is it both? Do we all require a six-week holiday once a year to prevent mental illness? Maybe after a few years into practice when we’re not suffocating under the pressure of our students loans and mortgages. How about a career change? That’s even more unlikely, given the blood, sweat and tears we have shed to get this far.
Once again, I am left with that bloody proverb, insisting I find the time to meditate, to turn inward, to heal myself, to empty my cup, or however you want to describe it. And today when I hear it, I hang my head in humble acquiescence and smile, “You got me, Zen proverb! You got me!” I can’t deny the truth of it any longer. Two hours of straight meditation is never going to be a realistic option for any of us.
But five minutes is.
We all have time in our cars, waiting in line in the cafeteria, walking to the resident lounge, when falling asleep, and even during that lecture we have heard more than once. Those moments can be spent turned inward and will soon enough add up to two hours of healing a day. Yes, it takes effort, but the reward is great. And all it takes is five minutes. And five minutes. And five minutes. Oh, and maybe the occasional beach vacation.