Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Your last breath

The hardest part about being a doctor isn't the long overnight calls, the busy office schedule or the challenge of helping a patient.  The most difficult aspect, at least for me, is when I make a mistake. And since I am human mistakes have happened.

I first want to say that everything I write below is all about my perspective.  And please, let me be clear, I know I am not the one who was the recipient of the mistake.  It may be much harder for her.

A while back I made a mistake that has haunted me.  It was one of those mistakes that if I could do it all over again I would definitely do it differently.  It was a complex decision, I evaluated the options and in retrospect I chose the wrong one.  Now, I make small mistakes here and there. Thankfully, I catch most or I have back up systems in place that help me catch the rest.  This was bigger than that.  It was one of those that I can count on the fingers of my hand.  One of the kind that I rarely make.  (no one died or was seriously physically harmed and that is as much detail of it I want or can discuss)

Right after I realized what I had done my very first impulse was to vent to caring coworkers and eat some chocolate.  And I am not kidding about the chocolate.  It was my second thought right after wanting to scream.

Then the shame came.  Why did I do this?  What is wrong with me?  I am the worst doctor.  I hope no one finds out.  I hope my colleagues, especially, don't find out.

Then a bit of fear.  What if I get sued?  I'll have to go through an arbitration.  It will be so painful.

Then regret, then anger, then self hatred, then all of this over and over again in my head. Please, I told myself, stop thinking about it.  Stop thinking...

Of course, I meditated.  As I meditated the whole scenario would go around and around in my head.  But I would take a breath in and then out and maybe for a few moments I could find peace.

It was painful.  And I guess I just had to be in the pain.  It still is tender to touch.  And that is okay.

I learned a few things from this experience, though.   On day two or three I was listening to Jack Kornfield from the Insight Meditation Society.  He has an amazing audio book called Buddhism for Beginners (and we all are beginners).  In it he mentions the concept of the last breath.

What if this were your last breath?  Would you want to be lost in thoughts?  When you are not in the moment, even in good thoughts, you aren't really living.  And in "bad" thoughts then you definitely aren't living.  I didn't want my last breath to happen while I was worrying about what happened in the past or what could possibly happen in the future.  I found the idea of the last breath very helpful because it not only brought me to the present moment whatever it was (driving the car, talking with Aiden, listening to music etc) but it also made me aware of my breathing which was therapeutic in itself.

I also learned that this long drawn out story of what I did and what could happen and how bad I am is JUST A STORY.   We all have these stories.  Tara Brach, another meditation teacher writes, "The whole sense of self is just a story we tell ourselves."  I am not bad. I am not good. I am not the worst doctor on the planet.  I am not even really a doctor.  I just play one on this life I live, if you know what I mean.  "Our stories are real but they may not be true" Tara Brach also powerfully explains.

Lastly, again from Tara Brach, "When I am in judgement, I am no longer in the flow of grace."  How can you be at peace, be able to give love, be real if you are judging yourself and others.  I do it all the time but if I can do it even a little less, what will my life be like?  Imagine not judging this moment but just being in it.  How would that feel?  Pretty peaceful and soft and open, I think.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Just Be Here Now

Giving up things seems to be a habit of mine.  It doesn't feel like I am giving anything up though. In fact, it feels like the opposite.  The act of giving up becomes the act of gaining.

The most obvious example in my life is the giving up of meat.  It doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice. Sometimes it is a bit difficult at a restaurant or when invited to a friend's home, but most of the time it is quite simple.  I kind of like that at a restaurant there are only a few options that I can eat.  It makes it a lot easier to order.  When I go to a vegan restaurant it is exciting to have so many options, but also overwhelming.  And my friends have all adjusted to my eating habits and have a vegan dish for me or accept it just fine when I bring my own food.

I gave up meat and I gained health, a slimmer body and less guilt over the suffering of animals and the polluting of the environment.   I also gained a new community of like-minded people, albeit mostly online. It also has led me to take classes on plant-based nutrition and teach my patients a true way to health.

In March, Kelly and I gave up alcohol.  We didn't decide to do this forever and still haven't but what at first would be a few weeks has turned into 6 months.  Sometimes I miss a nice glass of wine but I gained better sleep, less pounds, and no hangovers.  It also interests me to see what a social life is like without alcohol.  I like interacting with people as truly myself and not a slightly inebriated self.

A few weeks ago I decided to stop watching TV.   I admit it is an easy time for me to make this change.   All my old favorite shows are either gone (Jon Stewart, Colbert, Downton, Larry Wilmore), on hiatus (The Walking Dead), or have diminished in quality or interest (Homeland).  And the Padres suck and the Chargers, well, we'll see. On a side note, giving something up when it is the easiest is a really smart thing to do. Especially at first, when it might be challenging, it is nice to not have extra hurdles to get over. (for instance, don't give up turkey on Thanksgiving or TV during the Olympics)

Giving up TV has been surprisingly beneficial.  I actually didn't watch that much compared to many people.  But, an hour or two a day really gives you a lot of time to practice the piano, walk the dog, read a book, listen to music or play a card game.  Or meditate for that matter.

Each of these changes has given me the opportunity to learn something about myself or about my process. For instance, I have noticed how these actions came about.  I didn't set out to stop drinking for 6 months but in each moment it has felt right.  A zen master wrote about meditation "that you do it not because you are supposed to stick to it but because you enjoy it.  When you enjoy it you don't have to worry about sticking to it. "  That is the key, right?  It doesn't feel hard to not eat meat or not watch TV because I enjoy what I am doing instead.

An important concept in Buddhism is impermanence.  Part of happiness comes from not clinging to something because change always comes.  So, who knows, I may drink again or watch TV or even eat meat. It's okay if that happens.

Give your fullest attention to what is.  Honor the present moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Happy For No Reason

I started meditating every day about a year and a half ago.

At first, I did it lying down in bed with earbuds in for 10 to 20 minutes.  No one would have known I was even doing it.  Not even my husband, Kelly, who was often lying next to me.  It was an easy, noncommittal way to start.  I was a little shy about doing it back then.

Then I got the Headspace app and started doing it sitting up, often during my lunch hour.  That app has ten free ten-minute meditations.   I liked it so I bought the app and used it quite often until I got tired of the guided meditations and wanted something different.

Now I use the Insight Timer app.  My practice is to meditate almost every morning for 30-45 minutes.  I sit on a cushion in a space in our guest room that I created specifically for this.  I have a small altar with a Buddha on it.  I put the timer on and focus on my in-breath and out-breath.  Of course, most of the time I am thinking about other stuff.  I am planning my day or worrying about something from yesterday.  But then I catch myself and come back to my breath.

A friend the other day asked me if meditating was hard.  Not really, I said.  If you have a goal to be a "perfect" meditator and never lose your focus then yes it would be hard.  But if you are compassionate with yourself and forgive yourself each time you think about what you are having for dinner or what you are going to wear to work that day then no it's not hard.  And to me, that is one of the major points of meditation in the first place.  Awareness and love.  Notice what is happening and then be okay with it.

Try not to get caught up in it. In the story.  Go back to your breath.  Forgive yourself when you can't.

My meditation practice slowly evolved.  I didn't start out thinking I would do this every day for the next year and a half.  But a year and a half later and now I am reading Buddhist books, attending a Sangha (a weekly group that meditates together and discusses a Buddhist talk) and planning on attending a meditation retreat for a few days in December at an Insight Meditation Center in Northern California.

I find it so interesting the way things develop.  A small first step can often lead to so much.  And it happens without specifically planning it.  For instance, I became a vegetarian when I was 22 years old. I went vegan a few times in the past but it never stuck.  It was too hard.  Then 2 1/2 years ago it stuck.  And at first, I was just vegan at home.  At restaurants or at friend's homes I ate vegetarian.  But then that stopped working.  Now it is just an occasional bite of Godiva chocolate.

One of the tenets of Karma Yoga is non-attachment to results.  Or from Nike- just do it.

This, of course, goes along with being in the present moment.  Which is what meditation is all about.  And if you are in the present moment you can't really be worrying about what will happen down the road.

One last thing for now.  The Insight Timer app has a feature wherein at the end of your meditation many small round photos of  people that are meditating at the same time as you come up on your screen.  Over the months of using it, I have become "friends" with some of these people.  Being friends just makes them pop up first in your list of fellow meditators.  I have about 10 friends.  A few of them are; Andy from Everett, WA, Melissa from Berkeley,CA, and my favorite I Ketut Gede Budastra from Palembang, Indonesia.  At the end of your meditation when the photo pops up you can tap on it and send a message that says "thanks for meditating with me."

 It never ceases to amaze me that I have this small connection with this random man from Indonesia.  But it makes me smile each time and I imagine it does the same to him also.

The heart has to be soft before any of us can be free.