Help for Helpers

Training in mindfulness meditation can alleviate burnout experienced by many in the helping professions and improve their well-being, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report.

The training also can expand a physician’s capacity to relate to patients and enhance patient-centered care, according to the researchers, led by Michael S. Krasner, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Medicine.”From the patient’s perspective, we hear all too often of dissatisfaction in the quality of presence from their physician. From the practitioner’s perspective, the opportunity for deeper connection is all too often missed in the stressful, complex, and chaotic reality of medical practice,” Krasner said.

“Enhancing the capacity of the physician to experience fully the clinical encounter—not only its pleasant but also its most unpleasant aspects—without judgment but with a sense of curiosity and adventure seems to have had a profound effect on the experience of stress and burnout. It also seems to enhance the physician’s ability to connect with the patient as a unique human being and to center care around that uniqueness”

Seventy physicians from the Rochester, N.Y., area were involved in the study and training. The training involved eight intensive weekly sessions that were 2 ½ hours long, an all-day session and a maintenance phase of 10 monthly 2 ½-hour sessions.

Edward A. Stehlik, M.D., of the New York branch of the American College of Physicians and an internist who practices near Buffalo, said the training was “the most useful thing I’ve done since my medical training to help me in my practice of medicine.”

“If you asked my patients, I think they would say I listen more carefully since the training and that they feel they can explain things to me more forthrightly and more easily,” Stehlik said. “Even the brief moments with patients are more productive. Are there doctors who desperately need this training? Yes, absolutely.”

ScienceDaily (Sep. 23, 2009)

New Beginnings

A new MBSR Course starts this evening, and as always I am looking forward to meeting new people and to working with them on developing the day-to-day practice of mindfulness. Starting a new Course always stimulates me, because it brings me back to starting again, with fresh eyes, a collective ongoing work. I am exploring again, in an intensive way, a familiar terrain. It is not just the work of those who are starting the Course, it is my work also.

It renews my day to day life, because daily practice is an ongoing laboratory for examining my mind and my life. And they are always changing. So meditation is a starting over, a new beginning, every time I sit down. The introductory words said tonight can be freshly applied every day: No matter how many times your mind wanders, simply go back to noticing your breath, without making any judgments. In other words, Don’t be too interested in how well you are doing. Be interested in how well you start over.

It is the same in our lives outside of formal practice. We make intentions to change, to have a new beginning. And often we fail. However, we base our confidence to change on a gentle attitude toward ourselves. When we get lost we simply say, “I will start over again”, without judgment, thus avoiding the negative energy of blame and returning to the present moment. In this way we cultivate faith and confidence and move toward the future.


There is a lot of research going on these days into the effects and benefits of meditation. Psychologists at John Moores University, Liverpool, tested meditators and non-meditators to see how effectively they could tune out distractions and complete a detailed task, as well as to see how well they could override their automatic thoughts and behaviours. They found that experienced meditators performed significantly better than those who had never meditated. Thus it seems that meditation promotes the flexibility needed to accomplish more and stay calm in stressful situations.

Drinking Coffee

One of the nicest explanations of mindfulness I find is in Thich Nhat Hahn’s description of washing the dishes. I remembered it as I had a lovely cup of coffee this morning. We can never be at peace if our mind is racing ahead of us thinking about what we must do next or fretting over what has just happened. Mindfulness helps us see the beauty in each moment. Sometimes, the fact that the event is already beautiful helps, like the cup of coffee this morning. But at other times the mind prefers to label certain activities boring or unpleasant. I find that this explanation helps me to attend fully to whatever I am doing:

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance this might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions.

If, however, while we are washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash to wash the dishes.’ What’s more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes….If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to enjoy our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future —and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

Mindfulness and the brain

A 2007 study by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, along with six other scientists, called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” is extremely interesting in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.

Farb writes that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing reality involves what is called the “default network”, the parts of the brain that we see involved normally in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.

However he writes that there is a whole other way of experiencing reality, which scientists call one of direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, several different other brain regions become more active.

In other words, you can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which will be useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing, and you can also experience the world more directly, which enables more sensory information to be perceived.

Farb’s study found that mindfulness meditation strengthens the capacity to experience the world through the second, direct experience network.

This is interesting bcause this second way – experiencing the world through the direct experience network – allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more information about events occurring around you, as well as more accurate information about these events. Noticing more real-time information makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they are actually unfolding.