Mindful Medicine: Forty Simple Practices to Help Healthcare Professionals Heal Burnout and Reconnect to Purpose

Mindful Medicine: Forty Simple Practices to Help Healthcare Professionals Heal Burnout and Reconnect to Purpose
Jan Chozen Bays, MD
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2022. 230 pp., paper, $18.95.

I get a personal introduction to physician’s burnout every few days. My daughter, a fellow in pediatric neurology in an intensive care unit, called me the other day at 12 a.m. “Dad,” she says, “I just intubated a nine month old baby. But we don’t know whether she will survive or not. It is always an unknown, Dad. Kids seemingly on death’s door will end up walking away, and kids seemingly somewhat healthy will not survive. What helps me most, Dad, is your telling us to be in the present, to be mindful, and to be 100 percent there. It really helps.” Our conversations frequently end with her saying, “I am so tired, but I am OK.”

When I received Chozen Bays’ book, I wanted to get in the car and drive to South Carolina to hand it to her. Chozen Bays is uniquely qualified to write this book. She is a pediatrician, was on the faculty at a medical school, and worked for thirty years in the field of child abuse at a hospital-based center in Oregon. Her team evaluated more than 100 cases of child abuse each month. Experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue was a foregone event. In spite of her forty-five years of Zen practice, she “fell into . . . distressing states of heart and mind.” She delved deep into the causes of burnout, and this tremendously helpful book is a result. The Covid pandemic makes it even more valuable now.

For medical professionals, highly distressing events occur often. Chozen Bays’ hospital chaplain called it “Chronic Acute Stress.” Her advice was to find means of spiritual support. This book gives us what Chozen Bays calls “an armamentarium of mindfulness practices and a regular meditation practice.”

Sooner or later, medical professionals find the joy draining out. Consequently, it is important to be aware of what is happening. The practices in this book provide the means, such as “Wash your mind as you wash your hands” and “Breathe as you walk from one room to another.” Chozen Bays encourages medical professionals to learn to take care of themselves in daily activities: commuting (breathe as you wait at a stop sign), waiting in a cafeteria line, or taking the first sips of coffee (be aware of the first three sips). Mindfulness of three breaths at any opportunity can be refreshing and can strengthen your resolve.

Chozen Bays’ book is divided into eight chapters, devoted to an introduction to mindfulness meditation practice for healthcare professionals; understanding our inner critical voice; insights into why meditation is helpful for the body-heart-mind complex; practices for connecting with yourself (the person we neglect most); practices for connecting with your patients; guided meditations; rescue remedies for times of urgent need (4-7-8 relaxation breathing, breathing peace, gratitude practice, and mindful self-compassion), and forming support groups. A rich section at the end of each chapter contains references, additional readings, and resources.

Each practice comprises five sections: “The Practice,” “Reminding Yourself,” “Discoveries,” “Deeper Lessons,” and “Final Words.” Loving-kindness on the way to or from work is easy to integrate in one’s life. The practice section teaches us to silently say, “May I be free from fear and anxiety; may I be at ease; may I be happy” in the car as you drive to work and then extend that wish to others. A reminder would be to put a Post-it saying “loving-kindness” or “metta” on your dashboard.

Discoveries are understanding or gaining insights into the root causes of anxiety and suffering. Chozen Bays says, “Often, a clue that I need to do loving kindness practice is a sense of dis-ease within.” A deeper lesson is knowing that suffering is inevitable. “The purpose of our life is to learn to relive our own suffering,” she writes, “to completely understand and love our own self, and then to find a way to help other beings or other people who are suffering.” It is not complicated. If someone cuts you off as you are driving, it is just a matter of saying, “May you be safe as you drive like that!” The final word is: “If you don’t show loving kindness to yourself, who will?”

As you read this book, you may be drawn to one particular practice. Embrace it by all means. For those of you who remember Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there is even a “Silly Walking” practice. I recommend that you only do it when no one is looking.

I have four frontline healthcare professionals in my household. I intend to get each their own copy.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.