I have some small experience and training in mindfulness and the related practice, meditation, as a nurse and elsewhere. I use simple forms of both practices myself, and teach others about it. I know little of its Buddhist roots; to me, mindfulness means carefully learning to pay close attention, focus, and improve your mental self-control.
Western innovators have shown how such basic mindfulness practices can help people: “The human mind tends to wander willy-nilly among countless topics, many of them in the past or future where we have absolutely no power. We can only act in the present moment, yet we find it difficult to focus there, wasting energy, hurting performance, and causing much stress and distress. Mindfulness practices help us curb that habit, and gain control over ourselves.”
Take this simple test: Pick a single thought or sensory experience, an object you see in front you perhaps. Focus all your attention on it and try to think of nothing else. What happens? It’s remarkable and humbling to see just how quickly other thoughts intrude, unsought, unwanted. We imagine that we control our own minds, but experience shows otherwise. Self-control comes only with practice.
I’ll now take this discussion somewhere most folks don’t. Usually writers focus on how to learn and teach mindfulness, and the effects of such efforts. Great topics, but I’ll leave them to others. I’d rather focus on a different way to use it. We can use it not as an exercise but as an assessment training tool. In this way we can also improve our working lives.
Let’s talk about patients, and our interactions with them.
Mindfulness is about focused attention. How mindful are we of our patients themselves as people?
As nurses, we spend much time with patients. We assess them, do things like give pills or change dressings, teach. All worthy tasks, yet none of them necessarily pay the actual person in front of us much mind at all. How well do we know them? What are they thinking, feeling? What are their concerns, values, needs? How do they experience our care? What do they learn from us, what do they ignore or distrust, what do they misunderstand? Nurses often get by on poorly informed assumptions and stereotypes. Like other busy people, we’re tempted to cut corners to save time, yet it can make everything we offer rushed, tone-deaf, clumsy, and much less effective. As a result, we step on toes, cause offense, make mistakes. We encourage distrust, anger, stubborn resistance, wasted time and energy. Cutting corners often costs more times than it saves.
In other words, we suffer because of our poor mindfulness. Our busy clinician minds “wander willy-nilly among countless topics, many of them in the past or future where we have absolutely no power… wasting energy, hurting performance, and causing much stress and distress.” Some people call it multi-tasking and take pride in it. Research strongly suggests that such multi-tasking wastes lots of time. You can’t do more than one thing at once: what you’re actually doing is rapidly switching back and forth between tasks. Every such switch costs a bit of time and energy. The less you focus, the more you switch, the more the costs mount. Wasting lots of time and energy is no way to get more done, especially when you aggravate people at the same time. It’s a recipe for the kind of suffering most nurses would rather avoid. It’s unnecessary.
Happily, we can make ourselves more mindful, if we do something about it. All mindfulness practices build skill and strength through persistent, focused effort. As we practice focusing on our people-patients, we build the ability to do so more efficiently, to build invaluable intuition, to learn the best questions to ask first. Remember how clumsy and slow it was to take a blood pressure your very first time? If you gave up then, you’d have never experienced just how automatic, quick and easy it becomes with practice. All skills are like that, even people skills.
So here’s my question to you. It’s very important, as it will shape the rest of your career. If you think I’m exaggerating, you’re mistaken.
Will you do the work, or will you assume you’re good enough as is? Time is not something we have or not: we’re all granted the same 60 minutes every hour. Time is something we allot according to our choices and values, our priorities. If we ‘don’t have time’ for something, say for mindfulness for patient-people, that’s a choice we make.
I promise you: such practice will save you FAR more time and energy over time than it costs. It’s a fantastic investment. You’ll also earn ever-growing enjoyment and satisfaction at work and everywhere else: wherever you interact with people.
Here’s an exercise to try:
When you’re with a patient, ask yourself how they’re feeling in the moment. Test your instincts. Then ask them about it. How does the answer match your expectation? What can you learn from the result? How could you have done better?
Let me know how it goes!