Burnout, Meditation, and Turning the Mind into an Ally

Burnout, Meditation, and Turning the Mind into an Ally



I’m not much into meditation. Despite the data, it just doesn’t seem to fit logically into a physician’s life.

However, chronic burnout does not leave much room (or desire) for self-improvement, yet the idea of Turning the Mind into an Ally sounds pretty sweet. After all, your mind is all you have. Or is your mind it?

Can meditation help physicians with chronic burnout? And more startling, are we harming ourselves by thinking we can think our way out of burnout?

While initially skeptical that physicians could use meditation to turn one’s mind into an ally, I am ready to explore after deciding to substitute “flow state” for meditation.


It is a Joy and a Relief to be Ourselves


“It is a joy and a relief to be ourselves”


The front cover of my book has the result we all crave: “It is a joy and a relief to be ourselves.”

How nice is that? You are happy and relieved that you are you. Crazy, I know!

Per the book, the secret to being happy and content is understanding that we possess basic goodness. Moreover, the “basis” of everything is completely pure and good.

Western physicians may have difficulty seeing that everything is pure and good. After all, we are used to finding inconsistencies that might lead to a different story—track marks on a patient with dental pain, for instance.

Completely pure and good? What about smoking and the obesity crisis?

What is he smoking?

Well, meditation. You can break the ruts of your history through meditation, free your thoughts, control your emotions, and again see the world as pure and good.

While a burnt-out physician with little empathy left in the tank, it is hard to see good anywhere in the world, let alone everywhere.

But the situation is direr than that!

By not meditating, you focus on suffering and pain.


That is a bitter pill to swallow. So that, just living your life and thinking your thoughts, you promulge your distress.

But, there is a secret.


The Secret: You are Meditating All the Time

So, here is the secret: you are meditating all the time. You chose to meditate on your breath or your suffering.

Which to choose?

When you let your mind wander (say, in the shower), your mind is using you rather than being your ally.

Rather, use your mind to quiet it down and get in a flow state. Now create an environment where your mind can flourish.

Flow state in the shower? I’m sure it has happened to you at some point. While working as a physician, I don’t think I had fun with morning ablutions for two decades. Then, after I retired, can you believe that it was fun again to spend 15 minutes just standing there and feeling the physical sensations of a warm shower.


Meditation and Burnout

If you can understand that everything you need to be happy is between your ears, that you already are basically good, then you might find courage and love.

Through meditation.

But I want to stop here and add that meditation does not stop when you put down your meditation app (if you haven’t tried one, this is where you’d likely want to start).

As I read through what meditation is, it strikes me that anything that puts you into a flow state (see this book) is meditation.

Yes, read that again. You are already meditating when you do an activity that puts you into flow.

I was playing Debussy on my piano. Beautiful, sensitive music ensued as long as I was emersed in flow. As soon as a thought appears, oops, missed that note.

Or you are rollerblading along the beautiful path with your headphones or running (that rare high). You name your hobby, and chances are to find flow.

Is flow meditation? Can you benefit from bringing joy into your life by NOT thinking about it?

Let’s get to this now.


How You Turn You Mind into an Ally by Ignoring It

So, here is my biggest issue with the idea of meditation: I’m supposed to benefit if I don’t think about what I need to do, my future, what I’m excited about and interested in, etc.

That is, if I have some decision I need to make, I’m better off not thinking about it. How, then, can you know what you want?

If I’m burnt out, I’m better off not thinking about it (meditating) rather than trying to “solve” the problem in my head.

And here is the thought that allowed me to get into this book: either you are meditating or focusing on suffering.

Break that apart: on one side, you can meditate (where you train your mind not to wander or have intrusive thoughts by bringing your conscious mind back to your breath whenever you notice it doing anything), or you can suffer. If you choose to focus on your thoughts, let your subconscious wander around, or play around in its familiar loops, you choose to suffer.

Let that sink in. When you think or plan, by thinking about it, you choose pain and suffering.

The solution? Let go of the thoughts because they do nothing but reflect an impermanent (and impertinent) reality. There is no truth to the thoughts. There is no magic manifestation where you can bring good bubbling up.

That is, you turn your mind into an ally by ignoring it.


Physician Burnout


We are gunners ready to pass the next test, jump through the next hoop, and write that next journal article that will get us where we know we want to be.

And we suffer for it. Personally, I suffered shame and burnout.

We “chase high-maintenance pleasures,” which keeps us always longing for one more. Just one more turn at the wheel that goes around and around.

We live at the mercy of our moods. “I wonder what mood I’ll be in today.” We think we wake up and feel something that reflects our personality or what we are.

I’m pretty sure my mind and mood controlled me for two decades during training and practice. So I thought that, since I’m in a bad mood today anyway, it’s okay for me to be a little rude to that person. Cause that is who I am and what I’m feeling.

We think our mindset is who we are.

You don’t have to be in the Goldilocks zone to be happy (not everything has to line up and be just right for your mood to be okay)

Because we are used to thinking we are living life chasing after our wild mind, which is ever generating thoughts and emotions. Instead: “being in the present moment is ordinary; it’s the point of being human.”

The point of being human is in the present moment

Rather than racing from one distraction to another, always disappointed, we rather feel a sense of relief when we are here and now in the present.


Where to Go


With burnout, minimizing intrusive or pervasive thought patterns leads to improvement, whereas thinking normally promotes further burnout.

And the belief that “I” am real and permanent leads to bewilderment and suffering.

“I” is not the thought pattern coursing through me or the mood I just happen to be in. This is not the solid me.

We all have these stories we tell ourselves. This was how I was in med school, for example. But, when these stories stick, they become ruts in our life. They take over our minds and feed on past fears to cause present worry.

Well, these stories are fantasy! We created them from the shreds of experiences and memories. None of them are permanent, and none of them are “me.”

Finally, the ultimate or root fantasy is that:

 “I” am real, and there is a way to make “me” happy. We notice that much of what we took to be real and permanent about ourselves isn’t solid—it’s a string of thoughts we hold together with tremendous effort.



Turning the Mind into an Ally to Fight Burnout

After much thought, once I substitute flow for meditation, there is much to take from this book.

The truth: none of our thoughts are real. That thing you think happened to you in the past, well, you think that it happened to you in the past.

This is hard for us focused on western medicine: we are not real and unchanging. Instead, we are ungraspable.

Ungraspable as in open unconditionally—selfless.

Unpack this for a second. I think that I am graspable: knowable. And that is why I choose to suffer because I’m still trying to figure out who I am and how I live in this world.

Neither this world nor the stories I tell myself about how bad residency was are real or permanent. They are just thoughts in my head.

So, either meditate (and not think of them) or choose to suffer and think that what is around us is real, permanent, and knowable.

The final thought from my experience with meditation and burnout: remember that you have no idea what will make you happy ten years from now. If you think you have a plan and it is all figured out, then I encourage you to remember your plans from 10 years ago and see where you are now.

There is no permanence in the world around you, and you cannot think it into being. There is only this thought you have, right now, breath in. Breath out.

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