A physician client of mine told the story of a patient returning to the hospital several weeks after receiving it. His patient was upset, feeling that my client had not “put the dots together” and thus not prevented his heart attack.
My client, with decades of experience, reviewed his patient’s chart and, even with the gift of hindsight, concluded that he had given his patient the best treatment possible at the time.
Despite his logical reassurance, a nagging voice remained inside the doctor: “What did I do wrong? What did I miss? Am I an incompetent practitioner? What other customers have I taken poor care of?”
She shared this story with me and described how her inner critic wouldn’t leave her alone. He said, “Well, I must not be doing mindfulness right…or not being mindful enough.”
I answered that he practices mindfulness. But there is more to the story.
Mindfulness is accepting what is
Mindfulness is a powerful tool. It can help us achieve a healthy separation between the statics of life (both the external and internal world) and our responses.
Usually, just having that separation provides a huge stress relief. We are able to gain a sense of perspective on our lives and recognize what is worth responding to and what is just background noise.
However, we do not live in a vacuum and we still have to respond.
The limits of mindfulness
Mindfulness is passive. It’s just being aware of what’s going on. If we take this approach to an extreme, we will never do anything where everything is careful.
For example, after saying, “I know I’m hungry,” don’t do anything. will take us to “I’m Aware I’m Starving.” and then “I am aware that I am dying of malnutrition.”
Mindfulness is the first step in a process. This is not the end of everything. We are not meant to be passive in our lives. Taking active steps is a key part of our practice.
I’m careful… Now what?
Once we become aware of something, we have the power to make a change. Mindfulness helps us break patterns of hyper-reactivity to all feelings and respond gently, thoughtfully to important feelings.
For my physician client, I explained that if I went to the ER for every twinge, pain, or digestive problem, I would be in the ER on a daily basis. Instead, practicing mindfulness allows me to be aware of feelings as they occur. I see them come and go.
For unpleasant sensations that linger over time, say a knee pain that lingers for a while, mindfulness will only let me know it’s there. If I want to feel better, I am now responsible for taking the steps to make it happen.
I suggested to my therapist client that she is already paying attention because she knows her inner critic is loud and ready and it is not controlling her actions. He doesn’t run around frantically calling all his old patients to see if they’re okay, or changing the way he cares for his current patients. He has a healthy separation from this inner voice.
Mindfulness practice will not simply make this sound disappear. Now that she’s aware of this, she’s empowered to take steps to feel better, such as if she has long-term knee pain.
He has dozens of ways to deal with this inner nagging irritant. His awareness has given him the freedom to use his will consciously and take steps to help him move in a direction that will bring him lasting peace.