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Living a mindful life: Finding the spa within

March 2014
BY VICTOR S. SIERPINA, MD, ABFP, ABIHM, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Family and Integrative Medicine, UTMB Health

Which of us doesn’t have an image of relaxation, stress relief, and peace that doesn’t look like a couple weeks on the proverbial Caribbean beach or nestled into a massage table at a world-class spa?

Such images of rest and relaxation seem almost universal, yet they are often both unrealistic and unavailable when we really need them. The stress of life is daily and a couple hours or even a couple weeks of deep distraction and relaxation cannot realistically make up for months of accumulated stress. It is a little like trying to take out the garbage every 6 months. Things can get tricky in the meantime, not to mention smelly.

Instead, we each can be healthier and happier when we develop daily mindful practices that reduce stress and produce the oil that lubricates our day-to-day grind.

Dr. Dave Rakel, a visiting professor from the University of Wisconsin’s Integrative Medicine program recently led us through a mindfulness exercise for the UTMB-Health Department of Family Medicine. This was a guided visualization in which we each relaxed, did deep breathing, and envisioned a safe and beautiful place. We identified for ourselves the scents, sounds, smells, the look of this special place, and most importantly how we would FEEL being there.

My imagery took me to a space in which I was nestled against my favorite redwood in the John Muir Woods. I located my centered and peaceful earth energy in my lower belly. Next, we visualized a picture of what our joy would look like. For me, it was a sunflower with my granddaughter Serenity’s face in the center. This feeling of joy moved my energy awareness from my lower body to my chest as a sense of joy spread warmly from my safe inner place to my heart space.

At the end of an all-too-brief ten-minute voyage to our inner being, Dr. Rakel made an important point. We didn’t need to be anywhere else, do anything else, or change in any way. We each carry within us the potential to feel the peace, the joy, the happiness of this ideal inner place all of the time, through all of life’s trials and tribulations.

Maintaining the presence, the power, and the inner anchoring of such feelings can help us stay mindful and balanced in the best of times and the worst of times.

If you haven’t had this kind of experience, I would recommend you try it, either self-guided or with the help of a coach, guide, or a skilled therapist. Professional assistance may be especially essential to making this journey safe and effective if you have any deep, unhealed psychological trauma.

There are many resources available on visualization and imagery as books and on the web. I like the Martha Davis book, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook or anything by Dr. Marty Rossman as tools to guide this journey. The book, How to Train a Wild Elephant by pediatrician and Zen abbess Jan Chozen Bayes is another great resource.

Coming up in April is the annual Celebrating Women: Mind, Body, Spirit conference, April 11, 2014 at Moody Gardens in Galveston. I strongly encourage my female readers to put on your calendar. http://galvestonchamber.chambermaster. com/events

As one of the only men on the speakers’ list, I feel grateful and excited about the opportunity to address the topic of “A Mindful Life” to an expected thousand attendees. I hope to share with these ladies some of my personal and professional experiences in mindfulness. I will also include some practical suggestions for the role of mindfulness and other lifestyle therapies for irritable bowel syndrome from my Healthy Gut Workbook.

In preparing for this event, I acquired a copy of Mindful Living Miraval, a Hay House publication that was produced by the famed Tucson resort and spa’s physicians, counselors, coaches, chefs, and staff.

Mindfulness is usually described as “moment to moment, non-judgmental awareness.”

The Miraval book (miraval means view of the valley) expands this by defining it as follows: “Mindfulness is a conscious approach to being in the present moment— an elevated awareness of one’s surroundings and also of oneself. It is a vivid perception of one’s choices, strengths, and potential. Mindfulness is empowering yourself and optimizing your energy in order to live a balanced, healthier, and better life, each and every day.”

Mindful Living uses a template of the months of the year, each month embodying a key element of Miraval’s mindful philosophy. For example, February is Heart, September is Harvest, and December is Celebration. Each chapter is crafted with practical suggestions bringing mindfulness into our day-to-day life through movement, meditation, awareness, food choices, and other ways to elevate our consciousness and optimize our health through lifestyle choices. While each chapter highlights programs and opportunities available at the Miraval Resort & Spa, also included are sections on “What to do if you’re not at Miraval.” In other words, the book gives universally applicable tools on how to tap into the spa within our own lives, and to encourage our own motivation and healthful changes.

As a dedicated tennis player, one of my favorite chapters was October, “Balance.” The expert who developed this chapter, Leigh Wenraub, is a former collegiate tennis player and uses tennis as a metaphor for the various challenges coming at us constantly in our busy world. Like tennis balls flying across the net, each one of our daily stressors requires attention, focus, and response. We also need to be able to recover from one bad shot or mistake in handling a ball or a life situation so we are prepared for the next one.

At Miraval, Wenraub deals with a lot of high-achiever type A+ clients for whom slowing down in life isn’t an answer. Does this sound like your life as a physician of health care executive? So if slowing down, taking two weeks on the beach, or quitting to do something else isn’t the answer, what is?

Building stamina. People with stamina have the ability to recover emotionally as well as physically in the face of life’s ongoing challenges. To quote Weinraub, “Champions learn to build beats of recovery right into the middle of the match…In order to be the best you can be, you must optimize your moments of downtime just like a champion athlete does.”

Finding ways to do that in the midst of busy medical practice is definitely a challenge. Dr. Rakel offered us an easy mindfulness formula called the 3 P’s, Pause, Presence, Proceed.

When we feel overwhelmed or stressed, first Pause—take a few breaths, center. Presence means coming into the current moment, collecting oneself, realizing what is happening now. Then Proceed with groundedness, peace, and balance. This practice will not only help the physician healer as he or she proceeds with greater equanimity and focus, but also benefits the patient who receives the gift of undivided and clarified consciousness directed by their doctor to their healing.

Though we can’t always go to a spa or the beach to regather our forces, learning techniques for applying such mindful principles in our own lives are definitely available to all of us. If you need a shift in perspective, consider getting a copy of Mindful Living or some of the other resources described here. Or maybe you just need a Miraval break. I have been there and found it highly refreshing and renewing. Go if you wish. You can afford it. You deserve it. Your patients deserve the best of you.

With all your mind, get mindfulness. You can move from daily multi-tasking, stress, and distraction to being productive, peaceful, and a positive influence on your patients. It just feels better.