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Physician Health and Well-Being: The Shaman Asks Powerful Questions

Physician Health and Well-Being: The Shaman Asks Powerful Questions
By John Patterson
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

“When did you stop dancing?”
“When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”
from The Four-Fold Way by Angeles Arrien, cultural anthropologist

       When members of indigenous societies feel disheartened, dispirited or depressed, the shaman asks powerful questions. Shamans believe we lose part of our soul when we stop dancing or finding comfort in silence. Both are considered essential for wholeness and healing. How fitting that modern burnout researchers describe burnout as erosion of the soul.
       Ancient wisdom and modern science agree- dancing and intentional silence are powerful medicines. My own experience validates this. I began meditating after medical school to intentionally manage the stress of internship and to connect to a higher power. I was partly motivated by the suicide of my medical school lab partner. A few years later, I began dancing to connect to a physical, social, touching, hugging community. I have experienced both dancing and silence as powerful medicines in my life and in the lives of my friends, colleagues, students and patients.
Dance of the Heart     
       Argentine tangoisthe world’s most passionate and romantic dance- and also the most mindful and meditative. The intimate close embrace of Argentine tango provides an antidote for the widespread deprivation of touch that pervades our culture. Argentine tango dancers learn, teach and support each other in ways that heal the isolation that fuels our current epidemic of stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide. Argentine tango provides body-based, non-verbal relationship therapy for distressed couples. It can provide rehabilitative therapy for those with gait and balance disorders.
       While competitive tango and theatrical tango are flashy and technically challenging- the social dance is quiet, intimate, interior and available to everyone- even those with two left feet. If you can walk, hug and pay attention- you can dance Argentine tango. Before COVID, I taught Argentine tango at my office- Mind Body Studio in Lexington. Several physicians are part of our tango community. This video is a demonstration during class-
        Mindfulness and Silence
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”  Desiderata
       Mindfully paying attention and being completely present- being here now– are critical skills for excellence in medical practice, as well as in our personal relationships and our interior lives. During my medical career, I have been severely distressed and I have been burned out. The regular practice of mindfulness, meditation and yoga has been an important part of recovering and protecting my joy and passion for a life in medicine.
       Peer-reviewed research suggests that meditation can be extremely helpful in reducing health care utilization and as an adjunct to conventional therapy for chronic, stress-related conditions affecting all organ systems. Physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual healing can be found in exterior silence and interior silence. I have continued my daily silent meditation and prayer practice since my internship decades ago. I go on meditation retreats regularly. And I teach mind-body skills to health professionals and the general public- to promote resilience, manage stress, prevent burnout and cultivate compassion. I am so grateful for this second career, combining an undergraduate psychology degree and 30 years in rural primary care as I now consult and teach the very life skills that have sustained my life- and perhaps even saved it.
8 Things to know about meditation and mindfulness (NIH)

About the Author-
Dr. Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), yoga therapy and physician coaching. He teaches mind body skills for promoting resilience and managing stress for the UK Health and Wellness Program, Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, serving health professionals, people with chronic conditions and the general public.