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Physician Health and Well-Being: Mindful Aging, One Day at a Time

Physician Health and Well-Being: Mindful Aging, One Day at a Time
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

     We take so much for granted. We act like there will be a tomorrow even though we know tomorrow may never come. Our minds are so often in the past or future and not fully present to this day- the only day in which we actually live. Our minds are so often in some other place and not where we actually are right now. This inattentiveness can lead to medical errors, accidents and a lack of appreciation and engagement with our family, friends, pets, work, personal health and planetary health.

     As we age, our perception of time changes and it feels like less than a year since our last birthday. It sometimes takes illness or tragic loss to make us ‘wake up’ to the fleeting nature of this precious life- this precious mind- this precious body- these precious family and friends- this precious planet.

     ‘Living one day at a time’ was popularized after its origin in 1935 as part of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It has since been applied to other serious physical, mental and emotional conditions. But it isn’t necessary to wait until we develop serious illness to begin living this way. Doing so may even give you some protection from such health misfortune.

    Here is part of my personal self-care prescription– some things I find helpful in cultivating a mindful life. You may recognize some of these from your own self-care tool kit. I certainly have not mastered this art of mindful living- but my intentions are good and I see a positive trend as I grow into my wisdom years.

     Mindfulness has been described by various teachers as paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally, with openness, curiosity, acceptance, generosity, gratitude, friendliness, kindness, forgiveness, compassion and patience- as if your life depended on itin the service of self understanding and wisdom. Being dedicated to even 5 minutes a day of intentional mindfulness practice can plant positive seeds of mindful habits for a healthy mind, body, emotions and relationships.  

     Gratitude– Over the years, I have become so grateful that I woke up this morning and do not take that for granted. I intentionally express my gratitude on waking and going to bed. Throughout the day, I often stop in front of the mirror, place my hand over my heart and remember my gratitude for this life of service- this day- this moment.

     Slowing down– I have wasted so much time in my life. I relate to Alabama’s song “I’m in a Hurry.” I often simply stop in my tracks and stand still, especially if I am rushed or late- remembering I can ‘stop and smell the roses.’ I often recall Kenny Chesney’s song “A Lot of Things Different,” with less hurrying and worrying. I’ve changed the phrase “there’s no time like the present” to “there’s no time but the present.” I often recall a question from one of my favorite mindfulness teachers, Pema Chodron- “Since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” For me, not wasting time is the most important thing.

     Less Doing and More Being– We are so rewarded for our productivity and ‘getting it done.’ This is useful but can lead to exhaustion, emotional distress, physical illness, substance abuse and burnout when taken to an extreme. We need to balance our doing mode with regular doses of our being mode. John Lennon expresses the sentiment well in “Watching the Wheels.”

     Mindful Eating– We take our senses so for granted. While eating, I will notice the rainbow of colors in my meal, truly smell and taste the food, feel the food touching my mouth and the sound of chewing and swallowing. I see the grocery, farmer, sun, rain and topsoil there in my food – becoming my body.

     Cleanliness– In the shower, I close my eyes and feel the water, the warmth, the sound, the smell and the gratitude for clean water. As I wash my hands, I feel my hands touching each other, grateful for soap and the health benefits of clean hands – wishing everyone could enjoy this simple sanitary practice.

     Walking and Moving– I regularly stand and walk to break up the screen time. I rotate my shoulders in both directions. I relax my face, my jaw, my shoulders. I walk often aware of discomfort in hips, knees or feet- and being grateful for the ability to move, stand and walk without assistance. I do some hatha yoga stretches 1-2 times each day for about 10 minutes- paying close attention to how my body feels and areas needing special gentleness. Walking outside is especially powerful. I see the sky, clouds, trees, sun and moon. I remember that all things are connected and that I am a child of the universe. I pray for Mother Earth and all those who suffer.

      Body Awareness– During all activities, whether active or restful, I intentionally focus attention on the physical sensations in my body- feeling the surface I am touching, the feel of clothing touching my skin and the air touching my face. I feel the constant flow of energy and information inside my body- inside my skin- noticing how the miraculous human body is never completely still during its lifetime.

     Driving and Waiting– I am vigilant on the highway. Traffic accidents and fatalities are so common. There were 813 deaths on Kentucky roads in 2023. I drive slowly and let people pass. I don’t engage in competition with aggressive drivers. I notice the thoughts and emotions while waiting at the red light. This transfers to waiting in the checkout line or for the elevator. I relax my shoulders. I use my turn signals. I drive defensively. I often turn off the radio and drive in silence.

     Awareness of Breathing– I often watch the breath coming in and out- the breath breathing the body, the body being breathed by the breath. The gift of each breath- the gift of life. Feeling the inbreath followed by a slight pause and the outbreath followed by a longer pause. I rest in the silence and stillness at the end of the outbreath. I soften my belly to allow the fullness of the breath coming in and out- abdominal breathing – soft belly breathing.

     Awareness of the Heart– I place my attention in the center of my chest- the heart center. I feel the breath enlivening the heart. I feel the constant flow of energy of the breath and the heart moving throughout the entire body- every cell in the body breathing. Every cell energized by the breath and nourished by the heart. I intentionally open my heart to my suffering and the suffering throughout the world – people, animals and planet Earth.

     I believe these habits have made a huge positive difference in my life. I hope you find ideas here to help you relieve your suffering and the suffering around you. You, your family and friends, your colleagues and your staff deserve no less. I hope this path of mindful aging, one day at a time, helps you live your own medical path with heart.

“Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” John Wesley

 

Resource-

I have recorded several guided mindfulness practices you can access at the Mind Body Studio website

http://www.mindbodystudio.org/?page_id=1594

About the Author-

Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians (KAFP) and is a Longstanding Diplomat with the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM). He is certified by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine (ABIHM), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Physician Coaching Institute. He is on faculty with Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena CA), Mindful Practice in Medicine (U of Rochester School of Medicine) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers mindfulness classes, coaching and integrative, mind-body consultations, focusing on burnout prevention and stress-related chronic disease. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org