About downwarddogdvm

Just a small animal vet trying to live her yoga.

Talking to veterinary students about mindfulness meditation

It was surreal to stand in the classroom where I’d been taught, more than 20 years ago, and speak about mindfulness meditation. The funny part was that the broken swivel chair in room 1714 was still causing problems! Ah, fond memories…

As part of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association’s “Lunch and Learn” series, I was invited to speak about meditation. I had been there before, in the Fall of 2015. This was a new generation of students at the Ontario Veterinary College. And it was being introduced at the beginning of the winter semester, in the New Year, when people are most likely to try a new habit.

Along with having them go through some simple meditations (breath awareness, Three Breath Meditation, One Minute Meditation, body scan meditation), I told them there were scientific studies suggesting meditation helps with neuroplasticity, being less reactive and improving focus. I encouraged them to add this skill to their toolkit, as it has been helpful to me both at work and in life. Even if they just dabbled in a meditation, that would count as a practice. From my own experience, I knew that they would explore more when they were ready.

I was glad to spend time with OVC students today. (Hoping it was the presentation and not just the pizza that drew them to attend. Ha ha!). Grateful to be a part of the OVMA, in promoting wellness in the veterinary profession.

VIN Mindfulness Meditation Retreat 2017

“You can only do what time and resources allow.” M. Gaspar

“You are not having a bad life. You are just having a bad day.” M. Beard

Happily overtired because I opted to skip sleep to stay up late and chat. Few things will tempt me to delay my regular bedtime hour. But I had only four days and I wanted to make every moment count.

Dr. Michele Gaspar (DVM, LPC) organized our annual Mindfulness Meditation Retreat at Techny Towers, in the Chicago area. Through the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), a virtual community of veterinarians had connected on-line. It was at the Retreat where we got to see each other in person, perhaps for the first time. Another first, thanks to the support of VIN, was the approval of RACE credits, making this program recognized as information worthy of being included as an option for veterinary continuing education.

From tentative newcomers to returning regulars, our group of 23 veterinarians developed the camraderie and openness required for deep conversation. Dr. David Thoele, MD introduced us to a quick and simple writing exercise (3 Minute Mental Makeover) that could help us process our work. Ann Raney, LCSW explained how being available to our animal patients & their owners allowed us to be present and to consider our work as sacred rather than purely technical.

We also had opportunities for meditation (sitting and walking), yoga to enhance our mind-body awareness, watercolor painting as way to play and process our thoughts, & a book swap with a mindfulness theme. Gelato with a movie (“American Beauty”) got us all thinking about reality vs appearances.

I’d prepared some yoga classes to teach but knew it would change from what I had planned. We needed to be together for me to get a sense of the group energy. I knew I wanted to introduce my colleagues to the possibilities that yoga could offer for developing their mindfulness practice. It ended up being a potpourri of yoga! The first class showed how a chair and props could help people settle into their bodies as they experimented with mindful movement. The second class was a hatha yoga flow, based on one from the Palouse Mindfulness on-Line course, so people could use it to continue their practice at home. We did restorative yoga, for one evening practice and on the last morning, to help the body rest and relax. We did simple yoga breathing practices, to help focus and calm.

I was so grateful to be part of this group of dedicated veterinarians. We knew that, in order to care for our animal patients and families, we needed to find tools to take care of ourselves. We came back to this theme many times, in different ways, and provided ideas, compassion and support for each other. Within a few days, we developed a mutual trust that allowed us to “hold the space” and permit ourselves to be vulnerable with others.

I hope this retreat continues to lead the trend towards wellness in veterinary medicine. Our profession needs to be nurtured carefully, as many of us have been struggling alone and silently for too long. By bringing together colleagues in a safe and guided environment, we can develop the skills to practice mindfully.

Great Ideas 2017, wellness and yoga

It’s already been two weeks since I was in Collingwood, Ontario for the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association’s Great Ideas 2017 conference!  Just sitting down to write about it now…

Being able to take some time away from work was a luxury.  It was hard to let go initially, as I had a few patients and their families who needed some follow-up via email.  However, I was mindful that I had to take care of myself too, in order to take care of them.  I tried to hold onto that idea as I stayed at the stunning Blue Mountain Resort.

The cool part is that the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) encouraged relaxation with learning, by including wellness in the program schedule.  A full day lecture series by Beverly Beuermann-King focused on recognizing stress and tools for building resiliency.  A fun run through the Blue Mountain paths on Thursday, with Darren Osborne.  The next day was scheduled for a morning yoga class on the terrace, amongst the fresh air and sunshine.

Although it rained and had to be held indoors on the mezzaine/foyer, I was glad to teach the yoga class for the second year in a row.  I centered the cues on body awareness, to bring more mindfulness overall.  Connecting mind to body is hard to do when your brain wants to keep the hamster wheel spinning.  Beautiful surroundings were the inspiration for being present, as we moved through the class.

Yoga is part of the toolkit for skillful living.  Sharing a practice with my veterinary colleagues created comraderie and was a fantastic way to start the day.

Mental Health and Wellness in the Veterinary Profession

When someone asks me, “What do you do?” and I tell them I’m a small animal veterinarian, their eyes brighten.  Then they proceed to tell me their favourite story about their pet.  I’m grateful that the public perception of veterinarians is so positive.

But underneath that happy veneer, many of my colleagues are suffering, often in silence.   I know because I’ve had my share of it.  This was confirmed when I attended the 2017 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference and the 2015 Veterinary Wellness and Social Work Summit, read about it in an article by Dr. Debbie Stoewen, saw it posted in social media on Facebook sites like “Not One More Vet”, and discussed it at Mindfulness Meditation Retreats led by VIN’s Dr. Michele Gaspar.

Today is Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day, where the aim is to use social media and texting to increase the awareness of mental health & wellness.  A big part of it is decreasing the stigma of even mentioning it’s happening.  It’s a difficult subject but bringing it out in the open makes it easier to seek support when needed.

Although talk and awareness is good, I’m glad to be a part of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association 2017 Annual Conference, where the program includes wellness events.  It will be our second year, sponsored by Merial.  There’s yoga every morning with Denise Gilbert-Jeanes, RVT, RYT.  I’ll be leading Midday Mindfulness Meditation (breath-focused sitting, 15 minutes, in a chair) and evening Restorative yoga.  Staying well mentally requires to tools to do so and I hope that the veterinarians attending the conference take the chance to learn about this, just like they’re learning how to become better at their medical and business skills.

The Ontario Veterinary College is also helping the students address wellness by creating a one week elective course, which will include a yoga session.  Kudos to Dr. Colleen Best and her colleagues for developing this program and inviting me to teach yoga.  As someone who spends a lot of time with the thoughts in her head, getting in touch with my body has been a work-in-progress.  I’m a little better at it than I was in vet school but it requires regular attention to body sensations and breath, at work and at home.  My body is usually aware of my reactions to situations, before I can even think it!

So help me out today and share this post on Facebook, Twitter or by texting, using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.  It makes a difference!

You are more tender than you know

I dreamt of meeting Jack Kornfield, in an alternate reality.  However, in the world of my dream, Jack was not Jack as he had come to be known.  He was still kind and gentle.  His mannerisms were the same.  But somehow, he didn’t have any idea he was a senior Buddhist meditation teacher.  Despite my insistence at who he was, he pleaded ignorance.  Instead, he repeated he was a merchant (I don’t even know what he was selling in my dream!).  I reminded this other Jack that he had met the Dalai Lama and many important spiritual leaders.  “Other Jack” shook his head and simply said no, that was not who he was.  I eventually left him, feeling disappointed I hadn”t found the person who had led me through a masterful week of mediation and storytelling.

I was drawn to a retreat at Kripalu in April 2016, led by Jack Kornfield and two of his senior teachers.  I’d read some of his books but hadn’t studied his work intensely. I knew enough to be curious about what else he might teach.

What I learned resonated with me so much I am still processing it, 6 months later.  I was especially drawn to the meditations called Big Sky Bell Meditation, Luminous Being, compassion and another one on lovingkindness.   I haven’t written about it until now because I feel limited in my ability to express what I am trying to integrate and internalize. The teachings have deeper meaning as I go through my everyday (small animal clinical practice, my mother-in-law’s death from cancer, my Mom’s recovery from acute kidney failure, building a house with my husband).  I find myself living Jack’s wisdom, as I go through each of these experiences.

I think my dream was telling me how time spent with Jack could only happen once.  Even if I went to see him speak again, it would not be the same.  He would not be the same.  Despite my insistence at who I thought he should be, Jack would have changed into someone else, in another time.  In actuality, it would be me that had changed, as well as my perception of him.

At the end of the week long retreat, Jack told us, “You are more tender than you know.  Give yourself time to reintegrate.”  Although an eager student for all his teachings so far, I dismissed this advice at first.

“I’m what?  No, not me!”, I thought.

I quickly realized the retreat had left me quite open-hearted and vulnerable.  The people who sat silently beside me in meditation were now my friends and I would miss them!  Swami Kripaku’s meditation garden felt exceptionally quiet and sacred as I walked about.  When I touched the oldest tree on the grounds of Kripalu, tears filled my eyes as I felt the sense of time and how long the Camperdown Elm had stood watch over her spot.  I was bewildered at this change but I didn’t fight it.  Gradually I let myself return to reality, forever touched by this experience.  Which is why it can never be repeated again.  Jack was who he was at that moment in time.  I was there to learn what he had to say then and only then.