Mindfulness Meditation Retreat Chicago 2012

Off to pursue another adventure, I pulled my car up to the US Customs booth.

“Where are you going?”, the officer asked.

“The airport. To attend a veterinary meeting in Chicago on mindfulness & meditation”, I replied. I’d rehearsed my response as I was waiting in the car. It’s always best to keep answers simple & straightforward.

Without blinking an eye, he continued. “Is it going to be fun?”

“I think so”, I said.

Actually, I didn’t know what to expect. I was going to meet a group of veterinarians that had taken up weekly meditation in an on-line forum. These sessions in cyberspace were led by Dr. Michele Gaspar and hosted by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). I was curious to meet like-minded veterinarians who were using a tool that I’d found, through my experience with yoga, to cope with stressful times in life and work. I wanted to talk to them and share their experiences. But I had no idea who these people might be.

Mindfulness is a new idea on VIN and it was being introduced through simple, basic vipassana meditation. No chanting or religion involved.  Meditation has been scientifically studied as having positive effects on the brain.  Our counterparts in human medicine have been using this technique for themselves and their patients for some time now.

Out of virtual reality, Michele organized a weekend at The Cenacle Sisters Conference Centre in Chicago. A group of 6 vets (and that included me) responded to the invitation. As chance would have it, there was a seminar by the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Christian Coalition that same weekend. Our small gathering was overwhelmed by the energy of this animated group. Several times, an individual would come over to introduce themselves and ask what church we were from. One conversation with an NGO presenter from Tel Aviv went something like this:

“Hi, my name is so-and-so. What church are you from?”, she asked.

I replied, “Actually, we’re not with your group. We’re veterinarians here for a meditation retreat.”

“Wow. Meditating veterinarians. Hmmm. How unique. Say that one 3X quickly.”

“Yeah, and we all met on-line. We’ve never seen each other before this.”, I added.

I couldn’t help myself. It was one of the best 30 second elevator speeches that I’ve ever made up!

All joking aside, the VIN vets were a kind, thoughtful and intelligent group. It was one of those rare occasions where veterinarians could talk and have their colleagues listen with full attention and care. A chance to let down our guards in a non-judgemental space. An opportunity to be heard.

With the cafeteria meal times acting as the backbone for our schedule, the days included meditation, presentations, conversation and time on our own. We got tips from an expert in mindfulness, who was herself a living example of her teachings in action. We learned simple stretches to help manage the tension that builds up in our bodies from chronic stress. Some of us got pampered by with a massage. Others took a leisurely walk to the Chicago lakefront.

The group meditations lasted 40 minutes. I’d sat and shared a space with others in this way but never for that long before. We sat three times a day. The meditations passed by faster than I expected, with lots of thoughts flowing in and out. I’d notice this was happening and try to bring my focus back to my breath or a sound in the room. Sitting on my zafu pillow on the floor, my legs often fell asleep towards the end. I was glad to try out the meditation bench that one person had brought along. I think I’ll have to buy one for myself.

We shared our personal stories. We questioned and probed ideas that we’d mulled over individually but couldn’t answer alone. As animal health care professionals, we discussed how we’re expected (or rather, that we expect it of ourselves!) to be the ones in charge or the ones that will fix things. We came to the realization that we’re all doing the best that we can, in whatever situation we’re in.

Michele is running a second session on Mindfulness in the VIN Rounds and she plans to organize a weekend retreat next year. Kudos to her and Paul Pion at VIN for providing this resource for our profession. As veterinarians, we need this.

I still have so much to digest from our time together. It helps to share with others, to know that I’m not alone in some of the thoughts that arise in my work and life. I’ve made a lot of changes in the last few years to get to where I am now. It wasn’t easy but I “worked the program”, so that I could better hear my own inner voice & rediscover my True Self.  I’m comforted to know that the path I’ve taken has been the right one for me.