Mindfulness Meditation Retreat 2018
The Customs officer leaned out the booth window. “Where are you going?”, he asked.
“Chicago”, I said. “For a meeting on mindfulness in veterinary medicine.”.
“I’m a psychologist.”, he replied. He had been hooked by our brief conversation. “What do you do to de-stress, that’s not related to veterinary medicine?
“I bake bread.”, I told him. “The yeast rises when it wants to. I can’t rush it.”.
He nodded. “I’m studying stress management and its relationship to suicide.”
“Then we were destined to meet!”, I replied.
Suicide statistics in veterinary medicine have been published internationally but I was more interested in understanding why my profession was experiencing such psychological distress and what could be done to prevent it. For the seventh year, Dr. Michele Gaspar would bring together a group of my peers. Through thoughtful discussion, meditation, books, yoga, art, and a movie (“Eighth Grade”), we could explore what was causing our stress. We saw how relationships, perfectionism, social media, bullying, anxiety, depression and more were affecting our work and home life.
There were 22 of us, mostly repeat attendees and several first timers, drawn from across USA and Canada. I was impressed by how quickly we developed community and built trust, which allowed us to share our stories of difficult times in our personal and professional worlds. It took courage to tell a back story which is seldom revealed to friends and family, much less acquaintances.
The ability of the group to hold the space, and just listen with compassion, allowed us to speak freely. This was part of our conversation with two guest speakers. Dr. Levin is a retired Emergency Medicine physician, and former veterinary student, who described a tumultuous period in his work life as being “blocked” from “who you are inside”. Dr. Moffic is a retired psychologist and described his experience as an “erosion of the soul”. As the end of their careers, they had suffered what they called burnout. Using these stories, they were now leading their Board Specialty Associations in how to recognize and cope with it. They showed us burnout was a process, often due to a system created to optimize efficiency rather than focus on patient care. We compared stories from human and veterinary medicine, exposing startling similarities. They offered some suggestions on how to manage burnout but we wanted more. Our three hour dialogue together could have continued on, all day long!
This retreat was a rare opportuny, where veterinarians could process the moments from their past that affected their present. Through sharing our stories, moving our bodies, creating art by paying attention to our intuition, we were able to observe ourselves in a safe, non-judgemental environment. We’d all taken great personal efforts (work, travel, financial, family) to be here in person because this type of interaction could never be replicated by an online webinar. This weekend would help us jumpstart the journey, or encourage us to continue, in the right direction for professional and personal growth.
We planned and made promises to each other to maintain the connections we had created. In this way, technology & social media could help to bridge the miles and the time until we could meet again. Even so, as I write this in the airport on my way home, I find myself missing my colleagues already…
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