It is one week before Christmas as I write this. It is a time of holiday parties, gift buying, excesses in food and drink, and a bustling about as we attend to work, family and social commitments. The holiday season seems to epitomize an overbusyness that has become epidemic in our society.
Our modern lives seem to be ever more full and rushed. We are an age of Wikipedia and Facebook; of smartphones and hyperconnectivity; of information overload and news feed algorithims. We often move through our days falling forward in an overflowing of work, family, recreation and other commitments. With no room to pause it becomes easy to identify ourselves, and our worth, with accomplishments and to-do lists. We habitually wear our busyness as a badge of honor, even as the cracks of stress, anxiety, loneliness and disconnect grow in our inner world. “How are you doing?” “I am busy”…
Nowhere is the epidemic of overbusyness more apparent than in heath care. The demands and expectations inherent in our work are significant. We work with patients and families through their suffering and fears, and while there is so much blessing, there is also a weight of humanness that is undeniable. The changing demographic, an increasing prevalence of chronic disease, and staff and resource shortages push us to long hours and a tiring workload.
So how do we maintain resilience and wellness amidst such a culture? We need space and pause. Our nervous systems crave space and pause in our days. It is within the spaces of our lives where creativity and imagination emerge. It is in these precious pauses when we can notice and feel our joy, and our grief, and our peace. Despite having hundreds of friends on social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. And it is only within the space of a vulnerable moment that we recognize and remember connection and love.
It is not that the narratives and details of our lives do not hold meaning. It is often within these narratives of relationship, work, advocacy, and family that we gain a sense of purpose and place and identity. It is only to suggest that we need a balance of doing and being, of busyness and pause, in order to thrive.
Our ancestors evolved with a different relationship to time and space. As hunters and gatherers, and as early agriculturalists, they moved with the cycles, rhythms and seasons of Nature. Space abounded in the forests and mountains; in the rivers and oceans; in the fields and pastures. Pause was known through the patience of hunting and gathering; and the slow time of sowing and reaping.
By the time a Canadian adult reaches 40, 1 in 2 have –or have had - a mental illness. By 2030 the World Health Organization estimates that depression will become the largest overall cause of disability worldwide. The cracks are apparent and increasing.
Reclaiming space in our lives requires a radical act of self compassion. It requires each of us to care enough about ourselves to recognize our own suffering. Only then can we wake up from the frantic slumber of our busyness into a more balanced attention to our own needs and sense of self.
“The most important thing is to remember the most important thing” Shunryu Suzuki
Reclaiming our lives
While our smartphones and other screens are incredible technologies, they also have the potential to disconnect us from ourselves, from others, and from our moments. Think about the last time you were standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for your flight to depart, and the habitual temptation to check your phone. In the evening after dinner, once the kids have gone to bed, and you are tired or numb from the day, notice how your screen beckons. And yet there is a choice – to pause, to breathe, to connect with your loved one, to go to bed early, to go for a walk.
In order to create space in our lives we must have boundaries with our screens and technology – to define, clearly, when are the times to scroll and text and tweet, and when are the times to put the phone away. Within the space that this radical act creates, the opportunity arises -- how can I attend to myself and my loved ones in this new moment?
As previously mentioned, Nature is a powerful teacher of pause and space. As we step into a forest, or upon a beach, our nervous system silently resonates with the cacophony of greens, the gentle sway of the trees, and the smells of ocean mist or wet moss. Breathing slows and we let go a little of the weight we unconsciously carry… Spending time in our natural environments is another way of encouraging space and pause in our lives. Perhaps it is a hike or run in the woods. Maybe it is spending time on the ocean, ..or beach combing,.. or watching a sunset.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to what is here, on purpose, and without judgement. It involves dropping into this moment in order to notice our sensory experiences, the sensations in our body, the thoughts in our mind and the emotions in our heart. We often move through the world in a flurry of autopilot reactions, often missing the blessings, joy and connection that ever await us. Mindfulness invites us to stop, take a breath and to notice what is here, within ourselves, and around us, so that we can better respond, wisely and kindly, to whatever the circumstance might require. Mindfulness is a practice of space and pause, even in the midst of busyness and demand. By pausing with our hand on the doorknob and noticing the sensation that is present we create a pause in our day. By choosing to take a mindful walk during a lunch or coffee break we create a space amidst the fullness. By choosing to breathe for two minutes in the car before transitioning to our homelife we allow our nervous systems to settle and for ourselves to arrive, again, right here and now.
Meditation, and other contemplative practices, allow us to nurture mindfulness in our lives. It is like going to the gym for our minds. Neuroscientists have demonstrated how a daily practice of as little as 10 minutes can change our capacity to pay attention, to focus, to be kind and to reduce the suffering associated with the demands of our days. Meditation is a practice of creating pause and choosing intention in how we meet our moments. Following the breath or body sensations we teach the mind to slow, to soften and to allow whatever is here. As this spills over into the rest of our lives, so we can more easily navigate the edges and blessings with presence and compassion.
Reclaiming our wellness requires each of us to create mindful pauses in our days. Putting our screens away, spending time in Nature, and practicing mindfulness and meditation are practical tools that allow us to slow down and simplify even as we pursue meaning and opportunity. For further information and resources on learning mindfulness and meditation check out Living This Moment.
Dr. Mark Sherman is a family physician in Victoria, British Columbia, and is the founder and Executive Director of the BC Association for Living Mindfully (BCALM). Mark attended McGill University for his medical training and then UBC for his postgraduate Family Medicine residency. Mark has formal postgraduate training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Clinical Hypnosis, Yoga, Medical Acupuncture and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.