By: MaryAnn Ulasi
I spotted a number 5 on the concrete street. By number 5, I mean the stage of a particular “bug” that was made famous by the swarm that landed in NYC last year. Its growth curve is visualized in order of the clockwise circuitous pathway of a quarter; it reminded everyone what they were looking at. As I continued to gaze at the nymph stage of the dead lanternfly with its mangled red body, crushed under spotted black and white wings, I was sucked into a moment of time that I rarely experienced – the present. It was gross and painful, and the exposure was a little too much for real life. After all, for most of us, real life is not the present but rather the past or the future and the irony is hardly ever obvious to us. I certainly have been guilty of living in the future rather than the present. After all, the mere idea of being a surgeon is far more enticing than the reality of sitting in a room studying as a stressed medical student. Why would one want to exist in the difficult space that is the present? Yet, it is the practice of being mindful in the present moment that yields the very result that we constantly strive for when we run to the future – joy.
How can we cultivate this? How can we experience the joy we desire in the present moment? More importantly, how do we tap into the present moment when it seems bleak?
- Recognize that mindfulness is more than a practice. It is a habit. Like all good habits, developing them takes time and discipline. Discipline implies that you do it regardless of motivational drive. If you studied every time you felt like it, how often would you study? The same rules apply here. You don’t practice mindfulness when you feel like it, you do it all the time.
- Don’t wait until the right moment. It’s easy to be mindful when you are in a comfortable scenic environment. But what about in moments of pain? Hectic schedules? When you do not have the time? An act as simple as pausing to taste your coffee in the morning can go a long way to cultivating acceptance in the present. Use even the smallest of activities as an opportunity to practice this.
- Understand the concept of time. – How long is a minute? How long is it when you are running to catch a train that arrives in a minute? How about when you are thinking of the answer to a question your Attending asked you? It seems like the minute is much longer in one scenario compared to another. However, it is the same 60 seconds. Making yourself aware of these time shifts in moments of present restlessness can assist greatly in times of stress when you would rather be anywhere else but the present.
- One bad apple spoils the bunch. – How many times have you had a day where everything went right until it went wrong? You woke up and everything was going swimmingly until one minor distasteful event at 2 PM had you wishing you took the whole day off. Instead of considering all the positives, your brain focused on the one negative thing. The desire to practice mindfulness works the same way. If you focus on the failures from the past year, it can be very easy to write off the whole year. But what about all the positive achievements and challenges that you overcame? Practice cultivating a positive mindset by focusing on what you did accomplish rather than what went wrong. Over time this builds confidence because you are training your brain to shift focus away from what seems detrimental. It becomes easier to live in the moment because your focus will be on the positive events, achievements, and attributes that you created.
If we make the effort, we can shift our pattern of thinking and our ability to live fully and deeply in the present moment. How would it be beneficial to us as aspiring physicians? Consider this: the goals that you strive for are in the moment. The reality of your patient’s diseases are in the moment. You would never ask a patient to focus on how life was before the disease. You walk and take the journey with them now. Every pound lost is a victory. Every cigarette they chose to avoid is a victory. These actions seem so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things and yet they make all the difference to positive outcomes. It is much easier to dream of a future that may or may not make your life appear “better.” However, the struggle, frustrations, fears and tears you feel now are a part of the journey that you currently reside in. It is the reality of now. This is what builds confidence.
MaryAnn Ulasi is a student of Ross University School of Medicine and a member of the Association of Women Surgeons.