by Dr. Rob Rutledge, MD, FRCPC
Joanne, a Radiation Therapist, seems especially calm today. Her dark eyes shine and her voice is soft yet confident. We’re working together in the CVsim where we take x-rays of patients in preparation for their treatments. As we work, we share stories about our kids, laughing about how work is the only place where people actually listen to what we’re saying.
I comment on how peaceful she is and ask if she meditates to help find calm in the midst of her very busy life. “I could never do that” she says matter-of-factly. “My mind would be all over the place.”
Christine, another wonderful high-energy Therapist, is listening in now. She has been going to a masseuse to help relieve the painful muscle knots in her neck and upper back that have stopped her from sleeping well for years. I can see that we can all use the teachings that Tim, my partner in the weekend retreats, offered me many years ago. So I tell Joanne and Christine about my meditation practice.
Every morning I get up about 30 minutes earlier than I would otherwise. I kneel on a pillow in a small room, and begin to focus my attention on the sensations of my breath. About two seconds into starting I start to think about what I need to do that day…. “I have a meeting at 4:30 with the radiation oncologists, and I’ll need to present the new procedure of getting patients with cancer in their bones in earlier….” At some point I realize I’m thinking about something else and, without judging myself, I bring my mind back to concentrating on my breath. Then about three seconds after that my mind starts to wander… “At the meeting yesterday, when Peilong said that we’d have to update the software on the medical record system, I cracked that joke, but everyone thought I was being serious, why don’t I just shut up, I’m such a goof sometimes…” Again at some time I can see that I’m thinking about something else and I bring my mind gently back to focusing on my breath. And 3-4 seconds later I’m off on some other thought. And back and forth I go dozens of times in a single session.
I’ve been meditating somewhat regularly for 15 years – i.e. nothing has changed, really. Most mornings by the end of the session I do experience a sense of settling into my body, a feeling of my energy being grounded in my body. I can see my body, my emotional energy, and the thoughts that come and go – and an awareness that holds the human experience (which I believe we all share). The days I meditate I feel much calmer, happier, and I think I’m a better physician. I can focus on the person in front of me, pay greater attention to them and allow natural compassion to come through my words and actions. And I’m more efficient because I can do one thing at a time and focus my attention – and when I see my mind wandering off to something else, I can bring it back to the task at hand – just like during the morning practice.
As I’m talking to Joanne and Christine I realize I could talk for 30 minutes more on the recent science showing how meditation actually rewires the brain and all of its proven benefits but instead I summarize my monologue with “Meditation is going to be the new ‘exercise and healthy diet’ of the future”
Joanne nods her head “I think you should teach meditation to all the therapists.” We start to figure out how this could happen in our busy cancer centre when Christine asks the obvious question “Could we learn to meditate on our own?”
I offer this advice. It’s best to find a teacher or a group that meditates regularly because there is a wonderful palpable energy when people get together to meditate. But it is possible to teach yourself by watching or listening to YouTube videos in which the teacher who explains a simple technique like focusing on the breath. Then practice with or without the audio – even just 5 minutes in the morning or before bedtime can have a powerful effect on how you feel and how you sleep.
“I could never meditate because my mind goes a hundred miles an hour” is a common theme I hear in my travels. But for me the time we spend in silence is all meditation – not just the moments when the mind settles and we experience peace.
Meditation is also about becoming friends with ourselves. The emotional energy is going to vary from day to day and even within a single session. We can begin to see that our thoughts are going to come and go – and we don’t need to get so attached to them. It’s natural. And we can learn to love ourselves for our full humanness just as we are.
Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.
In 1999, Rob co-created the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. These weekend support groups teach a powerful and integrated approach to the cancer diagnosis and ways to heal at levels of body, mind and spirit. To date, more than 1,600 people have attended the retreats in over 20 cities across Canada and abroad.
Rob also leads the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a Registered Charity, that freely offers educational videos, documentaries, and webcasting seminars – and he is co-author of a book called The Healing Circle, which captures the teachings and inspirational stories from the weekend retreats.
In 2010, Rob received Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Award for Excellence in Patient Care and, in 2006 Doctors Nova Scotia presented him with the Health Promotion Award in recognition of his contribution to physician health and health promotion in cancer patients.