I have been sitting in a hospital bed in an isolation room for the last five days. I came in with a nasty case of pneumonia and an unexplained low white blood cell count. Visitors to my room need to wear a gown and a mask. My blood has been drawn more than fifteen times, over thirty bags of antibiotic solution have been dripped intravenously into my arm, my chest has been x-rayed and scanned, and my spleen has been "ultrasounded." I've had a camera travel into my lungs and marrow extracted from a bone.
In a time such as this when there is so much uncertainty, and I have a lot of time on my own, there are lots of dark places my mind can go. I know me well enough to know that I am capable of spending my time crafting doomsday scenarios or reasons that this shouldn't be happening to me. I can look for ways that the people around me are not working hard enough either to find a solution or to anticipate and reduce my discomfort. Because I know what I am capable of, I am deeply grateful for both mindfulness practice and for the abundance of kindness in the world.
Being mindful allows me to notice thoughts and feelings as they arise - this is an incredible evolutionary ability of the human brain. Observing and accepting sensations and thoughts for what they are allows me the opportunity to pay attention to, and choose my responses based on, what is most important. Lying in a hospital bed with an unknown diagnosis is a good place to practice bringing my attention back to what is most important over and over.
I was feeling pretty miserable when I first drove up to the emergency room, and I imagine that I looked it. I rolled down my window to ask an attendant where I should park. He looked at me and said "Just go inside. I'll find a spot for you and bring you the keys." Beginning with that moment, I have been the beneficiary of kindness from housekeeping staff, volunteers, family, nurses, doctors, friends, technicians, cooks, and countless others during my time here. It would be easy to overlook all of this when I am entertaining compulsive worries and making an internal list of how I have been wronged by the universe. However, when I practice noticing acts of compassion, I can see them popping up everywhere. When I feel the urge to focus on what is not going "my way," looking for human kindness can be powerful medicine.
I am not going to claim that being mindful of thoughts and feelings, focusing attention on what is most important, or consciously looking for human kindness has led to a quicker recovery from pneumonia or a less dire explanation for my low white blood cell count, but I can definitely say that these practices did allow me to have a more positive experience of an undesirable situation. As a result of my time in the hospital, I have met some really sweet and interesting people with wonderful life stories. I have watched really skilled medical professionals collaborate and work through a problem. My wife and I have shared valuable conversations, tears, and laughter. I received phone calls, texts, emails, and visits from friends that all began with "how can I help?"
I do want to be clear that I came to the hospital because I was sick, and no amount of "looking on the bright side" was going to change that. I'm also not referring to simply having a good attitude - being mindful and focusing on what matters most in the face of emotional or physical discomfort is a skill that is developed with intentional practice over time. While circumstances - including other people's behavior, the weather, illness, feelings, and thoughts - change constantly, what you practice does not have to. In fact, any situation can be a great opportunity to practice.
What is most important to you? What are you practicing right now? If you have a practice that works for you, please describe it in the comments section below.
Dave Mochel is CEO of Applied Attention, a consultancy that creates positive change by teaching the practice of mindful self-design to individuals, teams, and organizations. Mindful self-design closes the gap between what is most important and how time and energy are spent. Closing this gap is the key to personal fulfillment, healthy relationships, effective leadership, and positive cultures.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org