Learn about the real time benefits of meditation.
“Which now means whatever activity I’m involved in, whether it’s for work or for family, etc., there’s a lightness to it and a speed. I wouldn’t say efficiency, but a speed to it, because I’m not tripping over thoughts on my way there. That is a huge time saver and it’s worth the investment.” Coach Gabriella Dennery MD
In today’s episode, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer share the real time benefits of meditation. Coach Gabriella just got back from a Vipassana meditation retreat. She shares with us the details of the retreat and the benefits she is experiencing. This episode is all about how you can improve your life through the use of meditation and mindfulness. If you can’t get away to a retreat right now, there are plenty of options that Coach Jill shares for getting a mindfulness and meditation practice started right now where you are. You can also check out our previous episodes (number 23, 24 and 25) on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with Dr. Antonia Stephens for more reasons to implement meditation into your life along with resources to get started.
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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran
Please enjoy the full transcript below
Gabriella: Which means that now, I feel like whatever activity I’m involved, whether it’s for work or for family, etc., there’s a lightness to it and a speed. I wouldn’t say efficiency but a speed to it, because I’m not tripping over thoughts on my way there. That is a huge time saver and it’s worth the investment.
Jill: Hello, everyone, and thank you so much for being here. We are so glad you’ve joined us today for DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Jill Farmer, Master certified life coach and one of the cohosts of the podcast, and I’m joined by Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach and also cohost of the podcast. Today, we are going to be talking about the real-time benefits of meditation. Gabriella, this topic is front and center for you, because you recently just returned from a meditation retreat. So, talk a little bit about your experience and what’s this latest experience gave to you.
Gabriella: Wow. I went to what is called a Vipassana meditation retreat to which is a 10-day intensive. So, it was eight to 10 hours of meditation a day. There are, of course, breaks in between, thank goodness. And you’re fed, you are housed, you’re taken care of very well. It is a silent retreat. So, although the retreat, there were 35 men, 35 women, it is in perfect silence. And wow, it is truly, initially a rest for the mind but it goes deeper than that.
Why this particular technique? There are different meditation techniques as you know, from transcendental meditation to various types of visualizations, to walking meditations, and other types of waking meditations etc., and all sorts of stress reduction techniques as you are familiar with Jon Kabat-Zinn and his work on mindfulness-based stress reduction that incorporate all of these teachings. Vipassana comes from India and it was brought over by a teacher by the name of S. N. Goenka, who was from Burma, but his teacher who was also from Burma. He wanted to bring Vipassana back to his birthplace, which was India. So, he brought it to India, and then that spread, and it’s spread all over the world. So, there are Vipassana centers all over the world, and many across the US, and many local groups also that meet– The philosophy is beautiful and I invite everybody to go to the website, because there is actually– if you think about it, it’s on donation basis. That’s the majority of their funding. There’s no tuition. Anybody can attend. It’s accessible. And it’s called D-H-A-M-M-A dot O-R-G. So, I’ll say it right off the bat.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is truly a practice of being in the present moment. Let’s say, for example, you light a candle and you watch the flame for five minutes or for two minutes or whatever. What do you notice about the flame? It’s constantly moving. There’s not a point where it sits still. It flickers, it bends left, it bends right, it increases intensity, decreases intensity, and the shape of it changes constantly. So, it’s about really learning how to master the mind to be in observation mode rather than reactive mode, to be able to be in acceptance of that flame, that movement. That change happens all the time. Movement happens all the time. To tether my happiness or my feelings of inner peace to something that is constantly changing is, as the Buddhists say, the source of misery. This is where people feel miserable. I’m tethering all my decisions, my needs, and my expectations on something that may not even be valid five minutes later.
For example, this morning, I got up late because my alarm went off. I pressed the button, I went right back to sleep. [laughs] And oh, my goodness, I got into a tizzy. I was not in a peaceful mode at that moment. It’s like, “What is going on here? Now, my whole day is going to be a mess. Everything is going to be a domino effect. Everything is going to be delayed. What am I going to do?” Then, I thought of that flame, that it’s constantly changing. That moment when I press the snooze button is gone. I’m no longer pressing snooze. But here I am rushing through breakfast, thinking of the snooze button, my body’s eating but my mind is somewhere else. So, really, it’s about bringing the two together. Here I am in this moment. The next moment will happen, but it’s not happening yet. So, to be able to observe instead of react, that’s the key, to see things as they really are and not to anchor my happiness to something that is constantly changing.
The technique itself is very simple. It focuses on respiration in and out of nose, which drives you nuts, to calm the mind initially to just focus on respiration going in and out of the nose in a specific area above the lip. Then, you switch to the Vipassana technique itself where you’re doing a body scan from head to foot, foot to head, and you’re observing that change in you. So, I’m observing sensations in my body. Let’s say I feel prickling sensation at the end of my left front big toe. Then, instead of trying to scratch it or itch it, let me watch it for a bit. Next thing you know, like that flame, it changes. It comes, it goes, it may come back again, it may intensify, it will reduce, it never stays the same. So, doing that for the entire body from head to foot, foot to head literally hours every day, the mind will wander. It’s not to judge the wandering, is to come back, and let me go back to the scan, and just smile, the mind wanders, it happens, and to really observe how everything constantly shifts and moves, which is really the law of nature, bottom line.
I know I sound like I’m a convert or something. It is nonsectarian, it is not a cult, but it really puts me at this point in a place where even in the upset, I can bring myself back to, “Okay, well, right now, I’m eating breakfast. I’m done with the snooze button. I’m in the moment now and I’m getting ready for my next moment. Okay, now, I’m ironing my shirt,” and it’s kind of fun watching all the pieces change shape as I’m passing the ironing over the cloth. It gets silly that way and simple. It simplifies everything. What I find is that my thought processes are simpler, my decisions are clearer, they’re faster, and my focus is improved. I don’t hesitate as much on anything really, any kind of wondering, or guilty feeling, or I should be doing this, I should be doing that, that’s out the door. Life is more direct, and simpler, and less stressful as a result.
Now, I’ll stop here and you tell me what you think. You do have experience with meditation as well, and I hope this makes any kind of sense, because I’m still on cloud nine in this moment. I’ve been back for about a week and I’m still processing. It’s twice a day meditation now. So, it’s a pretty intense process.
Jill: I love everything you said and I too have experienced the benefits of meditation, and I have never gone away to do a meditation retreat, and I don’t think I’ve probably ever meditated for longer than maybe 20 minutes at a time. Yet, I too can say that for me, there’s something that has been slowed, not in my mental functioning but in my reaction time. Meditation and just trying to be more mindful, which is just being in the present moment, being here now, slowing down my breathing, over the last few years, has really helped me to be more curious and less reactive in a variety of different situations.
I did grand rounds a couple of years ago at a hospital system co-presenting on just talking about mindfulness meditation with a surgeon, and she was a very stressed out, highly tense person would have described yourself as pretty anxious. When she started the practice of mindfulness and meditation, she said it was amazing. Because things that used to irritate her almost before every procedure that other staff members would do, and then she would correct, but she was still just kind of irritated, she said it felt miraculous because she could observe that, “No, it needs to go like this. And this should be happening, not that,” but she noticed she was observing it without having the reaction of irritation and that was powerful.
I know for you, going away to a meditation retreat several years ago was integral in changing your life trajectory. This as your friend I can see coming back to me, it just feels like you’ve taken a 100-pound pack that was on your back and put it down. You just feel lighter to me. You can tell me where I’m wrong on that. But what about somebody that’s listening to this going, “I can go away for 10 days,” or, “I think I would go crazy sitting there for eight to 10 hours a day?” If that’s the reality for somebody listening as a physician, how do they make time for meditation in their life and what does that look like?
Gabriella: That’s an excellent question because the meditation practice for this particular technique, the recommendation is one hour twice a day. So, it’s like, “Where am I going to find two hours a day to meditate? That makes absolutely no sense.” So, let me address that last, but just to share a little story about how this came about. The first time I went was literally 20 years ago right before 9/11. And when 9/11 hit, I was at the meditation retreat, which was very interesting. My brother who had been into this technique for a while and my mother as well– My mother converted to Buddhism, if I say the word conversion, it’s not really a conversion. But when I was in my teens, she kind of just did it quietly and here it is. She grew up the daughter of a Protestant preacher. What was interesting is that, my brother said, “You know what? You’ve taken vacations before.” I said, “Yes, plenty.” “How does it feel?” “Well, by the time Monday comes around, I feel like I’m never left. I still feel tired and exhausted.” He said, “Okay. Then why not try something different? It’ll be worth it. It’ll be better than any vacation you will ever take and you will have benefits for the rest of your life.”
I had gotten to the point– I was still practicing medicine at the time and I was working in New York city, a very busy primary care clinic in Harlem and I was exhausted. I said, “Well, what the hell do I have to lose?” I had accumulated some days because we had talked about it several months before, so I kept all my vacation days and I said, “Okay, I’m going.” So, 10 days is not really 10 days technically, because I worked outpatient. So, it was really 8 days, it’s not 10. I went and I tell you, that was life changing truly, completely life changing and I’m glad I went. My energy shot up, my concentration shot up, the way I looked at life, and as you said, that’s winning the small stuff made a huge difference in my ability to get through the day. Now, my challenge over time back then was to keep up the practice, which meant getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to do an hour of meditation, to take the train to get up town, which was an hour plus ride, to then get to work to do a full day of work, then to another hour ride back home, to then meditate again, and then I had other activities after work as well. So, that became a little more challenging, and I was having a tough time keeping up the practice. So, I said, “Well, instead of an hour, let me do half an hour.” I still was having challenges.
But at this point, what I’m realizing as I’ve been back for about a week or so and I’m doing the two hours a day, some sits are better than others. This morning was washed, because I was upset about being late, but I sat anyway, I did it anyway. I have to decide what’s important to me mow. Clearly, 20 years have passed, and this second experience is very different than the first one and each person’s experience will be unique to them. It was definitely more profound, a lot deeper, and a lot more revealing this time. It is definitely worth it to keep it up. What I found is that I don’t need as much sleep as I did before to feel rested. So, I’m gaining on the backend in interesting ways that I’m meditating twice a day, an hour each time, but I’m sleeping less and I still feel refreshed when I get up except for today. I still feel refreshed when I get up.
That as I’m observing this last week, week and a half, that seems to be the trend. It’s moving in that direction, in that I still feel energized as a result of the meditation. The meditation rests my mind. So, even if my body doesn’t require as much physical rest, my mind is decompressing, which is huge. Which means that now I feel like whatever activity I’m involved, whether it’s for work or for family, etc., there’s a lightness to it and a speed. I wouldn’t say efficiency, but a speed to it because I’m not tripping over thoughts on my way there. That is a huge time saver and it’s worth the investment. So, I say if you look at it from a clock point of view, you’re like, “There’s no way I’m going to go to a 10-day silent retreat. Yeah, that’s going to drive me nuts and how am I going to meditate for eight hours a day? I have a bad back.” Well, yeah, well. [laughs]
There are provisions made. You can use a chair. There are all sorts of other options available. There are no real excuses. There are people, as I said, you had all sorts of medical ailments there who were still there and that’s amazing. And it’s 8 days, not 10 and you catch up the time that you are meditating on the backend or on the frontend. The only way I can explain it, but the only way you’re really going to know it is if you experienced it yourself. So, that’s all I could say. I’ll say you have the time, you do have the time.
Jill: Beautifully said. You’ve given us some really good resources, and just your own experience is very powerful testimonial for how this works. If you’re interested in exploring, Gabriella gave you the website to explore what she’s been talking about with that particular version of meditation. Other places to start, there’s really good apps out there right now. Some modernization, so things like the Calm app or some people like the Headspace app, the Ten Percent Happier app. There’s also a lot of free meditations on YouTube. Those can be places to just start to notice what happens. Gently putting your hands on your heart, and counting your breaths for one minute and setting a timer can be a really meaningful experience to begin to understand what it feels like to just be in the present moment.
Then, one final thing I was just going to say, Gabriella, is it’s okay if your mind goes all over the place. It’s not about wrestling your mind to somehow just be empty. Your mind is not going to. It has thoughts. It’s just letting those thoughts be there without attaching to them and then coming back to the breath. All the different ways of learning meditation, that’s the process. Final thoughts from you, Gabriella?
Gabriella: Agreed. You know, just as the teacher says, S. N. Goenka, “Your mind wanders, it will wander. You realize, it’s wandering, just smile and bring it back to where you were.” That’s all you have to do. It’s no big deal. As you say, Jill, it’s not a big deal.
Jill: Beautifully said.
Jill: Thanks for coming back and sharing with us. We can feel how meaningful that experience was, and it’s inspiring to hear about that experience and to think about ways that we can incorporate and integrated into our own lives. So, on behalf of Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach, meditator, cohost of the podcast, and me, I’m Jill Farmer, we will see you next time on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.
Jen: As a busy physician, you’re managing a lot. A lot of people depend on you. Your patients, your colleagues and staff, your family. To get up every day and do all of the things that you do is an accomplishment. But when is the last time you stopped and thought about where am I going with this? What would I like to see for myself in 1 year, in 5 years, in 10 years? What if you had a group of experienced coaches and a community of physicians there to support you, to help you figure out what matters to you, not just at this point in your life, but going forward this year, next year indefinitely? What if you had that support to help you find a way to integrate what matters to you in your career with what matters to you outside of work?
Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you for being here. Please check us out at docworking.com and please don’t forget to like and subscribe. Thank you for listening.