Embracing vulnerability: a doctor’s journey of healing and connection

One doctor I’ve worked with had gotten caught up in the idea of being a doctor. She realized, during her training with us, that she had stopped looking her patients in the eye. In fact, she had stopped making eye contact with her patients when she was in residency. She had to tell these two parents that their baby had died in the womb, and she did not know how to do that. This doctor was a deeply caring person, a deeply loving person, but she got so uncomfortable, and then she came to cling to this story of discomfort. It was through learning how to be with her fear and discomfort, staying in a relationship with those things, and asking for help that transformation came. This is what practicing medicine contemplatively can look like.

Slowly this doctor learned that she could actually be with all of her feelings, which gave her the capacity to truly be more present with her patients, no matter what she needed to say to them. She could create spaces, which we co-created together, and she was actually able to begin looking at her patients again. Really see them! And she began loving them again, and feeling sorrow with them, and feeling the mystery of it again. This process took time and support. It was amazing to see her start showing up to work with this super energized feeling. I was amazed because when she came the first day, I was thinking, well, she’s in trouble. Her shoulders were hunched up, and her head was kind of down. She almost collapsed into herself. Over the months of our work together in contemplative medicine, she started to engage, her shoulders went down, and her head went up. It was like a weighted blanket had come off her, and she remembered who she was. “I’ve been almost like Rip Van Winkle,” she said. “I have been asleep for a long time.”

Difficult emotions can come up in our workplaces: fear, hopelessness, anger, greed, pride. There is a danger in accepting that as simply part of our work life and cutting it off from our full humanity. While we might not allow ourselves to be cut off at home or at work, we just shut down and accept it. What we learn through contemplative practice is that feeling alone is not the same thing as actually being alone. If we find ourselves feeling isolated and separate, we can reach out to others who are struggling with the same thing.

Our work can become a mirror, and when it does, it reflects our practice back to us. Every moment of our lives matters and deserves our undivided attention. There really isn’t any dead time in our lives, you know—heaven forbid. No moment with any one patient will repeat itself, and everyone’s path is different. If we continuously keep this in mind, each encounter can be the practice of waking up to our lives.

The journey of practicing contemplative medicine underscores the importance of learning to have a new relationship with our discomfort and vulnerability. By facing our fears directly and seeking support, we become capable of rediscovering our capacity for compassion and connection within ourselves and with our patients equally, ultimately revitalizing our energy and sense of purpose. Challenging emotions are an inherent part of our work and life, and yet they need not define us. We can feel our fear, or any emotion, without becoming it. By acknowledging and embracing our humanity, both within and beyond the confines of our profession, we can cultivate resilience, compassion, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Let us heed the call to remain present in every moment, connecting deeply and recognizing each encounter as an opportunity for growth and awakening in our lives and practice.

Koshin Paley Ellison is a psychotherapist and author of Untangled: Walking the Eightfold Path to Clarity Courage and Compassion.


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