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Start by stopping

March 5, 2024
Calm waters

One of my mentors taught me that the best way to start is by stopping.

Taking a moment to pause and reflect before beginning down a new path.

2024 is Whole Hearted Medicine’s fourth year running mindfulness and wellbeing retreats for doctors. It’s been an interesting journey so far and one that continues to evolve and give me so much reason to pause and be grateful for. So in my own ‘start by stopping’ for the year, I am reflecting on the Why?, What? and How? that characterises this path.

The Why?

If you had of asked me just over 3 and a half years ago when we first registered the business name Whole Hearted Medicine, just what was going to emerge from that trepidatious beginning I wasn’t 100% sure. I knew that what I felt so strongly as I burnt out was an unsettling sense of loneliness that I never wanted another of my amazing medical colleagues to feel. I knew that the self reflection and work I had done in the intervening months was some of the hardest I had ever done in my life (medical degree and fellowship included) and that without having done that, all my years of medical training were useless to me and to the world. I simply couldn’t keep working as a doctor without learning how to be kinder to myself.

I couldn’t work as a doctor without engaging in the deep contemplation and reflection to connect with those intensely human parts of myself that I needed to nurture in order to skilfully navigate a professional life at the frontline of humanity.

Dr Emily Amos

I couldn’t keep pretending that there was a clear distinction between who I was as a Doctor and who I was as a Human. Most importantly, I knew that I was not alone in these observations. A foundation of the practice of self compassion is the awareness of common humanity- that all we experience is fundamentally a human experience. That if it happens for us, it will happen for others.

So I set out to support those people like me.

Whole Hearted Medicine was borne out of an intense passion for the wellbeing of doctors and medical students. I could see a gap between the idealistic first year medical students I taught at university and the established doctors who I felt deserved that same compassionate support to explore their human-ness. In deepening my ability to show myself compassion in the face of my suffering as a result of my work, it became very easy to also hold my colleagues with unconditional positive regard. They were me and I wanted to do something to help.

In 2020 I could see that the increased systemic demands of COVID and the associated stress that we all carried in our lives simply served to exacerbate a problem that we had all been experiencing for a long time. Medicine was not always the collegial and supportive place that it could be as so many of us were struggling to connect with ourselves let alone each other. But rather than being the problem, I saw this disconnection in our profession as a symptom of the difficulty so many of us have in feeling connection to ourselves, our values, our goals… our entire internal landscape. We dedicate so much of ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge and skill for the benefit of others, that many of us leave little left to dedicate to our own understanding of that delicate interplay between self and state that makes up ‘us’. An essential skill in order to successfully navigate this space we all occupy professionally at the border between science and humanity.

So how to do this?

Doctors love to learn.

Yes, this is a gross generalisation- but I do stand by it. We’re an inquisitive bunch who by and large are driven by an intense desire to consume as much knowledge as the world can offer us. This insatiable quest for learning is part of what makes me love working with doctors. These beautiful minds show that same limitless curiosity that a toddler shows as they explore the ever expanding world around them. So I instinctively knew that education was the ideal way to connect with doctors. As a registered yoga and meditation teacher, I was experienced with the sort of profound shift possible that the immersive retreat style format can bring about and combining these two factors I set about creating a new and innovative curriculum that reflected immersive pedagogical approaches and was in line with Continuing Professional Development (CPD) standards for doctors.

As CPD standards changed in January of 2023 I was pleased to see the emphasis placed on reflective practice for doctors, an element that has been embedded into our curriculum from the very beginning. Self reflection is a key component in adult learning principles and in the successful integration of learning new skills and knowledge. My goal was and will always be to support doctors in the gentle and compassionate exploration of the internal landscape. The sort of work that helps to create a connection to self and state which manifests as deep and evolving self awareness. A real time embodied awareness that allows us to skilfully and mindfully connect with our patients, our colleagues and the world at large. This is facilitated on retreat through a variety of immersive and interactive experiences as we explore the concepts of mindfulness, self compassion, self awareness and the application of mindful self care.

What next?

It is easy to get starry eyed and imagine all the millions of possibilities for growth & evolution and in doing so forget the reasons for starting something. The most reassuring thing about reflection and contemplation is the awareness that the work will always need to begin with is within us. That in doing so, the ripples of change that we gently impart on to the world have the unbounded potential to reach places we could never have imagined.

Casting the first ripple of change must always come from within first.

Dr Emily Amos

So as we embark upon our fourth year of retreats our goals for the year are to honour and pay respects to this origin story, but also to grow and change as we continue to learn and evolve. Supporting the change-makers of medicine will always be a driving force behind us, but shifting conversations and challenging mindsets is part of our plans for the future. The health and wellbeing of our health workforce is the ultimate marker of the state of our health system and the more mindful & self aware leaders we have in this system, the healthier and happier we will all be. The outcome measures of mindful self awareness can sometimes be difficult to quantify but I take great pride in the awareness that the work Whole Hearted Medicine is doing is so very true to those original aims.

“I somehow forgot that I used to have perspective to be able to rise above the thunderclouds and observe calmly and fully present. I have been committed to practising this with compassion since the retreat. It occurred to me (almost 20 years since first learning it) that “primum non nocere” actually means ME!”

Retreat Participant

So, as we kick off 2024 we are looking forward to welcoming over 115 doctors on retreat this year, connecting with even more through various conferences and events, continuing to support doctors through our free doctors-only Facebook group (you can learn more or join here) and of course protecting the space needed for unexpected opportunities to arise into.