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How science and medicine benefit from mindfulness and Buddhism

Since the 16th century the western world has been dominated by science. We embraced the likes of Descartes and Newton and flew wildly into the direction that they pointed. Science, Philosophy, and logic defined the developments that brought us from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and right into the Age of Information. Never far behind, the world of medicine was discovering and developing treatments and cures for what ails us. Unfortunately, given the methods of science, caregiving was steamrolled by all the shiny and flashy developments that science had to offer. The personal experience of caregiving found itself having to conform and adapt to the rigors of the empirical. The condition or illness was the thing to tame, the only thing to pay attention to. The fact that a human was attached became increasingly incidental.

Mindfulness and Buddhism

At long last, thanks to globalization over the past fifty years, Eastern thought and religions such as Zen Buddhism have been making their imprint on the West. Buddhism especially is informing and training the medical world on how to provide increasingly compassionate care to the ill, elderly, and dying. The medical communities throughout the west are beginning to take serious note and are knitting thousands of years of knowledge and practice into the world of science and medicine to create care models that are holistic and recognize the person behind the illness or condition.

The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others has given everyone, including all facets of the caregiving community, tangible techniques for developing resourceful and nurturing ways to approach the human being who is suffering. He has taken mindfulness meditation techniques and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and brought them into the medical world, subsequently introducing millions of people to the benefits of taming one's mind.

Medical centers and schools have picked up on the benefits of using mindfulness as a way to better equip physicians, nurses and social workers to attend to the bedside.

Digging a bit deeper into the Eastern traditions, there are centers that have reached out to Zen teachers and monks to get a better grasp on the sources of mindfulness meditation to see what else can be learned. Koshin Palley Ellison and Robert Chodo Campbell, founders of the Zen Center of Contemplative Care, are out to change the culture of care. They bring the Zen precept of compassion to medical schools and engage with physicians and students about what it means to attend to the bedside. They discuss how to be fully with the person who is being treated. How to bring compassion to their work and how to avoid empathy fatigue and burnout through mindfulness. They address very real issues such as the limits of medical care. How does a doctor, who is expected to have all the answers and know how to fix everything, honestly approach the patient and say "I can't do any more for you." How can we most honestly accept the fact that we all will age, suffer, and yes, die. How can we truly come to grips with these facts as they so poignantly pertain to the patient, the family, the doctors, nurses, and everyone who comes by the bedside? Contemplative care addresses these and other issues related to care by the bedside and empathy fatigue.

Individual and Community

Contemplative care addresses not only the individual but the community. It brings medical professionals to the awareness that all of this work we do to serve one another is ultimately done in community. Being fully present by the bedside requires compassion that comes from knowing that on the most basic of levels, we are all in this together. The medical community, with all of its knowledge and technology, has its limits. To fully care for the individual requires all of the resources of the community. Developing an environment that supports resilience in the face of having to tell someone that there is no more that can be done for that person, not having the answer, reaching the limits of medical intervention, all of these issues are impossible for an individual to confront day in and day out. Bringing contemplative care to the medical setting is about building community that recognizes that not all outcomes are the desired, and that there are limits to what any individual or medical community can do.

What we can always do is be there for one another with compassion. When we reach fatigue and lose our ability to be with the person and situation, it is the community that we are involved with that can provide comfort and resilience as well as remind us of our immense talents and abilities, we are human. The tools and ethics of Zen Buddhism fosters the development of networks and communities where caregivers can come together and develop nurturing and honest approaches to dealing with difficult situations that occur. Developing communities that recognize the realities of suffering, frailty, and death while also tending to the wellbeing of the caregiver who has to confront impossible situations on a daily basis is necessary. By practicing meditation and the ethics of Buddhism, we can hold each other with the tenderness that comes from deeply understanding the grace that compels us to care for one another is what we can always return to, and this is the refuge of the caregiver.


  1. https://www. change-the-culture-of- caregiving/

About the Author(s)

As a Volunteer Caregiver to the Zen Hospice Project and a Course Manager at the CareGivers Project, Audrey Meinertzhagen is passionate about improving the standards of care for older adults and educating caregivers on the principles of mindfulness and self-care.

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