How to cultivate calmness by doing nothingSep 12, 2022
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Setting aside time each day to literally do nothing is a fundamental practice to cultivating awareness. In order to coach ourselves to more fully understand our own thoughts and emotions, we need some quiet. We need to create space in our lives to calmly reflect. Busyness and distractions don’t allow for the deeper reflection sometimes needed to work on our beliefs, attachments and typical reactions.
The key is to practice it before we need it. Not when we’re already in crisis mode. That’s why I wanted to share with you some ideas and steps I’ve learned about how we can cultivate awareness by doing nothing. This practice is the one that really helps all of the other self-coaching tools designed to guide change.
“So the entire basis of being able to be coached, and coach oneself – and change one’s thoughts… navigate our emotions… create that space between when things happen and how we respond – is based on cultivating awareness, on having awareness of what’s going on in our mind, in our brain.” – Dr. Sara Dill
What You’ll Learn
- Value of doing nothing
- Practicing equanimity
- 3 Steps to do nothing
- Time, location, dedication
- Movement or none
- Disengage and gently label
Contact Info and Recommended Resources
Buddha's Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom by Rick Hansen, Ph.D.
Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach
- Website: saradill.com
- Work with me: saradill.com/coaching
- I read all my own email and I’d love to hear from you! Please write to me at [email protected].
- Get a FREE consultation with Sara! Sign up here: saradill.com/schedule
- Get Dr. Dill’s book The Doctor Dilemma: How to Quit Being Miserable Without Quitting Medicine
Dr. Sara Dill: I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician podcast, Episode Number 31. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast, I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.
Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. Happy Monday, if you are listening to this on the Monday this episode becomes available. I am actually recording this a couple of weeks ahead of time. Because if all goes as planned, and I think we are all familiar with the “if” here, I should be on vacation for my birthday, celebrating when this podcast comes out.
So, I was just thinking about what might be relevant, what I might be experiencing, and I thought I would talk about something a little bit different today. It all ties into stressing less, of course, and it’s a practice that I really like and that I think is very uncommon, or at least one that we don’t talk about a lot in Western culture, which is a practice of intentionally setting aside time to do nothing, every day. And whether you consider this sort of a meditation practice, or a mindfulness practice, or an awareness practice, it is a practice that I find incredibly important in everything else I talk about.
So, the entire basis of being able to be coached and coach oneself and change one’s thoughts, or change one’s attachment and belief in one’s thoughts, to navigate our emotions, to do all of this, to create that space between when things happen. And how we respond is based on cultivating awareness, on having awareness of what’s going on in our mind, in our brain. And one thing that becomes very important is to do this as a practice before you need it. It’s like that idea that the time to pack your parachute, or even to know how to deploy your parachute is before you really need it.
For most of us, what happens is we just sort of wake up one day, maybe, and we’re unhappy, or we’re burned out, or we don’t really pay attention as we go along in our life until suddenly, we often are in crisis mode. You can notice, when was maybe the first inkling you had that you weren’t happy in your job or in your relationship, or you didn’t know what was wrong in your life, but you just kept pressing forward? What we want to do is become more aware of everything, so that we have more ability to respond, rather than getting to the point where we are in a sort of crisis mode and just want to change everything.
And so what I want to do is talk about intentionally doing nothing, every day, as a key part of cultivating and becoming aware of this state of calm, of peace, maybe of happiness that’s below—I sort of think of it as below the level of our mind, of our thinking, of our emotions, of all the sort of busyness of our lives. And so a term for this that I really like is equanimity. And equanimity is something that’s discussed more in Eastern philosophical and maybe religious or spiritual traditions.
But equanimity is this idea of a habit of mind that is only disturbed rarely under great strain. That’s one definition. Another definition of equanimity is mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain. Other words for equanimity are calmness or equilibrium. Another definition is the state of being calm and in control of your emotions, especially in a difficult situation. I think that’s what we all want. I think that’s a lot of the benefit or goal of doing this work, is how do we sort of remain calm? How do we remain able to react and respond, especially in times of stress, especially in times where perhaps things are happening that are a trigger for us, something that really gets us going usually, or pulls at us.
And I want to say that equanimity, or this equilibrium, or being calm, is not apathy or indifference. It’s actually the opposite. It’s a way in which you can be very much warmly engaged, very deeply engaged with the world, but not troubled by it. And I would love to just encourage you to try this out, try this practice of doing nothing that I’m going to describe. It’s sort of a very intentional nothing, that really, of course, is not nothing. It’s sort of everything.
But I want to offer you this practice, even if you’re someone who’s not into meditation, not into mindfulness, not into anything, if this sounds a little woo-woo. There’s actually a lot of good science behind this. If you’re someone who likes to know the science, I’ll put a link in the show notes. There’s an excellent chapter on equanimity, right, achieving this equilibrium, in a book by Rick Hanson, who is a PhD neuroscientist. The book is called The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain, it’s on how to basically experience more happiness, love and wisdom.
So, Rick Hanson, The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain, Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Chapter Seven is all about equanimity, and how doing this practice that I’m going to describe of which there are many different versions, can help you cultivate this state of mental and emotional stability and composure, and why you want to practice it now, before you really need it.
So, what I’m going to suggest is that you basically pick 15 minutes, in everyday—20 is even better. Start with what you can, though. If five is all you can do, then five minutes, I’ll take it. And I want you to basically be unavailable for that 5 minutes, 15 minutes or 20 minutes. This is going to be the time that you were going to practice doing nothing in a very intentional way.
So, you’re going to start by going somewhere where no one is going to bother you. That could be your car, parked in a parking garage, or a parking lot, either before work or after work. It could be the bathroom, if you are typically left alone there with no one knocking on the door. It could be going to a park or some place in nature or in public. But I want you to be unavailable. No texting, no phone calls, no one knocking at the door for 15 minutes a day, if possible. Okay, but I’ll take 5. If 15 minutes seems too big—I know we talked about habit formation. So, if 15 minutes is too much, take two minutes, okay, two minutes, turning your phone off, being someplace where no one can reach you. No one at all.
The second step is to basically let your body sort of settle. For some people, especially if you have a meditation practice or a mindful practice, one option is just to sit quietly and let your body relax. However, for a lot of people, especially if you are not used to being quiet, if you’re not used to not being busy, if you’re not used to doing nothing, right? Often what happens is when you try to sit quietly and relax, the last thing you feel is relaxed. And in fact, this is true as well, if you have any physical ailments, or if you’re someone who suffers from a lot of chronic pain, often when you sit quietly, everything becomes louder, the pain is more intense. If you are in the middle of a very difficult situation, often what happens is it becomes almost unbearable to be physically still.
So, if this is you, this is not an exercise in trying to get through it. I want you to not sit still. So, if you’re someone who, when you try to sit still, you immediately feel worse, maybe you feel afraid, maybe you feel pain, maybe you feel grief, or rage. Or if your emotional state or your mind really ramps up, you often will notice that you immediately go into sort of an intense, sympathetic response, an intense fight, flight, freeze response. And your body can then be flooded with this cortisol or adrenaline. And you’ll feel anxious, you’ll feel angry or feel restless, rather than peaceful. So, if you don’t feel peaceful, even a little sitting still, then what I want you to do is to pick something with a physical movement that’s repetitive and somewhat mindless, okay, that you don’t have to think about. So, this might look like taking a walk—not an aggressive walk, right? Just walking.
For those of you who like to run, this could look like running. Again, not necessarily a strenuous run, unless that feels physically good. But I just want you to find repetitive physical activity that you don’t have to think about. This could be doing drills of some sort, if you play tennis, just hitting the ball against the backboard, where you’re really on autopilot physically. So this will help you keep your body busy, while mentally we’re going to practice doing nothing. So again, you want to find a level of activity, if sitting still doesn’t work for you, that allows you to move, but without having to really concentrate or struggle. It goes without saying, you’re not listening to a podcast, not engaging in any other thing, not talking to someone else, because you’re alone.
The other option is—so this is still about letting your body sort of settle. The third option is to find a place where you can watch some sort of natural movement, the natural movement in nature, maybe it’s watching the wind blow through trees, maybe it’s watching storm clouds go by, maybe it’s watching the ocean, or a river or a stream. Maybe it’s looking at a fire or running water. This is another way for anyone who finds it very difficult to sit still and relax. So again, watching something in nature, especially if you’re tired, is a way to let your body relax, if you’re someone who finds it difficult just to sit still.
So, step three, here is to really practice disengaging from your mind. So, this is the doing nothing part. What I want you to do is really take a step back from engaging with your mind, with your thinking, with your emotions, with your sensations. And I want you to step back into more of a watcher mode, into this observer mode. There are a couple different techniques that I like for this, depending especially on whether you’re a visual person, or how you process.
One of my favorite ways to sort of disengage and step into that observer role is to picture my thoughts and my emotions, to picture everything going on in my mind as sort of that ticker tape at the stock market that’s just running constantly. And what I’m doing is just watching it; I’m just watching those thoughts go by, I’m watching maybe sensations, if I have a thought, “Oh, gosh, my back hurts,” or “this is boring. Why am I doing this?” Rather than engaging with those thoughts, you’re just watching them go by on that ticker tape, watching them go by left to right, right to left, however you visualize it.
Another way you can do it is to just picture sitting by a stream, maybe a very busy rushing stream after a rainfall, right, somewhat tumultuous, just noticing, can your thoughts and emotions everything in your mind, everything you’re aware of that’s trying to sort of pull you back into your brain that normally you would be sort of involved in just picturing that as that rushing water going by, you can be very peaceful. While that is very tumultuous, while that’s very chaotic, maybe you see big logs go by, right? Maybe you see all sorts of things go by. Often what happens, especially when you are new to this practice, is you sort of get sucked in to your thoughts. And suddenly you realize, oh, my gosh, I’m not just watching them, right? I’m suddenly involved in them, I’m thinking about things, I’m worrying about things.
So a third technique is also, especially if you’re having some repetitive thoughts, is to gently label them. So maybe you just notice thinking, worrying, fear, planning, imagining boredom, right? So again, you’re sort of labeling them, but not getting involved in them. So I just want you to be practicing observing your thoughts, observing your emotions, without getting involved in the content of them.
Another way to think about it is traffic. You can just notice each thought is like its own little car, stuck in traffic. Traffic goes fast, traffic was slow. You don’t have to get involved in the traffic, you’re just watching it go by. One of my favorite sort of analogies for myself, especially if I am watching something in nature and doing this practice of sort of intentionally cultivating disengagement with my mind, doing this nothing practice, is to imagine my thoughts and my feelings, my body sensations, whatever I’m perceiving as clouds in the sky, they can be thunder clouds, it can be very stormy, it can be relatively empty, they can be zipping by, or they can be going by very quickly. I’m not the clouds. I’m the one watching the clouds. So that’s the sort of attitude that I want you to cultivate here, again, for the two minutes, or the 5 minutes, the 15 minutes, whatever it is that you can commit to doing.
A lot of your thoughts may be like, “This is boring, why am I doing this? This is so silly.” And again, the practice of this is to start noticing this underlying sense of calm when you aren’t engaging in the contents of consciousness. You’re the one who is conscious. You’re the one who’s watching, you’re the awareness here. And so, you’ll start to cultivate this ability to be engaged without having to react or respond to every thought or every emotion. You’ll start to notice that moods and worries and emotions and thoughts, especially when it’s sort of stormy, right, when there’s a lot of them, they’ll start to sort of move through you or move past you, instead of sticking around so much. You’ll have a little bit more ability to not engage when you don’t want to.
This is a practice whereby you actually start to learn that you are not your thoughts, you aren’t your emotions, you’re the one who’s experiencing them. That is the perspective in which you’re going to be able to cultivate this equanimity, this ability to be calm, and in control of your emotions and your responses, especially in difficult or stressful situations. This is the practice that lets all of these other self-coaching tools really work. The science behind this, behind equanimity or tranquility, this sort of steadiness of mind, this ability to tap into this sort of essential peace and calm when we aren’t overly engaged with our thinking mind, it’s an unusual brain state.
Rick Hanson, again, discusses this in his book, and he talks about it scientifically as being not based on prefrontal inhibition of the limbic system, of our emotional system. But rather, it involves not reacting to the limbic system. So we aren’t trying to repress or delete our thoughts and our emotions, or sensations, we’re just noticing them, and then not responding to them. We’re noticing it all. We’re engaged with it, in a sense of allowing it, but we don’t have to respond to it. We’re just watching it go by.
And again, if you are interested in the science of it, he goes into great detail about the parts of the brain that are likely involved in this. The thing that I find very interesting is it it also requires us to activate our parasympathetic to sort of dampen that limbic system feedback loop that usually amps up our stress response to its own reactions. And that keeps us stuck in this sort of over activation and over stress response that many of us don’t know how to get rid of, don’t know how to get out of. This is how you get out of it.
So again, I want to really encourage you to just test out this practice of doing nothing. this practice of quieting the body, sort of vacating the mind, and then just becoming the observer of our thinking, our emotions of our different mind states, and practicing not reacting, right? Even if we then have thoughts that are judgments about it, you might just label it judgment. Worry, fear, restlessness, boredom, I find sometimes labeling very helpful.
So again, the three steps to this are, one, to just make a decision to dedicate two minutes, five minutes, 15 minutes a day, to this practice. The first step is to not be available, right, you have to be undisturbable so no one can reach you. I want you to have this time set aside. The second step is to quiet the body. You can do that either by sitting and relaxing the body. If that triggers some intense reactions, if you then find that amps up physical sensations or emotions, then you can try engaging in some repetitive activity like walking, jogging, doing some sort of physical drills, where you don’t really have to engage your mind. Or the third option would be to watch some natural movement in nature running water, wind, fire, something like that, that can also allow you to sort of let your body rest.
And then the third step is to intentionally sort of disengage from the contents of our thinking, right, our thoughts and our emotions that they’re generating, and become the sort of observer or witness the consciousness in which that’s all playing out. And practice doing that in a way where you are cultivating this non-reactivity that is going to increase that space. So that later when you’re in a stressful situation, when you’re in a circumstance that usually you would respond automatically to and maybe in a way that you’re trying to change, you will be able to sort of see it and change it before it happens.
All right, everyone, I hope you are having a wonderful time. Reach out with any questions. Always feel free to email me [email protected]. Again, I’m on vacation this week, so I will likely not be responding until I am back home again. And always feel free to go to my website, www.saradill.com, if you want to sign up for a free mini coaching session or find out about my coaching offers. Talk to you next week. Bye.
If you are a busy practicing physician, ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at www.saradill.com, that’s S-A-R-A-D-I-L-L.com. It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.
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