Monday, May 30, 2016

Meditation and Medical Ethics

Medical ethics and mindfulness have a lot in common. I reached that conclusion after a recent conversation with my long-time friend Charlie Halpern about his effort to introduce mindfulness into legal education.

Charlie has been doing this at the UC Berkeley School of Law for the past several years through classes and elective retreats. He's an enthusiast and a believer. He feels, and many legal educators and law schools agree with him, that mindfulness practice increases empathy, compassion, and the ability to really hear what clients and others involved in negotiation and litigation are saying. He described how a professor at Berkely has taken to starting his classes with three minutes of silence. The professor reports that "sacrificing" three minutes of class time leads to a richer, more thoughtful class experience.

I've taught meditation to patients in a medical setting and have recommended meditation to many of my patients over the years. And I've written in this blog about how mindfulness practice can be woven into busy practitioners' lives. (See here and here.) But until the conversation I had with Charlie, I hadn't recognized the obvious connection between mindfulness and the way I've taught medical ethics.

In the semester-long course medical ethics course that I taught at Harvard Medical School, in addition to the topics that formed the intellectual content of the course, I encouraged the students to hone their skill at (a) observing their cognitive and emotional reactions to clinical situations that raise ethical issues, (b) treating these reactions as "data," not "truths," and then (c) reflecting on the "data" presented by their experience as one piece of ethical analysis before (d) reaching a conclusion. Over time, as demonstrated by clinicians who we regard as models of ethical action, this set of actions can become reflexive, done automatically and recurrently.

What I realized is that steps (a) and (b) are close cousins to what meditation teachers encourage their students to do. The setting is different - deliberate quiet and inwardness in meditation versus to what I'm inclined to call "meditation in action" in learning to be an ethically sensitive clinician. But the outcomes the teacher hopes for in the student - empathic connection with others, compassion, and seeing the truths that underlie complexity - are the same.

Recognizing the kinship between mindfulness and medical ethics is a valuable insight for ethics educators. An increasing number of students know something about meditation and respect the practice. Recognizing that skill at meditation can enhance their grasp of medical ethics, and, that skill at medical ethics fosters some of the key skills for meditation, enhances both domains.

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