Q. Your book, which is a collaboration with the Tibetan lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, presents a vision of how to become a more compassionate, kind, and wise caregiver. Is this one solution for the U.S. health care system?
A. There have been lots of articles about how we’re somehow finding medical care unsatisfying from both ends. Doctors feel pressures from different directions. It’s more difficult to get reimbursed by insurance companies, which is distracting from the core mission. And 40 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t even have medical insurance. The bottom line is: Doctors take care of people, and people get better—but doctors don’t feel appreciated. And patients don’t feel doctors are seeing them as people, or that they really care about them.
Q. Why is there often this disconnect between Western medical practitioners and patients?
A. The very success of medicine has ironically contributed to this feeling. During the past 50 years, we’ve found more ways to relieve suffering and prolong life. But the focus on science and technology has allowed doctors to slip into thinking of patients mainly as problems to be solved rather than people who are suffering.
Q. Yet Western doctors often believe feeling too much compassion for patients can be a liability?
A. Compassion, from a Buddhist point of view, is the desire to relieve suffering in others. In the West, we don’t really have a model for how to do this without eventually feeling overwhelmed, worn out. In med school, students develop defense mechanisms, and they’re told it’s a good thing to do. But it contributes to professional burnout, or the inability to continue to care about what happens to their patients.
Q. How can we train to feel compassion with less effort?
A. Compassion is naturally present in all of us. Training involves making that natural compassion more accessible and stable. First, we need to realize that patients are often frightened, in pain, and irritable as a result. Second, we need to learn how to completely relax our minds. Meditation is one way to train in relaxation, and to be able to let go of extraneous thoughts and emotions and focus on the patient’s needs when we walk into the exam room.
Q. In your experience, meditation also made you a more effective diagnostician and healer.
A. If your mind is clear, you think better. You’re more likely to consult books, keep wrestling with a problem, ask other doctors. Patients benefit from that extra effort. A compassionate doctor can also inspire people to feel better, to not give up and get depressed.
Q. You caution against expecting gratitude.
A. This is subtle. Ideally, you should cultivate a compassionate attitude. If your attitude is pure, it frees you from worrying about whether a patient praises your effort or blames you for doing something wrong. If you’ve already tried as hard as you can, you can take satisfaction in that effort.
Q. Will being more compassionate make us happier?
A. The Dalai Lama talks a lot about happiness. It’s the biggest motivation for human beings, but we don’t know how to do it! We buy things, we go on trips, we enter relationships. They all work … for a while. But the things that make us happiest are based on love and compassion. Being selfish doesn’t make you happy; it’s like a 3-year-old hoarding toys. The effort to keep other kids away destroys any enjoyment the toys could bring. If you have a more open heart, happiness flows more easily.
Q. You talk about the built-in anxiety of the American way of life, where we’re always working toward some future goal and happiness.
A. Yes, if all our activities are focused on increasing our well-being in the future, when do we actually feel at peace? We are always hoping things will go well for us or fearing something bad may happen. True happiness is feeling completely at ease. Isn’t that true?