I work on a psych ward. A place where people get dragged in, often against their will, because they botched a suicide or had a psychotic break in the middle of a Christmas pageant or are just plain acting weird in front of the Capitol Building. I love what I do, and I work with people who love what they do (mostly), and I have noticed three things:
1. If you're going to work on a psych ward, you need to get real with yourself.
2. Mindfulness is a way to get real with yourself.
3. The whole world is a psych ward.
What do I mean when I say you need to get real with yourself? It's simple. You need to know what's going on.
When you're feeling angry or disgusted, you need to know it. When you're feeling compassion or joy, you need to know it. When you're having a hopeless moment, or a moment of confusion, or one of those beautiful flashes of excitement when a patient has an insight - you need to know it.
Put simply, people who get real with themselves do well on a psych ward. And people who don't ... well, they usually end up jumping ship one way or another. That could mean quitting the job. Or it could mean hardening into emotional distance, which is just about the worst thing you can do to a patient who's already wondering why they should live.
So how do you not check out? How do you get real with yourself and know, clearly, moment-to-moment, what's going on?
My answer is simple: mindfulness.
By now just about everybody knows what mindfulness is. It's the "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. It's that quality of warm being-with that can hold just about anything.
In other words, it's getting real with yourself.
But it takes practice. You can't expect to sit down once or twice for ten minutes and come away unshakeable. When I found mindfulness twenty years ago, I fell in love with the practice immediately. But it took sitting down every day for over a year before I started to notice sustained changes. And the most profound shifts didn't settle until I had lived in a monastery for several years.
So the good news is that, eventually, mindfulness becomes like a superpower. When it's stable, almost nothing can shake you. The bad news is that it takes work to develop mindfulness in the same way it takes work to develop facility with an instrument or a language.
Of course, mindfulness isn't just the key to working on a psych ward. Mindfulness is the key to working anywhere. Wherever you go, there will be suffering. Wherever you are, you’ll get triggered. And whatever’s happening, people will need your sanity. The whole world is a psych ward. And getting real with yourself is the greatest gift you’ll ever offer.