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John Schorling

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John Schorling
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During a three-month trip to India and Nepal upon the completion of his medical training almost 30 years ago, Dr. John Schorling first encountered and began practicing contemplative and meditative practices. Now teaching at the Mindfulness Center—one of the earliest mindfulness centers at an academic institution in the country— as well as the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Dr. Schorling continues to find ways to integrate mindfulness practices into his life and work a physician and an educator. While his courses offer students formal contemplative practices, much of the work involves utilizing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to transform their daily attitudes: “Although part of the course is based on doing formal practice, a big part is ‘mindfulness in everyday life’—that is learning to bring the same attitude they learn in doing these formal practices into their everyday lives.”

While involved with many different courses, Dr. Schorling is most eager to discuss the course Mindfulness for Healthcare Providers, which has quickly become one of the most popular courses at the Mindfulness Center. Dr. Schorling explains that “there is a growing trend to incorporate more compassion practice into the teaching of MBSR because there is evidence of the significant benefits of those contemplative practices which promote positive, pro-social emotions like empathy, kindness, and forgiveness. We incorporate more of those in the healthcare providers class, because fostering these emotions can both help reduce stress and help us be better healers. ” However, Dr. Schorling is quick to point out that there is a fundamental difference between empathy and compassion. He explains, “Empathy is understanding what another person is experiencing; if we’re paying attention to another person similar parts of our brains are activated, so that we experience that emotion. But in healthcare, when we’re seeing people in pain and suffering all the time, empathy can be overwhelming.” In contrast, compassion “includes the desire to alleviate suffering and a recognition of the difference of self and other—which makes it unlike empathy. Compassion generally has few negative consequences and is much less likely to lead to fatigue or burnout among healthcare providers. When people do compassion practice, the same parts of the brains light up as with empathy, but the motor parts do as well, leading to a sense of action.” Dr. Schorling is eager to emphasize the neurological basis for these emotions with students and community members, explaining that “we can actually see in the brain the difference between empathy and compassion.”

Paired with this course, Dr. Schorling also teaches the course Mindfulness and Motivational Interviewing for students in the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He explains that the methodology of motivational interviewing is uniquely prepared to be paired with mindfulness practices because “motivational Interviewing is a patient-centered approach to help people identify what is important, why they might want to change behaviors, and how to accomplish that.” In this course, Dr. Schorling emphasizes that when medical professionals encounter a difficult situation with a patient, “how aware the provider is in that doctor-patient relationship is very important, so we encourage students to become more aware of their own states especially when working with patients who have behaviors that are difficult to change. That can be hard for many medical students. It’s easy for them to judge themselves for not being able to change a patient’s behavior, or even to blame the patient for not changing, neither of which is usually very productive. Mindfulness is about paying attention to present moment experience without judging.” While not every student finds the mindfulness activities Dr. Schorling presents to be life-changing, many find specific practical techniques they can use when interacting with their patients: “One thing we teach that students find particularly useful is that before changing an activity, to take a deep breath and re-center themselves. With this patient, worrying about the last patient isn’t going to do any good—in fact it is likely going to make things more difficult. Taking a moment to realize ‘I am leaving the last patient and going in to these the next patient and I’m going to really be with this person’ can be very beneficial. Little practical things like that, a lot of medical students pick up on.”

Dr. Schorling also teaches a course called Mindfulness and the Brain which combines learning about the mechanisms within the brain that are impacted by meditation, and actually practicing meditation and mindfulness in order to experience them. As Dr. Schorling’s pedagogical interest in MBSR has grown, his reliance on mindfulness practices has grown as well: “Over the past five years, I have become more involved with palliative care in my practice—caring for people with life-limiting illness and at the end of life—and these practices have become a really important part of doing that. It’s challenging to spend time with people and care for people at the end of life, especially when they are experiencing great pain. This practice has really allowed me to be with patients who are at the end of life—in pain and suffering—without becoming overwhelmed or feeling like I need to put up barriers to protect myself.” Although Dr. Schorling notes that many of his colleagues were a little suspicious of his enthusiasm for mindfulness practices at first, they have since become more interested in embracing the practices themselves, because “there’s been so much research now on the benefits of mindfulness practices like this, that it’s starting to change minds. Especially after hearing the science, many people are more open to it.” Through teaching various seminars, workshops, and classes at other schools, leadership summits, and community institutions, Dr. Schorling is eager to take his practice outside the medical school to engage the University and the community at large, because “while only a few of my students may make life-changing commitments after encountering mindfulness practice, almost everyone finds something they can take away from it to improve the quality of their lives.”