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Home / 2016 Fall Magazine / Features / Mindful Practice and Natural Compassion

Tree mindful practice and natural compassion
Photo by Marek Hoseko.

Mindful Practice and Natural Compassion

by Billy Thieme

“How can we empower people to actually live better lives, and not just think about their own health in terms of illness?” asks Naropa alumnus Neil Sharma. “Healthcare costs are going up, in part due to dramatic increases in the number of Americans with chronic diseases, most of which are preventable.”

Sharma—now studying medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford, IL—believes that what he learned as a student at Naropa is what healthcare around the world is missing: mindful practice and natural compassion. And he wants to move Naropa a little further into the spotlight to make sure the world of medicine has the best chance of adopting these important aspects.

Neil SharmaNeil Sharma

“From the moment I entered as a student at Washington University in St. Louis, I have become more and more aware that Naropa is at the cutting edge of addressing important issues that could make significant differences in medical education,” says Sharma. “Naropa not only taught me how to maintain balance and how to integrate all I was learning into my life,” he continues, “but Naropa also gave me the experience and psychological tools to cultivate a ‘helping’ relationship—how to relate with somebody who’s in a vulnerable place in their life.”

“I’m learning that so many other pre-med students seem to have been put into a little box and fitted with blinders. Naropa kept me open,” Sharma adds, “so I could explore many different things within myself, in the world, and with my own vulnerability, making me a more compassionate person.”

Sharma also credits Naropa for what may be a major contribution he’s made to medical science itself. At Washington University, while researching Cryptococcusneoformans, a major pathogen known to cause meningitis in human patients with compromised immunity, Sharma developed a method to grow research samples in a way that proves to be safer, more effective, and faster than ever before.

“It wasn’t that my Naropa education explicitly taught me how to be a researcher and student of science and medicine,” says Sharma. “Rather, my Naropa education provided the ground from which I approached my education and research. Often our teachers at Naropa would challenge us to not only think about the theories and facts in isolation, but to also do so with a calm, curious, and spacious mind to contemplate how those bits of knowledge fit into larger themes of our experience and knowledge.”

“We were often encouraged to question our assumptions and become aware of how they can color our perception,” he continues. “Furthermore, the training in contemplative practice, a ubiquitous element of a Naropa education, helped me develop my awareness so that it was more focused and attentive to subtle detail, but in a spacious and relaxed manner.”

“My training at Naropa also gave me the courage and skills to integrate subjects I was learning in my pre-med curriculum like chemistry and my research in molecular microbiology. It shaped my thinking and prepared my mind to think about problems in a new light,” Sharma explains. “Reading and discussing how to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ did prepare me to discover new things in a seemingly serendipitous fashion.”

“Naropa is all about integrating the many aspects of learning, and through the same process, transforming yourself,” says Sharma. “Not only did that exposure help me with my research, but the fact that I kept a ‘beginner’s mind’ throughout helped me do something that nobody ever thought possible.”

Sharma ultimately wants to take his experience with Naropa and medicine and expand it globally, envisioning collaboration between the university and other medical schools, healthcare institutions, and research facilities. He wants to encourage schools to begin incorporating compassion and mindfulness practices into traditional medical and healthcare education.

Living in Rockford has helped to open Sharma’s eyes to a lot of what is significantly affecting the health of Americans directly: obesity, diabetes, poor diet, food deserts, all resultant of constant patient maintenance, rather than preventative medicine. Studying medicine and watching poor health habits grow and thrive in the greater population has added a sense of urgency—even emergency—to Sharma’s perception of a global dilemma.

“You see literally all of the aspects of healthcare problems in the United States here in Rockford,” says Sharma. “It’s alarming and frustrating.”

Sharma 2
Cellular smear of cryptococcus fungi—lung and nasal cavity cytology showing fungal Cryptococcus neoformans organisms with capsule. Copyright: Shutterstock–vetpathologist.

“Naropa is the only institution in this country with such a unique Buddhist lineage, and a strong and growing reputation as the birthplace of mindfulness on this continent,” Sharma explains. “If we could cultivate that, strengthen it, and teach it to the medical profession, it could be so incredibly powerful. This is literally the cutting edge of medicine.”

“I never realized the relevance of surgery to a Naropa education,” Sharma adds. “But what surprised me was that the relevance of mindfulness training and yoga was not only meaningful to patient care (e.g. patients living with chronic pain and arthritis of hips and joints) but also to surgeons.”

“In fact, one orthopedic surgeon with many years’ practice recently told me what makes a great surgeon is their patience and ability to be fully present in the moment and aware of the details,” he continues. “The ironic thing is that he really didn’t know much about mindfulness and yoga. I realized that the major challenge in bringing these things to medicine is about making doctors aware of these benefits to patients and providers.”

Developing a curriculum of contemplative medicine in combination with a growing emphasis on naturopathic and alternative medicines could have a significant effect on healthcare in the United States. Imagine both doctors and patients being coached in mindfulness and awareness in support of preventative medicine, contemplative practices as a standard part of patient treatment.

Imagine doctors with the ability to simply sit with patients, to truly listen and perceive pain, suffering, and other effects of illness and disease, and with the mindful presence and compassion to work on healing the entire human, rather than merely prescribing yet another pill, or suggesting another change of diet.

“When we, as a nation, become proactive participants in our own healthcare through education and lifestyle, we can then bring about health creationwhich is the cure to many of the issues facing our healthcare system,” says Sharma. “But if we had proposed making contemplative practices and contemplative psychology a part of medical school even a decade or so ago, we would have been called crazy.”

To start, Sharma would love to see Naropa and the University of Illinois College of Medicine begin collaboration on a symposium, bringing together the faculty and ideas at Naropa with those in Rockford, to start discussing potential curricula, programming, and more. Bringing the research and faculty from Naropa’s Consciousness Lab , Cognitive and Affective Science Lab, and Wisdom Traditions Department together with the medical school would be a good start.

“Here we are, in a place and a time that really, truly needs this,” adds Sharma, “and people are actually out there looking for it. We’re going through a world-wide, often chaotic transition, and as Trungpa Rinpoche said; ‘The arrival of chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.’