A meditation in medical school

Breathing is different when you know what your lungs look like. 

I first realized this during a meditation session at Stanford’s Windhover building. The space — a large, subdivided room — is a self-described sanctuary in the heart of campus. The walls are mostly glass, broken up by long, clay-colored steel beams. Natural light, filtered through the surrounding trees, streams in to illuminate five larger-than-life paintings — a series called “The Windhover” — depicting bird wings in muted shades of yellow and beige.

As I sit on the hardwood floor, listening to the sound of water running off the many fountains lining the room, I try drowning out the internal sounds of stress. A new medical student, I have returned to school after a two-year hiatus, and I’m still trying to get my bearings. I have a looming test and endless to-do lists, but for the next twenty minutes, I intend to turn off my thoughts and relax.

“Close your eyes and take a deep breath.”

I do. And with my exhale, I’m transported to a very different room. Another large, open space, but without a single window. A room with white walls, awash in fluorescent lights that reflect off the metallic bench tops. I’m in the anatomy lab, and the only sound I hear is the humming of air vents, the only art I see is the single, child-like painting of a dissection, hung crooked above the sinks. Yet, this space is a kind of sanctuary too.

During class, the anatomy lab whirls with activity: students chat, cut, and complain. We hurry to complete tasks and to identify structures. But after-hours, the lab transforms. It becomes a place to pause, to pay respects, and to meditate over the physical parts that make a human whole. During those hours, I examine organs and vessels. I’m not rushing to a meeting or itching to complete assignments; I’m present, focused, and actually calm.

I recently removed my cadaver’s lungs: brown blobs laced with black swirling lines like tattoos. The lines are normal, I’m told, just part of living and breathing in an urban area. Lungs feel spongy: squishy, but solid through their core. I held one for a moment, committing its texture and weight to memory, before flipping it over to examine the airways, arteries, and veins.

“Take another breath … inhale …”

I imagine my own lungs, perhaps already darkened from years of city-living. I picture them: soft, but resilient, pulling in air, performing their most-critical and basic task. I breathe in awe of the hunks of tissue resting in my chest, keeping me alive.

Even in my first few months of school, anatomy has transformed my relationship to my body. While lying on the couch, I percuss my liver. When I run the Dish Trail, I try to guess which muscles coordinate my strides. After I bike to class, I check my pulse. These little moments of bodily awareness might help me learn. But, much more importantly, they feel like my first practice in a new kind of empathy, a physical one.

I wonder how far this empathy will go and what forms it will take. When my future patients hurt, how will I experience their pain? When they recover and rejoice, how will I celebrate? When they cry, will I? When they stop breathing, will I hold my breath?

Breathing is different when you know what your lungs look like.

The meditation ends. I open my eyes to a dozen more questions. I leave Windhover and head back to my other sanctuary: the lab, where I can take another kind of deep breath. 

Orly Farber is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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