Breathing lessons for nurses


From the Summer 2013 issue of Scrubs

Over the three decades that I’ve been a nurse, it has become clear that a degree of stability in our minds—a state of mindfulness—is a benefit to our patients…and to ourselves. It improves life at work and at home.

During your workday, it’s not uncommon to lose focus, awareness and even compassion. The suffering that comes with this kind of distraction manifests itself in stress and other negative emotions.

For myself, whenever my mind is too far from where it ought to be, I know I must bring myself back to the primary motivation of my work. I must change myself for the benefit of another, and if I do, I am transformed, as is the quality of my moment-to-moment presence. This kind of transformation of one’s awareness, repeated again and again over the course of a work shift, can be the antidote to feeling burned out at the bedside and can infuse one’s work with a vital intent on bringing care and compassion into patients’ lives. Your work will become your path to increased happiness, self-awareness and service.

The first step to bringing your mind into a state of (relative) ease is learning to focus on your breath. It’s an immediate way of anchoring your attention and preventing emotional and mental turmoil from running away with your mind.

Riding the Breath

Sitting on a straight-backed chair or couch, or on a cushion on the floor, allow your body to become still. Your back is straight without being stiff; posture is relaxed, awake and dignified; your eyes are open, simply resting the gaze on whatever is in front of you, without thinking too much about what you’re viewing.

Become aware of the movement of the breath as it flows into and out of your body.

When your mind becomes distracted—and it will become distracted—simply return to the breath. No commentary. No judgment.

The attention on your breath can be a powerful anchor to this moment and to this state of awake stillness.

Allow yourself to be with this flow of breath, coming in and going out. Gently ride the sensation of each breath, observing its full cycle: Locate its very beginning as it enters your nose or mouth; follow it as it fills your lungs and expands your chest and abdomen, then comes to the gap where there is neither in-breath nor out-breath, before it turns around and makes its journey out of the body.

Let go of all particular objects of attention, allowing yourself to simply be here, simply present. Breath moving, sensations in the body, sounds, thoughts, all of it coming and going…allowing all of it…and dropping into being, into stillness, present with it all, as it unfolds, complete, as you are, whole.


Your mind, and by extension your thoughts, can cause much of your suffering both at the bedside and in your life. When your mind is distracted, you lose the quality of attention that is necessary to serve your patients in your fullest and most compassionate capacity. And when your mind is filled with negative or discursive thoughts, you lose the ability to simply be, whether at the bedside or dinner table.

It’s important to remember that it’s not the thought that is disturbing or distracting; it’s what you make of it and how you judge yourself against it. That’s where the trouble begins. Okay, so how do you stop that habit? How do you interrupt the cycle of thinking that you’re a bad dad, for instance, when that thought arises?

Try this exercise to excise those thoughts.

Jerome Stone, RN
Jerome Stone has been a nurse for more than 30 years and is a longtime practitioner of meditation. In addition to "Minding the Bedside," he is the author of "How to Work with the Four Distractions to Meditation."

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