Three Lessons the Dalai Lama taught the Doctor

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

When asked what the most surprising thing about humanity was the Dalai Lama gave the following response:

Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.

While this quote has broad applications, it also has many implications for the busy physician, or health care provider.  I want to break it down today and discuss some items that we often take for granted.  Here are three lessons from the Dalai Lama.

More shifts do not mean more wellness

I am surrounded by some of the hardest working people that I know.  They pick up extra shifts, nights, weekends, and holidays.  All to earn an extra buck.  I get it.  Life is busy, and there are a ton of costs and debts that must be paid.

What scares me, though, is that many of these people have families that they care deeply for.  They work the themselves to the bone in order to provide the life of their dreams.  This is obviously well intended, but at what cost?

We spend all of our days, while we have our health, just to find ourselves spending all of that money we saved at the end of our lives when our health fails.  How ironic.  Instead, we should be living a life well lived all while obtaining our wealth.

Don’t think of extra shifts as money missed.  It might be an opportunity for wellness, which also pays dividends.

Instead of picking up that extra shift, why don’t we live within our means so that the debt is a little less crippling?  Maybe then we could spend our time doing the things we love with the people that we love.

Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, let’s keep up with our kids and our spouses.  Love them how they should be loved.

Let tomorrow take care of itself

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. ~ Matthew 6:34

The Dalai Lama and the Bible can agree on one thing.  Today has enough to worry about, why worry about tomorrow?  What’s the point?

We are so worried about our future that we cannot focus on the present.  Here are some questions that commonly flood my mind:

  • What’s the next step?  Residency? Becoming an attending? Board certification? Associate professor? Partner?
  • How much money do we need to retire?  How long will it take to pay off my debt?  Will I ever be financially independent?
  • Am I doing a good job at being a dad?  Will my kids turn out okay?  Am I loving my wife the way that I should?

We all have different worries and concerns, but the one thing that consumes us all is what tomorrow holds.  It takes active practice to focus on being in the “here and now.”  Some call this practice the art of “mindfulness.”

What if we could truly enjoy every moment?  Focus on every breath we breath, or the birds whistling in the air?  Feeling the wind pass by as we drive down the interstate with the windows down [one of my personal favorites].

The point is this.  Life is too short for us to focus on meeting our goals and to not appreciate the present. I am guilty of this, too.  I tell my kids all the time, “Hold on, I am doing something.”  More often, I wish I would give them the attention that they deserve.

In fact, this is going to be an intentional decision for me going forward. My wife and kids are my priority.  Time to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.  Here is to more “I spy with my little eye” at dinner and asking my family how their day was.  And actually listening.

Tomorrow will take care of itself when I get there.

Facing our Mortality

Dalai LamaThe great irony in the Dalai Lama quote above is that, as people who work in health care, we are all too familiar with our mortality.  We know that any day could be our last.  It only takes one car accident or illness.

Yet, even with our ever present reminder at work each day, we live a life full of busyness with the anticipation that someday we will “make it.”  We never live in the now and fail to realize that some of the most important things to us are right in front of us.  We live a life that assumes they’ll always be there; but we know that’s not true.

In our pursuit to live a life well lived, let’s focus on today.  Let’s focus on a life that is worth living.  Let’s love the people around us with reckless abandon.  Forgive those that we have held a grudge against.  Help those who cannot help themselves.  Teach the ones who will be coming behind us.

The Challenge

I challenge you today to hug the ones you love a little tighter.  Hold them for a little longer.  Put your cell phone on silent and listen to the people around you.  Turn the music off, put the windows down, and feel the wind in your hair.

I encourage you to take a deep breath, and to worry a little less.  Take this moment to realize that your life is a life well lived right now.  Enjoy the present and stop worrying about the future.  After all, if you are reading this site, then you have likely made a financial plan.  Let that plan work, and focus on things that matter more.

“Set it and forget it” so that you can now focus on what’s truly important.  It is likely staring you in the face.

What worries you and keeps you up at night? What prevents you from being present? How can we be more mindful today?  Leave a comment below.



  1. Nathan

    Yesterday morning I learned that a former resident of mine, then a good friend and colleague, had died in his sleep two nights before. He had at least half his career ahead of him, and he left behind young 3 children. We were close, having shared common experiences, co-managed a lot of complex patients, buoyed each other up through stressful times. We shared a similar creative curiosity and willingness to think about things in unconventional ways. We intended to co-locate our practices this year. I know that he prioritized his children and in our discussions about joint ventures, we agreed that what was most important was enjoyment of the work, with compensation a secondary benefit. I am very grateful for having shared a treasured conversation over coffee just days prior to his passing. How precient that the topic included reaffirmation of the value of our friendship and the hope we shared for a bright future. I’m in full agreement; don’t fail to tell your family and loved ones how you feel about them, as no one knows the last time you’ll have the opportunity to do so.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Nathan, I am so sorry to hear about your friend.

      It seems the two of you had a powerful and meaningful relationship. What a wonderful example of living in the present, and telling someone you cared for deeply how much you appreciated them.

      Praying for you and your friend’s family.

  2. AGoodLifeMD

    You bring up points that I have thought about for years. I’ll say this….most of them were hard to do until I reached close to financial independence.

    Now, I’m more present minded, focus less on money and am starting to expand my interests beyond medicine.

    To keep your quotes going

    “Do you think your righteousness can Pay the interest on your debts? I have my doubts about it”
    ~ The Arcade Fire

    Point being, the debt burden keeps us locked in for 2-10 (or more) years to a job we might not like. All those bad habits the Dalai Lama mentions get formed during that time when we’re busy with practice, kids, house etc. Many of the habits never go away unless we find a good blog like this to open the eyes ; )

    I appreciate the Bible quote too. Happy Easter.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Agreed on all accounts AGoodLifeMD!

      It’s all about keeping perspective. Hoping to keep it while I hammer away at this debt. I bet once it’s gone, it will be easier, though.

      As for your Arcade Fire quote, I know that my righteousness will never be enough to pay my debts, but am grateful someone else’s righteousness has! Happy Easter to you, too!


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