Discovering Your Inner Strength

Posts by Dzung Vo, MD

Mindfulness = Unconditional Love



There has been a lot of discussion lately about what the word “mindfulness” really means. I sometimes say trying to describe mindfulness in words without experiencing it directly, is kind of like reading the menu at a restaurant without tasting any of the food. It misses the point, and can even be misleading.

In The Mindful Teen, and in my work as a pediatrician, I quote Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” That said, I think it is useful to not get too attached to any definition. Elsewhere, Kabat-Zinn has stated that “That definition [of mindfulness] that you are asking me about is actually what I call an operational definition. It is not meant to be a final definition of mindfulness. It is more like a working definition of mindfulness.” He describes that definition not as an answer, but as a question to contemplate and look deeply into.

Here is what I find when I contemplate that definition: The idea of being “nonjudgmental,” while extremely valuable, has in my opinion also caused many people to misunderstand what mindfulness is really about. “Nonjudgmental” can be misunderstood as being distant, apathetic, selfish, or ethically neutral. Being “nonjudgmental” can sound to some people like “Whatever, I don’t care,” or “Anything goes.” But in mindfulness practice, “not judging” doesn’t mean “not caring.” Mindfulness is actually about staying present with whatever is happening in the present moment, and caring very deeply about it –– caring open-heartedly, inclusively, unconditionally.

Other translations of mindfulness are “Heartfulness,” or “Present-Heartedness.” These translations invite us to not only pay attention and concentrate and focus on the present moment, but to do so with a spirit of affection, of kindness, and of compassion. This is especially useful when dealing with pain and difficulties. In my own experience, just simply paying attention to pain, without embracing it with self-compassion or heartfulness, usually just makes me suffer more. On the other hand, when I stay present as best I can with my own pain and the pain of others, with unconditional compassion and open-heartedness — I find that I can touch the possibility of transformation and liberation.

So I invite you to hold lightly to any definitions of mindfulness. Instead, embrace your own lived experience of the practice, looking deeply and seeing clearly what is beneficial or not, for yourself and for others. With all of that said (and with apologies to Kabat-Zinn), I humbly offer a modified definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom here so that we may all benefit.

Thriving Faculty: Supporting Others in Health, Well-Being, and Self-Care

Thriving Faculty: Featuring Dzung X. Vo

Originally posted on the Healthy UBC (University of British Columbia) Newsletter, May 5, 2015

Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and communities. Thriving Faculty support others in their health and wellbeing, in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. 


What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?

My central challenge is managing my limited time and energy, and knowing my capacity. In my job I’m incredibly fortunate to have so many opportunities to engage in work that aligns with my values and deepest aspirations as a person, and can have a meaningful impact. The flip side of that is I have a desire to say “yes” to every opportunity – which I know is not healthy, sustainable, or ultimately helpful for others.


Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning?

My mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says “Happy teachers will change the world.” The same is true for students. When my medical students and trainees are well-rested, emotionally balanced, and mindful, they are able to learn more and provide better care for our patients.


 Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?

For me personally, my mindfulness training and practice has helped me to get through some difficult and intense periods in my own medical training and in my life. Based on this experience, I encourage and support my trainees and mentees in developing their own mindfulness practice, and provide resources and opportunities to do so whenever I can.


 Please describe the role of your own mental health and wellbeing in your teaching, research and service to the community?

My own mental well-being is the foundation for my service and teaching. I could adapt Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying and suggest that “Happy doctors will change the world”! The more mentally and emotionally healthy I am, the more present I am able to be with my patients and trainees, with a more open mind and open heart. That’s where the magic and transformation can happen. All that being said, I don’t want to imply that I’ve got it “all figured out,” and it’s certainly an everyday challenge for me!


What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?

I practice formal mindfulness meditation on my own, and with a community of practice in Vancouver. I also try to bring that same mindful, open-hearted and nonjudgmental awareness to my daily life. For example, when I am walking from one part of the hospital to another, if I can remember to, I practice mindful walking, being fully present in the moment with each step and each breath, and allowing my worries and anxieties to simply come and go with my breath.


Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?

As a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent medicine, all of my work is about helping young people develop their resilience to thrive in the face of adversity, and develop into their full potential.


In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?

Balancing work-life commitment is like breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in is taking on responsibilities and commitments. Breathing out is letting go, taking care of myself, and allow myself to simply “be” without needing to “do” or “strive.” A healthy life for me is having a rhythm and balance of breathing in and breathing out, inhaling and exhaling, moment to moment, and riding the waves of this adventure we call life!

“I Don’t Have Time to Meditate!” Informal Mindfulness for Teens

Teenagers sometimes tell me, “I don’t have time to meditate,” or “Meditation is boring.” The good news is, mindfulness doesn’t have to be about sitting down to do formal meditation. You can bring mindful awareness to any activity of your daily life. Try and, and see if it helps you to enjoy life more, and let go of stress!


Breathing and Smiling

The spirit of mindfulness can be boiled down to just two words: Breathing and smiling. Try it now!

seeing me in you …

(Photograph and poem inspired by a moonlight lake on Orcas Island, Washington, April 4, 2015.)

Why Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness, and Why Should I Try It?

Building Professional Community

It’s only been two days since the launch of, and already I’ve been touched by the feedback I’ve been getting from people who are passionate about bringing mindfulness to youth. The site has helped me to feel connected to a professional community of practice. That’s already a huge success, in my eyes. (This post is about building a professional community. I’ll write about building community of mindful teens in a future blog post.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about building the “beloved community,” rising up together for peace and justice. Dr. King’s friend, the Zen Master and Nobel Peace Price nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches about the importance of sangha, or community of practice. He is fond of saying, “Without a sangha, I cannot do much.”

When I initially began to seriously explore bringing mindfulness into my work in pediatrics and adolescent medicine, one of the first things I did was seek community and mentorship. Over the years I’ve been involved in this work, I’ve continued to seek out and co-create professional community, both locally as well as internationally. I’ve learned so much, and been deeply inspired, by many of you. More importantly, I’ve felt nourished by the sense of connectedness with friends and fellow travellers on this path of bringing mindfulness to our young people.

Connecting with professional community is the main reason I’m excited about participating in two upcoming conferences on mindfulness with youth. I look forward to seeing some of you, and connecting with friends old and new, at Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth (February 27 – March 1, in San Diego, California), and at the Mindfulness in Education Network 2015 conference (June 26 – 28, in Denver, Colorado).

If you are a professional, bringing mindfulness into your work with youth: What does community mean to you? Please leave your comments below, so that we may all benefit from the collective wisdom.