Lifestyle

Museum visits can promote mindfulness

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In this season of vacations, not all of us can get away when we need to. For Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg the price of escape is a walk of just a few blocks from her Cambridge Health Alliance office to the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums. There, she says, the peace of looking at paintings and sculptures helps restore her.

In a museum, she said, she naturally breathes deeper, tunes in to her surroundings, and forgets about work, or what she needs to do next.

“There’s something that happens where you’re really in the moment noticing,” Gaufberg said. “You’re not ruminating on something that happened yesterday, and that’s incredibly stress relieving.”

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This is precisely what happens with mindfulness, and “being in front of a work of art helps us get there,” added Susan Pollak, a member of the psychology faculty at the Cambridge Health Alliance, who joined Gaufberg last week in guiding newly minted medical residents to the museum. “It’s a refuge from the craziness of our lives.”

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The two lead regular museum visits for the residents, to provide temporary stress relief, help them retain their empathy through a difficult and intense year of treating patients, and remember to take care of themselves.

Taking time to “nourish oneself” is crucial when stress is high, said Pollak, who founded the hospital chain’s Center for Mindfulness and Compassion.

There are no grades given for liking or not liking a particular piece of art. “This is a chance to catch your own breath,” Pollak said.

Plus, there’s something about museums that restores us to our humanity, she said.

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Gaufberg said she’s often struck by the age of the artworks. One of the museum’s oldest treasures is a 2,000-year-old decorated gravestone for a young girl. Her parents’ sorrow millennia ago was no different than what grieving parents go through today, she said.

Considering that ancient loss can help the residents tune into their own empathy and put today’s problems into perspective, she said.

Looking at art also prompts careful viewing, which can help doctors notice more details about their patients, she said, and help others tune into their own work.

Of course, not everyone is as fond of art museums as Gaufberg and Pollak are. For them, a sports game, movie or other passion can be equally diverting.

KAREN WEINTRAUB