One of the things I am trying to do in my mindfulness practice is to be engaged and present with both my external and internal worlds. This requires awareness of myself, awareness of my surroundings, and awareness of people around me. When I am very engaged and aware, I have occasionally surprised myself with my behavior.

When I was an intern at the University of Florida, I was asked to interview a woman. She was about 50 years old. I was a child/adolescent track intern but all of us worked with children and adults, as part of our training. I remember that her hair was blonde. She had a nice hair cut but was disheveled in appearance. She was accompanied by her husband.

She cried nonstop. She was expressing suicidal ideation. I was accompanied by my supervising psychologist, who introduced himself and introduced me to the woman. Then he left the room. And then it was my interview to drive unless I made such a mess of it that my supervisor would have to take over for me. He would have to determine this from another room where he and a group of students were observing my interview.

I was nervous. This was not my forte. I write in all sincerity that I would have much preferred doing a four hour long test battery with a hyperactive 4 year-old. Yes, they are a challenge but they have a certain joie de vivre. And they still believe in magic and limitless possibilities. And they love my loud laugh and high energy.

This lady felt hopeless and helpless. She said she wanted to die. She didn’t believe in magic and limitless possibilities. My laugh and high energy were not what was needed. I felt out of my depth and out of my comfort zone. But like every other good trainee, I did my best to adapt and do my job.

In my hand was a writing pad and a pen. I looked at the woman. I saw the way she held my gaze. I heard the distress in her voice and her urgent need to be heard, really heard. I put the pad and pen aside. I looked into her eyes and we had a conversation, a long one for over an hour. The conversation included a suicide assessment, as was appropriate. But I had the strong gut feeling that she needed to talk to a person with free hands. I knew that I had a break right after the interview and at that time, my memory was like a steel trap. After the interview was over, I took my pad and pen and wrote nonstop for 45 minutes.

When I met back with my supervisor (this was my first case with him, by the way), he looked at me with an incredulous but not critical look and asked me why I had not taken notes during the interview. I gave my explanation, which appeared to satisfy him. We also compared our notes and he was impressed that I had gotten everything down. He told me that I’d done a wonderful job interacting with the woman. I worked with him a number of times during that particular rotation and I remember that he rated my skills very highly.

I would have never seen myself doing that before I made that quick but nonetheless considered, decision. I knew that I was supposed to take notes during the interview and depending on the particular question, follow certain interview protocols. I had always taken notes in the past. I knew that there were people watching me, including my supervisor.

I have taken notes during all of the interviews I have done subsequently, with the exception of interviews with young children. Those particular circumstances have never arisen again. And if they presented themselves to me again, I will probably take notes because my mind is no longer like a steel trap. But at that time, it was the right decision and I made it by being as fully engaged with that woman as I could even though I had been initially quite afraid that I didn’t know what I was doing. And perhaps by focusing so much on her, it allowed me to disengage from the anxiety and self-consciousness I had as a young trainee.