This blog is about the application mindfulness meditation to the practice of law. Different topics will include stress management; contemplative listening; emotional intelligence; how to work effectively with difficult colleagues, opposing counsel and judges; dealing with law firm and organizational politics; how to handle being a perfectionist or working with perfectionists; conflict resolution; negotiating strategies; and the pursuit of happiness (that’s an unalienable right for lawyers, too).
Susan Perl has a new blog called Afterthoughts which is an invitation to talk about and think about death. As lawyers we deal with death as a fact of law, if not of life — Susan has a direct approach to the meaning of death as an intimate part of life, and is an excellent writer to boot.
There’s a saying that “in order to become the buddha, first you have to imitate the buddha.”
We generally want to become less stressed, calmer, happier, more emotionally intelligent, more in the “zone” – we may experience all these states of mind from time to time or even frequently, but we’re not completely satisfied and want to change our mind, so to speak, or understand more about how our minds work. That’s generally the motivation to start meditating – one gets fed up with one’s state of mind and our seeming inability to control it.
So we see that someone, the buddha or another role model (we’ll get to that), seems to have some wisdom, information, learning that maybe could help us. The instruction then is to imitate the role model – if we’re talking about the buddha, imitation is meditation practice. You pretend to be like him, sitting upright and still, but our minds aren’t like his – even though we’re sitting still, our minds aren’t. But we imitate him, and sit through the chaos, and eventually our minds start to calm a tiny bit. But we wouldn’t get anywhere without the imitation part.
It’s like playing an instrument – first we imitate the teacher, and eventually we become better at it. But we don’t expect to be perfect when we’re just beginning.
When we’re not meditating, we can still imitate the buddha – we could be angry, hostile, jealous, and instead of acting out we could make a choice to simply feel the way we feel and not necessarily try to change it, and still do the right thing, whatever that may be. We’re pretending, in a way, but it’s real pretending. Next time you feel angry, notice how you feel, inhabit your body – and pretend that the anger isn’t running the show, and that you can act in spite of the anger as opposed to because of it. You may be surprised at the result.
I’m always impressed with how actors inhabit the bodies of others – I recently saw Invictus (a great movie, but I’m a sucker for inspirational sports movies), and Morgan Freeman seemed to inhabit the body of Nelson Mandela. I would think that it’s hard to imitate the dignity of Mr. Mandela without having it rub off on you. So we could do the same – imitate dignity, imitate peace, imitate relaxation even, and then the imitation starts to become real.
Happy 2011! Please see my friend Susan Piver’s post about a contemplative (and happy) way to work with New Year’s resolutions.
• My work has been a great source of material for my meditation practice, especially in working with stress.
• We as lawyers traditionally suffer from stress: too much to do; working with difficult clients, colleagues, or bosses; in some cases our business depends on other people’s suffering, and that is inherently stressful; stress of losing a case, making a mistake and worrying about the consequences; if we’re in private practice, we might always be hustling for business; worry about possibly losing your job in this economy – you can come up with more. We spend a lot of time being afraid and stressed out – about judges, about opposing counsel, about not being good enough, about losing or about making a mistake. It’s built into the system. It doesn’t matter what your practice is –each detail of what we do has potentially serious consequences.
• We don’t like our stress and our difficulties – they feel terrible. We try to avoid them or push them away, we might get angry, some of us might overuse alcohol or drugs or have other addictions, such as workaholism, to try to numb them. And yet they remain.
• We saw a bit about the neuroscience of stress, and how mindfulness can work with stress. Let’s deconstruct stress a little, see what happens when we experience it.
• One definition of stress, and there are many, is wanting things to be different than they are, in the sense of not wanting to feel the way we feel – our immediate reaction instead is some variation of “get me out of here” or screaming, or shutting down: fight flight freeze. So we then turn to our habits to continue the pattern, to try to stop the bad feeling, whatever habit we have: working harder, ignoring the issue or procrastinating, going for food, drugs, alcohol, and it just doesn’t work.
• So stress is a response, that we feel in our bodies and in our minds, to a pressure or demand – let’s call them stressors. But pressures and demands, or stressors, can be both due to our external circumstances, or internal, a thought or feeling that puts pressure on us – I’m not good enough, I’m afraid of failing, I shouldn’t be angry – whatever, some variation on things should be different. Where they’re external or internal, we view stressors as the enemy, something that threatens to exceed your resources and endanger your well-being.
• What we learn through studying meditation are two completely radical things about stress. First, stress, and stressors, are not your enemy; they can be welcomed as reminders or indicators of what might be out of balance in your life. So if you’re constantly stressed, you have two choices: one is to work with the stress, in terms of learning how to decrease it, as a reaction to circumstances and especially in relation to our internal stressors; and the other may be to work to change your external circumstances if they’re intolerable.
• In terms of working with stress, the other radical viewpoint is that it’s not the stressor itself, but how you view it, and then what you do in response, that will determine whether it leads to stress. In other words, stress isn’t inevitable – pain and difficulties might be. As Shauna Shapiro quoted Shinzen Young, suffering, or maybe we can say stress, equals pain times resistance. So sometimes we have small stressors, like being stuck in traffic, or major emergencies, and depending on who we are, we may experience stress or not, depending on our level of resistance (this can’t be happening to me!) and our resources for dealing with them.
• There are also times we’re unaware of the degree to which our environment stresses us: our negative attitudes or beliefs about ourselves or what is possible may be a major factor in how we deal with difficulties, and we know that lawyers are more likely than the general population to be pessimistic, and that might be below our conscious awareness.
• The good news here is that if we can start to change the way we see ourselves in relation to the stressors, we can change our experience of the relationship and modify the way it taxes or exceeds our resources to deal with it, or endangers our well-being.
• One goal of training your mind, which is what meditation is, is to break the cycle at the point in between the stressor and the stress reaction, and turn the reaction into a response. This means that we can exercise control over what happens, control over how we react, like Bob Zeglovitch’s story [about being screamed at in a deposition, and holding his ground], because we can develop an inner stability of mind, an inner calmness, which can govern what we do. Awareness will either reduce the arousal, the fight or flight or freeze, or will help you to recover from it more quickly afterwards.
• Here’s the key point – we don’t try to make the emotions go away – that never works. It’s not that things shouldn’t change – it’s that we can actually be present in the moment, whether it’s facing a judge, a dissatisfied client, an adversary, a screaming colleague. The cliché of inner peace doesn’t mean being emotionless and serene, just like fearlessness doesn’t mean being without fear. Peace means being able to hold our seat, our center, in the middle of our swirling emotions, just as fearlessness means being able to taste our fear and do what we need to do anyway. Meditation practice is the tool, and the reason it’s called practice is that we’re practicing on the cushion for the rest of our lives.
I went to The Mindful Lawyer conference a few weekends ago, which I had promised to write about – actually, it was terrific. There were presentations by laywers, judges, professors, a neuroscientist (Philippe Goldin), a psychologist (Shauna Shapiro), and a roshi — although I don’t know if Norman Fischer calls himself that — all around how mindfulness can help change the way law is practiced on a macro level, and how we can change our own practice on a micro level. My friend Patton Hyman and I gave a workshop around working with fear in law practice, and I also spoke about working with stress on a panel with Rhonda Magee, Judi Cohen, Michael Zimmerman, and Donn Kessler called “Putting Mindfulness to Work: The Benefits of Contemplative Practice for Judges and Lawyers”. While the material was excellent, for me the best part was meeting and working with like-minded lawyers from all over the country and in some cases from other countries (Joel Orenstein came a long way from Australia!).
I’ll next post a rough draft of the 10 minute or so presentation I gave on the panel, on working with stress.
I’ve been thinking about silence recently, probably because I’m in one of those super-busy times, yearning for it (and for time to sit down and post to this blog!). Silence in this case isn’t just about being quiet, but also about being present and still. Silence is the nature of retreat, where you stay quiet for days or weeks or months, and through that start to let the silence seep into you. And silence itself isn’t necessarily quiet – the world is a noisy place, and through silence we can start to hear it more fully. Silence are those little gaps we experience when we’re shocked, or moved, or even joyful, and there’s nothing other than what’s there – no future, no past, no blackberry, no deadlines, no regrets, no hope.
My friend Peter Arcese came and spoke at the City Bar Contemplative Lawyers Group last week, and offered a poem by Wallace Stevens called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The first stanza was highly evocative:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.