Advocacy and stress
I had a discussion recently with a young lawyer who works as an advocate for a underserved group, wondering how and if meditation can help her. She told me that she works very long hours, and in her free time she feels guilty about not working, because her work could mean the difference between winning and losing a case – and losing isn’t an option, because it affects these people’s lives, and she couldn’t stand to lose knowing that she hadn’t done everything she could have. She said she was thinking about quitting the profession altogether and going into something where not so much was riding on her shoulders, because she didn’t know how much longer she could take the level of stress she is under.
We talked about meditation, and how it can help her work with her emotions (see my earlier posts on emotional intelligence for a discussion of this topic) – but what struck me was her serious consideration of leaving the profession. Granted, being a lawyer isn’t for everyone, but here was a obviously talented attorney thinking about dropping out of the law because of the emotional component of what she had to deal with every day.
Many people, including my friend, become lawyers as a way to help others. But sometimes we forget the adage that charity begins at home, or as the Buddha said as shortly before he died to his chief disciple Ananda, “Work out your own salvation with diligence”. In other words, in order to help others properly, we first have to help ourselves – for the same reason that the flight attendants always tell us to place the oxygen mask on our face first before helping others to put theirs on. If we’re not present, able to relax, not too serious about our emotional upheavals, and kind to ourselves, all of which are natural outcome of mindfulness meditation practice, then either we’ll burn out quickly, or we’ll spend our lives not taking care of ourselves and being somewhat or extremely unhappy.
The fallacy of my friend’s internal logic is that working nonstop and using guilt as a motivator is not in fact the most efficient way to get the results she’s looking for. As studies have shown, meditation improves focus and performance – and as a side effect makes us happier generally. So she might be able to stay in the profession, get the same results, and yet be happier (or even happy!) and more relaxed. If we think the point of our lives is to help others, we can wind up helping them much more if we help ourselves as well.