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The Mindful Lawyer conference: outline of presentation on working with stress

November 27, 2010

• 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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2010 12:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing that Robert. It’s really helpful to normalize the way of being we develop as lawyers which,as you say,is largely below the consciousness level. To recognize our suffering is the first step. To know that there is a way out of suffering is the good news – and a practice of meditation is a way. As lawyers we expect we are more capable of handling things then others. We think that’s what people are paying us for. But we are human too. To accept our humanity and our pain is humbling but in the end makes us better lawyers.

  2. Tabitha M Hochscheid permalink
    January 5, 2011 11:20 pm


    This was a very helpful take on the mindfulness in relation to the practice of law. I am new to the meditation practice and found my way there after a mid career law firm change and subsequent 2.5 year litigation battle with my former partners. I have been struggling to make sense of the demands of my career, clients, employees and partners. These and the inevitable feeling of futility when trying to blance them all. Mindfulness has helped me approach each day anew. It has also helped me recognize the suffering of others and how it has effected me for years. Please keep up the good work and thank you.

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