I wrote in the first part of this series about how one of the true foundational elements of resilience is grit. Staying power, passionate pursuit and deliberate practice and effort are essential for any lawyer who hopes to find success in the legal practice.
Resilience, however, is not only about the ability to bounce back with passion and perseverance, but also about cultivating a sense of well-being in life and law. This part of our resilience series focuses on mindfulness: the art of being present in life. For lawyers, staying in the present moment can be challenging, but also has an incredible impact on feelings of well-being and thriving. Studies show that a regular practice of mindfulness through meditation, over a period of eight weeks, can meaningfully improve well-being and meaning. There is no better tool to make it easier to bounce back into life and boost our resilience.
BUILDING BLOCK 2: MINDFULNESS
What it is
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment without judging or trying to change it – it is the art of being present in life. Often we spend much of time lost in thought or distracted that we miss the happiness and fulfillment right in front of us. Mindfulness has been used for religious, scientific and therapeutic purposes and is now garnering recognition for optimizing performance – especially in high stress professions like ours.
Ellen Langer, a Harvard researcher, defined mindfulness as simply noticing new things. According to Langer, the simple act of noticing is engagement. In the context of noticing moments in life, you become aware that you didn’t know what you think you knew. It all becomes new again. Likewise, Jeena Cho, co-author of The Anxious Lawyer, an eight week guide to meditation for specifically for lawyers says: “it’s not about getting the mind to do anything, it’s the non-doing and noticing what comes up that is mindfulness.” Finally, Jon Kabat-Zin, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at University of Massachusetts, explained that mindfulness is examining who we are, questioning our view of the world and our place in it, while cultivating some appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive. Mostly, it is about being in touch and awake in your life.
Meditation is a compliment to the practice of mindfulness. Meditation is the practice of being still and doing nothing to help train your brain to be fully present. Meditation as an idea is simple, but in practice, is hard. Training your brain to come back to the present moment through stillness is very much like training a muscle – your attention wanders and you bring it back to the present moment or the breath — it is the simple act of noticing that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back to the breath that is the practice of mindfulness. The repeated act of noticing strengthens your focus, much like a bicep curl strengthens the muscle in your arm.
Mindfulness and meditation together can have a remarkable effect on your life, your mind and even your legal practice. No matter the ups and downs of life, you can always find a place of peace. The idea is that while you cannot change what happens in life, you can change your perspective on it and control your response.
Why do it
Your “why” matters. It is also entirely up to you. The benefits of the practice of mindfulness and meditation are endless: you can do it for reflection, personal growth and spirituality; to improve performance, focus, clarity and productivity; to gain peace, self-compassion, self-awareness and kindness; to sleep better; to reduce anxiety, depression and stress.
Perhaps even more compelling for lawyers, science supports each of the above reasons: studies have shown that the practice has physical, structural effects on the brain. A 2011 study “Eight Weeks to a Better Brain” conducted at the University of Massachusetts General Hospital by Britta Holzel and Sara Lazar and colleagues, showed this direct link. Participants in the study were part of the mindfulness based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts and reported an average of 27 minutes of meditation per day. Through the study findings, Holzel and Lazar showed through brain scans that meditation increased the parts of the brain we use for memory and learning and decreased the parts of the brain that cause us stress and anxiety. The scans showed increases in the density of grey brain matter in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. The scans showed decreases in grey matter of the brain’s amygdala, commonly referred to as the “reptile brain”, the walnut shaped part of our brain responsible for our fight, flight freeze reactions and thought to be important in managing stress and anxiety.
These findings are only the beginning in thousands of ongoing studies of mindfulness and meditation and how it can help us both as lawyers and as human beings.
How to practice it
Mindfulness and meditation can be practiced in a number of different ways; the practice is intensely personal and its important that however you choose to practice be meaningful and work for you.
Some ideas for how to begin:
You can do this sitting, lying down, walking or eating. The point is to be in the moment you are in. Some find it helpful to focus on their breath (in / out, counting, etc.); some like to repeat a saying or mantra (“All is well and shall be well” is a nice one); some like to send loving kindness to others in their lives, including those with whom they have difficulty. For those who aren’t ready to sit still, taking a walking mediation or mindful eating can help practitioners slow down, notice each bite, step, texture, image, feeling, etc. When you are distracted and taken outside of the present moment, gently guide yourself back to your breath, your mantra, your steps, or your intention. Over time, you may patterns in thoughts, thinking errors and assumptions that can bring clarity.
Attitudes of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat Zin has coined nine attitudes of mindfulness which can be a great jumping off point for awaking to life and to the practice. Pick one each week to work on and see how your world shifts. The attitudes are: Non-judging; Patience; Beginner’s Mind; Trust; Non-striving; Acceptance; Letting Go; Generosity; and Gratitude. Think about this: which of these attitudes are encouraged in our practice? How would we all be better practitioners if we introduced these ideas to our community — or lived them by way of example. I recently picked “beginner’s mind” to work on. The most interesting revelation for me was that when I approached legal issues with an air curiosity and wonder, I tended to find and develop more creative arguments on behalf of my clients. I wasn’t recycling old or expected arguments. I began to look at fact patterns with new and more curious eyes, which in turn, made it that much more fun to practice.
Try Yoga or Other Exercises
Yoga is one way the body can bring us back into the present moment. Moving through poses and noticing how we feel in them helps to bring our brains back into our bodies and gets us out of our very busy minds. Walking, swimming, running and other exercises can all have the same meditative and clarity-producing effect. When done regularly, these have the added benefit of reducing stress, anxiety and depression as well.
For more on mindfulness, try reading: Jeena Cho’s The Anxious Lawyer for an in depth look at how to bring mindfulness to your legal practice and boost your performance.
Look for Part III of the Building Blocks of Resilience!
Shannon Callahan is a LAP Illinois Task Force on Attorney Well-Being Committee Member, LAP Advisory Committee Member, and senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Chicago office.