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Lawyers are particularly susceptible to being slaves to the voice in our heads. We are planners, doers and worriers. We are taught to plan for the worst-case scenario. Eventually, we come to regard our constant state of anxiety and never-ending to-do lists as professional necessities and allies. Yet studies show that around 70 percent of our mental chatter consists of negative, repetitive and useless thoughts that only exacerbate our unhappiness.
It is generally agreed that “mindfulness” is an antidote to this negative mental chatter. Like healthy eating and regular exercise, mindfulness has become one of those things everyone knows they should be doing but don’t. Whether you’re looking in popular magazines or professional and health publications, you will find experts explaining how mindfulness is a panacea to all that ails you. Depressed, anxious, stressed, unhappy … overweight? Mindfulness has you covered.
OK. We all know we need to be more mindful. Over the past decade, a proliferation of books and programs have been telling us how to live more fulfilling and healthy lives through mindfulness: mindful eating, mindful travel, mindful relationships and mindful parenting. The downside of this onslaught of information is that mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that the word has ceased to have meaning. Many of us have sat through CLE programs about the benefits of being “mindful judges” and “mindful lawyers.” But who really knows what that means?
The basic definition according to Merriam-Webster is “inclined to be aware.” So mindfulness is just being more aware, right? Yes and no. The act of being mindful is being more aware and present in the here and now. But mindfulness is to being more aware as running a marathon is to running. We are all capable of being aware, just as most of us can run at least a few steps. But just as you cannot run a marathon without training, you cannot be mindful on an ongoing basis without regularly and actively cultivating awareness and presence.
Another challenging aspect of mindfulness is that words are insufficient to describe what is going on. Words and concepts are fingers pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself. Therefore, I ask that you perform a simple exercise that will allow us to voyage to the moon and experience awareness.
A few of you will be able to sit for minutes in internal silence with your awareness gently resting on your breath. Most may only experience a few seconds of silent awareness before the mental chatter resumes. Whatever the results, don’t feel bad. If you were able to identify even a few seconds of silent awareness before a thought arose you succeeded at the exercise!
That is because the purpose of this exercise was to simply experience awareness, and recognize there is an aspect of your consciousness that is separate from your mental chatter. You are not merely your thoughts. There is an aspect of your consciousness that is simply witnessing your thoughts as they arise.
The purpose of all contemplative practices — and the end state of mindfulness — is the process of turning down the volume of your mental chatter and increasing the amount of witnessing awareness you experience in your daily life. In time, the mental chatter may go away entirely, allowing you to spend most of your waking hours in a state of peaceful witnessing, thinking only when you wish to think and only about those things you wish to think about.
But even if you never achieve this level of Zen mastery, you will experience the benefits of mindfulness when you actively cultivate awareness and presence through a daily contemplative practice. Over time you will become more peaceful and less reactive. Where a certain person or situation once may have triggered a series of thoughts that sent you spiraling into fear, anger or anxiety, you will have a measure of space and objectivity around those feelings. This will allow you to behave more deliberately.
In my next article, I will discuss how to establish a daily contemplative practice in order to become a mindful rather than mindless lawyer. Until then, when you find yourself slipping into a mindless or reactive mode of thinking: Stop, move your awareness to your breath, then watch and wait for a thought to arise.
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