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The Warrior vs. the Guru in the Practice of Law

By Gray Robinson

Warrior or guru? This is what it means to “create your own reality.”

warrior or guru

All Perception Is Projection

You’ve likely heard the mantra “All perception is projection.” Spiritual people like to say it, but I wonder if they understand why it is true. Basically, one needs to understand how the brain works.

Our brains evolved over millions of years and have three distinct parts.

  • The oldest is the medulla and brain stem, which was the first organized brain after the original cells that controlled multicell organisms. This is known as the reptilian brain and is millions of years old. It houses the autonomic nervous system, which controls the body’s automatic functions such as breathing, digestion, heart rate, enzyme, and hormone functions.
  • The next part of the brain to evolve was the limbic brain — the amygdala, hippocampus and thalamus. This part of the brain handles emotion, judgment and memory and produces various brain chemicals, such as melatonin, serotonin and endorphins.
  • The latest addition to our brain is the neocortex, or frontal cortex, which handles intellectual and executive function, language, communication, connection, rational thought and civilization-building skills.

Dangerous or Safe? The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

When we are stimulated through the five senses, this information is delivered first to the reptilian brain and then distributed through the limbic brain and neocortex for processing. The reptilian brain’s most important function is to classify information as either safe or dangerous — something that takes place before the conscious parts of the brain receive the information. American psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges is known for the Polyvagal Theory, which describes these functions of the brain in clear detail.

In brief, the reptilian brain houses the autonomic nervous system, which is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when the stimuli are perceived as a threat, while the parasympathetic nervous system is activated when the stimuli are perceived as safe.

Meet the Warrior and the Guru.

I refer to the sympathetic nervous system as the Warrior and the parasympathetic nervous system as the Guru. This is because when the Warrior is activated, the brain and body reaction is “fight or flight,” while if the Guru is activated, the brain and body reaction is “relax and digest.” There is a sliding scale, of course, because both sides are always ready to engage and can activate simultaneously.

However, certain bodily functions will occur depending on the Warrior being fully engaged and vice versa.

These reactions have nothing to do with the conscious mind.

Many people get upset by behaviors their autonomic nervous system interprets as threatening: loud noises, inappropriate language, injury. Threats, challenges, risky behavior (inside or outside the body) and pain can activate the Warrior.

You can’t stop one or the other (Warrior or Guru) from activating. However, you can regulate them with the conscious mind if you are aware of what is happening.

My experience is that lawyers regularly activate their Warrior nervous system and rarely turn it off.

What Happens When the Warrior Is Activated?

Once activated, the Warrior signals the limbic brain to go into defensive mode, depending on the severity of the threat. We experience negative emotions such as anger, fear, rage, guilt and remorse. The brain signals the body to produce adrenaline and cortisol. This signals the conscious brain to fight or flee. If the danger is severe, we can freeze, faint or lose consciousness. (This is why some people pass out if “scared to death.”)

The reasoning parts of the brain shut down when the Warrior marshals the body’s resources for defense. Energy diverts to the muscles, the digestive tract shuts down, and heartbeat and blood pressure increase.

Conversely, when we feel safe, the Guru is activated. The brain produces melatonin, serotonin and endorphins and signals the intestines to produce oxytocin. These chemicals make us feel pleasant and relaxed. Our higher brain functions of reasoning and imagination come online, and we can love, be compassionate, converse, create and cooperate with others. This is impossible when the Warrior is activated.

Warrior or Guru? Who’s Running the Show?

What we perceive — danger, safety, anxiety, peace — depends on whether the warrior or the guru is activated. If you are not paying attention, you may not know who is running the show.

People who live with the warrior for any length of time have a far more negative perception of their environment because they are focusing on danger everywhere. And that has repercussions. The sympathetic nervous system was only intended to be used temporarily — until the threat passed. Attorneys who stay in warrior mode can experience high levels of stress and toxicity in their bodies — and that stress can lead to depression, anxiety and burnout.

This Is What “Create Your Own Reality” Really Means

When you are stuck with the Warrior, life is hard and dangerous. With the Guru, life is pleasant and easy. It can be fun, multidimensional and feel safe.

Warrior or guru? In my next article, we’ll discuss ways to recognize your unconscious reactions and regulate your responses so you can practice law from a calmer and easier place. 

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Categories: Lawyer Health, Lawyer Stress, Well-Being, You At Work
Originally published July 31, 2023
Last updated August 1, 2023
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Gray Robinson Gray Robinson

Sir Gray Robinson is a lawyer, writer, speaker, mentor, consultant and coach for lawyers who are struggling with their practices. He was a divorce lawyer for 27 years, handling hundreds of divorces, custody and support cases. Gray quit in 2004 due to stress and burnout and has devoted himself to helping lawyers and clients deal with the pressures of practicing law. Gray is the founder of Lawyer Lifeline, a restorative program that guides legal professionals through anxiety and stress to fulfillment and passion. In. 2023, he was inducted as a knight of The Royal Order of Constantine the Great and St. Helen, an organization that has existed since 312 ACE. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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