Easy as riding a bike


Whenever I’m sitting at a leadership conference or a wellness seminar for professionals, as I was a couple of Fridays ago, I almost always have the same reaction. The suggestions and advice being offered are almost impossible to achieve without first cultivating a mindfulness practice. 

At recent leadership seminars, I’ve been advised to work on understanding both my motivation and the motivation of others, to listen carefully to others and imagine other possibilities, and to seek clarity. In a symposium titled Be Well, Do Well: Building a Healthy, Inclusive, and Innovative Profession sponsored by The Supreme Court of Ohio, the advice was straightforward, yet for me, elusive.

  • Establish and rely upon high-quality connections

  • Find meaning and purpose in what you do

  • Pursue authenticity and create your own professional identity

  • Cultivate flexible (optimistic) thinking

All sound advice, but I can’t help but notice the same thing I always notice whenever I hear this kind of instruction. What steps are required to master the pursuit of authenticity? How does one go about cultivating flexibility or achieving a more optimistic attitude? To me, these suggestions are like telling someone how enjoyable it is to take a spin on a bicycle through the countryside without ever bothering to find out whether this person has learned how to ride.

How can you teach someone to ride a bicycle without ever having them go through the exercise of hoisting themselves on to the actual bicycle and learning to balance on two wheels? No doubt you could get on a stationary bike in a spin class or I might try to explain various methods for how to learn how to ride a bike, but the only way you can actually learn to balance yourself on a bicycle is to get on the bicycle and find the peculiar sensation of balancing yourself on two wheels while in motion. Then, practice.  

So too, finding balance enough in your daily life to have the capacity to establish high-quality connections, find meaning and purpose in what you do, find your authentic self and cultivate flexible and optimistic thinking does not just happen by willing it to happen. All these objectives can happen, but first one must learn to balance all the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations constantly coursing through one’s body and mind. This sense of internal balance, or equanimity, is one that can be learned through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Once learned, the technique must be practiced again and again in order to maintain any semblance of balance.

The goals articulated at the symposium are not the kind of goals one can simply set one’s mind to and accomplish by trying hard enough. All of us have countless thoughts running through our brains, wild, untamed, incorrigible thoughts, that distract us from taking the time to actually find the meaning and purpose in what we’re doing. Distractions lure us into squandering our time and attention on unproductive and nonconstructive activities and frankly, more futile patterns of thinking.

Mindfulness meditation is simply the practice of sitting quietly and noticing the multitude of thoughts and emotions happening inside of you. It’s noticing without judgment and without trying to change a thing. Just this simple observation, when practiced, allows one to find purpose, authenticity and meaning simply from being aware of the constraints we place on ourselves by an ingrained legacy of thoughts and feelings we’ve long let smolder unchallenged. Simple quiet observation can create freedom to pursue meaning, purpose and even high-quality connections with others.

Is this Billable?

When Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, he was motivated to bring methods he had learned from studying meditation with Buddhist teachers to a place some refer to as a suffering magnet: a hospital. The program, a structured 8-week secular course, was invented to be used by hospital patients, not in order to cure them, but to curtail some of the stress and worries that surrounded their maladies. 


Now it is the legal profession that is critically ill. Consider these words from The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change issued by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, a group created in August 2016 concerned with the emotional welfare, mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers: 

The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Task Force has issued a clarion call for change in the legal profession and implores leaders in every sector to promote emotional and mental well-being. Mindfulness techniques, like the program Jon Kabat-Zinn brought to hospital patients, are  specifically recognized as legitimate and recommended methods to combat stress and increase resiliency for lawyers.

Mindfulness meditation is a simple technique where attention is focused, then refocused, on present experience. Think of it as a reboot. When my computer gets hosed up, I may not have the technical expertise to fix it, but I know that if I shut down my computer, then power it back up, often the problem will be fixed. The simple techniques of mindfulness meditation are subtle, yet powerful ways of developing a more constructive relationship with your own thoughts. Through increased self-awareness, lawyers cultivate a deeper set of resources to manage the conflicts and stressful situations so routine to the practice of law.

When practiced regularly, mindfulness meditation has been scientifically proven to decrease stress and anxiety and to boost productivity. Although the benefits to lawyers who engage in a mindfulness meditation practice are numerous, it’s a tough sell to convince a lawyer to take some minutes every day to sit and do nothing. While there are examples of law firms that have offered yoga and meditation classes for employees, those firms are the exception. In a law firm, the bottom line is that time equals money. It all comes down to the old joke of the lawyer arriving at St. Peter’s gate and asking: “Lord, why am I here? I’m only 35 years old.” “According to your billable hours,” God tells him, “you’re over 100.”

In order to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. So says the report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. But through the eyes of a managing partner, there is opportunity cost in foregone billable hours for any attorney who opts to sit in stillness and do nothing for some minutes every day.

The legal industry is critically ill. The question is whether or not there are change-makers within our profession willing to forego the loss of some billable minutes in order to redress some of the anxieties that are generated from the pressures of the legal profession. In the context of law firms, this means a top-down commitment for a change in policies to support well-being from senior partners. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has issued the call for change. Who will listen?

A Meditation Reminder List for Thanksgiving

If you've ever thought about trying a meditation practice or you're just looking for a way to smooth out your life without going for the big, dramatic life-altering changes, I have some ideas for you.


1. Don't ask for something big to happen.

2. Don't ask for something small to happen.

3. Don't ask for anything at all.

4. Remember three things you are grateful for in this moment.

5. Breathe.

5. Notice how your stomach expands and contracts as breath passes through your body.

6. Encourage yourself as you would encourage a small child. You can do it! Good try! Try again.

7. Promise yourself you'll do the thing you just thought of later.

8. Keep your promise.

9. Let go.

10. Repeat.


We the Vulnerable

Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.  Annie Dillard

After a friend of mine committed suicide, his widow - also my friend -  was obviously left in a state of shock and grief and anger, all of these particular flavors of shock, grief and anger I am grateful to find unimaginable. What could I do? The only thing I could think of was to offer to sit with my bereft friend and show her how to do nothing. 

We went out for a meal and since it was such a pretty day, after we ate we decided to take a walk down by the river in the little town near where we had lunch, and she said: Well? Are you going to show me?

I was taken aback because although when we originally made plans, I had offered to step her through what I did when I meditated, I never mentioned anything about it during our lunch conversation. I didn’t want to be pushy. Yet now she had asked, so we sat down on a bench and I showed her. We did some breathing and I guided her through a body scan and finally we sat for about ten or so minutes in stillness. When we opened our eyes, she looked at me and said: I’ve had a headache for a week and now it’s gone.

That was almost five years ago and ever since that time, whenever someone I care about finds themselves in a place of grief or despair and there is nothing else I can offer, I show them how I find the quiet place within me. It is as if by allowing someone to see how I settle in to observe my own cascade of thoughts, they find relief. A sense of dignity and honor can arise just by the acknowledgment that my struggle to sit in stillness is identical to theirs.

Some ideas need time to develop and one of the most important benefits that has come from my meditation practice is a ratcheted-up tolerance for uncertainty. I’ve learned to rely less on my comfort zone of analytical skills and I pay more careful attention to my intuition. I began to let the idea of teaching mindfulness meditation loll around inside of me without directing it one way or another for several months. Still, just about everything I wrote about or any conversation I had landed upon the topic of meditation.

I had done some teaching in the past. When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, a beloved professor modeled for me how to be gentle yet stern and to always be humble. Even the worst writer on the planet may someday end up writing something divine. It just happens. Red pens were forbidden and it was always a good idea to pencil in smiley faces next to a student writer’s funny lines. It never occurred to me that I would pursue teaching, but an offer to instruct a personal essay writing course in a continuing education program fell into my lap and I said yes. It turned out to be a much more enjoyable experience than I had imagined and I refined my teaching style into a breezy sort of compassionate encouragement.


Then a couple of years ago I was at a gathering with my youngest son and some of his friends when I spoke to a young man who was a 3L at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. When we got to my favorite topic, he told me about his law professor, Len Riskin, who as part of a Conflicts Negotiation class instructed his students on mindfulness meditation. Something clicked. I thought- huh, I’m a lawyer. I have a meditation practice.

I gathered up the courage to email Professor Riskin. He gave me some advice that went something like this. All you really have to do to get started is to get a law school to agree to let you talk in front of their students.

It was a bite-sized task, one I could easily contemplate, and after a few twists and turns and reaching out to lawyers and law firms, my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, gave me a chance to stand in front of a group of their students and talk about mindfulness meditation. At the end of my talk, I guided the students through a similar process as I had guided my widowed friend. When they opened their eyes, they sat around for a loopy few minutes before they got up to file out of the room. Many of them came up to me and thanked me. From that place, I went on to get a gig at a law firm, then to teach a continuing legal education class and I eventually became a board member of the Mindfulness in Law Society, where Professor Riskin is also a board member.

Now, the task gets tricky. As it turns out, lawyers tend to be skeptical and are excellent at holding up their resistance to trying this practice. I say this lovingly. I’m a skeptic myself and I understand the drawbacks to an activity that will result in absolutely zero billable time.

But I think there’s something else to it. When I arrived at law school in the autumn of 1979, I knew the course load would be daunting, the academics challenging, and that my fellow students were probably all a little smarter than I was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way that the law school curriculum left no space for uncertainty, self-doubt and especially vulnerability. There were difficult questions from my professors and clever, often unkind, retorts from fellow students who all appeared to be a lot less intimidatedthan I was. The idea, as I interpreted it, was to shatter any semblance of incertitude that might exist in me and if that was not possible, second best alternative was to scuttle any part of that kind of temperament into the deepest recesses of my psyche, so deep that neither my fellow students nor my professors would ever suspect I was only pretending to be secure and confident.

I’d been an English major in undergraduate and that course of study was at times contentious and competitive, but not nearly at the level of my law school experience where students used to hide books in the library (this was pre-internet) just so other students couldn’t get their hands on the necessary research. I'd practice my poker face in the bathroom mirror, and swallow up the feelings of pain and humiliation to deal with at a more convenient time. Had I been less tenacious, I would have quit. But I stayed and I graduated and thankfully, the practice of law turned out to be more enjoyable than attending law school. 

Law school is the place where I was taught to think like a lawyer, something for which I am forever grateful. The analytical skills I learned there proved invaluable not just for representing clients, but for dealing with any tricky situations that might arise in life. But the lesson that vulnerability was something to be shunned and avoided at all costs, not so valuable. Vulnerability is not something that can be banished, but it can be managed.

My school had no Professor Riskin to broach the subject of mindfulness and the way a mindfulness meditation practice can bolster resiliency and help promote focus, composure and clarity. When you find yourself at your most tender and most vulnerable, there is a way to acknowledge this and to also acknowledge that yes, it’s a brutal place to be but it’s a temporarily brutal place and soon enough there’s going to be another place and then another and then another and to be mindfully aware of all these thoughts that seem to dismantle your emotional scaffolding.

My practice of meditation has led me to share my practice with others. I share it freely and I share it abundantly. Sitting in stillness in a focused, intentional way can help you learn to approach your vulnerability, to look at it with compassion, with courage, with kindness and that, my friends, is what adds up to resiliency.

Start again and again and again

Normally, I sit in meditation for twenty minutes first thing every morning. But sometimes my schedule gets interrupted. I love to travel and when I travel any schedule I’ve managed to establish slips away into the ether. Over the course of a recent two-week trip, I only managed to meditate three times. Upon my return, somewhere between the jet lag and the laundry, I misplaced my meditation practice. Halfway through my day, I'd be sitting in a meeting or working on a project and realize I had forgotten to meditate. 

I've been meditating most days for the past six years. I require time to sit quietly in a mode of being as nonproductive as possible or my nerves frizzle and frazzle, my focus becomes unfocused and I worry about distraction to the point of distraction. Two weeks out of the country and this carefully cultivated habit turned about as precarious as the Cavs grabbing the number one seed in the NBA eastern conference.(Hey guys, maybe a little more focus? Just a suggestion.) 

My conscious mind had completely blipped out on my established practice and as it turns out, my anxieties were patiently lying in wait for just such an opportunity. Sly little things, those. Please don't misunderstand. It's not at all the case that when I keep up with a disciplined daily meditation schedule I experience no anxiety. There are still plenty of thoughts and emotions available to torment me, but I have more patience available to deal with all my exasperating qualities. So I consider it quite an achievement that even though I wasn’t meditating as often as I require, I noticed the subtle shifts in my levels of anxiety and restlessness and jittery discomforts of all kinds. I acknowledged these uncomfortablenesses without trying to ignore them or worse, bury them in some deep dark place I hoped never to excavate. Instead, I opened up a space between me and my uncomfortable feelings.

Think of it as redirection. I disidentified myself with the idea of me as failed meditator. Just because I thought of myself as someone who fell off the meditation wagon did not happen to be (as thoughts often are not) true.

I managed to sit myself down and try once again to find my breath and some stillness. I started my meditation practice over again.

Here's what I know about practicing meditation that you may not know. It doesn't matter how many times you start again. To notice when you've gone astray and gently come back is a metaphor for the entire practice. Sitting in meditation is about noticing when you're not meditating and beginning again. And again.

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. It teaches the heart to be more accommodating, not by beating it into submission, but by making it clear that accommodation is a gratifying choice.
— Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

The Mindful Middle

In a recent episode of  Meet the Press the panel was discussing a change of leadership in the Democratic party and the possibility of Tim Ryan replacing Nancy Pelosi. Mr. Ryan is the congressman from Youngstown, Ohio and has written a book titled Mindful Nation. Panelist Kathleen Parker remarked: Well, one quick note on Tim Ryan, I think his gifts might be better used right now if he could just teach all of us how to meditate. 

Laughter ensues.

Underlying Ms. Parker’s droll throw-away line was a dull recognition of perhaps the only thing both the left and the right can agree upon: the American people are a jingle jangle bundle of nerves. We are an anxious nation. 

I dream of a country where we would all take Kathleen Parker’s silly suggestion seriously. What if we all learned to meditate? All of us, including those who govern and those who are governed.

Especially  those who govern. 

Imagine a Congress composed of non-reactive legislators who could maintain focus and composure. Imagine a compassionate Senate. Imagine a president who was an attentive and focused listener. A hostile person can provoke a crowd; a self-possessed non-reactive person can steady them. A calm attitude, like a hostile one, can be contagious. If our leaders could become a bit more mindful, calmness, compassion and empathy might just trickle-down.

I dream about this as I stand out here on the front lines teaching people to practice meditation. I dream of it especially when I'm facing a room full of skeptics who think of mindfulness meditation as a silly past time, something that should be relegated to the venue of a swami or some other patchouli-scented situation where they would never be caught dead. I ignore their  resistance. I ignore their resistance because I’m stubborn which you may not think jives with someone who teaches mindfulness meditation. But you’d be wrong. There’s nothing more enlightened or less anxious about me than there is about you. But I stubbornly believe if I can get someone to try this out despite themselves, they may come to understand how consistently sitting in stillness and not accomplishing a single thing accomplishes quite a bit.

My least resistant students are those whom we politely refer to as seniors. This is probably because there is so little that surprises them. I don’t know the average age in the independent living community where I teach, but my parents ages 90 and 94 live there and they are not the oldest. This group of meditators are struggling to find a way to accept a challenging state of physical affairs. When they enter the room, it takes a while for them to traverse around the plastic chairs with their walkers. Hearing aides are more common than not. I tell them that having a mindful meditation practice helps you to be non-reactive. It helps you to respond more reasonably to aggravating situations. There’s a kind of pause that you can own when you’ve learned to sit in stillness and observe your own thoughts.

A while ago, one of the ladies came in and said to me: You know that thing you told us about being non-reactive. Well, last week someone asked me to do something and I said, I’ll get back to you.  

I love that. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the little kids. I tell them I’m going to teach them to do something they’ve known how to do since the moment they were born. Even babies can do it. We’re going to learn to breathe. They think that’s hilarious. So do I. But even the kids catch on pretty fast. They take a few deep breaths. We do something called square breathing. Tracing a square in the air with our fingers. Taking an in-breath for the top of the square, an out-breath for the side. Another in-breath for the bottom and another exhale for the other side. And after a few squares, they tell me they feel calmer.

The lawyers are my most difficult students They don’t catch on as quickly as the kids and they like to cross-examine me. They just don’t want to believe something so simple could help them be less anxious. Even less do they want to believe it can help them be more composed and focused. But I give them the scientific evidence and I tell them about neuroplasticity and Sara Lazar and her fMRI studies at Harvard. How the brains of people who have a mindfulness meditation practice are different than those who don’t. The gray matter of the brain improves its texture. It’s just like exercise, I tell them. When you exercise, your muscles become stronger and you increase your endurance. I think that makes sense to them, but I’m never sure. Not even at the seminar I taught last week when there were a room full of them, all with their eyes closed and their mouthes closed, and all except for two of them doing exactly as I instructed them.

The two in the corner of the room held fast to their mobile devices and tapped away with gusto. I accept meditation is not for everyone. Tiny screens have a powerful draw. Still, I plan to stay stubborn and to bring mindfulness into as many people's lives as I can until the words of Kathleen Parker are no longer a throw-away comment and the idea of taking a few intentional breaths and sitting in stillness is no more crazy than the idea of going to the gym.

It's not fair to leave it all up to Tim Ryan. It's important and possible for mindfulness to trickle down from the three branches of our government and also possible for it to drift up from the populace. Then perhaps we might all meet in the mindful middle.

It's a Matter of Practice

For the past five years, I've sat down just about every day to practice meditation and only recently have I realized exactly what it is I am practicing. 

The revelation came a few months ago when I was about to undergo some outpatient surgery. Deep in the vast cavernous space of the surgery prep area, a nurse with a well-practiced monotone directed me to remove all my clothes, place them in the plastic bag and change into the hospital gown, opening in the back. There was a clue that I was in the subordinate position. Still I followed her orders, hopped up on the gurney, pulled the thin sheet over me and waited to see what the next person would do to me. The next person was a nurse anesthetist with a cool surfer dude personality and even though he put me at ease a little bit, it was really starting to sink in that someone would be cutting something off of me soon. By the time the anesthesiologist came around to approve the silly sauce about to be injected into my veins, I was at full tilt worry and anxiety. She introduced herself and then remarked to me how unusually calm I appeared. What was my secret, she wanted to know. 

That’s when I realized something about my meditation practice. I do sit down daily to practice something, but calling it meditation makes it seem a little loftier than it actually is. Most of the real estate in my brain has been staked out by anxiety and fear, grief and despair, doubt and uncertainty and misgivings. It's not that I'm calm while I'm sitting in stillness, I'm just practicing remaining calm as my emotions toss me around.

So when the nurse pulled the curtain shut behind her and separated us into the very clear categories of patient and healthcare professionals, I felt my anxiety level shoot up and I observed my thoughts race to terrifying conclusions. This was stress and this was appropriate for anyone about to have surgery. I was not feeling calm. In fact, I was extremely anxious. But there was something different about me than the other people hooked up to IVs in the pre-op center whom this doctor was about to anesthetize. I was comfortable with my anxiety. I was comfortable with my anxiety because for the past five years I have practiced remaining calm as emotions roil through my body.

Substitute in any anxiety-producing situation of your own for my stint in the land of outpatient surgery. It might be a client asking you the one question you dread; it might be your co-worker throwing you under the bus. Lots to choose from here. Being on intimate terms with your own anxiety might just shift the way you handle stressful situations.

You can say I meditate, but I say I observe the anxiety while I cultivate the calm. This takes a lot of practice.

Learn One, Do One, Teach One

Last week, I attended a meditation class at MNDFLmeditation in the East Village in NYC. As it turns out, coastal cities have drop-in meditation studios and they are lovely. MNDFL is a graceful little studio-- a bright clear space with white-washed brick walls, comfy furnishings in soothing shades of gray and shiny wood floors.


The class I took was for beginners-- a heart-based meditation. I attend meditation classes for a couple of reasons. So I can learn and so I can steal ideas to bring to my students. There were about twenty of us arranged around the  studio room with a variety of props. The props were similar to what you might find in a yoga studio: woven Mexican blankets, cushions, blocks and also a meditation chair which is a cushion with a back rest attached. I like to have back support and was almost peer pressured into not grabbing one, but at the last minute I did and I did not regret it. 

The teacher, Marcela Clavijo, talked to us for a while and encouraged self-acceptance and other useful concepts before having us settle in for the guided meditation. During the guided meditation portion, Marcella suggested going back and forth between two emotional goal posts. She told us to think about a situation where we might feel ashamed or guilty. She suggested trying something fairly superficial like that time you forgot to send a thank you note and you're still dwelling on it. From there we were to pivot to a time when we felt proud or accomplished like the time when someone tells you one of your blog posts really resonates for them. Then we practiced flashing back and forth between the two posts. 

Marcela cautioned us not to go too deep too quickly. Staying superficial at the beginning is important and I can see why. Just remembering a couple of trivial situations (one that triggered shame and one that triggered  pride) stirred up an onslaught of emotions. 

This was a very different experience for me. I am used to looking for the stillness when I meditate. This meditation agitated me. It made me uncomfortable. I say this not as a criticism, but as an objective observation. I'll try this again sometime on my own, but I will be cautious. It's a really powerful meditative venture and one that demands the respect of the practitioner.

If you get a chance to stop by MNDFL, I highly recommend it. Can't wait until I can go back! 

Mediocre Meditator

I am proud of being able to sit and meditate every day for twenty minutes. 

It may be the biggest accomplishment of my life and people admire me for it.

People say: I can’t do it. 

People also say: I meditate when I go for a run. It’s the same thing.

It’s not. 

I like to go for runs. I like to do yoga. I find both activities useful on both physical and mental levels. But neither activity or anything else is a substitute for sitting in stillness. 

I tell them these things and the reply is usually the same. 

I've tried. I can't stop my thoughts.

I fall asleep.

It's not for me. 

Fair enough. Here's what I think these people are really saying: I've tried to meditate, but I'm not much good at it. I prefer to do things I can do well.

Myself, I’m a mediocre meditator. If meditation were an Olympic event, I would not be invited to participate. No one would ever pick me to be on their meditation team. 

At home, I sit in a chair when I meditate. When I go to a group meditation and sit on a cushion with my back unsupported, mostly what I try not to think about is how uncomfortable I am sitting on a cushion with my back unsupported. 

I try to convince myself to sign up for a meditation retreat. How disagreeable to sit in silence for hours or even days. To take a break from all my creature comforts and submit to discomfort, boredom, probably hunger sounds so unpleasant. It’s not like they’re offering a chocolate milkshake with their inner peace. 

The idea of going someplace where where the participants are trying to deepen their understanding of self and increase their well-being terrifies me. It all sounds so serious and a little depressing. I suppose my resistance stems from a fear of the uncomfortable and the unknown. If I knew I could survive or even enjoy a meditation retreat, it’s possible I might sign up for one. 

People might say: Stay tuned.