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. 

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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?

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.

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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.

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! 

Hope

In yesterday's meditation session, something remarkable happened for me. I felt a flash of hope. Just like that.

It's been a long year of drama and trauma. My heart was battered, then shattered and the pile of fragments scattered.

For the past month, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to think of three things for which I am grateful. Number one is always coffee. Number two is usually appreciation for a first world utility service (running water, heat, cable). Number three is gratitude for the support of friends and family and the unexpected kindnesses that have come my way. After I acknowledge why I am grateful, I begin to meditate.

Meditation is a time when all the emotions that are held in check for most of the day become untethered. While meditation is a peaceful time, it’s also a time when I realize I carry shards of grief, fear, and anger. 

But yesterday, I felt hope, Light delicate hope. I have it with me still and this is a lovely way to go into the new year. I wish the same for you.

You're Out of Order

I decided to become a lawyer when my high school guidance counselor told me I could not.

Mrs. Stevens offered up three alternative career paths for me: nurse, teacher, or secretary. I looked her steadily in the eye and told her I thought I’d like to become a lawyer. “That is not possible for you,” she told me. She thought by telling me something was impossible, it thus made it so.

Mrs. Stevens was trying to cling to the world as she understood it. She was trying to stop the world from changing. 

I went to law school not only because I enjoyed a contrary personality, but because I had a desire to be an agent of change. That happened to be true for most of the people I met in law school. When my guidance counselor limited me in her limited way, I busted out. A paltry act of teenage defiance perhaps, but I desired to change the world for every high school girl everywhere.

And as much as I loved the idea of bringing about cataclysmic changes in the world when I started law school, some decades later I have come to have a much more negative relationship with change as I am battered around by the world. The good news is that I have lived a good long time now. The bad news is that along with the privileges and miracles, I have experienced catastrophes. If you’re privileged enough to be alive, you have likely to have muddled your way through brushes with disease, death, and the IRS, you too have some different views on the prospect of a changing world than you once had as a youth. 

The simple act of sitting in stillness allows me to embrace all those things I have not anticipated. It wears down my resistance to the new and unexpected. It helps me find a way to accept and adapt to change. What may have seemed hopeless and absurd is now something I might consider. I allow myself to pursue possibilities in the face of almost certain failure. 

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The Pursuit of Possibility

The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that happiness is so damn ephemeral. It's vapor. It's obscure and nebulous and coy. It tends to hide when it's sought after and often arrives unexpectedly. The secret to happiness is that happiness is fickle and  unpredictable. Maybe that's not much of a secret.

We all know there's only one thing that is truly predictable and that is change. Meditation is the best way I have found to accept and adapt to change. The simple act of sitting in stillness allows me to embrace all those things I have not anticipated. It wears down my resistance to the new and unexpected. What may have seemed hopeless and absurd is now something I might consider. 

Pursue happiness? It's not my way. I prefer to contemplate possibility. 

Teaching Nothing

A couple of months ago, I met a man who runs an executive recruitment agency and on the side  occasionally teaches meditation. Since I've recently considered teaching people how to meditate, he was delighted to give me a few pointers which I promptly disregarded.

First of all, you must write yourself a script. If you're going to lead people through a guided meditation, it's very important you know exactly what you're going to say, that you never stumble over a word, that you don't forget to tell them something important.

Nah, that won't work for me.

He looked horrified. 

In order to transport people to another level of consciousness, your delivery must be flawless.

Another level of consciousness? Tall order, buddy. (If there's such a thing as a good pun, this was it.)

After all, he explained, I've found enlightenment three times.  

Whoa. Who'd want that brand of pain? I'm being flip, but if you don't think enlightenment comes with a big price tag, you're being naive. I did not say this out loud. I may not be enlightened, but I am polite.

What makes you think you can teach people to meditate?

 I teach an essay writing class and my students seem to enjoy it. And I've taught  meditation to a few people here and there. They've been pleased, even surprised.

What exactly do you do? 

I explain diaphragmatic breathing. We take some deep breaths, then sit in a comfortable position, backs supported. I ask them to relax all parts of their body-- eyes, ears, mouth, head, neck, belly, arms, legs and then to imagine an empty colorless spaceless space in their chest and draw their thoughts to that void as if there were a magnet. Use a mantra to help the thoughts float away. Most important, I encourage  them to treat themselves as they would a small child. Say: it's okay. You can do it. Try again. 

And here's my idea. I could do a meditation workshop where the participants keep a journal to record their challenges and accomplishments. They'll share with each other. Learning to meditate is simple, but it's important to have support to keep at it.

So.... what types of meditation have you studied? 

None, although I have been meditating for three years and it has profoundly changed my life.

 What do you think qualifies you to teach?

I paused, but not for long.

Meditation is not about competition or achievement. When I meditate, I can get my mind to go blank for a second or two. Then I sit in stillness for a moment with nothing. 

I have never attained a state of enlightenment.  Nothing qualifies me. In fact, I am as anxious and stressed out and nervous as anyone. But I have an ability to remain nonreactive when it counts and I think I may someday find a way to accept the chaos around me in a constructive way. This is optimistic and optimism is something that does not come to me naturally.

So, what qualifies me to teach? Nothing. Exactly nothing.

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A Perfect Practice

Roxanne says: Perfection is the enemy of progress. She's a doc and so she tells her patients this in order to encourage them. She says if you can exercise for ten a minutes a day, do that. 

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The message is the same in the practice of meditation. There is no goal here, no right way to do it, no prizes, no winner. Sit in stillness as best you can and possibilities appear. What is possible is far from perfect and what is perfect is far from possible.