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I was taken aback because although when we originally made plans, I had offered to step her through what I did when I meditated, I never mentioned anything about it during our lunch conversation.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.