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?

Might I Suggest?

As a lawyer, I’m trained to give advice only when I’m being paid for it. Lawyers are counselors. We dispense advice based on facts and on law. Clients are free to follow or not follow the advice they receive. On the other hand, I've always been fascinated with advice columns— Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayd’s fabulous online column at The Rumpus), Carolyn Hax (Washington Post), Lena Dunham (Ask Lena on You Tube). Check them out if you're not familiar. It's the compassion which most impresses me. These women take life questions from others and apply their experiences to guide the advice seekers in a thoughtful and provident way. I don't think I could ever do what these counselors do, although it fascinates me.

But I do have a passion to help others develop a meditation practice and I have opinions, strong opinions, about how accessible meditation is and how it's possible for anyone to do. And I know there are people searching  for a way to develop a practice and are looking for advice on how to do that. Still I get a little queasy about giving advice. Suggestions are more to my liking. Suggestions are softer than advice. So, in my hope to make meditation a little less intimidating, I invite your questions and I'll do my best to make thoughtful suggestions. 

When it comes to teaching meditation, the answers to my students’ questions come from my own experiences. What works for me may or may not work for you, but if you’re interested in hearing about what works for someone with a cluttered and chaotic mind just like yours, I invite you to ask me your questions.

This question was recently posited by Karen who is trying to cultivate a meditation practice.

So often when I sit, I get very distracted by worries, and I can’t just acknowledge them and watch them waft away. The worries are about important things. Do you have any advice for calming down, for a beginner?

There are two parts to Karen's question. The first is that she is immediately distracted by worries. The second is that these are not just any worries. These are important worries. 

In my experience, as soon as I sit down to find stillness, the first thoughts to alight in my brain are pesky, negative, critical thoughts. Sort of a worry/criticism combo. Here’s a typical thought to pop up when I first sit down: “You idiot. You forgot to go to the bank. AGAIN.” Have I ever approached the stillness and immediately found a moment of peace, of greatness, of joy? No, I don’t think so. I often hear the loopy tape of conversations that never have and never will occur. When he said that if I would have said this, then he would have said that, and then I would totally have had the opportunity to say this thing I will never have the opportunity to say. Or will I? Can I manipulate the next conversation to provide me the opportunity to say this most brilliant and poignant comment that will finally and totally explain to him why he is so wrong? Of course not.

Karen, your worries are distracting and will always be distracting. The issue is how to accept the distraction without judgment. Observe the worry thoughts. See what emotional response you feel in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your heart? A buzz in your head? Breathe. Repeat whatever phrase you've chosen as a mantra to coax the thought away. The worry may subside for a moment. Be proud of this tiny bit of success.

This is my suggestion based upon my personal experience. Pesky critical thoughts are familiar to me. I know these thoughts better than any other kind of response in my head or my body. The voice that chastises me is the most familiar voice in my head. I know this inner critic isn’t going anywhere, but if I concentrate on my breath and my mantra, I can often get it to take a little break knowing that it has permission to come back later. It’s like your crazy Uncle Harry. He often gets drunk, he frequently says the wrong thing, but he’s still invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I observe the criticisms and the worries and I TRY not to become involved with them. This experience of observing thoughts as opposed to thinking thoughts is a radical thing to do and is very powerful.

The other part of the question is that these worries are about important things. Important things deserve important time. Sometimes before I meditate I’ll ask for an answer to an important question. This doesn’t mean I concentrate on the question or try to think about the answer. I simply ask the question and observe whether or not an answer materializes. Sometimes I think of something brilliant while I’m meditating. Something very important and a perfect little ball of words or a precise way to phrase something. I’ll think of it a couple of times. I make a promise to myself to come back this thought later and I keep my promise. This is a bit of a trick and it’s important to find a way to trust yourself to come back to these important thoughts or worries. Trust takes time to develop.

The power of meditation is that it gives you a short break from the worries that plague you. It’s a reboot. Just like with anything electronic, the easiest way to fix a problem is to simply turn off the machine and then turn it back on. Power it down, then restart. It’s simple and you don’t need to be an expert to do it.