by Joel Orenstein
The metaphor of lawyer as warrior is celebrated in fact and fiction. Yet for a profession beset by stress, the scars of war are increasingly manifest through early burnout, cynicism, and increased incidence of depression, anxiety, mental illness, relationship breakdown and substance abuse. Although there is a growing awareness of the high indicators of poor mental health amongst lawyers, perhaps lesser known is the growing community of legal practitioners engaging in mindfulness to promote their own health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness in its most basic form is simple present-moment awareness. A faculty that is innate in all of us, mindfulness is not thinking, rather awareness of thinking, of emotions, and of the ways we experience the sensory world through seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting and smelling. Mindfulness practices develop and cultivate this faculty by purposely paying attention to what is occurring inside and outside of us, moment-to-moment, in a nonjudgmental and openhearted way.
Why would we want to develop and practice mindfulness?
Basically mindfulness makes us feel better balanced. With awareness we are able to better deal with the ups and downs of life by directly counteracting the negative effects of stress. If you stop and watch your thinking for a moment you will notice very quickly that the human mind is a wandering mind. Inattention and distraction form the majority of our daily mental activity as the mind constantly seeks favourable experiences and pushes unfavourable experiences away. The result of wandering is distorted thinking, dissatisfaction, worry and churning of the mind, which is at the heart of stress, anxiety and depression. By grounding yourself in awareness of all that is occurring, including the wandering itself, you no longer need to get dragged along by it.
Simply put, mindfulness is just noticing what is happening in each moment without attempting to change anything. It is self-help that is immediately available and is radically different to our habitual way of dealing with life’s ups and downs, as it doesn’t require eliminating difficulty or imagining ourselves in a better place. With mindfulness we learn to discover a storehouse of clarity and calm that has been here all along.
With perseverance of practice, we are able to observe with greater clarity, cutting through the distortions and reactions that habitually form the basis of our thinking. We can live life more fully and less on automatic pilot, thus being more present in our own lives.
Mindfulness has greater relevance than just stress reduction. Mindfulness helps us to be fully present, to be aware of our own thoughts and reactions and more in tune with those of others. Consequently we are able to listen with more presence, space out less and remain focussed for greater periods of time.
Greater focus and calm naturally improves the clarity of our decision-making. Remaining centred through mindful awareness allows our intelligence and wisdom to function fully, which has an enormous practical benefit on our skill base as lawyers.
At the same time, the more we are mindful, the more external circumstances stop affecting us in the same way they once did. In this way the unpredictability of life does not dictate our functioning nor cause us the same distress. Consequently whether we win or lose, how well we slept, whether we receive praise or criticism, is no longer determinate of our level of satisfaction or success.
Learning to Practice Mindfulness
Generally one cultivates the ability to be mindful through formal meditative practices, and then applies that ability in everyday life where it is most needed. With practice, mindfulness can be immediately available in any moment, even the most stressful.
Like any lifestyle change, you actually need to do it for it to be effective. And similar to physical exercise, it is regular, daily practice that is required to experience the most benefit. Although there is no exact science as to what is optimal, thirty minutes per day of formal meditation practice is a good yardstick.
Although mindfulness sounds simple enough, in practice, at least initially, it is quite difficult and for many it can take discipline, motivation and time to develop a new positive habit. With perseverance however, you will soon discover that the benefits of regular mindfulness practice far outweigh habitual unawareness and the rollercoaster of stress reactivity.
As you integrate mindfulness into your life, you soon begin to experience mindfulness practice as a compassionate act of self-care, rather than a chore that gets in the way of your busy life. With this understanding, practice becomes filled with meaning and can become truly transformative.
No doubt suffering poor mental health can be hugely disempowering. Looking after your own wellbeing through mindfulness practice is a way of rediscovering the peace that is at the core your being. And because mindfulness is not dependent upon external circumstances, it is effective even in the most outwardly stressful moments.
Given the highly charged and unpredictable nature of legal practice, mindfulness therefore is invaluable. As more and more of us are discovering, mindfulness is a core resource that not only makes us healthier, but also makes us better lawyers.
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, Joel Orenstein regularly runs workshops for lawyers. Contact him for advice. There are also useful phone apps to get you started and sessions with various other institutes around your cities.