|Eyes Wide Open|
By Dennis M. Warren
I recently asked one of my attorney friends how his morning was going. He responded, 'I'll tell you what kind of morning I'm having. It's 10:30 a.m. and I already have a stiff neck.'
Some mornings the constant pressure of telephone calls, client demands, deadlines, motions by opposing counsel and overall workload just take their toll. Our level of energy and concentration drops, along with our sense of resolve and purpose. We lose our focus.
Under stress we begin to personalize events - the events that used to 'just happen' are now events 'happening to me.' The aggressive but ethical action by opposing counsel on behalf of their client is now experienced as a personal attack, or one designed to intentionally disrupt our work schedule. Once this starts to happen, the mind personalizes almost everything and it is difficult to separate people from problems and to focus on objective issues, rather than finding fault and blame.
If these stress-related states of mind continue throughout the day, we go home exhausted and dissatisfied. Many of us have unknowingly allowed the pressures and demands of our careers to take over and smother our lives. A busy, professional life begins to gain its own momentum, pushing us forward. We stop asking questions about what is really important.
This loss of perspective and balance is a very real, and not uncommon, consequence of an attorney's commitment to represent clients zealously - without a counter-balancing commitment to live a rich and full life and to develop meaningful relationships. It is dangerous to mistake a good career for a good life. A good career is only one part of a good life.
DEALING WITH STRESS
The answer to dealing with stress-induced states of mind, and tapping into the reservoirs of energy referred to by James, lies in bringing our awareness and attention to that which is normally unseen, unnoticed and ignored. Therapist R.D. Laing points to part of the strategy in this way: 'The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.'
The problem with stress-induced states of mind is that we usually don't see them coming. We may have a vague sense that something unpleasant or negative is taking place. But we usually can't define or recognize the actual process of stress-induced states of mind developing. We remain largely unconscious of their presence until they reach a stage of physical, mental, or emotional symptoms-difficulty concentrating, a quick temper or irritability, anxiety, a stiff neck or shoulders, headaches, indigestion, difficulty sleeping.
One of the biggest challenges during our work day is to remember to pay attention, to actually be present in the moment. We frequently find ourselves in difficult situations at work because we have failed to exercise care and attention - to simply be conscious and aware of what we are doing. Our focus is divided between a current project, some other pressing matter, anticipation of difficulty on yet another situation and worrying about something that happened the day before. As a result, we are not fully present for and focused on the work under way, and errors and misjudgments occur. Professional errors and misjudgments are a symptom of divided concentration and a lack of inner balance.
A helpful way to start bringing the process of stress-induced states of mind into view is to periodically stop what you're doing during the day. Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths. Allow the body to relax. Then experientially ask the quality of work and life questions which follow:
QUALITY OF WORK AND LIFE QUESTIONS
*Am I working in a relaxed way? What is the level of tension, bracing or holding in the body, and what does it feel like? Is the mind relaxed, open and spacious? Or tight, constricted and narrow? Is the energy active and fluid? Or dull and blocked? How do I feel emotionally? How does it feel to work this way? Why am I working in this way?
*Am I present and involved in my work? Is the mind wandering repeatedly off the project at hand? Or staying focused on what is being done and how it is being done? Am I actively engaged in my work? Or am I resisting and struggling with it? Am I creatively involved in what's happening? Or on automatic pilot? How does it feel to work this way? Why am I working in this way?
*What can I do, right now, to deal with or improve the situation? Do I need to take a break and clear the mind? Would doing a brief breathing, relaxation or concentration process assist grounding and stabilizing the mind, the emotions and my outlook? Do I need to re-evaluate today's, or my overall, workload and current schedule of appointments and commitments? Would stopping the current project, stepping back and re-evaluating things be helpful? Is prioritizing or re-prioritizing today's work, or the work on this project, in order? Can input or guidance from a colleague or friend provide needed balance? Would straight-forward and direct communication with another member of the team or opposing counsel be wise?
I assure you that regularly exploring these questions will be instructive. If we patiently and honestly look at these questions, they can serve as a direct and effective diagnostic tool. The answers can help us understand how we work and why we are not as effective, efficient or productive as we can be. They can help us wake up to our own lives.
If we're willing to remain open to these questions, to sit with them without trying to find a solution or fix things too quickly, they can serve as the basis for developing a revised attitude and approach to our work. By understanding our working patterns, habits, and attitudes, and how we feel about our work, we can begin to fashion a vision of what needs to be changed and how we can work in a more relaxed and satisfying way. We can see what skills need to be improved or acquired to move in this direction. We can craft a daily strategy for both dealing with the stress and for slowly transforming our professional lives.
But you may find it difficult to sit with these questions, because the mind and body are not calm, clear and relaxed. That's where meditative practices come into play.
Meditation practices are a method of developing, and a process for maintaining, a calm and clear mind. They are about paying careful attention to our lives. During these practices, our focus shifts from our usual, busy, outer world of commitments, concepts and actions, to the moment-to-moment observation and investigation of the body and mind. This is done through calm, focused and balanced awareness. The experiential question is asked: 'What is happening, now, in my breath, my body, my mind and my emotions?' The answer arrives, not conceptually or intellectually, but through our direct experience of what is occurring in the present moment.
Instructions for a meditation process that focuses primarily on the breath appear at the end of this article. You can do this process at the office and at home. It is an excellent method of developing awareness and relaxing the body and mind. It slowly helps us develop a new understanding and perspective on how we relate to our experience.
If you use this practice regularly, particularly in conjunction with the Quality of Work and Life Questions, you will begin to notice a larger sense of awareness starting to emerge during the day. As your skill develops, you can use this same practice before and during meetings, court appearances and the day to become more aware, relaxed and to refocus your attention.
Similar meditation practices are currently being used in more than 500 hospitals and medical clinics in the United States to help individuals enter into a new relationship with chronic pain and stress-induced conditions such as headaches, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems and anxiety.
This meditation practice is simple, short, easy to do and pleasurable. There is an almost immediate payoff: You feel better and think more clearly. This is intentional. We frequently start some new project - an exercise program or diet - which is overly ambitious. It soon becomes burdensome, a chore. We abandon it as quickly as it was begun.
To avoid this common syndrome, we start simple and easy. The key is to do the practices regularly, every day, in the environment where you actually face the challenges of stress. The purpose of this approach is to systematically develop a new way of responding and relating to stress in our lives right where we live and work.
It's important to be realistic with your expectations. Remember that your current states of mind are the product of years of conditioning, reinforcement and habituation. The process of developing a new perspective and a more conscious way of living in the world occurs gradually. It is based on making a realistic and consistent effort every day - day after day after day.
You will probably find it helpful to do a number of small, manageable sessions of these practices throughout the day. You can start with five- to 15-minute sessions, depending on the time available.
Doing these exercises regularly acts as a reminder to pay attention to how you are doing what you are doing - your state of mind, your energy level, your level of bodily and mental relaxation - rather than merely being unconscious and lost in what you are doing. This tends to break the cycle of tension and stress that begins to take over our day and helps restore our perspective. It also reinforces your intention to practice.
Don't be surprised if you find your mind wandering or if you have difficulty keeping your mind focused when you begin this practice. It takes a while to develop your concentration and to begin stabilizing the mind. If your mind tends to wander or becomes resistant, don't struggle with it or become judgmental. Just relax and bring your attention back to the practice - over and over and over again. Use the same approach you would use with training a small puppy. Genuine care and kindness, rather than harsh reactions and criticism, produce the best results.
CHARTING A NEW COURSE
Meditation practices provide us with the possibility of living a conscious life. They offer us a new skill set to improve the quality and level of our work. All of the states of mind that are developed through these practices - concentration, quietness and calmness of mind, the ability to deeply listen, a more spacious approach to problem-solving and relationships, a less personalized and attached view of experience, greater understanding, kindness and compassion and more - can expand our capacity to deal more effectively with difficult professional and life situations.
They can also help us tap into deep resources within us. Mahatma Gandhi considered his early morning meditation practice the foundation of his day. It allowed him to access a deep source of inspiration, patience, courage and resilience that sustained him in all of his activities.
We have the capacity to remain at the center of the storms of our own thoughts and emotions, allowing us to exercise sound judgment, wisdom, and compassion. There is a way to obtain a new sense of spaciousness, or breathing room, in the face of stressful situations. There is a safe refuge, a sanctuary we can visit to restore ourselves and to nourish our spirit and inspiration. But this does not just happen. Developing the meditation skills to access and maintain these states of mind is the result of consistent effort and a committed decision to live a conscious life.
BEGINNING MEDITATION INSTRUCTIONS
The following meditation practice involves bringing awareness to our experiences of the breath and body. Our objective is to experience whatever is present on a moment-to-moment basis. We're not trying to make something 'special' happen, or to change, manipulate or control what we're experiencing. Just allow yourself to be fully present, and non-judgmentally experience what unfolds.
We'll maintain our attention primarily on the experiences in the breath. Don't be surprised if your concentration seems weak or your mind unusually active. It takes awhile for concentration to develop and for the mind to quiet down. Give yourself the time, space and permission to allow this to happen.
You'll find your attention pulled away many times, even during a short session, by sounds, smells, thoughts, emotions or memories. When this happens, don't fight it. Notice that the attention has moved and gently refocus it back to the experience of the body or breath. Do this over and over again. Just relax into the rhythm of this process.
If the attention keeps wandering repeatedly back to a particular thought or emotion, allow the attention to shift to how that thought or emotion feels in or affects the breath or body.
Sit comfortably erect with your feet on the ground. Fold your hands softly in your lap with the hands together or place them on the knees. Find a position where your hips, shoulders and back, and head and neck are aligned. Allow the shoulders to move back and down and the chest to open. Feel the full weight of your body in the chair. Feel the weight of your feet connecting with the ground. Once you have settled into this position, take a few deep, comfortable, rhythmic breaths.
Gently move your attention to the experience of breathing. Calmly investigate and determine where the experience of breathing is most clearly and strongly felt. In the rising and falling of the abdomen? In the expansion and contraction of the chest? At the tip of the nostrils as the air enters and is expelled? Select one of these areas and allow the attention to refocus here exclusively.
Allow the breath to settle into its own natural rhythm. Connect the attention with the earliest sensation of the in-breath. Sustain the connection until the end of the in-breath. There will be a small pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. Relax.
Connect the attention with the earliest sensation of the out-breath. Sustain the connection until the end of the out-breath. Relax. Maintain this process with each in-breath and with each out-breath.
As your ability to sustain the attention on the breath strengthens, explore what is experienced with each in-breath and each out-breath. What are the sensations? Is the breath deep or shallow? Smooth or rough? Heavy or light? Warm or cool? Is there vibration, stretching, tingling? Feel the rhythm of the breath and how it changes. Fully experience whatever is present.
Just calmly investigate and experience this incredible process of breathing that sustains our life and is usually outside the range of our awareness.
When you are ready to end the session, bring your
awareness into your body. Feel the full weight of your body in the
chair. Feel the weight and contact of your feet with the floor.
Take several deep breaths. Experience a sense of stability, balance
and renewed energy. Gently open your eyes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis M. Warren is a Sacramento, Calif.-based healthcare attorney. His workshops help attorneys identify and monitor stress and enhance performance. Contact him at (916) 447-9999 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2002, Dennis M. Warren.