Barefoot lawyers in spandex yoga outfits? Cross-legged litigators focusing on their inhalations and exhalations? Is it really happening or are we trapped inside a New Yorker cartoon?
It Is Really Happening
Mindfulness is here, right in the staid ranks of The Law, and spreading like a virus. Or, more aptly, like concentric ripples on quiet green water:
1997. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, or “CMind,” organizes a retreat for Yale Law School students and faculty to “explore the interface of contemplation and law.”
2002. Harvard Law School offers a symposium on Mindfulness and Alternative Dispute Resolution, publishing several papers in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review. Law Professor Leonard Riskin authors “The Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers, and their Clients.” Riskin characterizes lawyers as anxious, unhappy and depressed. He points to meditation as an antidote. 7 Harvard Negotiation Law Review 1-67 (2002).
2008. The president of the Multnomah Bar Association convenes and moderates the first day-long course on mindfulness for the Oregon legal community.
2010. Boalt Hall, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, hosts a three-day “Mindful Lawyer” conference, attended by more than 185 legal professionals.
2012. Former president (and lawyer) Bill Clinton hires a Buddhist monk to teach him how to meditate.
Michael Dwyer, a trial lawyer turned mediator, was the Multnomah Bar Association’s president in 2008 when he organized a day-long course called “Mindfulness for Lawyers,” focused on stress reduction. What grew out of the event was a community. Dwyer remembers three attorneys who took him aside — separately — to confess, “I’m really suffering in this profession and I have no one to talk to about it.” Dwyer later learned that all three worked on the same floor of the same law firm. But this tale of isolation had, and has, a happy ending: Of the 140 lawyers and judges who attended the 2008 course, many formed small groups that continue to meet each week for a lunch-hour meditation session, and the initial day-long course became an annual event.
What is Mindfulness?
What is mindfulness, and why would anyone spend time doing it? Michael Dwyer defines it as “moment-to-moment awareness, with intention and focus, and without judgment.” As for its benefit, Dwyer says a meditation practice teaches us to “watch our minds,” which helps us develop mental stability and cultivate calm. At the same time, it makes us less reactive, less likely to act in accordance with unconscious habitual patterns.
As lawyers, Dwyer points out, we are constantly judging ourselves and others at virtually every waking moment — drawing the world into categories, with a fundamentally dualist viewpoint that divides “us” from “them.” Dwyer, who has been practicing law for 37 years, believes lawyers would benefit from learning a “non-dualistic way of being in the world.” In his view, the legal community is approaching a time when a contemplative practice like meditation “will be considered part and parcel of being a healthy human.”
Judi Cohen, who in 2010 founded the company Warrior One1 to teach mindfulness to lawyers, agrees. The “legal mind,” says Cohen, “is educated and trained to judge and compete and dismiss. We are not taught to be curious. We are expected to know.”
Jack Kornfield is a renowned spiritual teacher and author who trained as a Buddhist monk in monasteries in Thailand, Burma and India. In After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, he describes suffering and sorrow as a “gateway” that leads to a mindfulness practice. According to Kornfield, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, when the going gets tough, the tough seek spiritual sustenance.
Attorneys appear to have a corner on suffering. Compared to the general population, lawyers are more likely to be depressed, more likely to suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse, and less likely to be satisfied with their jobs. Before 1996, dentists had the highest rate of suicide among professions. Now, according to some sources, lawyers claim that grim distinction.
The practice of law is high-volume, high-stress, high-stakes. In “Mindfulness in Law” (The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness), Scott Rogers describes the profession as “emotionally guarded … , where battles are waged daily, colleagues are adversaries, clients are bitter, jobs are scarce, hours are long, time is money and the pressure is always on.” To the mind crammed to capacity with analysis and strategy, worried about deadlines, throwing punches or fending off blows in an adversarial boxing ring, meditation might seem like a patch of sunshine and a beach chair. If mindfulness could — even for 10 nonbillable minutes — stabilize and calm the vicissitudes of the busy lawyer brain, surely that is time well spent? Why doesn’t every lawyer meditate?
Cohen identifies the biggest obstacle as “the perception that there’s not enough time.” She compares meditation to taking a coffee break: The benefits of coffee are immediate, while the benefits of meditation occur over time. It’s easy to make coffee a priority. Not so easy to prioritize mindfulness.
Suppose one does decide to dedicate 10 or 20 or 30 minutes to a mindfulness practice. Where does one begin?
Eating a Raisin
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, describes mindfulness as “awareness,” an “innate quality of the mind” that can, and usually must, be refined through regular practice. In its simplest terms, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, which, truth be told, most of us would admit is our normal state of being. Eating is a good example: a commonplace activity and one we’ve all conducted mindlessly from time to time. At the Stress Reduction Clinic, new practitioners often begin their course of study by eating one raisin very slowly. Raisin eaters are invited to “drop” effortlessly into the experience, the raisin’s tastes and textures. “Such an exercise,” writes Kabat-Zinn in Coming to Our Senses, “just eating, just tasting, delivers wakefulness immediately: there is in this moment only tasting.” Eating one raisin thus provides students with a “present-moment experience.”
For those not attracted to the prospect of mindfully eating a raisin under the tutelage of a meditation master, other entry points are available. Bill Harris, founder and director of Centerpointe Research Institute, developed “Holosync,” a sort of fast-track meditation method. After 16 years of traditional mindfulness meditation, Harris began creating sound recordings that, based on research at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, produce the same brain patterns as meditation. In 1985, Holosync was born, a set of audio recordings now used by more than two million practitioners. Harris says listening to Holosync every day produces the same benefits as traditional meditation — but eight times as quickly.
Yoga offers another “doorway into stillness,” according to Kabat-Zinn. In fact, the physical practice of yoga first developed as a methodology to prepare the body and mind for long periods of seated meditation.
“For me, sitting still is one of the hardest things on the planet,” says Julie Lawrence, a long-time yoga teacher and founder, in 1976, of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center2 in downtown Portland. Nevertheless, Lawrence never misses her morning meditation session: “Even if I don’t have time for a physical yoga practice, I breathe and I sit. My day has a different rhythm if I do that.” Lawrence recommends yoga as a “gateway practice” to meditation. Yoga itself is a form of mindfulness practice, and the physical postures of yoga help condition and stabilize the body for sitting still.
Whether in yoga or in seated meditation, Lawrence says the “way in” is focusing on the breath. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen monk, author and spiritual leader, calls breathing “the link between our body and our mind,” a bridge that draws them back together. (See sidebar, page 20.)
Not everyone champions mindfulness. Critics point out the irony of packaging mindfulness — with its Buddhist origins, eschewing attachment — into a commodity. In “The Mindfulness Business,” critic Schumpeter blogs for The Economist that “Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change Eastern religion than Eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism.” Depending on whom you ask, the “McMindfulness craze” is “yet another banal, commercialized self-help consumer product,” a “boffo bestseller” in the corporate marketplace, or a Westernized form of “Buddhism lite.”
Writing for the Psychotherapy Networker, Mary Sykes Wylie notes how “meditation in America appears to have been individualized, monetized, corporatized, therapized, taken over, flattened, and generally co-opted out of all resemblance to its noble origins in an ancient spiritual and moral tradition.”
Melanie McDonagh writes for The Spectator that “picking bits” from Buddhism “can be a more dangerous business than it seems.”
In his article on mindfulness instruction in law schools, Tim Iglesias questions whether Westerners are even capable of grasping the notion of a “practice” for its own sake. In the Western world view, practice “makes perfect” — or in other words, conveys a benefit. We may have difficulty conceiving of practice as an end in itself.
But Judi Cohen, who after 30 years of lawyering now makes her living teaching mindfulness, rejects the idea of such a fundamental misunderstanding. “Our minds all work the same way,” she explains, emphasizing that Warrior One’s mindfulness programs are not courses in Buddhism but rather training in techniques that are universally beneficial, particularly to lawyers.
Bill Harris, developer of the “Holosync” meditation tool, thinks the notion of “practice” is pretty simple. Because the human brain is plastic, anything a person does repeatedly — any thought, feeling or movement — changes the brain. “If you are skeptical a lot,” says Harris, “your brain gets really good at being skeptical. If you are anxious, your brain turns over more and more real estate toward being anxious.” Similarly, the meditating brain learns, over time with regular practice, to be mindful.
Julie Lawrence, who began doing yoga in 1968, understands the value of practice for its own sake. What gives a practice power, she says, is the act of “coming back over and over and over again.” According to Lawrence, it is that act of dedication, over a long period of time, that allows the practitioner to develop trust in and loyalty to the “essential self.”
The Happiest Man in the World
Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson studies “neuroplasticity,” the way the brain changes in response to experience. Since 2002, he has used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity in Tibetan Buddhist monks supplied by the Dalai Lama. Davidson has found significant differences in the monks’ brains compared to a control group of subjects with no meditation experience. For example, expert meditators showed less activity in the amygdala in response to emotional stimuli, suggesting that meditation decreases emotionally reactive behavior, and 30-fold increases in gamma wave production, indicative of brain plasticity and heightened awareness. The monks’ brains also showed greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the region associated with happiness and joy.
One of Davidson’s subjects is a monk from the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, a 69-year-old Frenchman with a doctoral degree in genetics from the Institut Pasteur. His name is Mattieu Ricard and, according to Davidson’s research, his brain’s happiness indicators are off the charts. Ricard’s secret: He has spent 40 years — about 40,000 hours — meditating.
For lawyers whose professional and personal obligations might make 40,000 hours of meditation impractical, there is good news. Research by Davidson and Kabat-Zinn demonstrated a higher degree of happiness-related left-brain activation after only an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. (Coming to Our Senses 368-375.) Not only that, but the brain effects persisted at a four-month follow-up, and the meditating study group showed a stronger immune response when given a flu vaccine.
Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, who has also researched the brain effects of long- and short-term meditation, described similar findings in an interview with the Washington Post. After an 8-week meditation course — about 30 minutes each day — Lazar’s subjects showed alterations in brain volume in five different regions.
Mindfulness, says the Happiest Man, “is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are.”
1. Warrior One offers mindfulness training programs to individual attorneys, law firms and organizations, focusing on helping lawyers develop resilience and, consequently, to become more effective. The company’s clients include the Facebook legal team, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office and the New Mexico Public Defenders.
2. Julie Lawrence Yoga Center, 1020 S.W. Taylor St., Suite 780, Portland; www.jlyc.com; (503) 227-5524.
Mara Carrico, “A Beginner’s Guide to the History of Yoga,”Yoga Journal (Aug. 28, 2007) (available at www.yogajournal.com/article/ beginners/the-roots-of-yoga).
Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz, “Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation,” IEEE Signal Process Mag. (Jan. 1, 2008).
Thich Nhat Hanh,Peace Is Every Step (1991).
Bill Harris,The New Science of Super-Awareness (2015).
Tim Iglesias, “Offering and Teaching Mindfulness in Law Schools” (available at http://lawblog.usfca.edu/lawreview/wp-content/ uploads/2015/03/Iglesias_FinalPDF.pdf).
Jon Kabat-Zinn,Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (2005).
Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path (2000).
Tyger Latham, “The Depressed Lawyer: Why Are So Many Lawyers So Unhappy?”Psychology Today (May 2, 2011) (available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-matters/201105/the-depressed-lawyer).
Melanie McDonagh, “Mindfulness Is Something Worse Than Just a Smug Middle-Class Trend,”The Spectator (Nov. 1, 2014).
Anna Stolley Persky, “Keep Calm and Practice Law: Mindfulness in the Legal Profession,”Washington Lawyer (March 2015).
Scott L. Rogers, “Mindfulness in Law,” in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness, Amanda Ie, Christelle T. Ngnoumen, Ellen J. Langer, eds. (2014).
Jeffrey B. Rubin, “The McMindfulness Craze: The Shadow Side of the Mindfulness Revolution,”Truthout (Jan. 4, 2015) (available at www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28278-the-mcmindfulness-craze).
Brigid Schulte, “Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain,” Washington Post(May 26, 2015) (available at www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your -brain/).
Schumpeter, “The Mindfulness Business,” The Economist (available at www.economist.com/node/21589841).
Frankie Taggart, “This Buddhist Monk Is the World’s Happiest Man,” Business Insider (Nov. 5, 2012).
Mary Sykes Wylie, “How the Mindfulness Movement Went Mainstream — And the Backlash That Came With It,”Psychotherapy Networker (Jan. 29, 2015) (available at www.alternet.org/personal-health/how-mindfulness-movement-went-mainstream-and-backlash-came-it).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennie Bricker is a Portland-area attorney in private practice (Jennie Bricker Land & Water Law, jbrickerlaw.com) and also a freelance writer doing business as Brick Work Writing & Editing LLC. She can be reached at (503) 928-0976 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2015 Jennie Bricker