The Meditating Practitioner
About two years ago after returning from travels as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s attendant, I hung out my own shingle as a solo attorney with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I decided to take advantage of a service provided through the Washington State Bar Association for starting a law practice. After learning about the common obstacles associated with starting a new solo practice, I repeatedly thought to myself how grateful I am to have been meditating for the past ten years. I realized that the benefits derived through such a practice applied very specifically to each and every obstacle identified.
I was encouraged to reach out to other attorneys. This is when I connected with the Washington Contemplative Lawyers Group. Based on my discussions with them, it became clear that many Washington State attorneys are becoming interested in learning about the benefits of meditation.
Across the country, mainstream firms and law schools are beginning to offer classes in meditation. As a relatively experienced meditator and meditation instructor, I decided to get involved and contribute this article which was sent to the Contemplative Lawyer membership.
So, what is meditation and what are its benefits?
Initially, I want to dispel two common myths about meditation: 1) that the goal is to attain bliss or nirvana, and 2) that it is a religious exercise. Meditation is not about blanking out your mind and hence experiencing some pre-conceived notion of bliss or nirvana. Although many religions have indeed embraced meditation as a helpful practice, at its core meditation is a “secular” or religion-neutral practice.
Indeed, meditation is simply the process of repeatedly and intentionally placing one’s attention on an object. A common object of meditation is the meditator’s breath but it could literally be anything you can imagine. For example, a lot of people are not aware that they are meditating on anger and self-recrimination.
The universally cited benefit derived from meditating on something like the breath (as opposed to anger, etc.) is that one develops mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability of the mind to intentionally rest on an object. It is essentially the opposite experience of being discursive or feeling so overwhelmed that you can’t focus.
Through developing mindfulness, meditation practice gradually allows one to be more and more present. You become more fully aware of what is happening now. We all develop habitual patterns that encourage us to dwell in the past or project into the future: a rather stark example of this is when people drive home and then realize they don’t recall the experience of driving at all. Mindfulness counteracts this tendency through the repeated intention of being aware of the present moment without judgment.
This awareness of the present moment allows one to more fully experience the body and the outside world, as well as thoughts and emotions. So, in contrast to sleep-driving, a mindful driver is aware, moment by moment, of the changes in traffic, sunshine and shadows, the vibrations of the vehicle, her posture, etc. Moreover, because the present is so fleeting, the meditator is instructed to continuously remain open to the current experience, as opposed to the experience of the just prior moment, no matter how juicy or interesting. This method allows one to drop the tendency to become attached to a particular experience.
How is meditation helpful to the practice of law?
It is common knowledge that the practice of law is stressful. Studies have confirmed that lawyers suffer from depression, substance abuse, domestic difficulties, and other stress-related syndromes in significantly greater numbers than the general population. Of course, the practice of law can be extremely rewarding: I personally love being a lawyer and representing my clients. In fact, practicing law provides excellent opportunities to enjoy the fruits of meditation practice, as mentioned above in my consultation with the bar association.
I still recall my initial “breakthrough” on the meditation cushion with pride: I was yet again trying to remember that I was breathing while actually I was being distracted by a repetitive thought that was loaded with self-judgment. I must have had that same or similar thought about a billion times and I still felt drawn away by its power: the general feeling was that I was a bad person. And then realization struck: the thought is not me, it is just a thought. Somehow the realization pierced the feeling that I was a bad person – it was like drawing back a curtain, opening the window, and experiencing the warm sunshine and fresh air.
It sounds so simple but if you are being honest with yourself, you may find that you actually are almost continuously seduced into believing that the contents of your thoughts and the vividness of your emotions reflect a valid perception of yourself and the world around you. And if you are striving to be perfect, or believe that something bad is about to happen, or you just don’t have enough time to deal with one more stupid email, then it is all too easy to identify with these mental processes.
In short, without awareness, we may simply accept the feeling of self-loathing, or become paralyzed with fear, or lash out in anger. Its as if we are slaves to our own mental processes whether or not they are indeed valid. This can actually deeply impact our practice of law. For example, perhaps, like most people, you don’t appreciate having your integrity questioned. And so, in responding to a perceived personal attack to your honesty, you immediately write a blistering response chock full of invective and send the email. Such an act, like other countless acts may be performed without awareness of your true motivation: the clear issue is whether you are taking the time to rationally consider the pros and cons to your client before actually sending such an email.
The practice of meditation has forced me to become intimate with my habitual mental patterns. This intimacy allows me to gently watch them and then let them go. The practice, and it is a practice, is to simply rest and remain aware of how they arise and drift away while being present with gentleness and inquisitiveness. This intimacy, like any relationship founded on such principles, has bred trust and friendliness with myself. I identify more with simple awareness then the contents of my thoughts or even the seductive power of my emotions.
This has inevitably carried over to my law practice. I am more present with my clients: instead of impatiently waiting for a pause so I can interject, I can simply listen. I can feel compassion for opposing counsel as I can more easily put myself in their shoes and therefore have a better appreciation for their actions and arguments. When drafting a brief I can see how I am striving to find clarity when in fact that particular argument is a loser and I should move on. I can see how I am being defensive in front of the judge because of her tone of voice and that my reaction is only reinforcing her negative perception. The list goes on: whether acting as counselor, advocate, researcher, or even a businessperson, the ability to understand and experience equanimity towards your own and others’ motivations is extremely helpful.
Returning to the general stress of practicing law, I hope you can see how mindfulness can be helpful by counteracting the tendency to strictly and unknowingly identify with your mental processes. Empirical studies have found mindfulness to be helpful with daily and more intense stresses. Early research has also shown that mindfulness has been helpful for many people in reducing the symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression. Other studies have shown that mindfulness practices have helped with difficult relationships and overcoming conflict.
Learning to practice meditation
Although meditation sounds simple, when starting out I found it to be more difficult than the demands of law school. Looking at one’s own habitual patterns can be very painful. Moreover, meditation practice requires discipline. I often analogize the practice of developing mindfulness to developing a muscle. You don’t expect to get strong by going to the gym once and lifting an incredibly heavy weight. Instead, you need go to the gym consistently.
Meditation is a very personal experience and I believe that trying to learn the process from a book or other media is of limited utility. As such, I strongly encourage those who are interested in meditation or other mindfulness practices to find someone with personal experience who has had to relate with the common obstacles of developing a consistent mindfulness practice. In addition, because many people find meditation so difficult when starting out, it is also helpful to find support and encouragement from others.
Seattle in particular, and the Pacific Northwest in general, offer many resources for new meditators. You are also welcome to connect with the Washington Contemplative Lawyers Group or me.
In addition to meditation, other mindfulness practices are readily available including gardening, exercising, or anything that encourages you to be present. You can try it now by simply stopping, appreciating the feeling of your body, letting thoughts just happen and fall away, and returning to the feeling of the body. When you find yourself engaging in a commentary about what is happening, what has happened, or what will happen, gently recognize that and return to the feeling of the body. Repeat as necessary. It is both that simple and that difficult.
I want to wish you every success with the practices of mindfulness and law. Enjoy!
Greg Wolk is an attorney practicing in Seattle, Washington primarily representing employees in discrimination, retaliation, and wage disputes with employers. He has practiced meditation for ten years and recently traveled across the world for two and a half years as the senior attendant and counselor for his Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He currently teaches meditation and related classes at the Shambhala Center of Seattle and the downtown YMCA. He welcomes communications at [email protected].