February’s Time magazine cover story was “The Mindful Revolution.” The word mindfulness seems to be the new, hot buzzword, making regular appearances in the New York Times, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and even the ABA magazine. There is even a weekend long conference in San Francisco dedicated to discussing mindfulness and looking for ways to cultivate it in our culture and in companies. The conference is called Wisdom 2.0 and this year, over 2,000 attendees will come and hear the gurus of mindfulness like Eckhart Tolle and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Companies across America are bringing mindfulness training program for its employees — Google, LinkedIn, General Mills, and even the NFL. Google’s in-house program was so successful that it is now a stand alone program, training people in the Search Inside Yourself program.
So, what exactly is mindfulness and why should lawyers care? The simple answer is that practicing mindfulness will help you be a happier human being and a better lawyer.
Let’s start by understanding the human physiological response to stress. Suppose you are in a heated conversation with your least favorite opposing counsel. Your brain — specifically the amygdala — sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. This triggers a chain of events in your body as it prepares for battle.
Your heart rate increases, and blood pressure goes up. Your breath gets shallow, and you start to breathe more rapidly. The extra oxygen increases alertness, sharpening your senses, such as sight and hearing. Your body also starts releasing stress hormones. Your blood moves from the core of your body to your extremities, stopping digestion. The body also releases sugar and fats from temporary storage. Your blood gets thicker, readying itself for rapid clotting in case of blood loss. All of this happens automatically and almost instantly. This is the fight-or-flight response.
The part of the brain that is involved in the fight-or-flight response is the hypothalamus, the oldest part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective. This automatic response has allowed the human species to survive for as long as it has. This reaction is great, and necessary if you are being attacked by a tiger, but it is not very useful when you are trying to resolve an issue with opposing counsel.
The problem with the fight-or-flight response is that it makes it difficult if not impossible to fully utilize the frontal cortex — the part of your brain responsible for executive functions and making good decisions as a lawyer. (As the name suggests, the frontal cortex is in the front of your head, behind the forehead.)
The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that should be in the driver’s seat when we are trying to resolve a dispute with opposing counsel. It is the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, making decisions, and moderating social behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, the frontal cortex is the new kid on the block. It is what sets us apart from other mammals. Unfortunately, when you are in fight-or-flight state, your frontal cortex takes a backseat to the hypothalamus.
Research indicates that there are specific tools you can use to halt the stress response, lower levels of the stress hormone, and recover more quickly from stress so you can access higher brain functions. This technique is known as mindfulness.
Impact of Mindfulness on Stress Situation
The practice of mindfulness is basically training for the brain (and mind). It is a tool we can use to calm the hypothalamus and allow the higher brain function to take place. All of us intuitively know that we function better when we are not stressed and in a panicked state. However, we may not have the tools to be able to calm ourselves in the moment.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. In my example above, when you are interacting with the opposing counsel, mindfulness allows you to respond thoughtfully instead of just reacting. When you are mindful, you are able to notice your emotional state in that moment. So instead of lashing out at opposing counsel in anger, you can pause (even if for a second) and simply acknowledge that you are angry. This ability to see your feelings and thoughts without getting carried away by them is the cornerstone of mindfulness practice.
Once you are able to see your own anger in the situation, you have the opportunity to choose your response. Maybe the best course of action is not to match opposing counsel’s anger and yell back. Maybe you can take a few deep breaths, give your nervous system a chance to recover, and then respond by saying “I can see we’re both very angry. I’d like to continue this conversation tomorrow.”
The ability to soothe yourself in the moment and avoid a knee-jerk reaction sounds great in theory, but it is incredibly hard to do. This is why mindfulness must be practiced and cultivated.
Rewiring Your Brain
Numerous studies suggests that mindfulness decreases stress and anxiety. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs are being taught all across the country, from elementary schools to hospitals — even to law schools. What the data indicates is that meditation can actually rewire your brain, creating new neural pathways and increasing brain density and grey matter.
Studies also indicate that you do not have to be a zen master or go on a year-long retreat to gain these benefits. It is possible to make these shifts in as little as 8 weeks. Consider the impact on your life if you could have a different response to a stressful situation. By rewiring your brain, you can tap into all of your internal resources and increase resilience.
The way you react to a particular situation is based on how your brain is wired. Your brain may already be wired to react negatively, with anger and hostility, to opposing counsel because of something he said or did years ago. Each time you interact with him, the same buttons are triggered. If you could rewire your brain, you could lessen the impact of those feelings.
How to Practice Mindfulness
There are two primary ways to practice mindfulness: formal and informal practice.
The formal practice is meditation. Meditation allows you to turn your attention inward and notice your internal state. Often, we miss the internal cues about what is happening inside of us. This is especially true for lawyers, where ideas like noticing feelings is frowned on.
We may be able to temporarily fight through our anger, anxiety, hostility, but soon or later those feelings will catch up to us. During meditation, you simply observe your emotional reaction — as if you are watching a movie. Imagine that you are watching a scary movie. Even though you may experience sensations of feeling scared, there is a detached part of you that recognizes that these feelings aren’t real because it is just a movie. Similarly, during meditation, we learn to recognize just because we feel angry doesn’t mean we should react in anger.
Here are the four basic steps to practicing meditation.
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Turn your attention to your breath. Notice the air moving in and out of your body.
- As thoughts arise, simply notice the thoughts, let them go, and return your attention to your breath.
As you practice this technique, you will become more skilled at observing your emotions, feelings, and thoughts without reacting to them. Most of us can think of a time when we were so blind with anger that we reacted in a way we regretted later. When you are mindful, you can pause, even if it is for a split second, before you react. It is sort of like counting to 10 before you respond when you are angry. It gives you a moment of clarity in which you can see the situation from an objective point of view, instead of through your emotions.
Bringing Mindfulness into Everyday Life
The informal practice is the all the time you spend doing something other than meditating.
You can practice mindfulness anywhere and any time. For example, instead of having your mind fly off into 50 directions when you are in the shower, you can practice mindfulness. Notice the sensations of being in the shower. Notice the temperature of the water. Feel the water running over your body. Smell the shampoo, conditioner, and soap. Being mindful allows you to be in the present moment. These simple acts are what rewire your brain and increase executive function.
Mindfulness reduces the endless thought loop where we are obsessively thinking about some future event (or past event) that is completely beyond our control. Mindfulness practice lets us focus our attention on the things we can control and let go of those things that are beyond our control.
You can also practice mindfulness when you are in the courtroom. Really pause to hear opposing counsel’s argument, and be in the moment instead of coming up with your rebuttal after you have heard only a small fraction of the argument. Once you have heard and understood opposing counsel, you can take a few breaths and formulate your response.
All of us have had days where we bring stress home with us. Practicing mindfulness allows you to leave more worries behind, because being mindful means focusing on the present moment. Instead of going over something the judge said at the hearing, you can tune into what is happening at the moment.
Mindfulness is a Practice
Just like law, mindfulness is a practice. It is not something you achieve or accomplish after a couple of tries. Somedays, the practice is easier. Other days, it is harder. The fundamental aspect — observing the present moment without preference or judgement — is very simple but difficult to cultivate. As with anything, practice makes it easier. The more you exercise your mindfulness muscle, the easier it becomes. The more you can tune into each moment with clarity and calmness, the better you will be able to respond. In addition, when things do not go your way or take an unexpected turn, you will be able to stop yourself from going into full panic mode. You can stop your emotions from spiraling out of control.
It is ironic that lawyers are paid to use their brains all day long, but are never given the tools to get the lizard brain out of the driver’s seat. Shouldn’t the parts of our brain responsible for higher function to be able to operate at their peak?
With the constant distractions in our lives from email, Facebook, Twitter, and all the bells and buzzes of our smartphones, our attention is being pulled into so many directions. The ability to stay in the moment of whatever task at hand is a crucial skill. How often do you sit down to write a memo only to find yourself off-task a few minutes later? In meditation, we are training our brain to come back to the task at hand — focusing on the breath. Similarly, we can use this skill to bring ourselves back from the distractions.
Finally, the practice of mindfulness is the perfect compliment to the practice of law. As lawyers, we love taking control. Often, we make ourselves anxious and stressed by worrying about things that are completely out of our control. In any given case, we generally do not have any control over the law, or the opposing side, or even our clients. That really limits the thing we can control to ourselves.
I have found that the hardest part of practicing mindfulness is making it a practice. Like all habits, it requires a commitment and, to a certain extent, a leap of faith. It is similar to starting an exercise program. In order to gain the benefits, you have to practice regularly. However, like any new habit, the key is to manage your expectations so that it is achievable. Just as you cannot go from being a couch potato to running a marathon, you have to ease into mindfulness. The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours cross-legged, eyes closed, on a meditation cushion. You can easily practice meditation at your office, sitting on your office chair, for a few minutes a day.
Featured image: “Head and shoulders portrait of a serene young professional woman” from Shutterstock.