Vermont Bar Journal
Summer 2007 - #8.
The Mindful Lawyer: Mindfulness Meditation and Law Practice
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL SUMMER 2007
The Mindful Lawyer: Mindfulness Meditation and Law Practiceby J. Patton Hyman, Esq.
What is an article on meditation doing in a bar journal? Why are mainstream firms and law schools offering classes in meditation? What is meditation anyway, and what could it possibly have to do with practicing law? This article will offer answers to these questions--and if you wonder whether meditation might enhance your legal practice, read on. We will first look at the "remedial" aspect of meditation, the aspect most familiar to the public at large: meditation as stress-buster or as a way of managing the pressures of life. But beyond the salutary effect of "fixing what ails us," meditation offers other benefits. We will explore how becoming familiar with one's mental patterns undermines ingrained habits and strengthens our awareness. We will learn how recognizing our own patterns can help us deal with others and examine how the abilities cultivated by meditation can benefit us--and our clients--in real-life situations.
Stress in Law Practice
It is common knowledge within the bar: the practice of law is stressful. Anecdotal evidence of this has been confirmed by empirical studies in which depression, substance abuse, domestic difficulties, and other stress-related syndromes are shown to be significantly more common among lawyers than in the population at large.(fn1) We lawyers also know--although we may not express it as frequently-- that the practice of law can be rewarding as well, professionally and personally. But the pervasiveness of stress in law practice is probably underestimated, especially when it is associated only with "negative" situations. Losing a client is obviously stressful, but getting a new one introduces its own constellation of pressures: Will I please the client? Do I have the staff to handle the volume of work? Will staff balk at the increased workload? Will the client complain about our billings? Will we win the case? These are all connected with issues of professional success, and living up to success is also stressful.
Outside the specific details and issues of law practice itself, employee relations within law firms are often contentious, as may be the periodic negotiations with our partners over the division of firm income, not to mention balancing the demands of a personal life with those of our profession. In short, we will never be free of stress; the question is how we manage to live with it.
Responding to the pressures and opportunities of practice, for some time professional organizations such as the Vermont Bar Association have offered counseling programs for attorneys. A more recent development in addressing these issues is the use of mindfulness meditation, which, in addition to being introduced to lawyers and law students,(fn2) has also been applied in a variety of other activities, from medicine to golf to the Green Berets.(fn3)
What is Meditation and Does It Matter?
Meditation has a fairly recent history in the Americas and Europe. What are its nature and purpose? "Meditation" itself is a word with many meanings. In conventional usage it simply means contemplating a particular topic, considering it thoroughly. But meditation, as introduced into Western societies during the past several decades, refers to a practice of mind training that is new to contemporary secular culture.
Although religious contemplatives, often in monastic settings, have long practiced meditation,(fn4) mindfulness meditation is essentially a non-religious (or religion-neutral) practice, in that it is a way of cultivating innate human qualities. And even when we limit its meaning to mind training, the term still covers a lot of different approaches, somewhat like the many different kinds of "contracts" or "pleadings."(fn5)
Mindfulness meditation has been described as "a friendly gesture toward ourselves in which we take time simply to be."(fn6) It is a way of learning how to be present as a person, finding a ground of "being" from which "doing" may arise more clearly and effectively. The point is not to cultivate a particular state of mind believed to be desirable, such as happiness or contentment, although they may be byproducts; rather, the mindfulness practitioner simply sits with whatever arises in his or her mind. (As mindfulness is most often practiced seated, it is often referred to as "sitting meditation" or simply as "sitting.")
By sitting in this way and observing mental events arising--whether as thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, sense perceptions, or daydreams--the mindfulness practitioner becomes familiar with the contents of mind and their patterns.(fn7) Deliberately boycotting the impulse to evaluate, change, or reject these contents, the practitioner learns to see them merely as phenomena that arise, dwell, and then pass away, much like scenery passing by.
Observing these mental contents, meditators frequently report a repetitive quality to their thoughts, sometimes called habitual patterns, like a tape loop or broken record; they also notice the inconsistent, helter-skelter character of the mental contents, often described as discursiveness. Somewhat to their surprise, meditators at times find themselves indifferent to what was previously compelling, while on other occasions being agitated by a thought that was previously reassuring. Noticing all this more clearly using mindfulness practice, we can begin to become familiar with the lay of our mental and emotional landscape.
Meditation and Stress
Mindfulness provides a perspective that undermines the tendency to identify with the contents of mind, to see the contents as oneself or an integral part of oneself. Such identification is a source of much of what we experience as stress, anxiety, fear, or other irritating or painful states.
Let's pause here to consider why identifying with one's thoughts might be stress-generating. In the simplest terms, seeing thoughts as a part of "myself" creates, almost as a reflex, a need to defend or justify the thought. After all, if the thought is "me" (or a valued part of "me") and the thought is flawed, conflicted, or incoherent...