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Mindfulness Matters – by Karen Munoz

So much has been artfully written over the last several years about mindfulness, civility, and its impact on lawyer well-being. You might be reading this and thinking, not another one! But mindfulness and its benefits cannot be understated. In this article we will touch on ways mindfulness can be applied to positively impact our practice. There is research that shows a practice of mindfulness reduces stress and promotes clarity[1]. It can reduce our time spent in judgment and provide insight into the way our minds tend to work and what patterns our thoughts take. The application of mindfulness in our law practice has the potential to enrich our work and interactions with one another, and ultimately benefit those we serve and our system of justice. Civility can be positively affected the more we apply it in our practice. How? Well, we know that civility and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness influences civility and in turn reduces stress. It makes for more balanced lawyers.

What is mindfulness?

You can ask ten people and it’s likely you get ten different answers. An overarching theme though, is the ability to connect to the present moment and observe our experiences as they are, moment to moment, without judgment. A general way of describing it is the “knowing of what is going on, inside and outside of ourselves, moment to moment”. Mindfulness is not to be confused with mindlessness. We are not tuning out, rather we are actively working on connecting to our breath.  While it may seem like inaction from the outside, it is quite the opposite. It is seeing and knowing where our thoughts lie moment to moment.  At its core, mindfulness, is a way to find a connection with our inner selves. It is a way to find calm; a way for us as lawyers, judges, and law students to become clearer. It helps us be present.

How do we get there? Classically it has been through a meditation practice. Meditation, because externally it appears as if one is simply sitting, sometimes causes people to be wary and to shy away from trying it. As busy professionals, who has time to sit and breathe? Although it takes a focused intention to turn our attention inward, that effort is worth our time. Studies show that those with a consistent practice report feeling a decrease in anxiety and negative affect[2]. So, how do we begin to cultivate mindfulness in our daily lives? How can we work towards improving civility? It begins with paying attention. It starts with awareness, with paying attention to our breath and observing what comes up. Meditation is also but one path to tapping into our awareness. Yoga is a frequently used path because it uses the poses to create a conscious connection between the breath and the body. Same with many other activities such as tai chi, swimming and running.  It can be any activity where we can get out of our heads because our presence is required. Very simple ways to tap into the breath is to sit and close the eyes.  Concentrate on inhaling for 3-5 counts, exhaling for the same amount. Anytime thoughts or to-do lists start to appear, return to the breath. Use the breath to turn down the volume of the information playing through your mind like commercials. Keep focused on the breath and notice how the body begins to loosen up. Just a few minutes a day can be very beneficial and really can be practiced anywhere.

When we sit with our thoughts, we are able to become aware of our reactions. That sometimes can be half the battle. When we sit back and view our days objectively, so many of us are on autopilot. It’s the days where we don’t remember driving to work, or what we ate for lunch, or did we even eat lunch? We move from case to case, task to task, without examining our participation and responses in those events. When we sit down and really look at our days at work, we tend to be pulled in so many different directions. So many projects, tasks, commitments, and conflicts. When we meditate, we can create distance between our reactive states and move towards a more responsive and calm state.

As an example, think about a situation that may provoke anxiety or anger before it even happens. It can be returning an email you have been avoiding or preparing to attend a deposition where the opposing counsel’s favorite word is objection. What tends to happen to us physically and mentally as we just think about these future events? We lose perspective frequently. We go into fight or flight mode. We may get anxious. Think how often we are constantly reacting, how we let events control us, how we respond to those who press our buttons, without sometimes really thinking it through. Think about what happens physically? The breath is the first thing to go. It gets out of balance, it speeds up. We might start to shake with anger, sweat, your face might get red. Your heart might pound. This is stress. Then what happens? Something might come out of your mouth that is reactive and impulsive and not at all how you wanted to respond to the situation. You might lose your patience and temper and immediately regret having come across in a certain manner. You might avoid the conflict all together, putting to the side something that needs an answer.  None of these scenarios truly serve the goal in achieving equanimity and justice. We don’t put our best selves forward when we do react in impulse or negativity. We don’t lawyer our best when we are reactive. Also prolonged stress is terrible for our well-being.

Meditation as a tool

Cultivating a mindful practice provides us with tools to fight against these responses that may cause us harm when we encounter them repeatedly[3]. We cannot avoid stressful situations (that would be to avoid life), but we can learn to respond more intentionally. We can train our minds to be balanced. We can use the breath to interrupt our reactive nature. When we can slow down and disrupt our thoughts, we are able to respond mindfully. When we move away from constantly reacting, we are able to better assess and respond in a way that is likely to produce a better result. More importantly, over time we begin to see the differences in our responses and communications with others when we spend more time in that space between reaction and response.

Meditation is a tool that helps us create a metaphorical pause button. This pause allows us to move away from negativity, which may be our immediate reaction to a stressful situation, and for civility to grow. And through a mindful practice we can learn to stretch the pauses longer and longer to make room for introspection. It allows us to think through our responses and again, over time, we notice that the way we would have reacted would not have benefitted anyone.  We learn to recognize familiar emotions that arise from stressful situation, and we find a choice in allowing the emotions to consume us or to let them go. We may also begin to see the other side of the conflict, or we find it easier to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we see the other side because we aren’t so consumed with our own beliefs, we become more likely to find solutions that work as opposed to only seeing your own side and wanting to be right and win at the expense of everything else. These skills enable us to be thoughtful in our responses and naturally civility increases[4]. The benefits of a mindfulness practice work well in deescalating or working through conflict to cut through what matters. It can loosen our mind’s attachment to old thinking patterns that aren’t helpful and makes room for other qualities to surface to the forefront, such as tolerance, kindness, and compassion. Mindfulness, even in small doses, can increase empathy and compassion while decreasing stress and anxiety. There is a belief by some that these qualities make us less effective advocates. In reality and in practice, cultivating a mindful mindset can only help us become better lawyers. It opens up space for thinking clearly and grows professionalism.

Additionally, a profession where mindfulness and civility are deeply rooted can only further benefit new members of the bar. Mentoring young lawyers is key to a successful and thriving profession. Think back early on to your first days and weeks as new lawyer. It was the rare case where we weren’t absorbing everything we saw and heard our mentors and bosses do. We dressed like them and tried to emulate their style of talking and writing. We also subconsciously took in how our bosses spoke to clients and opposing counsel or how they cross-examined a witness. And we copied how they did their job until we found our footing in the practice. If we learned aggressive and a hierarchical style, chances are that conduct rubbed off on us. Conversely a culture of collaboration and professionalism likely inspired empathetic advocates. At the end of the day, we all have to work towards a profession we can be proud of. One that prioritizes civility and respect for others. The practice of law can be stressful, given the nature of what we are tasked to do on a regular basis.  But a mindfulness practice can only help us as we cultivate collegiality and an atmosphere of cooperation. We can incorporate mindfulness into our own practices to ensure we all do our part to promote civility in the practice.  Civility as a core tenet of our profession can only strengthen and make our profession better for all stakeholders.

[1] Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis, Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 33, Issue 6, August 2013, Pages 763-771.
[2] Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being, A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, JAMA Intern Med. 2014.
[3] Amishi P. Jha, Scott L. Rogers & Alexandra B. Morrison, Mindfulness Training in High Stress Professions: Strengthening Attention & Resilience, MINDFULNESS-BASED TREATMENT APPROACHES: A CLINICIAN’S GUIDE (Ruth A. Baer ed., 2d ed.)
[4]  Jan L. Jacobowitz, Mindfulness and Professionalism, THE ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF A PROFESSIONAL LAWYER, 229, 230–32 (2013).

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