The Happy Lawyer?


The other night I attended a training session at the New York City Bar Association called “Happiness for Lawyers: Mindfulness and Emotional Skills to Improve Our Professional Life (and Make us Happier).” As I was leaving, the security guard remarked that all the participants walking out of the room had a smile on their face. “That’s not the way they looked when they got here,” he said. “I guess it works.”

I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s rare that I leave a meeting of lawyers smiling. I guess it’s pretty rare for others, too, since this security guard works at the City Bar Building, which houses events for lawyers all day.

There’s something about gathering a roomful of people, whether lawyers or anyone else, for the purpose of observing and settling your minds that has a naturally calming effect. Instead of focusing on some external problem to be battled or solved, which is what lawyers normally do, we were focused on just being aware of the anxiety caused by always having to solve people’s problems.

Lawyers are famously depressed and anxious, compared to people in other professions. Robert Chender, a longtime mindfulness teacher and lawyer who led the bar association training, explained why: our role as lawyers is mostly to worry. It’s to anticipate the worst that can happen and try to prevent it. While that may sometimes work to the benefit of our clients, it tends to spill over into our lives and make us chronically stressed out. Not only is it stressful to always focus on the worst that can happen; you come to believe that bad things predominate – in other words, you become a pessimist. (Or you already were a pessimist, and that’s why you were attracted to being a lawyer.) Ultimately, it’s a stressful and depressing way to live.

On top of that, lawyers have a tendency toward perfectionism. We might like to call that “detail-oriented,” and it can be useful if you’re writing a brief or researching a legal argument. But if you insist on everything being perfect in every aspect of your life, and that those around you have to be perfect as well, that’s a recipe for misery. Nobody’s perfect. You’ll always be disappointed.

We’re not doomed to depression or anxiety, though. By becoming aware of how our minds work and the thoughts that lead us astray, we can develop the capacity to have a choice: in a particular situation, do we want to assume the worst, or demand perfection, or not?

Context matters. If you’re drafting a contract you might well want to at least consider the worst, and protect against it, and triple-check the details. But if you’re home with your family or out with friends, worrying the worst will happen or demanding a perfect experience can put a real damper on your (and others’) ability for enjoyment. The key is to be aware when you’re mind is automatically taking you there.

The antidote to all this, of course, is mindfulness training. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see our thoughts and consider whether they reflect something real or imagined, and whether an impulse that follows them is one we want to act on or not. Mindfulness training usually includes some form of sitting meditation, as well as other simple practices you can use throughout the day. One is just to stop yourself when you feel a strong emotion and an impulse to act on it. Before acting, pause, take a deep breath, and let yourself feel the emotion as a physical sensation. Drop the story you’re telling yourself about it. Just experience the sensation. Now, you’ve calmed the stress centers in your brain enough to more carefully consider how you want to respond.

In fact, researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can create physical changes in the brain, increasing gray matter in parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

There’s a growing movement of mindfulness for lawyers — one I wish had existed back when I was first entering the legal profession. It’s more than self-help, though:  mindfulness not only makes lawyers happier; it helps our clients and colleagues as well.



A Question About Meditation

meditationI like to read about meditation – the shelf on my night-table is filled with books by Pema Chodron, Mark Epstein, and various other Buddhist-inspired meditation teachers, whose words and ideas I find soothing, especially before bed. But actually sitting on a cushion and meditating every day? Not so much.

I like meditating in groups, and I’ve enjoyed going to various meditation centers in New York City, which has plenty of them. But I can’t always get myself to a group sitting, and I’ve been especially reluctant this winter.

Meanwhile, I keep seeing new studies studies touting the benefits of meditation – to treat insomnia, reduce stress, improve creativity, even prevent brain shrinkage as we age. So lately I’ve been thinking I really ought to be more serious about doing it.

What I love about the books is learning about Buddhist philosophy and psychology, and its application to daily life. I’ve found the practice of mindfulness incredibly helpful, for example, in getting me to really pay attention to, and appreciate, what I’m doing at any time. I also think it’s invaluable for coaching – encouraging clients to slow down and experience the moment they’re in, or an event or emotion they’re struggling with, has immense benefits and can be really important to the ability to make lasting change.

But I’ve still found it hard to just sit for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes a day with my eyes closed, or staring at the floor, depending on the particular style of meditation involved. I sometimes meditate on the subway, which is always calming, and I’ll practice that kind of one-pointed concentration on the breath or on my movement when I’m running or at the gym or doing yoga, at least for short periods. I even use it to take a nap in the afternoon or fall asleep at night. It’s the sitting still part – and staying awake – that I have trouble with.

I imagine it’s because all my life, I’ve had the feeling that I’m supposed to be doing something – often, something other than what I’m doing. I remember in college, if it was a beautiful day outside and I was in the library studying, I’d feel like I should be doing something outdoors. If I was outside, say, hanging out with friends or going for a run, I would feel like I should be in the library studying.

Now, when I sit down to meditate, that struggle comes up constantly. I immediately think of all the other things I have to do. Within minutes I’ll find myself jumping up and making a to-do list.

I remember being on a weekend meditation retreat once at a retreat center in the picturesque Hudson Valley, and telling the meditation teacher in my interview that I was wondering the whole time why I was sitting on the floor inside all weekend, when I could be outside doing something. He just smiled his wise smile, and told me that was okay, I can just let myself feel that. That sort of helped.

I know it’s in part the way I was raised – in a very traditional, achievement-oriented Jewish immigrant family, where we were always expected to be doing something aimed at achieving some concrete, demonstrable result – studying or practicing the piano, for example. That attitude helped us get into good colleges and graduate schools and landed us professional degrees and accolades, but I think both my brother and I still have a hard time settling down – accepting and appreciating things as they are — just being, as the Buddhists would say. Which is a problem. Because we can’t, and we won’t, always be achieving something. And even if we are, we likely won’t be achieving it as much or as well as we want to, or we’ll be thinking we really ought to be achieving something else.

One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is that life is filled with a “pervasive feeling of unsatisfactoriness,” as the Buddhist psychoanalyst Mark Epstein describes it in his book, Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, about his own exploration of Buddhism and psychology. “We want what we can’t have and we don’t want what we do have; we want more of what we like and less of what we don’t like.” Seeing this clearly is part of the point of meditation – to illuminate how our minds work and cause us suffering. The idea is that if you see your mind doing this – and as in my retreat, it will start doing this pretty quickly when you sit to meditate – we’re able to recognize those as just thoughts, not necessarily “truths” – and create some space around them, lessening their grip. I understand and appreciate the theory, and it’s helped me become more aware of my thoughts (including the absurd and dysfunctional ones), which has been really helpful. But I still can’t get myself to sit down and meditate every day.

What are other people’s experiences with this? Do you need to have a formal practice of daily sitting meditation to truly incorporate mindfulness and its insights into your life? I’d really like to know.

Should You Go on a News Diet?

image_83A couple of years ago, I went on a silent meditation retreat after a particularly grueling period of work. I had just returned from a week at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where I was monitoring hearings for prisoners stuck in indefinite detention. It was all pretty depressing. So I’d decided to take a break. But even on retreat in the Berkshires in February, I couldn’t help checking my e-mail and news feeds. The drumbeat of bad news was continuing, and what was I doing isolating myself in the mountains?

One afternoon, Jack Kornfield, the renowned Buddhist meditation teacher who was leading the retreat, gave a talk about the importance of checking out sometimes – turning off the news and maybe listening to beautiful music or just enjoying silence for a while. While I appreciated the sentiment, I also thought to myself: “that’s fine for other people, but I have to know what’s going on for my job – and besides, how irresponsible to just cut ourselves off from the real world!”

Determined to tell Kornfield that this just wasn’t possible, I lined up to speak to him after his talk, and explained my dilemma. He smiled his wise and kindly smile, looked me in the eye and said: “you need to go on a news diet.”

Kornfield’s prescription was to cut news out of my life for 3 days a week. I listened and nodded politely, but I thought “I’ll never do that.”

I’ve thought about his advice a lot since then. I realized he was right — I needed to seriously limit the amount of time I was spending reading and listening to and watching the news. The onslaught had become toxic, and it wasn’t helping me or anyone else do anything to change it.

It’s a fine balance – between burying your head in the sand to take care of yourself, and being so alert to the problems of the world that you unwittingly bury yourself under their weight. It’s not an easy balance to find. But it’s really important.

In journalism school I had a professor who used to say “you are what you read.” She was referring to the quality of the writing, of course, but it’s equally true for the subject matter. Not surprisingly, psychologists have studied the impact of following all that bad news and found it causes major physical and psychological stress. images

I think it was the Dalai Lama who pointed out that we shouldn’t be too discouraged by all the bad news we hear these days, because the fact that it’s on the news is itself a positive sign: it means it’s an event that’s unusual, and hence, newsworthy. It’s not like everyone out there is killing and raping and pillaging; and that’s why those that are make the headlines.

That might not seem like much comfort, but it’s a truism of the media that “if it bleeds it leads.” And with the 24-hour online, cable and social media news cycle, we can easily become engulfed in it. But if you immerse yourself only in the day’s headlines, you’re not experiencing “reality” any more than you would be if you immersed yourself only in the sounds of birds and waterfalls. They’re all real. It’s a question of what you want to focus on.

I’m not advocating focusing just on birds and waterfalls. Being aware of the Ebola crisis in Africa, wars in Iraq and Syria, terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and global warming all over allows us to make informed choices about how we live – and whether and how we might affect any of those situations. We can support aid or peace organizations, vote for anti-war candidates, and reduce our energy consumption, to name a few examples. But it’s also important to allow ourselves the space to rise above the bad news, to notice and seek out good things happening in the world, so we can consider alternatives and what role we want to play. Sure, our government is at war, but there also people volunteering their time to tutor people in prison, deliver meals to the homebound, or just clean up the neighborhood. And that’s inspiring.

It was on that same retreat with Jack Kornfield that I remember being struck by the thought, during a silent walking meditation in the snow, that I needed to allow more beauty into my life.

When I got home to Brooklyn, I enrolled in a life drawing class – returning to a way of honoring beauty that I’d loved when I was younger but had given up as an adult. And I eventually decided to study coaching — connecting with people in a positive way to help them discover what makes them happy and hopeful.

I rarely manage to pull off three whole days a week without news, but I’ve gotten much better at shutting it off in the evenings and on weekends. I’m also careful to not check my Facebook or Twitter news feeds too often, which can feel like another kind of assault. Sometimes, it’s important to create temporary barriers to limit the stuff bombarding us from outside in order to have enough quiet space inside to consider and make real choices: How do I want to live? Where do I want to focus my attention? And how can I really make a difference?