TBA Law Blog


Posted by: Pat Blankenship on Sep 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Sep 2016

Journal Name: September 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 9

The practice of law is stressful.  Lawyers get paid to enter into the fray of conflict, to expect and prepare for the worst case scenario. We are under great pressure to bill more hours, to work more, relax less. Technology keeps us constantly tuned in. There are myriad ways to mess it up, break a rule, miss a deadline, or fail to be as persuasive as we must. We seek and expect perfection of ourselves, and so do our clients.  We work in a full-on state of “defensive” lawyering all day long, every day, dropping down into survival mode and staying there. 

The stress is taking a toll on us. Recent studies show that we are more and more likely to fall into addictive behaviors, and our profession now has the highest rate of suicide in the United States. Bar associations are putting assistance programs into place to assist lawyers who are struggling with emotional, physical and mental difficulties, and the American Bar Journal is publishing articles about managing your stress through mindfulness.  But what does that mean?  What is mindfulness?   

Mindfulness is the intentional act of paying attention to, focusing on, the present.  It is intentionally releasing what may have happened before and what may happen after in order to focus on what is happening now.  Being mindful is being fully present in any one given moment, being aware of that moment, taking note of your surroundings, your feelings, or your body.  It is choosing to be aware rather than running on auto pilot.  You have experienced mindfulness when you were thoroughly engaged and engrossed in a project and time passed quickly and your mind was completely occupied by the work at hand.  You may also have experienced mindfulness in the joy of playing with a small child or while standing at the top of a mountain and looking out at the beauty all around you. On those occasions when the mind is completely attentive to this moment, when fear or worry or anxiety or anticipation or regret cannot and do not wander in, that is mindfulness.

So what, then, is mindful meditation? Mindful meditation is the intentional act of bringing your mind’s focus and attention to the breath for a period of time. This mindfulness allows you to think only of the breath for those moments, to the exclusion of any other thought, plan, fear, worry or dream. You decide to watch the breath happen. You choose to appreciate the mechanics and physicality of the breath. You intentionally become mindful of and grateful for the power of the breath to deliver life, energy and healing to your body.

How do you cultivate mindfulness and meditate on the breath?

Choose a time of the day when you can devote about 10 minutes to the practice. It may be at the very beginning of your day. It may be on your lunch hour. It may be the last thing you do each day. But these 10 minutes should belong to you and only you.  Turn your attention and your focus to your meditation practice for this same brief period every day. Show up for yourself over and over again, and if you miss it one day, just show up the next.

Find a place to be quiet and alone—your favorite chair, your study, your patio, your office.  Sit on a rock in the woods or lie down on a mat in the sun. Meditation can happen in any place and any position that allows you to become aware of the breath. Most practitioners sit on the floor, on a cushion, or on a comfortable chair. But others like to lie down on their backs, eyes closed. Lift the knees if you like, take the feet wide and let the knees fall in on themselves. Relax. Soften the lights. Play soft, soothing music if you like. Close the door, turn off the phone, close your eyes. Allow yourself to be off duty for these 10 minutes.  And then begin.

  • Step One:  Find mindfulness.  Now, having settled, begin to notice what is going on around you.  Become aware of the information your senses are bringing to you.
    • What do you hear?  Traffic noises?  Air conditioning?  Music?  Birds?  Focus on the sounds that surround you in this place and in this moment.
    • What do you feel?  Temperature?  The warmth and pressure of the hands as they touch each other or rest on your knees?  The cushion of the chair or the mat beneath you?  The cool breeze blowing across your skin? Focus on the sense of touch and notice what you feel.
    • What do you taste?  This morning’s coffee?  Your lunch?  Your toothpaste?  Is your mouth fresh from a recent mint?  What can your sense of taste tell you in this very moment?
    • Then notice, what do you smell?  Is there bread baking, or are there fresh flowers?  Do you notice the pungent aroma of sweat?  Aromatic incense?  An overflowing trash bin?  
    • And then, what do you see?  Even as the eyes are closed, notice what is there for you to observe behind the lids—colors?  Shapes?  Movement? A kaleidoscope of moving, changing colors and shapes, or the awareness of sunlight pouring into the room?  Focus your attention on these sights, these shapes, these colors, and watch to see how they change and shift before you.
  • Step Two:  Bring your attention to your body and find body awareness.  Begin to shift your focus away from this sensory information to focus on what is happening inside your body.
    • Notice, where are you in this space you are occupying?  If you are seated, are the shoulders hovering over the hips?  The head hovering over the shoulders?  Is the spine rising straight up out of the hips, or are you leaning forward?  Drop the shoulder blades down and toward the center of your back, creating space between the tops of the shoulders and the bottom of the ears, and notice the softening of the muscles in the shoulders.
    • Scan the body with your mind, checking in and finding those places where there might be tension or gripping. Can you soften?  Release?  Let the bones in your body do all the work as the muscles melt and dissolve toward the earth. Make small movements if necessary to entice the muscles to let go and release that tension.
    • Soften the muscles in the face, in the inner thighs, in the shoulders and the neck. Drop your chin just a bit toward your chest and feel the muscles on the back of the neck lengthen and stretch gently. Become heavy, letting the body sink toward the earth. Become fully aware of your body and particularly your softening and dissolving muscles and soft tissues.
  • Step Three:  Bring your attention to your breath. Begin to move through body awareness to breath awareness. With your eyes still closed, pay attention to the breath, take note of it, see it in your mind’s eye. Watch yourself breathe. Really, just watch your body breathe.
    • Inhale. Notice the cool, dry air as it crosses the nostrils, passes down through the back of the throat and into the bottom of the lungs. Exhale. Watch the warm, moist air pass back up out of the lungs, through the back of the throat again, and exit over the nostrils. Note the expansion and contraction of the lungs. Note the expansion and contraction of the rib cage. Note the rise and the fall of the chest or the belly.
    • Watch and allow yourself to breathe, and then watch and allow it again.
    • Breathe in. Breathe out. Turn your entire attention and focus to this process, and if your mind wanders, notice that too. Take note of where you found your mind wandering off to and then release that, bring your focus back to your breath. Watch yourself breathe. No judgment, just acceptance and allowing.  The very effort you make to watch yourself breathe for this few minutes is in fact mindful meditation.

You will be surprised how difficult this is, to train your mind’s eye on your own breath and keep it there. Ten minutes doesn’t seem like a long time to devote to the practice, but you may begin to notice that the chair gets harder and there’s an itch rising to the top of your toe. Maybe your partner’s complaint about your expense account keeps running through your head. Or your client’s difficult situation creeps in around the edges.  But don’t let that deter you. It happens to all of us.

Our minds are not trained to focus on one simple thing at a time. So if the chair becomes uncomfortable, try to sit through it for a moment, and if you can’t, shift a bit. If the itch rising to the top of your toe screams for your attention, sit with it for a minute, see if it subsides, and if not, touch that toe, stop the itch, and then return to your breath. And if you hear your partner’s voice in your head while you meditate, notice that and then let it go, release it, and turn back to your breath. This ten minutes is yours. No one else gets to come with you to your meditation. No one else gets to come into this time and this place.

This is about you. And it’s about your breath.

Why do this?  Why sit alone with eyes closed and watch yourself breathe for ten minutes?  Because you can create for yourself a moment of peace, a brief respite, a vacation from everything and everyone else in your world. It allows you to devote just these brief few minutes to self-care, and it teaches you to be fully present in the moment. Scientists tell us that in these minutes of self-care, the heart rate can slow, the body’s “fight or flight” physiology can stand down, and the body can approach a space of equilibrium.  The mind releases the huge concepts it must process every other moment of every day and processes instead the simple physicality of the breath.  Mindfulness expands from the ten minute meditation practice into the other parts of our lives. We begin to grow toward peaceful mindfulness in our law practices, our business decisions, our relationships, our lives.

Breathe in and breathe out. Expand and contract. Inhale and exhale.

Just this. No more, no less than this, fully present, fully mindful of the breath.

Stress?  Managed. At least for this present moment.

You’re going to be fine.

RESOURCES

  • Kabot-Zin, John, Full Catastrophe Living, Bantam Dell (1990)
  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-matters/201105/the-depressed-lawyer
  • www.tlap.org
  • http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/how_lawyers_can_avoid_burnout_and_debilitating_anxiety        
  • http://www.abajournal.com/search/results/search&keywords=mindfulness/
  • http://www.tba.org/committee/attorney-well-being-committee

PAT BLANKENSHIP practiced law for 35 years as the managing member of Blankenship & Blankenship in Murfreesboro, Tenn.  In 2013, she turned in her law license for a yoga teaching certificate and has never looked back.  She has been practicing yoga, meditation and mindfulness for approximately 12 years and has been teaching for more than 3 years.  Her classes all begin and end with a few moments of mindful meditation, and she teaches her yoga classes as moving meditations, linking each movement to the breath and encouraging her students to “sink into” each pose, to take time to consciously and intentionally find all the benefit they can find in each pose. Over the course of the last several years, she has studied integrated nutrition, yoga therapy and alignment, Ayerveda and Hindu mythology, and she seamlessly incorporates all of these studies into a full and rich daily yoga and meditation practice.  She is currently enrolled in her 500-hour teaching certification and will graduate as a yoga specialist in 2017. 

She is a registered yoga teacher with The Yoga Alliance, and teaches Beginning Yoga in the Physical Education department at Middle Tennessee State University.  She is also affiliated with and teaches yoga and meditation classes for The Wellness Collective, Cleveland, Ohio, bringing health, wellness and fitness into the corporate office setting.