Sit Down and Shut Up: My Experience with Meditation, Mindfulness, and a Radically Different Way to Work With Stress

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I have been practicing labor and employment litigation for ten years and have experienced more than my fair share of stress. All professions have their ups and downs. Legal work, however, can have its own stressors. Every day, we have to bring the energy to empathize with clients undergoing major upheavals in their lives. We also have to function while under the pull of constant, ever-conflicting demands: from clients, opposing counsel, bosses, judges, and of course, our (often neglected) friends and family. As much as we try to avoid personalizing the legal woes of our clients, that is a constant risk and a huge drain of energy. The fact that we, well, get into arguments with people for a living can be its own, unique stressor.

So how do we deal? We have many adaptive mechanisms, some of which are more skillful than others. Some of us live for the end of the work day or our next vacation, grasping at whatever we think will be more pleasurable than the practice of law (which, for some of us, is just about anything). The trouble with this “grass is always greener” attitude is that we often find that our work stressors have a habit of following us everywhere we go. The advent of the smart phone certainly doesn’t help – it’s like we have taken our most needy and annoying client with us on our trip to Hawaii. It’s also inevitable that these pleasurable experiences we long for won’t last and this can cause us some further stress. Think about your attitude on a Friday night versus a Sunday night if you would like an obvious example.

Some of us deal with the stress by dulling out. Modern life offers us so many opportunities just to forget about things. Have you noticed how many people on the train are completely glued to their phones? A llama on a unicycle could roll through the car, and maybe only one person out of fifty would notice. For lawyers, substance abuse is an increasingly common problem as more lawyers seek ways to dull themselves to the stress. Apart from the medical and social drawbacks of excessive substance use, there’s one less obvious danger: by dulling out, we miss our lives. We may be “just getting by,” but basically, we’re just asleep.

It seems like stress has followed me around like a loyal dog since graduating from law school. In addition to everyday work stress, I have also experienced a divorce, the challenges of being a single parent, and many other personal ups and downs. Many other lawyers have experienced the inevitable cycle of enthusiasm and burn-out, and the instability that can bring. Over the past ten years, I have also become an expert at misguided adaptation strategies. If it’s maladaptive and bad for you, I’ve done it. I suffered, my family suffered, and my clients suffered. It was not a healthy or enjoyable place to be.

Right in the middle of one of my more ill-advised quests for stress relief, I met another lawyer (and single parent of three) who practiced meditation and mindfulness. Prior to that point, I had never been a “spiritual person” and meditation seemed much too “out there” for me. However, since nothing at all was working in my life, there was nothing else I could really try. So, I simply decided to suspend my disbelief and give it a go. I found a meditation center, received some basic instruction, and sat down and shut up.
The type of meditation I learned and now practice derives from one of the Japanese traditions of Zen and is called “just sitting.” We take a specific sitting posture that helps with stillness and stability (which can be easily modified for sitting in a chair), face the wall, and keep our eyes open. Then what? I was surprised to learn that that’s basically it.

When we meditate, we’re not trying to get from Point A to Point B. Rather, we just sit with whatever arises, without grasping after the “good parts” and pushing away the “bad parts.” What arises? Anything. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Since we’re initially not used to sitting still for a long period of time, we often notice twinges in our knees and back more prominently than other things. We simply notice all of these things and let them fall away on their own, as they inevitably will.

What about thoughts? After we meditate for a while, we notice that thoughts are no different from any other sensation we notice while we sit – they come up, stay for a while, and then fall away. They’re a bit like passing weather. When we find ourselves caught up in a train of thought, we simply notice that and return our attention to the here and now. Meditation is not about stopping thought – since that would be impossible anyway – but it is about not being caught by thought. As a meditation teacher once said, “don’t believe everything you think!”
During meditation, we don’t judge ourselves, gauge how “well” we’re doing, or question whether we’re “doing it right.” We don’t have goals. Rather, we just rest in non-reactive presence. That’s it. A friend once said that meditation involves “giving the ego a busy signal” for a while, and I really like that analogy. We sit with no other purpose than just to sit, even though there is likely something more conventionally pleasurable or “productive” we could be doing.

As lawyers, virtually all of our professional activities are both analytical (we’re trying to figure out the best way to help our clients, win the case, one-up opposing counsel, etc.) and goal-oriented (we want to win the case, get the settlement, help make new law, etc.) Come to think of it, most of our personal activities are both analytical and goal-oriented as well. Since meditation is neither analytical nor goal-oriented, it’s probably one of the most counter-intuitive, radical, and refreshing things we could ever do. It completely turns our drive on its head. Since lawyers are notoriously driven people, dropping that drive for even a few moments can bring a tremendous sense of relief.

Of course, even though we do not sit in meditation with any particular goal in mind, meditation has obvious benefits. Most people report feeling significantly relaxed after they first attempt meditation. There have been numerous scientific studies detailing its positive effect on the brain. It helps with concentration, helps teach us about the inevitable nature of change, and helps us to see the insubstantial nature of our thoughts. Lawyers in the midst of a feud with opposing counsel could particularly benefit from this last one!

I now meditate on a daily basis, work one-on-one with a Zen teacher, and practice periodically at a Zen monastery. Admittedly, I have taken things a little overboard. However, we do not need to do any of those things to benefit from meditation and mindfulness.

I look forward to offering basic mindfulness meditation instruction at the upcoming Alliance for Women monthly meeting and to help introduce lawyers struggling with stress to this practice. If you have any questions about mindfulness, meditation, or attorney stress relief, please contact me.