1. Tell me about yourself and your work, both as a lawyer and yoga teacher.
I remember my law school admissions essay clear as day, although it was 23 years ago when I wrote it. I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to start a Filipino American Legal Defense Fund. I was living in New York City at the time and saw there was a great need for lawyers for community members on issues like immigration and employment, especially for domestic workers. But there were very few lawyers who looked like me and who came from my background who wanted to serve those who could not afford a lawyer.
So, I went to law school with a strong public interest focus. It was there at UCLA Law School that I also discovered Critical Race Theory. I’ve never looked back. In 2003, I received a scholarship from the California Bar Foundation. I am proud to say that now, 20 years later, I am leading that very same organization as its Executive Director. We are now called California ChangeLawyers. Our mission is to build a better justice system for all Californians.
I’ve always had an interest in yoga, but it was purely from a physical vantage point. I thought of it more as stretching than anything else. In 2016, I decided to take it to another level. I took a sabbatical from the civil rights nonprofit I was working for at the time, and decided to do an intensive immersion training program.
I crammed 200 hours into one month. This decision changed the course of my life. I learned so much more about what the true purpose of yoga is, how the physical is a doorway into a much deeper experience of self. I learned how to truly be a student. I love teaching yoga today, as well as mindfulness, because of the inherent benefits of practices that invite us to truly wake up and be fully present.
2. Politics and policy are challenging now on almost every level and may affect those doing any kind of social change work acutely. How have you been able to stay engaged as a citizen and lawyer?
What I try to do is be mindful in the everyday sense of being mindful, not just through seated meditation. I am aware of how I consume media and the torrent of bad news, and notice if I am starting to doom scroll. I feel like I have a strong North Star and so I try to keep looking up, rather than getting stuck in the energy of fear, worry, and doubt.
I pay attention to my words and what type of conversations I am having. I am trying more and more to show appreciation and gratitude for things that are easy to take for granted, like not having a toothache, or are neutral, like having a chair to sit on or a bed to lie in.
When I pay attention to these ways of being in the present moment, I am able to enter into “the real world” with more calm and understanding, and less judgment and feelings of being wronged or overwhelmed. I find that when others are in a fervor, I am, more often than not, level-headed. This allows me to have a clearer vision about the nature of injustices and discover more skillful ways of addressing the suffering caused by discrimination and exclusion.
3. What helps you manage your emotions, energy, and spirit as you engage in the challenging work of social change?
Being in nature is a top priority for my well-being. Sometimes I take a walk in a park, sit down, and place my hands on the grass. Feeling the direct contact with the earth through the palms of my hand reminds me of what connection is. Doing social change work, especially as the leader of an organization, can be lonely. I have found that touching the ground works wonders.
Second, being in a community of mindfulness practitioners who are also advocates for social change helps address not only loneliness, but also the sadness, anger, frustration, and sorrow that is part and parcel of fighting for a change to the status quo. There is power in numbers.
4. What role can mindfulness practices play in helping lawyers to create positive social change?
Mindfulness can help lawyers become more kind. Our profession can be brutal and, in fact, being ruthless is often preferred in comparison to being vulnerable. Can you imagine being vulnerable in a legal setting? As lawyers, we are taught to put on our armor and our masks. And yet, vulnerability is an undeniable human experience.
Imagine if we saw each other, even as adversaries, through the lens of kindness. Perhaps it will start to make shifts at the margins in terms of how we interact with each other. And perhaps, even more profound shifts may cascade over time. If the profession were just 10% more kind, this would be a positive social change.
For lawyers who are already dedicated to social change work, mindfulness can help us become aware of how much stress we hold when we work with traumas of our clients who are facing deportation, wage theft, discrimination, or environmental toxins. When we are aware of these vicarious traumas, we can take steps to metabolize and then release these stresses so that we can again be the best advocates we can be.
5. What resources, practices, or groups have been particularly helpful to you in your work or life? (this can be about mindfulness practices but it doesn’t have to be)
Right now, I am taking the online course, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. It is a global community practicing in the Plum Village tradition of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. We are coming together to address the issue that binds us all together, the fate of the planet. The teachings are beautiful and the sangha (community) is equally potent. The book that it is based on is also poignant.
I also recently joined the ARISE Sangha listserv. ARISE stands for Awakening through Race, Intersectionality, and Social Equity. They regularly examine issues of our day through the dharma (teachings) and offer very relevant practices and skillful insight that aren’t part of the mainstream discourse on race in the United States.
The last resource I would offer is Home is Here: Practicing Anti-Racism with the Engaged Eightfold Path by Lien Shutt. The book offers an important perspective on racism that exists in the mindfulness community against Asian Americans. It is also an excellent refresher on the Eightfold Path in the context of fighting against racism in its various forms, from the individual level to the institutional level.
Chris’s Bio: Christopher Punongbayan is the Executive Director of California ChangeLawyers, a community foundation that empowers the next generation of legal changemakers through grants and scholarships totaling $1.5M+ annually. A native of Massachusetts and the son of immigrants from the Philippines, Chris graduated cum laude from Brown University with a degree in Asian American Studies and UCLA School of Law where he completed the Critical Race Studies concentration and the Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy. Chris is a 500 hour certified yoga teacher and completed the Mindfulness for Lawyers training with Warrior One in 2022. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, 2 adopted sons, and 3 adopted cats.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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