How Mindfulness Can Help Lawyers Make Social Change

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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Mindfulness Can Make Litigation Suck a Little Bit Less: New Podcast Interview

“Mindfulness does not make life easy. It can make it suck it a little bit less.”

This is a brilliant quote from me on the Business Litigation and Intellectual Property Podcast with Travis Richins and Jacob Tingen.

They asked me to explain some ways that mindfulness has made my law practice a little bit more calm and kind. I was happy to share some examples with them. I have many such stories that I have compiled over the years.

Meditation has helped me decompress after hard days. It has helped me stay steady when life or a case freaks me out. And it has helped me avoid reactivity in response to the behavior or stress of my fellow lawyers.

But I had to admit that the practice didn’t make me perfect and it didn’t make law practice suddenly become easy. That’s because mindfulness practices aren’t magic. Instead, they are deeply practical.

For this reason, this interview with Jacob and Travis was one of my favorites because we talked about the practical reasons why mindfulness practices can benefit a law practice. This includes managing the day to day stresses of the job, but also facing the long-standing doubts and fears that can keep you from trying things that scare you (like networking for me) or pursuing things you love (in my case writing).

If you are interested in learning what mindfulness may mean for you or your law practice, check out this interview. You can watch it here.

I mentioned a few meditations in the podcast to help lawyers who have to deliver bad news to clients or avoid email wars with opposing counsel. If you want to check those out here they are:

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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3 Ways Mindfulness Can Help in Troubled Times

In the last month, many of us may have found ourselves questioning the state of the world. If you have watched news reports from the devastation in Gaza or the hateful violence perpetrated in the United States following it, you may have felt less than certain about the goodness of humanity and your role in it.

One of the things that I have been incredibly grateful for over the last month was that I had opportunities to teach and meditate in community. It gave me a way to contribute and receive the gifts of fellow meditators. Despite this experience, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I had some doubtful thoughts along the way.

These included questions like these: is meditation really what we should be doing when the world has so many challenges? How can people even relax in such hard times? Is it even right to try to relax?

Though I’ve taken some time with these thoughts, I don’t know that I have definitive answers. Even so, here are three thoughts that have helped me stick with my practice and rely on it as a support in these troubled times.

1. Meditation Is Ideal for Giving Big Questions the Time and Space They Deserve.

“How can one meditate in troubled times?” That’s a big question. Of course, lawyers tend to love big questions. As a teacher and student of meditation, however, I have learned to treat them with a healthy amount of skepticism. After all, asking a big question often carries with it an urge for an immediate (and satisfying) answer. Law school and law practice train us to think we have to answer every question quickly and do so well.

If you pay attention, however, life shows us that time and curiosity may point us closer to the right direction. This is in part because big questions often don’t have just one right answer. Though law practice can force us to overlook this as we search for the “best” result for clients, there is usually more than one way to solve a problem. In fact, sometimes when we open our minds up, we may even see the problem itself differently.

And how can you open your mind up? Meditation is one way. This is not a trick. Once you let go of the idea that meditation is about clearing your mind, you realize that meditation may be the perfect thing to do when thoughts are rolling around in your head. Even if you don’t get answers right away, you may get some rest or find some peace. And that’s a win.

2. Mindfulness Can Help You Check for Doubt.

Of all people, lawyers should know that not all questions are really seeking information. In many cases, questions that start with the phrase “how can” are truly expressions of doubt.

Doubt is a normal part of mindfulness practice. The Buddha identified it as one of the major impediments to meditation and living a good life. When life is hard or the world presents challenges, our minds often generate doubts about ourselves and our efforts. Practice can teach us, though, that doubts aren’t always based on truth.

Instead, I have experienced that doubts are often a mental manifestation of fear. When we are presented with challenging subjects and memories, fear is bound to arise. When we see the doubting questions as fear, we may learn how to take care of the fear instead of following the directions of the doubt.

If the state of the world is hurting your motivation to meditate, be compassionate with yourself but check for doubt too. It’s human to be alarmed about what is happening in the world and to question the meaning in what we do. But acting unconsciously based on doubt often leads way from meaning and goodness rather than back to it.

3. Meditation Is Resting Instead of Giving Up.

Meditation can be particularly hard on challenging days because it is sometimes described as “doing nothing.” When things in the world feel wrong, the idea of doing nothing can seem immoral. Couple this with the often misunderstood concept of “acceptance” and you can make yourself feel like a monster for taking a few minutes to breathe.

But meditating for a few minutes isn’t doing nothing in an absolute sense, is it? At most, it is doing nothing for a few minutes out of your day. My point here, of course, is that resting and giving up aren’t the same thing.

Sure, there are times when people might use meditation to bliss out and avoid the problems of the world. But that’s not the only way to practice. I don’t practice meditation to check out or give up. I practice it to rest, steady myself, allow my mind to settle, and fortify my heart precisely so I can engage better and more skillfully in the world.

In this way, meditating is more about seeing clearly the possibility for personal agency rather than doing nothing. Yes, the practice done right calls for clarity about the state of affairs, including the darkest parts. It also builds the essential ingredients that need to exist for humans to be of help to the world and our communities.


The reality is that meditation may be counterintuitive when our emotions are high and questions, rather than answers, pervade our minds. Despite this, I have found that meditation can be essential in precisely those times. It helps me give the big questions the time and space to bounce around, let go of doubt, and focus on strengthening the skills and capacities I need to continue trying to live an ethical life.

In short, I think experience–instead of pure logic–is more likely to show you how you can keep meditating in a world full of challenges. Rather than focusing on the merits of the practice itself, the better approach is to ask whether meditation will serve you now. Of course, this is a question to ask yourself every time you are thinking about practice and not merely on the hardest of days. To be a meaningful one, though, it must be safe for the answer to be “no.”

Sometimes you may need to give yourself permission to take a pass from meditation. When the world feels really heavy, seeking support from a friend or loved one may serve you better. Taking a walk outside may help you get out of your head and reconnect with what is right in the world.

Self-care practices like meditation can be a wonderful way to take refuge when we encounter difficulty. But they serve us best when we don’t use them against ourselves. As you consider your meditation practice in the context of the broader world, always be kind to yourself.

If you decide that you want to try meditation, here is a practice inspired by Mr. Rogers that I developed for myself for hard days.

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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How to Practice Gratitude without Being Fake

Thanksgiving is coming up next week. This holiday is one that is pretty easy for me to love because cooking and eating are two of my favorite things. You get to do both on Thanksgiving and you only have to spend one day with your extended family. Seems perfect, right?

Oh yeah, I forgot about gratitude. In some form or fashion, you may be asked to reflect on or proclaim your gratitude. I don’t doubt the myriad studies that say gratitude is good for us. I appreciate the need to express and receive gratitude. But, as a lifelong pigheaded person, I refuse to feel something on demand.

Honestly, it’s not even truly refusal. I could decide to go along with the little game of gratitude to amuse my family or shut them up. But I would know in my secret heart of hearts that I don’t really feel grateful. What I really feel is resentful.

This same phenomenon is why I also can’t do positive affirmations. They don’t make me feel strong, calm, empowered or loved. They make my mind argue and my mind already does this well enough on it’s own. In short, despite the best intentions of these positive practices, I just can’t force my mind or heart to go in a direction it’s not already inclined to go.

So, what’s the key here? How can someone like me practice gratitude in a way that’s not fake? One way, of course, is to notice when genuine gratitude comes up, savor it, and where appropriate share it. I do this and it feels really good.

But can I cultivate gratitude otherwise? Despite my mental and emotional blocks against fakery, I have discovered a hack. I have written many times about my fondness for loving-kindness practice. One of the reasons I love this practice so much is that it serves as a gratitude practice for me.

I don’t go into the practice hoping for gratitude but it almost always shows up as a wonderful side effect. When I bring to mind the people I love and care about and wish them well, invariably I also feel gratitude that they are in my life. Strangely, I even sometimes feel gratitude to myself and to the difficult people in my life as the practice progresses.

This is why I am sharing a gratitude meditation that is really a modified loving-kindness practice. It follows the same traditional pattern, but instead of wishing the phrases of peace and well-being it includes an offering of gratitude. I did this one for the Mindfulness in Law Society Virtual Sit this week and remembered how much I liked it.

To try out the practice, find it here or on our YouTube channel or on Insight Timer. Please have a wonderful holiday weekend. I am honestly and sincerely grateful to have you as a reader and meditation friend.

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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Does Meditation Make You a Buddhist?

This is the question I have been waiting for someone to ask me ever since I started teaching mindfulness to lawyers. After several years and countless events, nobody ever has. Maybe it’s because people don’t know the origins of most of the practices I teach. Maybe people are busy focusing on learning the practices instead of a deeper question like this. Or maybe they are just too polite to ask.

Since I have been waiting years to answer this question, I have practiced many different versions of my answer in my mind. To be totally upfront about it, I think that there are many valid ways to answer this question. This blog post is a summation of all the different ways of considering the question so that you can answer it better for yourself.

1. What does “Buddhist” mean?

Sorry to be a total lawyer about this, but when this question has crossed my mind I always wonder what the term “Buddhist” means. It can refer to one’s religion or spiritual identity. On the other hand, it can also refer to one’s allegiance to a philosophical perspective or set of ideas.

For many people, being a Buddhist may include both of these ideas. For me, though, only the latter feels right. Buddhism, as a religion, is connected to a myriad of cultural practices and ideas. Given this, I don’t feel right calling myself a Buddhist when I share in only a part of the practices that other people do for their religion.

On the other hand, I regularly do and teach many practices that have emanated from Buddhism. I believe in and have developed faith through life experience in traditional Buddhist concepts like compassion, the value of clear awareness, and even tricky concepts like not-self. Thus, clearly I am a Buddhist in the philosophical sense.

2. Does meditation alone make you a Buddhist?

My opinion on this question is that meditation by itself probably does not make you a Buddhist in the religious or philosophical sense. For one thing, there are many styles of meditation out there and not all of them emanate from Buddhism. Moreover, you can practice and benefit from meditation without ever understanding the philosophical or spiritual aspects of Buddhism.

Of course, this answer could change depending on the extent of your practice. A few minutes a day is not likely to immediately change your personality, worldview, or beliefs. However, more extensive experience in retreats or with different groups and teachers could change the answer over time.

3. Does it really matter?

When people ask me a question, it always helps to know why they are asking so I can address the real concern. Some people may be concerned that “being a Buddhist” could take away from other religious practice or faith. You are the best person to judge the requirements of your own religion.

I can say, however, that Buddhism is relatively free of metaphysics in comparison to other religions. Meditation groups and classes are also not uncommon these days in secular spaces, churches, synagogues, and mosques. Based on this, there seem to be plenty of people who believe meditation is not in conflict at all with other world religions.

The harder question to answer is whether meditation or potentially “becoming a Buddhist” may change your self-image. My experience is that, of course, it can. Meditation and exploring Buddhist concepts and practices changed my life, including my identity and how I thought of myself. I am incredibly grateful for that experience but I don’t claim that it was easy.

Though it can be liberating, it can also be scary to watch habits change or see lifelong assumptions fall apart. The practice of meditation, even for just a few minutes a day, has the potential of causing that kind of change. As I have written before, though, this isn’t something that is likely to happen overnight. Moreover, the good thing about meditation is that it helps you pay more attention to your life. So, if you don’t like the change, you can stop or adjust the practice.

4. Summary and Conclusion

In short, meditation alone does not necessarily make you a Buddhist, but with enough time and experience that answer could change. Being a Buddhist, in terms of religion or philosophy, does not necessarily require abandoning or changing other faith practices or beliefs.

Meditation is most likely to change habits, assumptions, and your self-image but that may not be a bad thing. In fact, those changes are often what many people want when they try meditation whether they realize it or not. In the end, the real question isn’t whether I think mediation makes me (or anyone else) a Buddhist. The critical questions are whether you think that and what that conclusion means for you.

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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5 Books to Help You Prepare Emotionally for Election Year

I don’t usually talk about politics or religion on this blog very often. There’s a reason for that and it’s more than just the desire to not make anyone mad. Part of what I do as a mindfulness teacher is debunk myths and misconceptions about mindfulness practices. Some of the myths I have encountered have been about the kind of people who are able to benefit from meditation.

As I discussed last week, it’s easy to get caught into the trap of identity about the kinds of people we are. When I teach mindfulness, therefore, sometimes I find myself subtly hinting at the idea that identity is not nearly as stable as we’d all like to think. But I usually try to avoid launching into a direct attack on identity because that can be pretty scary.

When you talk about politics and religion, you are bound to encounter identity. In America right now, lots of us may feel like our identities are under attack. We may feel like we have to fight to protect who we are and to save the country or state or city we know and love. I know this is a hard place to be and so I try to be respectful and give people time to consider the impact of their identity on their own terms and in their own time.

But here are the facts. The last two election cycles in the United States have been brutal. The next election coming in 2024 doesn’t look like it is going to be any easier. As someone with personal experience letting politics drive me crazy, I don’t judge anyone who feels this way.

Having been tossed about by polarized politics in America for years now, I started to wonder whether there is a better way. I don’t claim that this post offers the better way. That is, I don’t know that there is one way to do things better. In truth, I think there may be many better ways.

What has been the better way for me? Well, it has been trying to learn how to judge a little bit less when it comes to politics. When I say this, I don’t mean to disengage. I still vote- even in primaries and especially in local races. I still donate. I pay attention to the issues and I call my representatives. However, the internal reactions- to elected officials, my neighbors, and the situation – I have had to learn to relax to save my own sanity.

Obviously, sticking with my meditation practice has been an essential component to this solution. Calming down and becoming aware of thoughts is a fundamental step to being mindful of judgments. But I noticed that I had been engaging in another form of mind training over the last year or so. I looked at my reading list and I saw a pattern of books that I had read (or read again) to help me watch my judgments this election year.

Here are the 5 books that have helped me understand things a bit better so I could judge a bit less and have more peace in the coming election year.

1. Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

I‘ve talked about loneliness a few times on this blog. Has it ever occurred to you that political polarization is happening at a time when loneliness is being recognized as a public health crisis? Sure, there are other factors at work here too, but Brown makes an interesting point in this book. She helps us see that what we want as humans – belonging and connection – is the exact opposite of what we find when we polarize and segregate ourselves. The point here is not to judge anyone for wanting a safe space with likeminded individuals, but instead to help us reevaluate how we can make spaces truly safe for all. If you need some courage or help eliminating shame and dehumanizing speech from your vocabulary (and trust me most of us do) check this book out.

2. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

So, you may be thinking, “fine I agree that we all want connection, but how can I possibly relate to people with whom I can’t even talk?” I’m not telling you to rush into protracted debates with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. This book, though, may help you learn some skills so you can understand people better. This book is about owning and respecting our human needs and interests and doing the same for others. This sounds simple but it’s something you will probably hardly ever hear in ordinary communication at work and at home. Some of the references in this book are a bit dated, but the practices remain valuable and practical today.

3. Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

This one may sound surprising in this context. Nonviolent Communication, which I just recommended, strongly encourages empathy as a tool for communication. And, in fact, it can be. As Bloom points out in this book, though, it can also become a block to it. This book really isn’t against empathy in all cases. Rather, Bloom argues instead that empathy can create problems for us in moral decisionmaking. Why? Well, in part because empathy “spotlights” certain individuals. Depending on our morality, we may disagree on who deserves the spotlight. Bloom argues instead for a “rational compassion” to guide our moral and policy decisions. As a teacher of compassion, I’m certainly inclined to agree. This book can help you see how emotions may come up in morality and politics in ways you may not have noticed before. That awareness may help you understand better how others process things so you can judge less and understand more.

4. Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I have to admit that I recommend it with some hesitancy. This book didn’t make me feel better exactly, but it definitely helped me judge others different from me less. In this book, the Vox founder did what he does best: he explains polarization. In particular, he explains why American politics as a system tends toward polarization and how that system polarizes all of us individuals in turn. It examines the government structure, the parties as organizations, American history, and even the media to explain how polarization has evolved. Did this book change my political beliefs? No, not at all. Did it help me understand the factors that shaped my beliefs better? Absolutely. And it helped me consider how my fellow citizens are subject to the very same forces.

5. Love Your Enemies by Sharon Salzberg & Robert Thurman

Even if you learn to talk nicer and you understand more, the reality remains that people can still piss you off. That’s why the final book is about how to not get so pissed off all the time. This book says it is about loving enemies, but make no mistake it is really mostly about loving yourself. Quite appropriately, the book starts off by talking about “external enemies” – the other people in our families, workplaces, and communities who drive us nuts. But you will be surprised to see how much of this is devoted to getting clear on your own pain and frustration and learning to care for it. Like I’ve discussed before when talking about compassion, this book is not about being a doormat. Instead, it’s about being brave enough to be kind in a world that sometimes isn’t.

These are the books that have helped me prepare to judge less, stay kind, without checking out too much during the next election year. As I said before, this isn’t an exhaustive list. What books would you add to this list? What other resources or practices are helping you stay steady these days?

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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Trick or Treat: Why the Scary Concept Not-Self May Offer Lawyers Freedom

It’s Halloween today, so many of us may be watching scary movies or donning costumes and running door to door in pursuit of candy. What better day is there to explore a concept that I have generally been too afraid to discuss on the blog: the concept of not-self. If this phrase sounds awkward and weird to you, that’s because it is. It is the best attempt at an English translation from the Pali word “anatta” and the Sanskrit “anatman”, which in Buddhist philosophy refer to the idea that there is no stable, static, or lasting self.

Why Not-Self Is Both Scary and Exciting

Why does this concept make me afraid? The big reason is that it is hard to define. Not-self is a concept that most forms of secular Buddhism avoid. You may hear teachers mention the “ego” every now and then, but there is often little prompting for us to explore the foundations of our identity. As such, it’s not a concept that lends itself well to the blog format.

In addition, I’ll be honest that many lawyers (a large portion of my reading audience) may struggle with the idea of not-self. If I had to state the importance of identity and reputation for lawyers in a single word, I would spread my arms out wide like a little kid trying to demonstrate a really big thing and simply say “huge!”

As a lawyer, I feel the pull of identity and duty and values and firm and groups all the time. Sometimes it feels amazing and sometimes it feels confining and burdensome. Even with this double-edged sword, experience has shown me that seeing the tenuous binds of identity offers liberation and fear in equal measure.

My experience with it has felt (I can only imagine) like sky-diving. There is a surge of adrenaline when you see you are not stuck in the same old identity. All too soon, though, this is followed by a horrific pang wondering if the parachute will open and the new identity you hope to create will take.

Given all of this, maybe it’s best to consider the concept of not-self with fun and a sense of humor. This makes Halloween, with its costumes and candy almost poking fun at the human realities of change, decay, and death, an ideal framework to consider the concept. To that end, here are 3 reasons why exploring the concept of not-self can help you and 3 simple ways to get started.

3 Ways Exploring Not-Self Can Help

Why would you want to dig in with a weird concept that makes you question who you are and how your identity was created? To put it simply, it can help undo some suffering. Here’s how.

1. Less Judgment

One of the hallmark principles of mindfulness practice is becoming aware of judgments. When you start to do this, you will learn that judgments are at the heart of a lot of our suffering. Of course, this isn’t to say that all difficulty in life is self-inflicted. When you pay attention, though, you realize that many life difficulties emanate from our reactions to life.

If you want to get clear about judgments, you almost have to explore identity. Think about it. When you judge, who is doing the judging? There is some identity deep down that is designating an experience, a situation, a person, or a choice as “good” or “bad.” But lawyers who play devil’s advocate and consider things from all angles know that the goodness or badness of a situation, person, or experience may depend on the perspective.

The thing is that perspective can be hard to see when we are so locked into our own. This is one big lesson from exploring not-self. We can remember that our perspective is the product of our experience and all the forces that shaped us in our lives. We can also remember times when we have felt certain in our perspective and identity, only to see it pass and change with time. When we loosen the grip of identity by considering these things, we can get some freedom from our judgments.

2. Activates Agency

I’ve written about habits on the blog a lot and I expect that I will write about them a lot in the future too. As I discussed when I reviewed Atomic Habits by James Clear, identity is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to habit formation. Why? Because willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired and takes energy to employ.

But when we shift identity, suddenly this new habit isn’t an exercise of pure will. It’s just us being ourselves. The problem is, of course, is that the pull of identity is strong. Eerie as it can sometimes be, not-self offers a way out of this trap. It helps us remember that, just like our identities are formed by our experiences, we can shift those identities (at least to some degree) with new conduct.

This does not mean that building new habits or making change is easy. I’m not sure anything can make that easy. In my experience, though, it has made the discomfort of doing these things more bearable. Even when a new activity is truly wholesome, it can feel awkward and churn up lots of doubt and anxiety. The concept of not-self has helped to normalize this experience for me.

Though I may long for the security of my familiar sameness, I know that the security is illusory at best. This helps me be brave because it reminds me that there isn’t a haven where I can avoid feeling insecure about my identity. Faced with this choice of insecurity caused by inertia or insecurity caused by living life on my terms, it’s a lot easier to move towards what I want.

3. More Connection

What happens when you judge less? In general, you open up more. That’s one reason the concept of not-self can help you open up to connection with others.

And when I say “judge less” I mean that for yourself and others. Exploring the concept of not-self can help you notice all the ways you strive to rise to other people’s expectations and fulfill a role in society. It may help short circuit this process and go directly for what you want – most commonly love, connection, and belonging. With a clearer idea of what you care about, you may find it easier to find it.

Likewise, judging others less may open up opportunities for connection you never expected. Look, I know it is exceedingly easy to judge other people right now. Our brains want to categorize and sort humanity into in and out groups. Our social media feeds are designed to accelerate this process. Even advertising contributes to rigid identities by forever constructing brand allegiance.

It’s not kind to yourself or wise to pretend that you can simply stop judging the people around you and those who differ from you in meaningful ways. But when you explore how your identity is created and perpetuated, you start to ask those same questions for other people. At a minimum, this can make you less harsh and stark in your view. Over time, you may find barriers coming down and new possibilities for connection emerging.

3 Easy Ways to Explore Not-Self

This sounds good and all, you may be saying to yourself, but how on earth do I start to “explore the concept of not-self”? It’s a good question and one that is not easily answered. Plumbing the depths of identity and watching it shift and change over time is something we could do our whole lives. To keep you from getting overwhelmed with this, here are a few small and less scary ways to start.

1. Get to Know Yourself

Getting to know who you are is a good step for understanding the instability of identity. Like many concepts from Buddhism, not-self is one that is best understood from experience. Learning about who you are is a one way to get that experience.

Personality tests or psychological assessments may give you some insights into your patterns. I have taken a few of the personality tests used in business, including Meyers-Briggs, Predictive Index, and the Enneagram. Things like Strengths Finder or even Gretchen Rubin’s 4 categories may offer some insights. You can’t take these tests to reveal truth with a capital T but you can see some patterns.

If you aren’t into tests, coaching, therapy, or talks with good friends can help too. Anyone who will help you see yourself clearly and nonjudgmentally can help you get a better understanding of your identity and how it was formed.

2. Consider Conditions

There is one caveat if you start looking at personality patterns: it could without balance lead to the idea that you “are who you are.” We’ve all said this line. Sometimes we say to mean we aren’t going to kill ourselves trying to live up to someone else’s standards. Sometimes we say it to defend an unpopular opinion when we aren’t interested in rational argument. Whatever the reason, it conveys the idea that are personalities are set in stone.

For times in our lives, this might be true. We may be stable for a while and feel secure. Inevitably, though, most of would admit that conditions change. As you are exploring your identity, therefore, don’t just focus on what you are like. It may help to consider the conditions, including the people, who got you there.

I find that this really helps me employ self-compassion when reviewing my past mistakes and also avoiding self-righteousness when recalling my triumphs. Sure, I struggled mightily with networking early in my law practice but my inherited introversion and anxiety didn’t do me any favors. And yes I wrote some books, but my introversion made all that alone time pleasant and I had support from family and friends.

These reckonings may also help with employing compassion and understanding for those with whom we disagree. Just like loving-kindness practice, I don’t recommend forcing this analysis with your worst enemies right away. But, you can start small by thinking of the conditions that led someone to take the action you dislike. It may not mean forgiveness, but it may allow you a chance to let go of the hurt.

3. Look for Stories and Scripts

But where is meditation in all of this? I wrote this whole post and have hardly talked about meditation at all. Not-self is something that you may only get glimpses of in life, so it is a hard thing to practice in meditation. It’s not impossible, however.

One way to explore this concept in meditation is keep asking “who” is there. Who is doing all of this thinking? Who is hearing that sound? Who is feeling that emotion? Of course, it is you but try to find the conscious choice behind all of those things. If you find it, I’ll be surprised because I’m still looking. There isn’t really a “who” but just awareness. That’s where not-self gets a bit spooky.

Over time, though, you can get comfortable just chilling in awareness and you can start to see things play out with more space. This is where you can see stories and scripts and patterns play out. They might be your tendency to doubt yourself or turn yourself into a victim or your savior complex. With time, you can watch in life how following these stories and scripts plays out for you. That’s when you can harness some of the agency mentioned above and think about creating a new story you actually want to live.

This is my run down on the good, the bad, and the slightly creepy about not-self. I hope it helped you see that Halloween may not be all that different from our lives everyday. We put masks on a lot and play roles all of the time. It’s not bad to do. It’s part of being human. But ultimately, part of being human is learning when to stop playing the role, take off the mask, and just be us. Exploring not-self is weird and a bit scary but it may offer you a chance at freedom too.

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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Five Reasons Loving-Kindness Practice Is Perfect for Hard Days

When I teach compassion, one of the things I always say is that the giver of compassion is the first person to benefit. This is true from a scientific standpoint; the act of compassion causes the release of the hormones associated with satisfaction, love, and connection. Life experience has also helped me learn the truth of this idea too.

On hard days, my favorite meditation practice is loving-kindness. This practice is one intended to help you expand your heart and send kind wishes out. It starts with yourself and your inner circle, then expands to neutral and difficult people, and even the whole world. The end result, as I have often found, is that my dark and stormy mood turns to gratitude, openness, and even hope.

Here are the five reasons why loving-kindness practice helps.

1. It Feels Good.

On hard days, it makes sense to take care of ourselves. Think about some of the typical things you might do in order to care for yourself on a hard day. It might be taking a warm bath, making a nice cup of tea, wrapping yourself in a warm blanket, talking to a friend, or taking a a walk. The pattern with all of these things is that they are all comforting, soothing, warming, nourishing, and supportive.

Loving-kindness practice is too. For one thing, it starts with sending kindness to yourself and tending to your own needs. Then it moves on to connect with your loved ones and ultimately the whole of humanity. It’s not intended only as a mental exercise either. The object of the practice is to cultivate feelings of loving-kindness.

If you give yourself time and pay attention, you will find that love feels good. It feels warm, open, expansive, and soothing. Though it might be hard to transition to such a practice on a hard day, it is a perfect one for a hard day for this reason.

2. It’s a Sneaky Gratitude Practice.

We all know the studies about gratitude. It is good for your mental health. It grounds you and connects you which might be great on a hard day. The only problem is, of course, that gratitude on a hard day can be a challenge.

Have you ever experienced difficulty and had a well-meaning loved one tell you to “be grateful” or to “think of all of your blessings”? How does that go? My experience is that it usually feels like a deflection and leads to hostility. Forcing yourself to feel good when you feel bad does not work.

Loving-kindness is not about force. It’s just about well wishes. And after you send those wishes to yourself, the practice guides you to a loved one and then a mentor. Gratitude is not the intent of the practice but that is almost always what I feel. I also remember that I am not alone in facing whatever hardship is there.

I call this a “sneaky” gratitude practice because it’s not a goal of the practice. Because I let the pressure come off with loving-kindness, I find gratitude often emerges on its own.

3. It Reminds Me of My Place in the World.

Have you ever noticed how your mind shifts and morphs on hard days? It can make everything seem terrible, bad, and rotten. It can make you think only bad things about yourself and others. It can also cause you to doubt yourself and believe goodness is not possible and change will never come.

Loving-kindness practice gets away from judgments and abstractions. It returns to where you are. It starts with envisioning yourself and what you do in the world and then envisioning the people in your life. In other words, before you try to send love out to the world, the practice embeds in your family and community.

What I find with this practice is that it reminds me of my place in the world. I may not be able to change the news cycle or the government or even the results in a particular case. The practice shows me, however, that I can show care to myself, my family, and even avoid doing extra harm to the people I find challenging. I see this as reminding me of my daily work and my everyday power.

4. It’s So Flexible.

One of these barriers is that many people struggle with sending loving-kindness to themselves. In addition, the later stages of practice call for you to send kind wishes out to “difficult people” and strangers. This might be a challenge on easy days and feel impossible on hard days.

The good news? The traditional practice can be modified in so many ways to account for these issues. You can start with a loved on first and omit the difficult people, as in the practice I share at the end of this post. This isn’t a destruction of the practice. It’s a recognition that we are human and have needs and limits.

In fact, even if you do a traditional loving-kindness practice with the whole list of people, the guidance typically is to not try to send kind wishes to your worst enemy first. In addition, you can even change the phrases to suit your particular needs best. The practice is intended to be flexible and individuated.

On a hard day when our thoughts are heavy, modifying loving-kindness practice is a way to meet ourselves where we are. This act of loving-kindness, you will likely find, is a condition that may help you cultivate more kindness for others over time.

5. It Helps Me Offer What Is Needed.

It’s comparatively easy to mirror back the emotion we are picking up from the rest of the world. When we have a hard day, it is so natural to stay with all the hard emotions that come with it. And in life, when we are greeted with hostility and judgment it’s so simple to just mirror that emotion and send it back.

One thing about meditation that has been a huge change is the recognition that I don’t have to do this, at least not every time. Sometimes, I have found, I am able to pick up a lot of emotion from circumstances, others, or my own head, and I can choose something else. On really special occasions, I can make the choice to offer what is needed and it has made all the difference.

On a hard day, what is needed? Most of the time, it is love and kindness though of course we need to remember that love and kindness can and should include firm action. I like loving-kindness as a practice on hard days because it is practicing offering what is needed in the world. It helps me find hope, courage, and stability on days when those are in short supply.

These are the reasons I come back to loving-kindness practice on hard days. If you want to try the practice for yourself, check out the Cultivating Kindness and Sending It Out Guided Meditation. This one is crafted for hard days because it starts with your loved ones and then turns to yourself before sending kindness out. You can check it out on YouTube or on Insight Timer.

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.

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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Why to Visit Your Local Dharma Center and How to Be a Good Guest

1. Please tell me about yourself and your work with the Dharma Center.

I’m in a 12 step recovery program and the 11th step has to do with prayer and meditation.  I was rather resistant to the idea of prayer to some deity and focused more on meditation.  After a couple years of trying it on my own (with not much of what felt like success!) I spoke to a couple people I had heard talk about meditation.  One person gave me a copy of Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The book was intimidating, but it came with a CD of guided meditations.  My other friend directed me to the Buddhist Dharma Center’s Wednesday evening beginner’s session.  

I attended those sessions for 10 years, eventually becoming one of the peer leaders, introducing others to the practice of meditation and the teachings of Buddhism.  That led to me begin teaching some University of Cincinnati Communiversity courses, starting a Buddhism and 12 Steps group, and becoming a member of the Board.  I’ve also started a book group and a couple contemplative reading groups at the Center. 

2. What does a Dharma Center do? Why would a professional like a lawyer want to visit a Dharma Center? What could they expect to gain from the experience? 

The Buddhist Dharma Center of Cincinnati provides an open and supportive environment for practicing meditation and studying the dharma. Our purpose is to cultivate a path which leads to awakening through:

  • Maintaining a weekly schedule of silent group meditation
  • Providing instruction in simple sitting and walking meditation common to all Buddhist traditions
  • Offering opportunities to deepen one’s practice through dharma study, periodic extended meditation, open discussions, and dharma talks
  • Supporting dharma practice at all levels
  • Sharing a compassionate approach to life with the larger community.
  • Openness and inclusivity are at the heart of dharma teachings and practice; the center is committed to kindness and respect for others, regardless of race, religion, cultural expressions, gender, gender identity, age or abilities. All are welcome!

We’re really a very casual, relaxed place.  There’s no teacher, no affiliation with any other group–we truly are just a group of people who want to practice and study together.  

I know your blog has talked a lot about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness—a clarity of thinking, less reactivity, lower stress levels, a more open and loving heart. But meditation can feel hard to do! My experience is that guidance from someone more experienced and the support of like-minded individuals is hugely beneficial.  Even after sitting for a number of years, there is still something wonderful about meditation with others.  Shared silence is palpably different than silence alone. 

3. How might the discussion or practice of meditation/mindfulness differ from what someone might encounter at a yoga studio or other source of secular mindfulness? 

I practice in the Theravedan, or Insight Tradition, where the primary form of meditation is Vipassana which means “seeing clearly.”   So for me the reason for meditating isn’t to relieve stress, calm my mind, or become less reactive (those are all great things!), but to clearly see how this mind works.  The Buddha taught that suffering arises from craving and that craving arises in the mind.  The way out of suffering is to clearly see the nature of the craving and how it leads to suffering.  So meditation is part of the path to total liberation!

I use the example of experiencing opera.  My first experience was listening to Sunday afternoon opera from the Metropolitan on a small radio.  It was probably AM! But I was enchanted.  Then some years later I heard and saw Beverly Sills on the Ed Sullivan Show and a new appreciation grew.  Then I saw an entire production of an opera on TV and experienced the visual element of opera.  And finally, I saw a live opera in a theater and was blown away by the sensory/emotional experience.  Every single one of those experiences was valid and valuable. Any form of meditation is valid and valuable, but when held in the context of the Buddha’s teachings, meditation takes on a much more profound and life-altering meaning.  

But having said that, many mindfulness and yoga teachers have strong spiritual practices and their teaching is often very similar to Buddhist teaching, just in a more secular language. 

4. Is there any etiquette or are there rules for visiting the Dharma Center? How can someone be a good guest? 

We ask that you follow the below guidelines to help ensure an environment and culture that honors the Dharma and this space of practice, teaching and inquiry. 

  • Please arrive a few minutes before a session starts
  • Once inside, before meditation begins, please remove your shoes and place under the bench along the wall.
  • Maintain silence during meditation.
  • Dress modestly, in attire appropriate to the occasion.
  • Turn off your phone and other noise making devices.
  • You may leave a session during walking meditation, which is also the time to use the restroom.
  • Keep your valuables with you during meditation.
  • The center has cushions, chairs and benches for meditation. Please brush off and straighten your cushion after meditation concludes.

5. Do you have to be a Buddhist or a religious person to benefit from practices or teachings at the Dharma Center? Is any experience with meditation required? 

In our Buddhism and 12 Step group we say “No meditation experience or particular faith or spiritual practice is required. Neither is membership in a twelve step program. We are simply people exploring the path out of the suffering brought about by craving and clinging in whatever form it arises.”

Many people who come to the Dharma Center also participate in other religions or spiritual programs.  One nice thing about silent meditation is that no one else knows what your intention is, how you are meditating, or what your beliefs are.  I think many people just find it beneficial to sit quietly with others.  

Our Wednesday  night group is especially good for people new to meditation.  There are shorter guided meditations, brief teaching and time for check-in and discussion.  

6. Are there any resources you’d like to share for those new to meditation? 

I’m a huge fan of the Insight Timer Meditation App.  There are thousands of guided meditations, a timer so you can set the length of time you want to sit, and even a way of tracking your meditation. I’ve also found to be very helpful.  It’s a print/online magazine with articles from all different Buddhist traditions.  It’s a great way to explore different styles of meditation.  

7. What is the most important thing you’d like those new to meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhism to understand?

Just do it.  Start small–five minutes at a time is how I started.  Let go of what you think meditation should be.  Practice mindfulness all the time.  Practice seeing clearly, hearing clearly, moving with intention.  And always, always be kind to yourself and others.  

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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Join Us for a Collective Meditation for Peace

The events in Jerusalem last weekend have been devastating for so many friends for a variety of reasons. This post is offered as a wish for all of the blog’s readers and friends to be happy, healthy, safe, and at ease.

I know in times of difficulty, it can be very hard to remember that goodness remains possible. Several times in my life, though, I have had the experience where friends helped me reconnect with something good even in the midst of difficult situations.

On September 11th, a woman in my dorm brought me along with a group to give blood. In 2017, after the bruising election season of 2016, my mom’s group organized a donation drive to support local homeless shelters. Even though these acts didn’t solve the problems that motivated them, they did good and they helped me remember that there is always good to do.

This week, my author friend and heroic lawyer Tahmina Watson invited me to help guide a meditation for peace on Sunday evening. Like the other events, this one features friends too. Jigna Patel, the Mindful Divorce Coach, will start the session. I will lead a loving-kindness practice, which has always been a source of strength for me on difficult days. And Amaris Vicari of The Beneficial Element will close out the session with a brief reflection.

The event is Sunday, October 15th at 7 PM PST/10 PM EST on Zoom. You can register here. Registration is required to obtain the link to join on Zoom but the event is free and open to all. I hope that you can join us but if not I plan to have a recording of the meditation on Insight Timer and in our Guided Meditations soon.

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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