Claire E. Parsons is a Member at Wood + Lamping LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has practiced for the last twelve years in the areas of litigation, employment, school law, special education, and municipal law. Claire lives in Union, Kentucky with her husband, Brian, their two daughters, and two dogs.
Claire is an active leader in her community and in the legal profession. She has led innovative charitable programs in her community, statewide legal organizations, committees relating to the promotion of women professionals. Claire is also a frequent writer and speaker for these and other organizations. She has published and spoken about numerous topics, ranging from complex legal issues, to law practice, networking and marketing, as well as mindfulness and wellness for lawyers and other professionals. She writes regularly on LinkedIn and even co-authored a book this year with 19 other women lawyers about how they used the platform to network and pursue career goals during the pandemic.
In 2013, Claire began a mindfulness practice early in her law career and as she was learning to be a new mom to her eldest daughter, Sophie. When Claire began the practice, she saw it gradually transform her life for the better by helping her to reduce overthinking, manage stress, and infuse compassion practices into her daily life. Over the next few years, she continued to study mindfulness practices and attend retreats.
In 2018, Claire began speaking and writing on these topics and she quickly became regarded as a resource for professionals as someone who can explain meditation practices in an approachable and practical way. In 2020, she completed the online meditation teacher certification program with The Mindfulness Center founded by Deborah Norris, Ph.D., to refine her understanding of the science of mindfulness and its practical applications. In 2021, Claire also completed the 500-hour yoga teacher training from My Vinyasa Practice as well as numerous courses relating to compassion practices, including Mindful Self-Compassion and Compassion Cultivation Training. Claire enjoys sharing her experience with mindfulness in her practical, and often humorous voice, to help humanize the legal profession and to make life a little easier for her community.
Last week, we wrote about A Christmas Carol and how Ebenezer Scrooge’s miraculous change of heart can help us all examine our “selves” at the holidays. As a companion to that, I offer this guided meditation from the Brilliant Legal Mind collection. The holidays are a time for stories. They can help us connect with loved ones and learn from our experiences over the years.
Unfortunately, though, stories can also get in the way of connection at times or block us from insights about our lives when we let them play unconsciously in the background of our minds. In this meditation, I help you calm down and then walk you through the stories of the past and present so that you can bring more peace and joy to the future.
If you are interested in meditation or have studied Buddhism, you may know the concept of “not self”, but I bet you’ve never considered what that has to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course you haven’t, but bear with me because they are connected and there’s a holiday lesson in it for you. “Not self” or anatta as it is called in Pali is an intractable idea to understand and, at first, can even be disturbing. The idea generally posits that there is no permanent, lasting self. So when you first hear or read about it, you may react “wait, is this saying I don’t exist?” and start to spiral in doubt like Descartes.
But, with practice, you see the concept isn’t so scary. I remember on one of my first retreats thinking to myself how the experience of being on a retreat—where I was discouraged from talking or engaging with others—was a chance to put my identity down for a while. A little while later, I noticed that I could do the same thing—even if for only a few minutes—any time I meditated. And then, with a bit more practice, I saw the real truth: I could put my identity—or the story surrounding it—down any time I was sufficiently aware and made the choice.
In truth, I always had the ability to see a story created by my reaction to a life event and wiggle my way out of it. It’s just that, most of the time, things moved too fast (or I moved too fast) to see it. On those occasions where I saw it and chose how to respond instead of merely reacting, it felt like magic. So the concept of “not self” when we start to experience it, is actually not as scary as it sounds. Instead, it can be extremely liberating and empowering. And this is what brings us to Scrooge.
I’ve never been the biggest Dickens fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ stock characters can make you cringe and his love of describing scenes can be overbearing. But Scrooge has been special to me for the last few years because I feel like I am one or at least was one. No, I’ve never proclaimed “Are there no workhouses?” (except ironically) and I’ve historically supported nonprofits, rather than hold onto my gold like a dragon in a cave.
But I had my own bad habits that I let calcify into an identity and one that was not very happy. Early in my law practice and as I was starting my family, I was plagued by overthinking and doubt. I wasn’t sure I could make it as an attorney. I wasn’t sure of my ability to network and make friends. For a few years, I basically hid out. I billed my hours and focused on myself and didn’t engage as much with the world as I really wanted to. I didn’t hoard my money from the world, but I hoarded my heart and personality and talents because I didn’t believe in them all the way and didn’t trust the world to accept me.
Amazingly, I was visited by some ghosts in the form of a difficult pregnancy, post-partum depression, the anxiety of never moving my career forward, and crippling loneliness. Those challenges forced me to learn to take care of myself, be compassionate with myself and others, and examine how I was living my life. When I did that, I changed what I did. Rather than withdraw, I started showing up, figuratively and literally. I joined (and even led) some organizations. I showed up to events. I reached out to old friends and invited new ones on adventures. I followed the things I thought were fun and learned to do things just because I enjoyed them. All of this happened after I started a meditation practice which helped me to become aware of my thoughts and learn which ones to follow and which ones to let go.
As this was happening, I heard someone mention A Christmas Carol at a business event and the idea took root in my mind. I bought the audiobook at Thanksgiving that year and have made it my personal tradition to listen to it every year to prepare for the holidays. Each year I listen, I notice something new. But this year, I listened and immediately thought “Oh, this is a great example of ‘not self.’”
And it is. What else could show us better that there is no permanent self than a story about a man who was dead inside one day, but brimming with life the next? How else are we to reconcile the potential for a man to ignore the needs of his assistant, Bob Cratchet, and buy him the prize turkey the very next day? We tell ourselves “people don’t change” and that may often be true. But stories like A Christmas Carol say they can. And so do stories like mine and I know I am not alone.
Of course, we all know the reality that people don’t change easily, but the fact that we can is a miracle. Our identities can sometimes feel solid and make us feel powerless and stuck. But we can examine our past and bring in compassion. We can explore the impact of our actions in the present and face the hard truths of where we are going wrong. And we can consider the paths that our present behavior may be leading us to in the future. When we do those things, we can get off the train tracks of identity and take the road less traveled to choose our steps more wisely.
We often think of A Christmas Carol as a man learning not to think about himself so much, but that only captures a part of the magic in that story. Yes, Scrooge did indeed become less selfish, but he did it only after he became more self-aware. When Scrooge finally started (with prompting from the ghosts) to think about himself, and to examine all of his self’s permutations over time with clarity and compassion, he was finally able to break out of the mold of identity. He was no longer a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”. He was no longer as dead inside as Jacob Marley. He was alive and ready to walk among the living again because, through exploration, he saw that his conception of the self was an illusion and he could just start living a different life—one that was not full of thin gruel, perpetual cold, solitude, and “Bah! Humbug!” And I can tell you from experience that when you see this in your own life, you will definitely feel “as merry as a school boy” and as “giddy as a drunken man.”
So as we go about looking for holiday miracles, it’s always great to think of ways to be less selfish and more focused on others. But don’t neglect the other piece of the puzzle. Routines turn quickly into habits. Habits turn over time into identities. And identities—these selves we make in our mind—can sometimes block us off from the good and prevent us from doing good out in the world. So don’t just ignore your “self” at the holidays, explore it a little too. Reflect with compassion on who you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going and don’t ignore those demons who may be there to prompt you along. By seeing the limits of the “self”, the boundaries between you and the rest of the world may start to fade away and your spirit can reemerge. And that would be a holiday miracle indeed.
When I teach mindfulness, I always stress that you don’t need to buy anything when you start a meditation practice. With that said, some accessories can support a practice. Beyond that, around the holidays we always need some gift ideas for those in our lives. If you have someone in your life looking to create or establish a mindfulness habit, some of these ideas might help.
1. Meditation Cushion or Bench
A chair is perfectly sufficient to meditate, but if you do it regularly it can help to have a defined space for the practice. In addition, once you are able to sit for longer than 15 minutes, a cushion can help you maintain a good posture. You can find any number of meditation cushions or benches online, including on Amazon. I recommend a buckwheat fill for your cushion because it offers support and you can refill the cushion with more hulls over time.
2. Meditation App
A meditation app can help make a practice accessible because the world’s best teachers are always with you on your phone. Many apps also have courses available to teach the practice to you. Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier each have gift subscriptions available.
There are so many good books on mindfulness and meditation practice out there that you really can’t go wrong. Any of the books we have mentioned on this blog would make a fine gift, including:
You may be able to find courses and retreats at your local yoga studio, dharma or zen center, or other public facilities. If you can’t, Sounds True has a number of self-paced audio or video courses available from the best teachers in the world. They also regularly have sales that make these courses really affordable. For those new to the practice, we recommend Tara Brach’s and Jack Kornfield’s Power of Awareness.
It’s not unusual to get cold during meditation practice since you are sitting still for extended periods of time. In addition, a blanket can add a sense of comfort and even protection to help you calm during your practice. I recommend a blanket that is soft and comforting, but also light so that it doesn’t make you too hot as you sit.
6. Candle or Diffuser
The jar candle seems to be the ubiquitous holiday regift. But, on the bright side, nice smells can support a meditation practice. In the same way, an essential oil diffuser can do the same thing. If you are intending it to be used during meditation practice, pick something with a scent that is soothing so it doesn’t overpower or distract you while you sit.
7. Gift Card to Yoga Studio
Sitting isn’t the only way to learn mindfulness. You can also learn it from yoga and many yoga studios offer practices or courses on meditation. Many yoga studios offer holiday promotions for gift cards or class passes. In this way, you can support a local business while offering a friend a chance to establish or refresh their mindfulness or yoga practice.
8. Yoga Props
Restorative yoga is an excellent way to ease into meditation practice but this practice is not as prevalent at brick and mortar studios now due to the pandemic. You can solve this problem by offering the gift of yoga props. With a couple of blocks, a yoga blanket, and a bolster, your friend could easily start a restorative practice at home on their own. In fact, Amazon even has a restorative yoga starter kit and Judith Lasater has several great books that teach the practice for beginners.
Extra devices aren’t really necessary for a meditation practice, but some items can support it or solve a particular problem. A nice set of wireless earbuds can make your meditation practice mobile or help reduce distractions while you sit. If you are really into gadgets and have a larger budget, you could look into the Muse. By the time I tried the device, my practice was already established so I have not really used it much but it could be helpful to someone new to meditation. I also recently discovered Zenimals which offer a screen-free way of providing guided meditations to kids.
The biggest impediment to a meditation practice is the lack of time. So, if you want to give the gift of mindfulness, you may not have to spend any money. You could offer to babysit, take care of pets, or water plants for a friend who wants to go on a retreat or take a meditation course.
As a caveat, don’t push any of these gift ideas on anyone. Meditation is a deeply personal practice and it may not be right for everyone. Thus, I wouldn’t give any of these gifts unless I knew that the person was interested in mindfulness, yoga, or looking for some help with their stress management strategies. For those friends or family members looking to develop or establish a meditation habit, however, any of these gifts can support their practice and help it grow.
I know you started meditating because you want more calm in your life. I know you are looking for peace. You want to not fight things in life so much. You want to stop overthinking everything. You want to be kinder, gentler, and just better. But there’s this problem. You don’t feel calm when you meditate. Your mind won’t shut up. Your knee hurts. You keep thinking of painful memories or, worse, frightening fantasies of things that will never happen. You fall asleep. You can’t sit still. You think that you and your meditation practice are doomed.
Guess what? All that stuff doesn’t mean you can’t meditate or benefit from meditation. Instead, all that stuff is meditation practice. At least, it’s the food of meditation practice. Yes, you read that right. The nasty, uncomfortable, and sometimes even gut-wrenching crap that comes up during meditation practice is all part of it. While this may be disappointing news, at least you know you aren’t doing something wrong.
Sometimes when people talk about meditation they can convey the idea that it’s magic. We see people sitting calmly and we want that calm ourselves. So, we think that if we just do the thing they are doing we will get calm too. What we don’t see is all the crap and inner shenanigans that person had to wade through to find that calm.
Meditation isn’t magic; it’s practice. Tell me something. How do those basketball players sink game-clenching free throws in the final seconds of the NCAA tournament? Do you have some illusion that they are just naturally calm? Clearly not. They have practiced free throws so much that even the situation can’t shake them. In the same way, you aren’t going to find real calm and stability in meditation practice until you work on your free throws. Those free throws are learning some skills as you encounter the unpleasant bits of life.
It works like this. You get distracted and, instead of getting mad or disgusted with yourself, just focus back on the breath. Right there, you practiced restraint, self-kindness, and persistence. Or maybe your knee hurts and you feel the pain for a moment and watch how it affects you. In that case, you practice mindful awareness, holding space, and patience. If a painful memory arises and you can let yourself sit with it, you practice self-compassion, awareness, and courage. And maybe you just fall asleep or are lost in thought the whole meditation session and you laugh it off. You know what that’s practicing? It’s practicing being human and imperfect and still being worth the effort to try again.
Do you see my point here? All the so-called “bad” stuff that happens during your practice is not a distraction from the practice. It feeds the practice because it forces you to build the skills you need to handle the hard parts of life. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your practice. It means that life is imperfect and so are we. The practice of mediation can help you experience, though, that perfection isn’t required for a good life. Instead, it can help you learn how to create a good life by bringing joy and kindness to even the hard parts of life.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not telling you here that any problems in meditation practice should simply be powered through or that you can manage all turmoil that arises in your practice on your own. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to move during your practice, to take a break, or to rely on your community, teachers, or trained professionals for help. But I am saying that struggle in meditation is a normal part of the practice. If you give yourself time, patience, and kindness as you encounter those struggles, they can teach you and help you build the skills to live a calmer, gentler, happier life.
So, when you start to meditate, and you find too many thoughts, physical discomfort, and all the judgment your mind can muster, don’t be surprised. The struggles of human life don’t magically disappear when you sit for a few moments and focus on your breath. But, if you can learn to sit long enough and watch those struggles arise and fade away, you can start to see them as the very substance from which calm, happiness, kindness, and presence can grow. The challenges that arise during meditation aren’t problems in your practice; they feed your practice.
This week is Thanksgiving, so it may not be all that surprising that I have the idea of “abundance” on my mind. As someone who loves to cook (and eat), Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant cooking all day for my mom’s large family and then eating all night. This is the traditional (and maybe American) view of abundance: having so much that even when you share it with a group you still have too much.
But you know that abundance doesn’t only mean a glut of stuff at one time. There’s another view of abundance that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. It’s the idea of abundance that is not dependent on the amount of stuff we have at any given moment. Instead, it’s the idea of being abundant ourselves: being enough so that we are willing and able to share. As many of us Americans regularly experience, this kind of abundance is much harder to come by than a perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey.
You’ve most likely heard of the term “scarcity mindset” to refer to those times when we can think of ourselves or our lives as if we do not have enough. For lawyers, this mindset is most likely to come up when we start to think about our time. If, like me, you are in private practice, your time is literally your livelihood. When family obligations are added to the mix, it can be difficult to feel like there is any time at all left for growth and prosperity because so much of life is consumed by surviving the grind of work.
To be sure, vacations and time away are essential to managing work as stressful as law practice. But, for me, it’s not necessarily weeks off or trips to exotic locations that have helped me find a sense of abundance in my life. Rather, my life began to feel more abundant, more prosperous and open, when I began consistently devoting small pockets of time to my passions.
I am celebrating these small pockets of time this week because this is the blog’s 50th post. I remember when I launched the blog worrying that my writing wouldn’t be consistent. Somewhat stuck in a scarcity mindset, I worried that things would get too busy. I worried that I’d run out of ideas. I worried that I would decide it was too much work. I worried that nobody would care. In the end, as it turns out, none of these worries borne from the idea that my time and I weren’t enough ended up being true.
My writing was not always consistent but that was not actually a bad thing. Some weekends, I could crank out blog posts for the whole month, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t write for a few weeks. Life was very busy for much of the year. My law practice was hectic and I did a 500-hour yoga teacher training. This life craziness, however, inspired me to write rather than keeping me from it and fortunately some friends pitched in with guest blog posts too. And, while none of my 50 posts have gone viral, the blog has some followers and I still love writing.
Now, at this point, you could say I have written an abundance of blog posts. Indeed, this year I’ve written about the same amount as a short novel. But I didn’t need all the things my mind in its scarcity mode told me that I needed. I didn’t need unlimited time, freedom from all distractions, and a group of fans cheering me on to keep writing. Instead, all I needed was my laptop and some bits of time, when my law practice and kids allowed it, to deposit a few words here and there.
These little bits of time helped me produce a sizeable body of work and remember that I have enough time to live and work and also reflect on it occasionally too. They helped me remember that I can not only produce, but also create. In random, sometimes stolen and rushed, bits of unbillable time sprinkled throughout the year, I found abundance because I learned it was always possible to make something new to share with friends.
This Thursday, as you celebrate the abundance of the season, remember that the bounty on your table is the product of small acts done consistently over time. Abundance is not just something you can experience, but something you can create. This Thanksgiving, I wish you abundance in your celebrations and that you find it in yourself.
I did not know that “languishing” had a clinical meaning until I listened to Adam Grant’s interview on the Ten Percent Happier podcast the other day. According to Grant, it’s the state between wellness and depression. As a busy lawyer and mom, I immediately recognized this description. As Grant put it, it’s a state where you might say that you “aren’t sick but aren’t well.” We’ve all been there, but Grant suggests that too many of us stay there and allow ourselves to progress on into depression.
So, what do we do when we find ourselves in this not quite great state, in that place where we are uncomfortably abiding but not thriving? My experience with meditation tells me that the first step might be to avoid panicking and to understand that all things, including nasty feelings, don’t last forever. My life experience also tells me that we need rest phases in our lives to grow. But, when you notice the feelings persist or take a turn for the worse, some action might be needed. Grant gives us a clue as to what might help.
He suggests that we ought to look for an activity that offers us the 3 m’s:
In the interview, Grant explained that playing Mario Kart with his family really helped him during the pandemic. Why? Because it required mindfulness by totally occupying his mind. It engendered in him a sense of mastery or prowess in playing the game and improvement as he progressed. And, it mattered. It was a fun thing to do with his kids and a way to connect with family that he couldn’t see in person.
I’m not a video game person and, historically, I have been extra terrible at driving games. Even so, as I listened to Grant, I knew what my Mario Kart was: cooking. I love cooking. I have loved it since I was a kid and outgrew my Easy Bake Oven in a matter of weeks because the small light bulb inside was insufficient to properly bake my cakes. This pushed me to start making recipes from old kids’ cookbooks that I’d scrounged from yard sales by age 7. By middle school (much to the delight of my parents), I was cooking family dinners by myself.
After 30 years of cooking, I can now walk into the kitchen and come up with dishes on the fly to either make a classic dish I’ve been craving or use up what I have on hand. It’s a thrill to reuse leftovers in inventive ways and a game to transform one dish into something else entirely. During the pandemic, it offered me the practical benefit of forcing me to stop my work for a while and get away from my computer because my family and I had to eat (and my husband is a terrible cook). So, instead of using my brain to find answers, I got to take a break and use my senses and creativity to come up with something good. And, of course, it mattered that I ate something good and decently healthy, that my kids experienced some new kinds of foods, and that I could offer us something that we couldn’t get delivered from takeout.
As a litigator, there are many days and weeks that I don’t have the time to cook or have to come up with something super easy, like tossing meatballs and marinara in a crockpot. Even so, cooking during these times helps me find little pockets of play in the midst of the grind. When my calendar opens up again, it’s like coming home when I get to cook something that requires more thought, planning, skill, and attention. After some time in the kitchen, I usually find myself ready to dive back into work again because letting my senses drive the bus in the kitchen gave my rational brain a much-needed chance to rest.
I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should have an activity that they can rely on the same way I rely on cooking and Adam Grant relies on Mario Kart. Look for something that fills up your mind and appeals to your senses, helps you feel a sense of mastery, and, for whatever reason, matters to you or someone else. If you find this activity and keep coming back to it, you may find that it is a powerful antidote against languishing and part of a happy life.
I spoke on a panel a few weeks ago about wellness for professionals with Kathryn Riner, a nutritionist and intuitive eating coach. I thought Kathryn sounded pretty down-to-earth and human as she spoke, and a lot of what she said rang true from my own experience with mindfulness. The timing was also too perfect to pass up, since the theme for the blog this month is food. If you want to learn more about intuitive eating and how it intersects with mindfulness and compassion, check out this interview with Kathryn below.
Q. What is intuitive eating?
A. Intuitive eating is an evidenced based approach to health and wellness that has ten guiding principles to help people have a positive relationship with food, mind and body. Intuitive eating was created by two dietitians, Evelyne Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book was first published in 1995, and the fourth edition came out last year. Over the last roughly ten years or so, there has been a lot of research supporting the positive outcomes related to intuitive eating, which support both mental and physical health. Intuitive eating is also very much so aligned with Health at Every Size (HAES), again promoting health and wellness without focusing on weight loss.
Q. What drew you to focus on intuitive eating in your work with clients?
A. Once I was a little over ten years into my career, I had enough experience to know that diets don’t work. And when it comes to kids especially, I recognized how promoting weight loss causes harm. I saw firsthand how the pursuit of weight loss damaged one’s relationship with food and their body, and that dieting was a predictor for weight gain and risk factor for eating disorders in adolescents. About the same time, I was starting my private practice, and I kept coming across the topic of intuitive eating in the area of nutrition entrepreneurship. The more I learned, the more it resonated with me, both personally and professionally. I truly believe intuitive eating can be life changing.
Q. What makes intuitive eating stand out from other practices or strategies for managing nutrition?
A. Intuitive Eating respects an individual’s lived experience and honors their health goals without focusing on weight. Intuitive eating allows people to focus on health promoting behaviors, without the pursuit of weight loss. It also has over 125 research studies supporting its efficacy.
Q. Many mindfulness practices emphasize paying attention to and honoring thoughts, feelings and body sensations, could those practice support intuitive eating?
Definitely! One of my favorite strategies is to encourage my clients to check in with their bodies midway through the meal and take notice. Whether they notice they are still hungry or are comfortably full, it doesn’t matter. Being in tune with your body is essential to being an intuitive eater. Honoring hunger and feeling fullness are just two of the principles of intuitive eating, but they are very important to the practice.
Q. Is self-compassion important to intuitive eating or managing nutrition in general? If so, can you explain why?
Yes, absolutely! There is no judgement when it comes to intuitive eating. You can’t fail at being an intuitive eater. It is a practice that takes a lot of self-compassion and exploration. I always encourage my clients to evaluate their eating experiences with curiosity, not judgment. And self-compassion has a significant role in that process.
Q. Are there any other practices that you recommend for people who are interested in intuitive eating?
I would encourage anyone that is interested in intuitive eating to experiment with viewing food as emotionally neutral. So many clients come to me using the language that food is “good” or “bad”, or “healthy” vs “unhealthy”. All food offers some nutritional benefit, and I think if we can trust ourselves and our bodies, we will realize food holds no moral value. It is so liberating to know that all foods fit. I like to encourage a diet with enough nutrition, variety, and satisfaction because to me, that is what is healthiest.
About Kathryn Riner: Kathryn Riner is a masters level educated, pediatric dietitian living in St. Louis, MO. She has 14 years of experience working both in her community and at a local US News and World Reports nationally ranked children’s hospital. In 2016 she opened her private practice, Healthy Kids Nutrition, LLC providing compassionate, individualized nutrition therapy to families. In 2019, Kathryn trained with Evelyn Tribole, a co-author of Intuitive Eating and became a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. Her mission is to help parents and kids have a positive relationship with food, so everyone can feel happy, healthy and confident around the table. You can follow her on Instagram @intuive.eating.for.moms.
If I were to tell you that you have a mind like a sea slug, you’d probably be offended. That’s the first thing Dr. Judson Brewer does in The Craving Mind and I liked the book so much that I read it twice. Brewer is a doctor, psychologist and addiction researcher, so when he says you (and all other humans) have a mind like a sea slug, he means that you have a mind that is always looking for a reward.
For evolutionary reasons, our minds are wired to look for good stuff (food, mates, hospitable environments, etc.) and avoid bad stuff (i.e. toxins or danger). As early humans, this was great because food and stuff to make us feel good were not so readily available. Now that those items and lots of other distractions are not only readily available but actively offered to many of us, it’s easy to see how the constant search for a reward can lead one to become addicted to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or even things like food, sex, or technology.
So, what is the answer to this problem? Brewer suggests that mindfulness and compassion are the answers. He found mindfulness as he was pursuing all the letters after his name and became enthralled when it helped him manage the physical side effects of stress and a broken heart. After pursuing the practice and going on meditation retreats, Brewer focused his research on addiction and began using FMRI scanners to understand what mindfulness had to do with addiction and how it might help people overcome it. What he learned was that simple awareness (mindfulness) and flexibility in dealing with physical discomfort (compassion) were incredibly useful tools for addressing addictions of many kinds.
In The Craving Mind, Brewer traces the history of his research of mindfulness practices and weaves it together with his own personal story of how mindfulness shaped his life. Brewer uses his own story in an engaging and human way to illustrate the scientific concepts that underlie his work. Though Brewer’s aim is not necessarily to explain meditation practice, his explanation of the science of the mind includes many insights about meditation practice.
Most notably, I was surprised yet gratified by how prominently compassion practices featured in Brewer’s work. Perhaps because of the title or Brewer’s background in psychology, I expected that his work might emphasize focus, calm, and awareness instead. That is by no means absent from the book since Brewer explains how important simple awareness of how one’s addictive conduct actually feels can diminish it’s allure.
Brewer explains, though, that awareness needs a helper and he demonstrates that compassion is a powerful partner to mindfulness for treating addictions, getting over one’s obsession with the self, and living a happy life. He describes in detail how the RAIN practice popularized by Tara Brach is a powerful antidote to cravings and that individuals taught the practice can learn to “surf” through a craving, rather than succumbing to it. Near the end of the book, he explains that the heart practice of joy is perhaps the secret ingredient to maintaining a meditation habit and a happier life. Since our brains are looking for a reward, Brewer explains, we can give ourselves that reward by cultivating, noticing, and getting curious about the experience of joy. Not only will this make meditation practice a whole lot more pleasant, it also can make life more joyful.
If you meditate long enough, you could probably figure out a lot of what Brewer tells us in The Craving Mind for yourself. After all, his book is really just talking about the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: that the origin of suffering is craving. Anyone who has practiced meditation enough understands that the mind is always wanting to draw nice things in and push nasty things away and that this push and pull is suffering. Even so, The Craving Mind is a nice addition to the wisdom on this topic because it tells us how craving creates suffering and how mindfulness and compassion can help us end (or at least reduce) it.
This helps because meditation is a process that takes time to work. Our minds are set up to crave, so we often struggle to accept a new way even when that way could be good for us because new things can be uncomfortable. By offering an explanation of the science of addiction and mindfulness, The Craving Mind may reduce the doubt that new meditators often experience as they embark upon a path in search of greater calm, peace, and joy. So, if you want to upgrade to sea slug version 2.0, check out The Craving Mind to see if it helps you find healthier rewards for that mind of yours and a little less suffering.
As someone who writes and speaks publicly about meditation, it may surprise you to learn that I did not tell anyone—anyone—when I started meditating. At first, I didn’t know whether the practice would work for me or what I hoped it would help me find. It was a weird little thing I did because I’d read some books and articles and I was so stressed and bogged down with overthinking that I was willing to try anything. But meditating seemed like a break from my personality—driven, logical, intense, goal-oriented—and so, I suppose, it seemed like a deviation even for a few minutes to do nothing with no particular goal at all. Why would I risk people thinking I was weird or worse woo-woo for something that was admittedly out of my character and might not even work?
Of course, for me, it did work and that’s when I started to tell other people in my life about it. I first admitted to my husband that I wasn’t actually “napping” but instead meditating when I asked him to mind our daughter so I could have some quiet for a few minutes. I then raved to a few friends and family members I could trust about how much it helped. Some had questions but nobody responded with judgment. So, eventually, I started writing and speaking about it and I was astounded to find that other professionals, colleagues, and even clients supported me and shared their own struggles with mental health or experience with meditation.
My experience has shown me that meditation isn’t woo-woo at all (or at least it doesn’t have to be) but many people tell me that it remains a stumbling block for them. With that in mind, here are my tips for processing the issue if you want to meditate but are nervous about being woo-woo.
1. You Don’t Have to Explain Your Practice to Anyone
I write and speak about meditation because it helped me and I think it could help others. But you have no obligation to talk to anyone else about your self-care practices. In fact, you may find benefits from keeping your practice to yourself. Meditation is about learning to be with yourself, so it stands to reason that keeping your practice to yourself may give you the space to let the practice work its magic. In addition, letting your practice be your own little secret for a while may make it more appealing because either it can serve as your own haven from the world or it may make you feel like some secret, rebel, meditating badass. In short, you don’t have to share your meditation practice with anyone else until you are ready, which includes fully processing your concerns about it being woo-woo.
2. Drop the Baggage.
To be fair, some people think meditation is woo-woo because there are so many ways to meditate. Religious traditions can attach practices like chanting and incense that can make some people feel excluded. Some secular figures have used the practice of meditation as an affectation to virtue signal or demonstrate their own spiritual superiority. And some others for their own personal reasons like to add things like crystals or intense affirmations to a meditation practice and those things might not appeal to you. Guess what? There is no monopoly on meditation. Just because some people do their practice in one way doesn’t mean that you can’t do it in your own way.
While I consider myself a spiritual person, I am also a deeply practical one. I frankly don’t have time for crystals and incense. My brain rejects affirmations, flowery language, and theatrical voices with great fervor. And, though I find chanting builds a sense of community when meditating in groups, it feels awkward to do it on my own. So generally, my practice is straightforward: I sit, I breathe, I notice sensations in the body, and I let the thoughts and feelings and distractions come as they may.
When done in this way, the practice of meditation isn’t weird at all. It’s simple, practical, and has been shown by research to be effective. So, one way to get over the worries about meditation being woo-woo is to consider what images, symbols, or cultural influences you think are intertwined with the practice of meditation. When you remember that the practice of meditation can be very simple, you may be able to drop some of the baggage that makes you feel it is mystical or strange.
3. Change Is a Little Bit Woo-Woo.
If you are exploring meditation, the odds are that you want some kind of change in your life. Though new things can scare us a little, it’s hard to get change without being open to new things. Even though meditation might scare you because it is different, that different approach, outlook, or way of thinking may be exactly what you need. In other words, the fact that meditation may seem strange to you at first is not necessarily a bad thing.
Remember that it is normal and common to feel uncomfortable at first when you start any new practice or learn any new skill. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do it. Though your mind is bound to ask questions like “Is this right for me?” or “do I really want to get myself into this?”, you don’t have to answer those questions right away. Only experience can give the answers to those questions. The good thing about meditation is that it encourages you to take note of your present activities, the thoughts in your mind, and the feelings in your body. If it’s not right for you, you’ll know. But if it is, you might just get the change you set out to find.
4. Is Woo-Woo Really the Issue?
Sitting and watching my mind for a number of years has taught me that the mind is a tricky thing. It won’t always be straight with you about what it’s trying to do. Sometimes the mind comes up with stories or doubts to keep you from looking at things that scare it. As human beings, we don’t always want to get up close and personal with our habits and patterns. Those things can make us feel pain, regret, or even shame. They can push us into new situations and raise feelings we’d long since buried. Cleary, I can’t tell you whether that is true for you. But, it’s at least worth it to consider whether the whole “woo-woo” issue is even the issue at all.
Are you really worried about the practice being weird or looking weird to others? Or is your mind a little afraid of losing control? Are you a little afraid of changing or seeing that you need to change some things in your life? None of those fears deserve judgment. They are all deeply human and normal. Most of us know, of course, that making life decisions based on fear usually doesn’t make us happier. So, if the concerns about meditation being woo-woo are coming up for you, one thing to ask yourself is whether that concern is masking something else.
5. So What?
If all of these strategies still don’t help, there’s always the catch-all line from grade school: so what? Let’s say you give meditation a try and you end up loving it. You go crazy with it and you woo-woo it up. You chant, burn incense, add crystals, bells, and mandalas and you love every bit of it. You learn that you’ve had a secret woo-woo persona lying in wait your whole life just dying to get out.
Do these new tendencies mean you can’t be a good lawyer? Do they mean you will no longer be a tax-paying productive member of society? Do they mean you will have no choice but to grow your hair long, find a drum circle, and go live on a commune? I really doubt that they do.
This isn’t to say that your concerns about meditation and questions about your identity don’t matter. They matter a lot. But, by asking “so what” to the concerns about being woo woo, you are not letting the label of woo-woo and the attempt to avoid it decide what you do in your life. Instead, you are considering the meaning of that label for yourself, assessing its veracity, considering whether it fits you and what you are doing, and deciding if it’s a deal-breaker or not.
Isn’t that the way we lawyers handle problems every day? Our clients present us with a set of facts and raise concerns and we don’t throw up our hands and give up. We study the facts, try to uncover and root out assumptions, and then we decide what approach to take. Decisions about what practices might serve our mental and physical well-being deserve at least that much attention. So don’t let labels or vague worries get in your way if you want to meditate, instead ask what those labels and worries are about and you may just learn something interesting about yourself in the process.
In the end, I can’t tell you whether meditation is woo-woo or not. Meditation practices are varied and unique and what qualifies as woo-woo to one person may just be normal to another. My point here, though, is only to demonstrate that the concerns about whether the practice of meditation is woo-woo, weird, or strange are really a starting point instead of a dead end. Doubts are a normal part of life, especially for us lawyers who are habituated to valuing our time highly and trained to think critically about everything. Though the practice of meditation may seem new and different to many, research indicates that it could offer your life and law practice many benefits. The only way to know for sure, of course, is to try it out with an open mind and heart. So don’t let doubts about being woo-woo get in the way. Examine that label and your doubts and focus instead on building a life that you want to live with whatever practices serve you best.
A friend shared a meme recently which listed 4 buckets of self-care strategies, including physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. I was glad to see that it included meditation, but my lawyer brain fired up when I saw it listed meditation only in the spiritual bucket. Literally starting with the phrase, “Well, actually” my mind began drafting a response to my friend’s social media post to explain that meditation was not just a spiritual practice.
Rather than alienate my friend, however, I decided that a blog post would probably be a better forum for these thoughts. So, here it goes. Is meditation a “spiritual practice?” Undoubtedly it is, since various forms of meditation have overtly been part of numerous spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Meditation also may be a spiritual practice for many individuals outside of the context of religious and spiritual traditions. In my view, a spiritual practice is one that establishes or promotes a sense of connection between an individual and other beings or the universe. Meditation has clearly offered that for me and the importance of that cannot be overstated.
But I rail against putting meditation only in the spiritual bucket for a few reasons. The biggest is that, as a lawyer, I am a super practical person. Emphasizing the spiritual aspects of meditation can therefore be problematic when it is done to the exclusion of other practical benefits. Sure, meditation can connect you with the universe. It can also help you not be troubled by your thoughts. In my case, it consistently reduces or abates my headaches and other physical signs of stress. And, it routinely helps me get over myself by letting me see that I need to apologize/ask for help/forgive myself/ease up/just let something go. Having experienced all of these practical benefits firsthand, I can’t put meditation into the “spiritual” bucket alone because it contributes regularly to my mental/emotional/physical/social wellbeing.
But maybe that really takes me to a different point altogether. Maybe the problem isn’t with calling meditation a “spiritual” practice at all. Instead, perhaps the issue is that all of these aspects of personal well-being – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social – are actually intertwined. As a pedagogical tool, it may be helpful to separate out these needs so that us wayward humans who often stray from the path of health and happiness can find our breadcrumb trail to stumble back to sanity. But the truth, as my meditation practice regularly reveals to me, is that these human needs are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, most wholesome activities can’t be put into one bucket alone, but rather support, cycle, and flow into all the others.
So, am I telling you to stop sharing that meme and others like them that separate out human needs into categories? Of course not. But as you share or view memes like these, it may help to just consider for a moment if they are 100% true and, more significantly, whether they are true for you. It may be even more eye-opening for you to think about the personal practices that you rely on to keep yourself well and whether they fit in just one, multiple or all of the “human needs” buckets. Considering this myself, I can’t agree that meditation is only a spiritual practice any more than I could agree that exercise is just a physical one. In the end, I think meditation is a human practice made for human needs, including those that are spiritual, physical, social, and mental.