Riopy Crafts Music for Meditation and the Spirit

I have already written that I prefer to meditate in silence, so it had not really occurred to me to ever seek out music to support my meditation practice. Indeed, before hearing Riopy, I would have assumed that music would impede meditation, since it could churn up emotions or thoughts and make it harder for the mind to focus. But when I heard Riopy for the first time and learned about his story, I instantly understood how music and meditation could work very well together.

I had never heard of French pianist and composer, Riopy, until last year. As a chronically uncool person, I am always the last person to hear about any new kind of music. So, I rely on friends or the media I consume to tip me off about new things I might enjoy. Since I have already discussed my love of Peloton multiple times on the blog, it won’t surprise you that it’s what led me to Riopy too. Last year, I took Peloton’s Riopy slow flow class one night when I wanted some nice evening yoga. I was just looking to move a little after sitting at a desk all day, but I ended up being moved in a totally unexpected way.

As the class went on, the instructor, Aditi Shah, explained that Riopy had a past history with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Though music had offered him solace over the years, he found a peace in meditation that helped him heal and keep creating. This helped him realize that he didn’t need mind-altering substances or unhappiness to fuel his craft. When he tried meditation, he found his muse in stillness and peace and began creating music for meditation.  His music, which is primarily piano instrumentals, sounds like it. Indeed, several of Riopy’s pieces are called “meditations” including his most well-known (and my favorite) piece, “Meditation No. 22”, which is made to support a 22-minute meditation session. 

Now, you may think that piano music crafted by a man with a history of depression and fondness of meditation might be morose, heavy, or even dark. But it’s not. Though Riopy’s works do not shy away from the heavy or dark, they are light, delicate, and intimate. Overall, the tone of the pieces is playful and sounds like a flow state and the beauty that derives from it. Some, like “Caught in Infinity” from Breathe, can capture joy and sorrow in the same piece and not just in certain movements but, at times, in the same moment. While the pieces don’t tell stories the same way popular songs might, they seem to tell stories about past states of mind. Listening to them, each note seems to represent a moment in meditation and you can almost envision the very meditation from which the melody was born.

I have little musical talent and even less training and knowledge, but Riopy’s music reminded me in the strangest way of my own life. I don’t hear music when I meditate, but I can see how somebody trained in music might. When I sit, all the words in my mind get a chance to spread out. Like kids in a bouncy house, they jump around and play and come up with all kinds of combinations and notions that I would never be able to appreciate if I were doing something else. This is why I loved Riopy right away: because his music reminded me of how meditation helps me write. His music sounds like my mind taking a breath, letting itself dance, and sweeping words and ideas into their proper places in the process, without the well-meaning but unhelpful meddling of my ego. 

Since I like the space that silence gives my meditation, I usually don’t listen to Riopy when I meditate, but I frequently listen to his music when I work or write or do yoga. The calming tone of the music aids relaxation and the absence of words means it doesn’t distract or clash with other mental processing. His music is available on most major outlets, like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon. He has a new album out currently, Bliss, as well as a collection of many others. You can also find an extended, hour-long, version of his “Meditation 22” on the Calm app.

You may not meditate at all or need music to support your meditation practice. You also may not be drawn to Riopy’s music for the peculiar reason that I have come to love it. But, if you want some beautiful music to bring calm and peace into your life or help you appreciate the value of fleeting, delicate moments, check Riopy’s music out.

Book Review: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley

I have this bad habit of buying books so that I don’t forget about them. Then I flip through them once, decide I don’t have time to read them right now, and set them on my bookshelf only to forget about them. I did this with Every Body Yoga years ago. I had heard the author, Jessamyn Stanley, on an episode of Call Your Girlfriend and thought she sounded so personable, down-to-earth, and cool that I couldn’t resist.

But life and law practice intervened and I didn’t get around to reading it until I enrolled in yoga teacher training and heard multiple classmates and teachers mention it with affection. When I dusted off the book and finally read it, I wished I had done so sooner. Then, I shared it with a friend who told me she was interested in trying out yoga to balance out her fitness routine. As I wrote previously, my own yoga practice got off to a rocky start because I was saddled with judgments about my body’s appearance and perceived limitations. I found in Stanley’s book an experience that, though it was undoubtedly unique, reminded me a bit of my own.

Stanley came to prominence when she began posting pictures of herself learning and mastering yoga poses on Instagram. At the time, Stanley wasn’t anyone famous or even a yoga teacher. She was just a person seeking community and support as she did her practice, largely on her own. Indeed, Stanley recounts in the book how she learned the basics of yoga with studio classes, but practiced on her own in her apartment for a time due to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until she gained a following and built her own confidence that she became a yoga teacher. Now, she’s got nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram, her own online studio, and a second recently released book.

Though this story certainly showcases the power of courage and following one’s passions, it also demonstrates how yoga as a practice can help yogis of all kinds learn to love and care for themselves. In Every Body Yoga, Stanley relates how yoga helped her care for herself through the difficulties of her own life, including making decisions about education and work, challenges in her intimate relationships, and even losing loved ones. While yoga was a powerful force for her, Stanley explains that practical impediments to yoga practice still exist for many people. She offers examples throughout her story of the emotions elicited for her as she walked into a class with only thin white women and the expense of maintaining a yoga habit with studio classes. It is for this reason that Stanley felt compelled to start documenting her own practice for others.

To make yoga truly accessible to everybody, Stanley also offers a thorough but concise summary of yoga philosophy and the varieties of asana practice. This may help those new to yoga determine what classes might best suit their bodies. In addition, about one half of the book is devoted to explanations and demonstrative pictures of commonly used poses and props, and sequences paired for specific purposes. Thus, any new yogi could pick up Stanley’s book, a yoga mat, and some blocks, and start a home practice for the same price of attending two or three yoga classes in a studio.

In short, Every Body Yoga is a how-to guide intended and best suited for those new to yoga, but it offers inspiration, heart, and a great story of self-love that even experienced yogis might enjoy. If you are curious about yoga but aren’t sure it’s for you, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Everybody Yoga. But don’t let it sit on your shelf gathering dust. Give it a read, give Stanley a follow on Instagram, and get on the mat.

Knight School: What New Lawyers Can Learn from The Green Knight

Author’s Note: Spoiler alert. There is some detail in this post about what happens in the movie and how it ends. The symbolism in The Green Knight is heavy and I personally benefited from some excellent analysis about the movie that I read online. In addition, though the movie is new, the story is not. If you aren’t familiar with the poem and prefer to be surprised, watch the movie first and then come back later to read.

When I left the theater after watching The Green Knight, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was mostly confused, a little surprised that the theater wasn’t totally empty, and I wondered out loud to my husband why the critic reviews had been so good. It wasn’t really that the movie was bad, but it was slow. Though it was about knights, there was hardly anything knightly about it. There was only one sword fight, and I knew going in how that would end. Even while watching the movie, I wasn’t rapt with suspense, though curiosity glued my eyes to the screen as I tried to unpack the symbolism in each scene.

The curiosity, it turns out, didn’t stop when I waked out of the theater. Most of the time with movies, you have an experience, perhaps a catharsis. You know the message. You feel the emotion. You may reflect or talk for a few minutes about what the movie meant, but then you quickly move on. But I couldn’t with The Green Knight. I kept thinking about it for days after I watched it. What did the movie mean? What was the point? Having studied mindfulness enough to know some Buddhist philosophy and being familiar with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I knew the basic gist of the story: we humans aren’t in control of many things in life but it is the acceptance of our lack of control that gives us the capacity for greatness.

That part was clear with the Green Knight’s threat to take off Gawain’s head and Gawain’s obsessive clinging to the magical green girdle he thought would protect him. It was only when Gawain finally set the girdle aside, and leaned forward to accept his beheading, that the Green Knight pronounced him a “good knight.” The movie doesn’t tell us what happens next, but, if you are familiar with the poem, you may know that Gawain does not get beheaded after all.

So why was this movie stuck in my brain? Because it didn’t just give us the needed reminder that we aren’t in control of things in life, it also showed how the stories we create and try to live up to as we go about our lives are part of the illusion of control that we must escape. From the outset of Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight, he fails to live up to the standards for knights from the epic poems. Gawain appears to agree to fight the Green Knight at first, not out of courage or conviction, but instead because Arthur primed him in the minutes before the Green Knight’s appearance to believe he ought to start becoming somebody important.

When he leaves the castle walls on his quest, Gawain is quickly bested by 3 nihilistic teens and robbed of his horse, armor, and the green girdle his mother made to protect him. He’s left hogtied in a forest, presumably to die but narrowly and awkwardly escapes death. Gawain then wanders lost through the woods and stumbles upon the ghost of St. Winifred, a woman beheaded for her chastity, who must shame him into helping her secure her disembodied head. And he utterly fails in the house of a lord he encounters before facing the Green Knight. He is totally outsmarted, outclassed, and beguiled by the lady of the house and accepts in rather humiliating circumstances the gift of his magically restored protective green girdle from her.  She brands him “no true knight” for this encounter because Gawain cannot let go of the lust for protection and control. As Gawain runs from the house, telling himself he’s heading to face the Green Knight and not merely running away from his shame, Gawain fails again. He meets the lord of the house in the woods and reneges on his promise to give everything he received at the house back to the lord before he departs. Though he offers a farewell kiss, Gawain leaves without mentioning the green girdle the lady had given him.

So why do I love this? I love this because Gawain is us. Though played masterfully by Dev Patel, the character Gawain doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He goes out into the world, like us, with no instructional manual. He’s forced to try to make something out of himself, perhaps due to pressure from his family or the idea that he’s got big shoes to fill. At first, he falls flat on his face. He gets taken advantage of by bad people and suffers dearly. But from that he learns something really important: what it’s like to suffer. And he uses that knowledge for good when, after a little prompting from her, he helps Winfred even though she has nothing to give him. But then, just like us silly humans, Gawain fails again. He goes back to a house that looks enough like his home in Camelot and he forgets what he just learned. He falls prey again to the idea that he can find a lasting security and he clings again to his green girdle and hides it from the lord.

But even this big dope of a guy—even Gawain who keeps messing up—learns. By the end of his relatively uninspiring journey, he learns the truth he needs to understand to do anything great at all: that security and safety (at least the lasting kind) are myths. Before he faces the Green Knight, Gawain is shaking with fear and has a vision of himself running away and returning to Camelot. In this vision, Gawain’s unearned legend for bravery precedes him and leads him to rise in favor and ultimately become king. The vision though foretells the personal costs he must suffer and the harm he must do to others to take that path. More significantly, the death of his loved ones and the depicted fall of his empire tell us that none of this so-called greatness will last anyway. It is this vision, stark as it is, that knocks sense into Gawain and forces him to set the green girdle aside and lean in as the Green Knight prepares to take his head. 

In other words, Gawain is not a perfect knight or a terrible knight. He’s a deeply human knight. When he tried to look like a perfect knight, he failed to live his values and suffered for it. When he, instead, faced life as it was, unmitigated by any appeals to magical thinking, he became the true knight and even his past failings couldn’t tarnish that. I love this movie because it depicts the silliness we humans fall prey to, but also how we learn and progress. It shows how easily we fall into old stories and mental images of what we think we ought to be.

It also shows how those stories can keep us from helping each other and being ourselves and how they can even make us feel justified to cause others pain. Indeed, unlike many films depicting Arthurian legends, this one examines some of the old stories and legends even as it retells one. It contrasts the tale of St. Winifred, a woman brutalized and robbed totally of her agency, with the heroic yet often violent heroism for which men of the time were praised. Likewise, Gawain’s final vision examines the merits of the knightly legends as well as the value of titles and power, which not only fade but may also lead to the perpetration of violence against others, including loved ones.

So, why on earth do I offer this review in a blog about mindfulness for lawyers? Well, for one thing, the Arthurian legends are some of the best-known examples of the hero’s journey in the West and those tales still have a lot to offer us in terms of illustrating the paths of mindfulness and compassion. More significantly, though, I’ve been a new lawyer. I know what it’s like to go out into the world, thinking you have a part to play and battles to fight to make your name. I have experienced the pain of not fitting the stories in my mind about the lawyer I thought I was supposed to be, but that was soon followed by the benefits of learning to be myself. When I stopped emulating the myth of the lawyer persona in my mind, I started practicing law my way and I served my clients better, found much more happiness, and, even in the midst of stress and fear, had some fun.

I think the creators of The Green Knight made a tactical decision to make Gawain much younger and less established than the well-sung hero of the ancient poem. They made him young because I think the filmmakers were talking to the young. They were telling the young that, like Gawain observed, our leaders are aging, our stories from the past need to be examined, but we have no choice but to go and try and fail. If we do this with open hearts, a willingness to face our own shame and accept what we cannot control, we may just become good knights and do some good in the world. It’s a hard world to be living in and a difficult time to be practicing law, but The Green Knight tells us that you don’t have to be perfect or fit the mold to be a “good knight.” Instead, you only have to accept the realities of life, including your own humanity, and be willing to face the things that scare you. This is a lesson any young knight, human, or lawyer could certainly use. Thus, just like life, The Green Knight may confound, confuse, and mystify you, but if you can sit back and let the lessons it is offering come to you, you may come to see how good it really is.

Which Compassion Cultivation Course Is Best for Lawyers?

Though the studies demonstrating the benefit of compassion practices are no less compelling than those relating to mindfulness, I find that lawyers and professionals are far less familiar with compassion than mindfulness. Perhaps this is because, for cultural reasons, lawyers are more comfortable with the idea of mental focus than they are anything to do with emotions. Or, maybe it is because most of us humans would like to think we are compassionate already. But, whether you are a compassionate person or not, research tells us that compassion can also be cultivated and offer benefits, including a reduction in stress, improvement in focus, and significant mental and physical health benefits. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, you may be gratified to know that there are a number of high quality and accessible courses for you to explore compassion practices further. Here’s a brief comparison of some of the most well-known courses available that can help you get started with the process of cultivating compassion for yourself and others.

1. Best Introduction: Science of Compassion by Kelly McGonigal 

This is an audio course available for purchase from Audible or Sounds True. It is divided into chapters and each chapter contains a brief lecture on a compassion topic as well as relevant strategies. This course is an exceptional introduction into compassion research and practices. McGonigal is a psychologist but she knows how to tell a story and understands the science well enough to explain it in plain language. She does a remarkable job embedding research-based practices into human stories to convey the power of compassion and how we can all bring it into our lives and the world. At only $30 for the audio version, this course is a fraction of the price of the others covered here. While it cannot compare to the benefits obtained from a more interactive course, it is an excellent and accessible introduction to compassion practices and a great value.

2. Best for New Meditators: Power of Awareness by Tara Brach & Jack Kornfield

This is an introduction to mindfulness and meditation created by popular and renowned meditation teachers and psychologists, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. It is available at regular intervals throughout the year from Sounds True. The course is primarily composed of video and audio recordings but they are high quality and informative. Tara Brach is famous for her RAIN technique, a compassion practice for handling painful emotions and an entire section is devoted to this strategy. If needed, online community options and Zoom meetings are available to participants who need more detailed instruction. Although this course is not live, the teachings were recorded before a live audience. Recordings of Q&A sessions with the audience are included and this is where Brach’s and Kornfield’s teaching really shines. In addition, the course includes a self-study, half-day retreat, which offers a chance to explore the practices in more depth. 

3. Most Practical and Comprehensive: Compassion Cultivation Training from CCARE at Stanford University

This course is the marriage of ancient meditation practices and modern science. It was founded by researchers at Stanford University and Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., a Tibetan refugee who served as translator to the Dalai Lama for more than 30 years and later earned a Ph.D. in religious studies. This course uses Tibetan compassion practices, including loving-kindness and tonglen, as well as others derived from research to teach students how to increase compassion for themselves and for others. CCARE has limited in-person choices for instruction but trained teachers offer the course elsewhere, including virtual options. Because compassion for self and others is intertwined, I found the subject most practical when both aspects were treated together in this program. The structure of the CCT program, as well as the small class size, permitted more time for discussion with and learning from classmates. 

4. Best for Self-Compassion: Mindful Self-Compassion from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

This course may be one of the most well-known compassion courses across the globe. It was created by researchers and teachers, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. It is available in either a live or online format that ranges from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the course structure. It is packed with strategies and resources to expand and employ self-compassion, regardless of one’s experience with meditation. The tone of this course is very soft, so soft in fact that lawyers or others not familiar with compassion practices may struggle or be put off by it. Like the Power of Awareness above, it includes a half-day retreat as well but the retreat for MSC is live and done with other participants, which is generally more supportive for a first retreat experience. Because MSC is so well-known, one other neat aspect of the course, especially if you take it online, is that your classmates are likely to include people from around the world. Interacting with classmates around the world on the topic of self-compassion may help you understand more than anything how universal and critical the human need for self-kindness is. 

So, which course should you choose? I’ll admit that CCT was my personal favorite, so if you could pick only one I would tell you to try CCT. With that said, I benefited from and enjoyed every course mentioned here and compassion is a capacity that I don’t think you can overtrain. The real question isn’t which course you should choose, but which one you should try first.

Why Lawyers Need the Big Magic of Creative Living

“You should read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.” This was advice from another lawyer, Jeremy Richter, after I appeared on his podcast The Lawyerpreneur where we talked about how we liked to write and make things and didn’t care if other lawyers thought we were “weird.” I like and respect Jeremy quite a lot, but I confess that I had assumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert because of Eat, Pray, Love (in truth the movie version of that book) and I ignored his advice. Months later, I wrote a LinkedIn post about the paradoxes of writing which said, essentially, that it takes time but makes energy, it is frustrating but somehow still offers happiness, and it is often lonely but provides a path to belonging. Another lawyer messaged me, asking if I had read Big Magic because my post sounded just like it.

This was enough to make me see the writing on the wall. I immediately checked Audible, found a remaining monthly credit, and started listening. Halfway through the 6-minute opening chapter, I saw even more writing on the wall: I was totally wrong about Gilbert. At this point, I am not even sure what my problem with Gilbert was, but in retrospect I think I just discounted her work because it was popular. After reading Big Magic, however, I wish more people, and in particular, more lawyers knew about it.

Big Magic is a series of mini essays on living a creative life. Some of the essays contain stories about Gilbert’s writing career, but many others offer examples of creative people from across the millennia, reaching all the way to those early humans who drew pictures on cave walls. While the stories are not chronological or even directly related, they come together at the end like random bits of fabric collected over the years to create the cohesive pattern in a quilt. This analogy is perfect for the book because Gilbert’s central thesis is this: creativity is an essential part of being human because it is the part of our humanity that gives us access to divinity.

By this, Gilbert does not deny that living a creative life is hard—even gut-wrenching at times. She devotes several of the essays, often comically, to discussing rejection, the pain that comes when the muse visits but then leaves too soon, jealousy, competition, and dealing with the worst critic of all: the one inside your own head. But she argues that it is still worthwhile, regardless of whether your particular creative pursuit brings you fame or fortune and even if it drives you nuts on occasion.

Why do I love this book so much? Well, because I have lived it. While I have not yet written a smash hit novel or lived the life of a professional writer, I have experienced firsthand the benefits that living a creative life can offer. It took me a long time to accept my own creativity and allow it to flourish. Like a lot of lawyers, I thought for too long that I should focus solely on my law practice. Then, I had to get over the idea that I was “wasting my time” if I put effort into projects that wouldn’t lead to any benefits. As it turns out, the benefits of my writing were pronounced for both my life and law practice, though the path that those benefits took to find me were often indirect. Ultimately, though, it was when I finally accepted the truth that my creativity exploded: I was going to write because writing made me happy and lack of attention and praise was not going to stop me.

There is a lot written these days about mental well-being for lawyers and professionals and for good reason. Many resources, and even those on this blog, attempt to help by offering to fit wellness practices into the nooks and crannies of our overpacked lawyer calendars. I don’t criticize this approach because it was how I started my own journey and because studies show us that a few minutes a day can make a huge difference for our minds, bodies, and even relationships. But, for my lawyer and professional friends, I hope that the quest for greater happiness does not stop once a daily habit of a few minutes of mindfulness or another self-care practice is established. Then next step, if you can afford it and brave it, offers rewards of a much greater magnitude.

Mindfulness practices can help lawyers and professionals find stability and even heal themselves in the midst of our stressful and busy lives. If we let them, however, they can also help us notice what we need to do next to grow and to create. As Gilbert posits, this is the birthright of all humans and it is essential for a happy life.  I know your schedule is busy. I know we are (still) living in a global pandemic. I know that nothing is certain right now or ever. But those realities don’t make happiness and creativity luxuries; they make them both essential. If this weren’t the case, those early humans would not have had the urge to paint on cave wells even as they were faced with daily task of survival.

So, if you have a project in the back of your mind, maybe you want to write an article, maybe you want to refinish that piece of antique furniture, maybe you want to finally make one of those crafts you’ve been saving on Pinterest, I hope you will do it. If you need encouragement, to get over all the voices in your head that tell you it’s a waste of time, or permission to connect with your own spirit, go read Big Magic. Then go make stuff.

Are you a creative lawyer? By this, I mean do you make or want to make anything, including fiction, nonfiction, or even a podcast? You aren’t alone. Join the CLAW (Creatives. Lawyers. Artists. Writers.) Alliance to find a community of other creative lawyers. For more inspiration on this, check out the Instagram Live I did with CLAW member, Becki C. Lee, an IP lawyer and children’s book author.

Review of Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh

You don’t really need to read all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books to understand his central teachings. This may be a good thing, since the world-renowned Zen master, peace activist, poet, and spiritual leader has written or had his talks compiled into so many books that it was difficult even to account for all of them. Over the years, I have read over 10 of his books, since they are readily available and seem to address any number of the problems in life. On one occasion years ago, I had been struggling to maintain calm during my youngest daughter’s tantrum phase and happened upon Anger in a bookstore. I saw it as a sign and purchased it, grateful for any advice I could get on that subject.

On another occasion, I’d had a fight with my husband and stumbled upon a pocket tome called How to Fight while hunting for diapers and baby food at Target. Hanh’s wisdom, it seemed, showed up whenever I needed it. Though I had not had the foresight to summon it, I at least knew enough to accede when the universe was trying to tell me something. So, this month, when I planned the theme for the blog as joy and happened upon Hanh’s book Happiness, it was too perfect to pass up. Like the other occasions, I hadn’t been looking for the book. Rather, in a happy accident, I found Audible Plus, which has a lot of free books for members, including a treasure trove of excellent books relating to mindfulness and meditation. While scouring through the titles, I came upon Happiness.

I found in that book what I found in most of his others: simplicity and truth. I had already read several of Hanh’s books before so I had a sense of what he would say is the key to happiness: to use your breath to come back to the present moment, no matter what you are doing or what circumstances you are in, and to treat yourself and all around you with kindness and compassion. In Happiness, that’s what he says in a nutshell and he offers examples, applications, and practices to help you do this in your life. All of those things are critical, of course, but I don’t keep coming back to Hanh because I needed to be taught those ideas. Instead, I keep coming back to his books because I need to remember them.

As a lawyer and mom, my life is so busy and changes so regularly that it is easy to get knocked off balance. I am frequently tired, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. If anything happens to trigger my perfectionism, competitive streak, or cause an onslaught of social comparison, it can be easy to feel like I’m on the wrong track and my efforts will never be good enough. The thing that helps me in those times is to remember what actually matters. And that’s what Happiness does: it reminds the reader that happiness is not something to seek out but instead something to relax into.

Book after book offers us hacks and self-help advice to fix our lives. In Happiness, Hanh says that your life isn’t broken, though he suggests in the compassionate way that only he can, that you may be missing the best parts. The key to happiness, he recommends, is to avoid becoming constantly distracted by your “projects” and to keep coming back to the present moment over and over again to discover how perfect it is. As he explains, when we let ourselves do that, we notice more how we feel, what we need, and how to connect deeply with people and face the problems in our lives. That’s how we find happiness.

“Yeah, but it’s not that simple,” you may be thinking. After all, life is hard. Real calamities happen. Being present doesn’t fix that. Of course, that’s true and Hanh, who was exiled from his home of Vietnam for nearly 40 years, doesn’t deny that. Rather than pretend, like so many books offering platitudes and life hacks that suffering can be avoided, Hanh argues instead that happiness is resilient enough, powerful enough to persist even in the midst of it if we can allow ourselves to experience it.

In this way, don’t read Happiness if you want a how-to or self-help book. Don’t read it if you are looking for easy solutions or hot takes on current trends. Don’t read it to improve yourself. Rather, read Happiness if you are sick of books like that and you want to just remember for a little while that you are fine just as you are. Read it to remember that slowing down, calming down, and being present for the experiences of life are the things that create real happiness. And, then, when you have forgotten all of that as you are bound to do, read another of Hanh’s many books to remind yourself again.

Book Review: Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

 I honestly don’t remember when or how I started following Quit Like A Woman (often shortened to “QLAW”) author Holly Whitaker on social media. It’s at least in part due to the fact that I’ve been giving a lot of thought in recent years about how much our work and social lives revolve around happy hour and what Whitaker describes as “a world obsessed with drinking.” And, it’s no secret that lawyers have high rates of problematic drinking. On top of that, like so many working women, with the pressure of juggling work and homeschool and dealing with the general stressors of life in a pandemic, I’ve found myself looking forward to happy hour a little too much at times. So, when Claire told me she was reading QLAW and that it was “mind-blowing” I thought it was time I actually read the book.

To be clear: a sober life is not something I’ve ever considered and it’s not something I’m considering even after reading QLAW. Nevertheless, I can unequivocally say that, like Claire, I found QLAW to be “mind-blowing” despite its flaws (more on that below). 

Whitaker offers a totally new approach to thinking about sobriety. Part memoir, part self-help, Whitaker wants to dispel myths about alcohol (what she describes as “Big Alcohol”); she offers a critical analysis of how Alcoholics Anonymous often fails women; and proposes a completely different approach to sobriety. And she relies on mindfulness and meditation to support her sobriety. She’s also funny and brash which makes it an interesting read in and of itself.

What really resonated for me is Whitaker’s basic premise that in order to “break the cycle of addiction” you need to get to the root causes of your addictions and develop routines and habits to build a life that that she describes as a life “I don’t want, or need, to escape from.” I’ve been thinking a lot about all of my habits and routines (not just drinking) and wondering what habits are “getting in the way of me living my best life” (as Whitaker describes it)? Looking at habits and routines this way is deeply rooted in mindfulness as a way of rewiring our brain to stop, slow down, and make healthier choices.

Another theme of QLAW is that there is no “right way” to sobriety. According to Whitaker, unlike AA’s one-size-fits-all approach, everyone’s road to sobriety must be deeply rooted in the needs and experiences of the individual. This is a basic premise of a mindfulness meditation practice: yes, there is a road map, but how you practice must resonate with you and actually work in your day-to-day life. She also want to eliminate the shame aspect of addiction. And, as Claire talks about her recent blog post, shame can be a barrier to making healthy choices (Kelly McGonigal does some amazing work around habit change and dealing with shame (but I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming blog post). I’m sure the basic premise of finding your own path and not feeling ashamed is a transformative concept for many. 

Unfortunately, I think where Whitaker misses the mark could keep people from her deeper messages. Most of what Whitaker describes as “tools for recovery” are only available to women with significant financial resources. Moreover, the tools she describes are only available to wealthy women that don’t have children (or at least have live-in nannies that could support the many hours of daily life Whitaker suggests need to go into supporting sobriety). Whitaker’s toolbox seems to consist a lot of spas, warm baths, lemon water, and kundalini yoga and meditation. In fact, at times she writes as if these are the only ways. She even crows at one point that she spent “thousands on therapy” and brags about dedicating her entire evenings to her “routine” as the only ways to get sober. A routine that involves an entire evening surrounded by yoga, tea, baths, reading, journaling, and meditating. An evening routine that a busy working mom could only dream of carving out. Let alone a single mom or a single mom with limited resources. She doesn’t really have any suggestions beyond “figure out what works for you.”  

And, while I found myself nodding along with her criticisms of AA, I couldn’t help but think of how many working women with limited time and resources would love to use her paid Tempest program and build a “toolbox” full of expensive teas and crystals, but AA Is free and available and despite its limitations probably provides comfort and support to women who have no other option. Whitaker doesn’t seem to even acknowledge this.

If you follow Whitaker on social media, you’ll see that she spends a lot of time attacking what she refers to as Big Alcohol. On her IG account she refers to herself as a “sobriety evangelist.” I think this is an accurate description. If you just google “is alcohol good for you” you’ll get about a zillion hits from respected health and medical professionals some saying moderate amounts are ok, while others agreeing with Holly – no amount of alcohol is safe. But it’s more nuanced than that and I think Whitaker’s sloppy logic could potentially alienate a lot of people that would otherwise benefit from her approach.  

She also wants you to believe that there is a direct causal link between the paternalistic society we live in and the alcohol industry that has brainwashed us into drinking poison. I don’t disagree that the alcohol industry is leaning into the Mommy Likes Wine culture that is troubling. Yes, alcohol is bad for you. And, yes, we are definitely living in a culture obsessed with alcohol, and that women are in desperate need of a sobriety model that actually works for them, but I think this kind of logical leap ignores how truly complex nuanced addiction really is. And I certainly don’t think that any hardworking women with serious addiction problems relying on AA and doing the best they can will appreciate being told they’re brainwashed victims of the patriarchy.

But I don’t want any misgivings or intellectual nitpicking to get in the way of what a life-altering book this is and how many women I’m sure it’s helped – including myself. I know that for many many women (and lawyers) alcohol can be an unhealthy way to cope. And, as Holly describes it can keep us from living our best life. Since reading the book (in conjunction with Kelly McGonigal’s work on habit change and Habits course on the 10% Happier App), I’ve drank less, meditated more, and generally re-examined all my habits that are getting in the way of my best life. So, whether you’re battling addiction or just re-thinking your own habits I suggest reading QLAW. It’s a good book to have your toolbox.  

To learn more about this subject, check out our IG Live on Friday 4/23 at 1:30 PM EST. You can find us on IG @brilliantlegalmind.

Brilliant Book Recommendation: Together by Vivek H Murthy, M.D.

If I told you that I read a book about loneliness and really enjoyed it, you might think I was insane. Americans don’t like loneliness. As an introvert, I agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that our culture is more inclined to favor the proclivities of our extrovert friends. As a result, the idea of loneliness for Americans is almost taboo. I mean, if you are lonely, it raises the awful question as to why? Who wants to answer that? Nobody. At least, for many years of my own life, I know that I didn’t.

But Vivek Murthy, M.D., our once and current Surgeon General wants us to answer that question both individually and collectively. He wants us to answer it because he has seen the impact that loneliness can have on his individual patients and the consequences that those individual stories–played out millions of times over–has on our system of public health. In Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Murthy argues that loneliness is a huge social and medical problem but one that has a solution.

In the book, Dr. Murthy traces the evolutionary reasons that loneliness has such an effect on human beings. He argues quite convincingly that society has somewhat misdiagnosed the condition. While many of us fear that our loneliness suggests that there is something wrong with or undesirable about us, Dr. Murthy suggests that we instead ought to think of loneliness more like other biological conditions. He explains that our bodies are wired for connection with other humans because those connections have throughout our history been so closely associated with our survival. Thus, when we feel lonely, it is our body’s signal that we need connection much like the feelings of hunger or thirst indicate we need food and water.

Unlike hunger and thirst, however, Dr. Murthy explains that many of us tend to see loneliness as a sign that there is something wrong with or bad about us. This is where things break down for many of us because it can cause us to retreat, self-isolate, and lead to even worse conditions, including depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure or other physical consequences. As a result, though loneliness is common–pervasive even–and normal–the very byproduct of our biology–we humans get tangled in it because we see it is abnormal and the product of some character flaw.

I got caught in this tangle myself. When I started my law practice, I had returned home after seven years away at school. At the time, I was focused on billing hours like any good associate should be and growing my new family. I didn’t make much of an effort to make friends and neglected reaching out and sharing my life with the ones I had. Though on a subconscious level I knew that I wanted more of a social life, I didn’t want to face the issue because I was worried that I was lonely because there was something wrong with me.

Unable to let myself think critically about these issues, I let myself believe the stories that I “didn’t fit in” and “wasn’t good at making friends.” After a period of depression, I was forced to reckon with these ideas and you know what I found out? I found out that I didn’t fit in and that was exactly what helped me make friends. I realized that it was my lack of effort and my disconnection with myself that caused my loneliness. Meditation helped me connect with and accept myself. I started showing up and reaching out and soon realized that I was good at making friends and being one because I was good at being myself.

Dr. Murthy, too, shares his own experiences with loneliness and captures the stories of many others who have successfully faced it. In many cases, he relates how many of those people (like himself) experienced deeply troubling times of loneliness but used their experiences to create and foster connections that served a wider community of people. In some cases, people created communities–whether online or in-person–that did not exist before. I hope that you read the book for yourself because each story is covered with a grace that can’t be captured in a single blog post. The pattern that emerges from reading them all, however, is this: loneliness can be addressed by accepting it as normal, looking inside yourself to heal, and then reaching out to build connections.

The past year has taken a toll on all of us and has done nothing to improve the social and public health problem of loneliness. If anything is to be gained from this, though, I hope it is acceptance of the magnitude of the problem that loneliness presents and a recognition of how solvable it is. We Americans pride our individualism but we are humans first and our human biology tells us we need each other. As we try to make our way out of a global pandemic that has forced us to socially distance, I am at least hopeful that our Surgeon General is someone who deeply understands loneliness on a personal, social, and scientific level. For, if we begin to understand the issue of loneliness, I believe that as a society we can heal and then begin to forge the new connections we need to rebuild, progress, and thrive.

If you are feeling lonely, monitor your reaction to it and your thoughts about it. This short video offers some ways to help you do that.

Brilliant Teacher Recommendation: Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts

The theme for this month was love and emotions, but February is also Black History Month. Our recommendation for this month is someone who brings both of those things together with mindfulness in such a beautiful way: Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts. Dr. Roberts, or Chelsea as she is known on her social media platforms, is a world-renowned yoga and meditation teacher, social media influencer, advocate for diversity, and an altogether brilliant person. She is a graduate of Spelman College and later obtained her Ph.D. in Educational Studies from Emory University. During that time, Chelsea also completed extensive yoga training and she now marries her passions for education, yoga, and promoting diversity on her platform Chelsea Loves Yoga.

I became familiar with Chelsea when she joined the roster of teachers for Peloton last year. Though a regular meditator, I am an irregular yogi. Even so, I found it hard not to make Chelsea’s classes a regular part of my fitness and wellness routine. She has a smile and a spirit that can light up a room (even when it comes to you through a screen). In addition, Chelsea brings her voice and her experience to every class and meditation she offers. When you take her classes, you get a chance to stretch your muscles and your mind as she offers lessons on black history and music while you flow. And, while Chelsea encourages kindness in all things, she also advocates for action and strength in her “Breathe In, Speak Up” yoga and meditation series.

Chelsea, however, does not only bring yoga and meditation to Peloton members, she offers it to thousands more on her platform Chelsea Loves Yoga. That platform offers free resources and yoga videos and Chelsea also regularly shares out videos about yoga and meditation to her thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Chelsea has also worked to bring yoga to communities who need it. She founded Red Clay Yoga, which offers yoga programs and training to youth and adults. Yoga classes and instruction are offered at Red Clay, as well as workshops on social justice action and diversity. Among the offerings at Red Clay was a Yoga, Literature and Art camp for teens at Spelman College.

In short, Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts is not just a teacher of mindfulness, but someone who loves it and lives it. She’s an inspirational social media follow and someone you should certainly check out if you are on the Peloton platform.

Chelsea’s presence on the internet, including Peloton, also makes her the perfect recommendation to lead into our theme for next month: a year of social distancing. March will be the one-year anniversary of the emergency declarations for the COVID-19 pandemic in many American jurisdictions, including my own state here in Kentucky, and the beginning of social distancing restrictions for many of us. Stay tuned for more instruction and content on that theme and please continue to stay safe, stay healthy, and take care of yourself and others.

Brilliant Teacher Recommendation: Tara Brach

Since the blog is just getting started, I decided to start at the beginning for my first teacher recommendation post. I owe a lot to Tara Brach, who is not only a meditation teacher but also an experienced psychologist. I am very cheap and when I first started meditating, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a habit that I wasn’t sure would stick. Fortunately for me, I found a lot of free resources online, including Tara Brach’s.

Tara Brach’s website offers a treasure trove of resources, meditations, and more. I found her through her self-named podcast, though, which offers tons of talks and guided meditations, all easily accessible on an iPhone. More recently, Brach has started to offer Wednesday night meditations over Facebook live.

But it wasn’t just the amount of the resources Brach offers that appealed to me, it was the subject. Brach’s emphasis on self-compassion and repeated reminders to care for, rather than turn your back on, your own emotions helped me immensely. I soon bought her most famous work, Radical Acceptance, and it was worth every penny.

Brach is most famous for her work to refine the RAIN technique for dealing with difficult emotions. With this process, she instructs students to recognize emotions, allow them, investigate them mindfully and then nurture them. You can read about this process in detail with the resources on her website and in many of her books, including the newly released Radical Compassion.

Brach’s style and tone of voice are very soft and calm, so lawyers or professionals first listening to her may wonder what she has to offer them. While I always loved her, Dan Harris described her voice as “cloying” in his book Ten Percent Happier. I remember being mad at Harris when I read that part of his book, even though he gave rave reviews to the RAIN technique. But I ended up loving them both when they discussed this on a later episode of the Ten Percent Happier podcast and agreed, rather elegantly, how that experience caused them each to grow. It was a rare instance of forgiveness and grace in this day and age and it made me respect Brach more and totally forgive Harris.

If you aren’t yet familiar with Brach’s work, do yourself a favor and check it out. And next month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we’ll cover a topic that Brach would most likely approve of: love and compassion. Stay tuned.