Resolutions Schmesolutions: In January I Just Begin Again

I used to have a love hate relationship with the New Year. In mid-December I’d start daydreaming about all the big changes I was going to make in January. I would feel hopeful – excited even – for the possibility of a fresh start. New exercise routine! Healthy eating! Plenty of water! I’m going to meditate every day! I’d spend hours shopping for a new planner hoping to find just the right one to make all my goal setting dreams come true. Because this year, this year is going to be different, I’d tell myself.

Sure, all the wishes and aspirations for self-improvement that come with the New Year aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Seeing the New Year as a time of self-reflection and renewal can be incredibly uplifting. Who doesn’t love the idea of a fresh start?

The problem for me came half-way through January when all of my high hopes would come crashing down because I could never meet my own high expectations. And, by the end of January, I would be in full “I suck” mode. I’d beat myself up for failing yet again to completely reinvent my life and erase all my bad habits in a matter of weeks.

But that started to shift when I really started to appreciate what Joseph Goldstein calls the three most important words in meditation: “simply begin again.” The idea is that it our minds will always wander and our good habits will wane sometimes. There will always be times when we slip into our old physical and mental habits. When we don’t meet our own expectations it’s natural to feel like we’re falling short and get caught self-judgment.

As renowned meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg explains, this where self-compassion comes in::

The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.

Self-improvement and being motivated to be the best version of ourselves  are good things. The key is not to get caught in the mental loop of always feeling like we’re falling short, because the truth is, we will never be perfect. Let me repeat that: we will never be perfect. I will always have days or weeks where I don’t exercise, or meditate, or  drink enough water, or cook Pinterest perfect meals for my family. I’ll always have days and weeks where my house is a mess and I struggle to make sure my kids have clean underwear.

The truth is, I still feel myself getting caught up in the pizazz of the New Year, but it’s not the same. I don’t set quite as high expectations for the month, but the most important part is that I don’t beat myself up (quite as much) as I used to when January doesn’t go the way I want it to. I am ever so slightly starting to feel the freedom that comes with self-compassion.

So, I say, “resolutions schmesolutions” – January 1 is just one opportunity of an infinite number to begin again. 

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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 Cultivate Compassion? Because It’s Not the Weight You Carry but How You Carry It.

Founder’s Note: I found Laura where I found a lot of other wonderful people I have never met in person: LinkedIn. She posted great content about compassion and so I connected with her. When she offered a CCT course this spring, I signed up even though it ended the week after I finished Mindful Self-Compassion training. I was a bit afraid I would be sick of compassion by that point, but Laura’s style of teaching was so real, practical, and filled with heart that I ended up being even more enthusiastic about it. Please welcome Laura to the pages of Brilliant Legal Mind and check out her bio below for information about another CCT course she’s offering this fall.

In late February 2020, I traveled to New York City for a compassion workshop. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, it felt like coming home. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells were as familiar as my heartbeat and the first bite of a folded slice of pizza brought me right back to childhood. As people jostled on the subway and scrambled up the stairs that Saturday night, the coronavirus still seemed like news from the other side of the world. Thousands of bodies crowded around Times Square, oblivious to what was just around the corner. We could not have imagined how soon and suddenly our lives would change, and how much strength and courage we would need to summon in response.

We all have done brave, hard things over the past 18 months – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – and we still have a ways to go before this journey is over. But we can do it. As humans, we are wired not only to be able to do hard things, but to do them with love and, when we do, we tap into a profound and renewing source of strength, courage, and connection. Wisdom traditions, art, and even science call this capacity compassion. It is our ability to both be aware of suffering and willing to relieve that suffering. Viktor Frankl described it this way:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Compassion looks different for each of us in the changing circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is yielding. Other times, fierce. Sometimes it calls us to make difficult sacrifices for others. Other times, to make the bold choice to take care of ourselves. Whatever its expression in any given moment, compassion is how humans have survived and made meaning out of unimaginable tragedies across time – both individually and collectively.

As a species, we are born completely vulnerable and dependent on others for our safety and well-being. This dependence develops into interdependence as we give and receive care across the span of our lives. We need our loved ones, strangers, and even people we don’t like to survive and thrive, and they need us. Take a moment to reflect on your last meal, the clothes you’re wearing, or the technology that allows you to read this and imagine the countless other lives who make these things possible. Likewise, the positive impact of your life ripples out and benefits others that you will never know.

Whether or not we recognize it, we have all drawn on this compassion for ourselves and others to navigate the past turbulent months. And it is compassion, this awareness of suffering and willingness to relieve it, which will continue to resource us moving forward.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Moya Cannon wrote:

Light is what days are made of –

it pulls the daffodils up out of dark earth,

prompts the eagle and the stub-tailed wren to nest

and draws the humpback whale north with its song.

Stones, warm on the morning sea-shore, know it.

Such tempests of grief our sun has scanned

yet light, the sun’s light and compassion’s light,

deep in every soul, eternally draws us on.

Recent discoveries in neurobiology and other sciences have begun to map out how “compassion’s light, deep in every soul” literally “draws us on” as it unfolds in our bodies. It is both an innate capacity which manifests as a specific physiological process and a skill that can be nurtured and strengthened through experience and deliberate practice and training. In addition, research shows that profound physical, mental, and social benefits result from offering and receiving compassion.

Compassion, however, is not the only way humans respond to suffering. We also react with anger, hatred, shame, blame, fear, overwhelm, anxiety, denial, violence – the list goes on. We burn out or become injured when we don’t have enough external support or we don’t know how to hold suffering when it comes too much, too fast like wildfire or lingers long like slow moving rain. These are natural responses which increase suffering within and around us, but which can in turn be met and alleviated with compassion.

So the invitation is to train our compassion muscles, so to speak, in order to become capable of holding the hard that life hands us. We can cultivate internal and external conditions that nurture compassion. We can develop our awareness and sense of care, our courage to act. We can get clear on what we love, what really matters to us, and what kind of world we want to live in, to be part of. We can ask for help and offer it when asked. We can have each other’s backs and discover our common humanity. We can pay attention to the moments that compassion flows freely and those in which it freezes rock solid or goes dry as a desert. We can learn to carry the weight of our lives in ways that make us stronger and more connected rather than hurt and broken apart.

As Mary Oliver observed:

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

“Heavy” from Thirst

Want to learn more about Compassion Cultivation Training? Check out this interview our founder, Claire E. Parsons, did with Laura here.

Why Lawyers Should Prioritize Joy and Practices to Help Them Start

I admit it. The word “joy” used to make me cringe a little bit inside. For a while, it was plastered on the walls of so many homes along with signs reading “Live. Laugh. Love.” and showed up in the titles of countless self-help books. The frequency with which I saw that term used, often inaccurately, gave me the distinct and bizarre impression that “joy” was somehow omnipresent, yet also mythical and unattainable. After all, how could conflict, unhappiness, and social problems be so prevalent when everyone seemed hellbent on praising joy?

More recently, though, I have come around to the “joy” camp. The transition had nothing to do with all those signs and books. Instead, it happened when I started to study suffering and the response to it. When I learned about compassion practices and saw their impact in my life, I realized something I had previously overlooked: joy is powerful. The overuse of the word had made joy seem frivolous and meaningless, but when I feel it—especially in response to suffering—it is nothing short of magic. Joy has a potential to connect us in good times and to bind us, to ourselves and others, in hard times.

Many of us may think that joy is an emotion that simply arises without warning and lasts only a moment. This is true but also incomplete. We can cultivate joy and in so doing, cultivate compassion and a greater sense of well-being. For many of us, joy may seem like a temporary and elusive state because we aren’t accustomed to staying present with the experience of strong emotions. Regardless of the type, emotions are sensory experiences in the body. Even positive emotions like joy can feel uncomfortable, if not overwhelming, so we may unconsciously register them as stress that induces a mental flight reaction. For this reason, many of us may need to learn to sit with and savor even positive emotions. This is just one of the reasons why meditation practice can be so powerful, because it may provide a rare opportunity to experience emotions in the body.

Whether in meditation or otherwise, sensing emotions as they are cultivates a capacity to accept the true and full experience of life. This can mean greater courage to accept the hard parts of life, as well as welcoming in those joyful emotions that provide a respite from our struggles and energize us to keep going. As a result, savoring the good aspects of life and taking the time to celebrate can be some of the most powerful things that lawyers can do to improve our mental health for the long-term.

Despite this, many lawyers and other professionals may worry that savoring victories and positive experiences may lead to resting on one’s laurels, apathy, or cause a reduction in drive. Leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has found that, while this is a common fear, it isn’t true. Self-compassion is not an impediment to a good work ethic; it is positively correlated with attainment of goals. Far from causing people to lack ambition, self-compassion practices, including savoring joy, result in higher motivation, more courage in taking risks, and increased stamina to persist through difficulty.

Some simple ways to savor joy in life are to remind yourself to mentally “check in” during a good time. Notice what you hear, feel, taste, smell, and see and notice what that experience causes you to feel in your body. For instance, if you are playing with your kids, hear them laugh, see them smile, and notice what reaction those things elicit in you. You can also be on the lookout for joy in your daily activities. One of my favorite savoring activities is to watch the kids run to the parents at daycare pickup time. Watching their love and excitement turns what might have been wasted time into a joy break for myself and it prepares me to greet my own kids with love.

In the work setting, one simple way to savor experiences is to acknowledge a win and congratulate your team. When the praise is directed to you, you could practice savoring joy by learning to simply say “thank you” when you receive a compliment and allowing the warm feelings just wash over you, instead of deflecting or talking to hide your embarrassment. If you struggle with paying or giving compliments, a simpler place is to establish a habit of internally congratulating yourself for a job well done. For example, after a difficult deposition, you might reflect on how you handled yourself and appreciate the discipline, organization, and restraint you showed in hard circumstances. These practices generally don’t take much time, but research suggests that the cumulative effect over time can yield major benefits for your motivation, outlook, stamina, and capacity to handle difficult moments. 

So, does this mean that I am telling you to go put a big “joy” sign on your wall? Not quite, unless hanging a sign like that reminds you to cultivate joy in your own life. The object here isn’t the performance of joy or convincing others that you feel joyful. Instead, the power of joy comes in when we fully experience it and prioritize it in our lives. Because when we open to joy, in all its overwhelming glory, we’ll find courage, energy, and strength care for our families and ourselves, serve clients, and make more joy for the rest of the world. So, I don’t care if you put a big “joy” sign on your wall, as a long as you make space for it in your heart.

Why You Should Add Self-Compassion to Your List of New Years Resolutions

This blog post was originally published for MothersEsquire in 2020. A year later it still resonates so I edited it slightly to update and have republished here.

I know you are ready to go. It’s a new year, and after a year like 2020, you are ready to make 2021 your year. Your resolutions are made. Your motivation is high. You’re going to achieve those goals come hell or high water.

Except, you’re a lawyer, right? You know that high water inevitably will come. The energy and momentum of January quickly fades into the gray doldrums of February. I don’t know if it’s Valentine’s day or what but that month just has a way of turning those resolutions made only weeks before into regrets. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here; I’m honestly not. I think it’s awesome that we humans want to improve and grow each year and I do not want to get in your way. I’m only suggesting, in the humblest of humble opinions, that perhaps it might be good to have a backup plan.

I’m not talking about lowering standards or even managing expectations. I want you to dream big and to go big in 2021. But, while high standards can lead us to great things, they can also send us pretty low if we don’t get the results we want. So, the question is this: how do you get the best of both worlds? Can you set high goals without setting yourself up for failure?

In my experience, you can as long as you use self-compassion. “Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Are you seriously telling me I just need to be nice to myself?” Yes. Yes, I am. You—yes you!—need to be nice to yourself. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now and I’m fine with that. But hear me out. Did you know that self-compassion has been studied? There is this awesome researcher named Kristin Neff. She’s super smart and has studied self-compassion for over a decade. You know what she’s found? She’s found that people who treat themselves with compassion are more likely to exhibit resilience in the face of challenges and, thus, more likely to achieve goals. One of the reasons this is true is that people who act with self-compassion tend to view a failure or a setback as a learning experience, rather than an indication of their personal worth. In short, self-compassion is a buffer that can help high-achieving people from taking goals (and themselves) too seriously.

It’s compelling stuff, but it leads to another question: how does one learn to respond with self-compassion? This is a fair question. After all, it is one of the easiest things in the world to get down on yourself when you don’t achieve a goal that’s important to you. Clearly, you would have achieved the goal if you were good enough, or worked hard enough, or were more committed, or wanted it more, etc., right??? Well, no, it’s not that clear. For us lawyer moms, life is rarely clear. We are trying to manage our lives, our families, our practices, and—on top of that—achieve new goals and grow. That’s not easy. It’s really hard.

So let’s make this simple. Here’s an easy test to help you determine if you are reacting with self-compassion. I call it the “best friend” test. All you do is think of your best friend. Imagine that your best friend comes to you with the exact same problem in which you find yourself. Now, think of how you would respond to your best friend. Let’s say your best friend wants to exercise at least 3 times a week but has struggled because she’s been dealing with family issues and a busy time at work. How would you respond to her? I bet you’ll find it is easy to be compassionate with her. Now, all you have to do is recognize that it’s you who deserves that love too. If you really struggle with this, just call your best friend and listen to what they have to say. When you have this kind of support, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever life wants to throw at you, even the gray doldrums of February.

In 2021, I hope you have some amazing goals for yourself and I hope you crush them. As you go about conquering the world, though, be nice to yourself. If you need any more help doing that, here are some resources that you might find useful:

  • For a quick overview of Neff’s research, check out this interview of her on the Ten Percent Happier podcast.
  • For research, tools, and free compassion guided meditations, check out Neff’s website.
  • For more in-depth discussion of Neff’s research on self-compassion, check out her book.