Lessons from My Lawyer Dad that Could Have Come from a Meditation Teacher

My lawyer dad doesn’t know a thing about mindfulness, but he’s still one of the best meditation teachers I have ever had. He’s steady, hard-working, kind, and decent. He’s not closed off to new ideas, but he favors tradition and knows himself well enough that he generally hasn’t needed to seek out new practices and approaches to help manage his life. Dad worked as a lawyer for or with local governments his whole career and he loves things like procedure, budgets, and finance. As an introvert, he’s rarely the life of the party, but people listen when he talks because they know he thinks first. He was picked on in school because he grew up on a farm in a small town called Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, so he usually prefers not to stand out. For these reasons, my dad would never seek out information about mindfulness and he has never tried meditation. Dad only knows that mindfulness has helped me quite a lot in my life and it makes me happy to teach and write about it.  

You know what? That’s just fine. In the Pali canon, it is said that there are 84,000 doors to enlightenment. I take that to mean that we have options and various interconnected winding paths that can lead us to growth and fulfillment as long as we stay open to learning from what comes to us along those paths. My dad doesn’t know a thing about meditation but, as one of my first mentors in life, he prepared me to benefit from it. Many of the lessons he taught me weren’t too different from those I learned in my meditation practice or from meditation teachers. In honor of Father’s Day and to celebrate my lawyer dad, I am sharing them with you here. 

1.      Simple is good.

My dad’s favorite ice cream is vanilla. His favorite snack is saltine crackers. His beverage of choice: ice water. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t mix things up every now and then but he usually keeps things simple. Sometimes this simplicity can be magical. He makes the best fried chicken I have ever had anywhere and he doesn’t bother with the Colonel’s 11 secret herbs and spices. His recipe is just salt, pepper, and flour. That’s it. In my years of meditation, I’ve come to adopt the same approach. I’ve tried lots of different styles and practices, but most of the time I just like to sit and relax into the silence. I’m so glad I learned early on from my dad that simple is good. 

2.      It’s okay to be quiet.

If you are a meditator, it helps if you have at least a decent relationship with silence. When I teach about mindfulness, people often ask me if I am naturally calm. I tell them, emphatically, that I absolutely am not. But I have one secret advantage: I love silence. Silence isn’t lonely to me. It’s peaceful. It makes me feel at home. I’ve never had trouble with silence because my dad always liked it too. He often drove with the radio turned off. He would read for hours on end. In a world that constantly wants to make noise and run from itself, my dad taught me that it was okay just to stop and be still every now and then. That’s perhaps the first lesson that any new meditator needs to learn, so thanks dad. 

3.      Don’t be a martyr.

I’ve written before about struggling after the birth of my first daughter because she was tongue-tied and I couldn’t breastfeed her. During that time, I remember my dad saying this to me “Claire, you will have her whole life to make sacrifices for her. I don’t have any doubts that you will be willing to do that most of the time. You don’t have to try to make all the sacrifices all at once right now.” Achiever types like us lawyers love to set standards and meet them but that tendency can easily turn to martyrdom if we aren’t careful. I have even seen it show up in my meditation practice. So, remember this lesson from my dad: you have a whole life to practice. You don’t have to do it all at once. Trust that you will make the right choices as you go along and give yourself some grace. 

4.      Fear is a part of life.

My dad was a successful and respected civil servant with decades of experience. After he retired from that role, he decided to go into private practice, just a few years before I graduated from law school. I remember sharing with my dad that I was scared about business development and my dad gave me the best response possible: he admitted that he was scared of this too. To see someone who had accomplished so much admit that he was afraid and acknowledge that business development was hard helped more than any pep talk that simply told me “you can do it.” It was one of the lessons that helped me understand that fear is just a part of life and it has nothing to do with your competence or chances of success. As you start meditating, you may have a tendency to think that you “get over” or “advance beyond” difficult emotions. Not so in my experience. As human beings, we never get over things like this no matter how hard we work or how awesome we are. But, as my dad helped me see, fear is a part of life, but it helps when you can share it. 

5.      Don’t quit just because your ego gets bruised.

I loved basketball growing up and as a very tall kid I was pretty good at it. In high school, though, the competition caught up with me and my coordination and skill didn’t grow at the same pace as my height. I had an injury my sophomore year that benched me all season. My tryouts during junior year didn’t go well and, though I missed getting cut, I ended up on the JV team. I was so ashamed that I was in a pit of despair for a week and contemplated quitting. My dad told me that I didn’t have to play but that I shouldn’t quit just because I was mad or felt embarrassed. He reminded me that basketball was a sport and was, you know, supposed to be fun. I ended up deciding to play and had so much fun with the younger players. As team captain, I was able to be a leader in a way I never had before. That season was one of the best sports experiences I ever had because of this opportunity to lead. In our meditation practice, we may get upset when we struggle because it hurts our ego when we find we can’t do it perfectly or advance as quickly as we’d like. Of course, if you can avoid quitting just because you are mad at yourself or embarrassed, you may learn an entirely different lesson than the one you started out to discover. 

6.      Any moment can be a teachable moment.

I was a kid who asked a lot of questions. Deep questions, usually starting with the word “why.” It didn’t matter how out of the blue it was. It didn’t matter if my dad was cooking dinner or working in the yard. He didn’t skip a beat. He’d answer the questions and a lot of time throw some back at me to force me to think through the issue myself. Lots of meditation teachers will tell you that any moment can teach you about yourself if you keep your mind and heart open. In the same way, my dad’s constant comfort with questions and unwavering willingness to teach showed me that any moment in my life could be a learning moment. 

Though for many, meditation can feel strange at first and many may worry that the practice may change them. In my own experience, I have found that meditation didn’t change me but allowed me instead to connect more deeply with who I really was. This is why it’s no surprise that my dad’s wisdom and the wisdom from so many wonderful teachers lines up. If there are 84,000 doors to enlightenment, I am glad that I found one running to me that started on a farm in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, step-dads, foster parents, and father surrogates out there. Thank you for teaching us kids in your own way about mindfulness, meditation, and life. 

Joy Is Remembering Heaven Is a Place on Earth

I got to my mother’s house late to pick up my daughters. I was exhausted and had just finished a too long evening meeting. I had an early meeting the next day and felt overburdened by life. As always, it took too long and too much frustration for my daughters, one 8 and one 4, to get on their shoes, gather up their belongings, and trundle out to the car. After I buckled them in and sat in the drivers’ seat, I started to pull out of the driveway in a rush to get home and into pajamas as quickly as possible.

Before I got to the end of the drive, the four-year-old chirps “Mommy, can we listen to ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’?” Sometimes, I admit, I brush her off and tell her “Not now, baby; it’s only a short ride.” But that night, I needed her to ask me this question. I needed the reminder that life is what we make it and what we see in it. So instead, I stopped, looked back to smile at her, and said “Good idea, Ellie. Yes we can!”

I don’t remember exactly how this song came to be a special one for us. Most likely the genesis is some 80’s playlist on Amazon Music, but I can see why the girls loved it even though it came out when I was Elinor’s age. It’s catchy, easy to sing, and has this uncanny sound – like a new beginning and happy ending all in one. I started playing it and as I sang “when the night falls down, I wait for you and you come around” I was already in a better mood than when I had pulled into the driveway.

As I started to drive towards home, the song blared on reminding me that I’m still “just beginning to understand the miracle of living.” The girls were singing and smiling in the backseat and I found myself smiling too. At a light, my little one yelled “mommy!” at me to get me to hold her hand and bounce it as we sang “I reach for you and you bring me home.” And suddenly I wasn’t just an overburdened, overwhelmed lawyer mom anymore. Instead, for a moment, I was a little girl sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan singing that song with my sister as it played on the radio.

There are lots of warnings for us parents to be “present” for our children. When you live as a lawyer, that can be hard to do. Our cases can fill up our calendars as well as our minds. They can leave little room for things like fun and memories and random adventures that lead to joy and connection. So that’s why we need other people to call us back to real life every now and then, even if sometimes we have to make ourselves listen. When we give them the chance, they remind us that there is no need to constantly worry and plan because the past and future are in each moment if we only choose to see it.

This memory was only a small moment, and many would argue an insignificant one. After all, I am telling you a story about a time when I played an old (and some might say silly) song in the car with my kids. But you know what? I don’t necessarily just remember the big, momentous occasions with my parents. I remember the small ones. I remember riding around to soccer practice and piano lessons in my mom’s minivan. I remember listening to the news on public radio in my dad’s Ford. I remember making up silly games with my sister in the backseat. For this reason, I know a truth that is easy to overlook: joy doesn’t require hours to emerge and it doesn’t require life-changing events. Instead, joy can be made in moments, and it is those moments that actually change our lives.

The key to living a joyful life is to be open to these moments so we can appreciate as many of them as possible. Of course, we won’t catch every one. Of course, there will be times when we will be too tired, or too distracted or too busy. But this only makes the moments we appreciate, fully take in, and share with others more precious. This memory with my daughters was one of those times. In a few moments, it transformed an exhausting and frustrating day into a good memory. It turned a silly song into a meeting place for my four-year-old self and the four-year-old now riding in the backseat of my car. That night when I went to pick up my girls, I was lost at sea, but I heard that four-year-old’s voice and it carried me. It reminded me that joy, fleeting as it may be, is powerful. It can forge a connection in moments that lasts well after the emotion that sparked it has passed. Indeed, when we let ourselves remember it, heaven is a place on earth.