4 Simple Words to Help You Start a Meditation Practice

This post was originally published as a guest piece for Constellation Marketing in July, 2021. It still rings true today and is perfect for anyone considering meditation for the new year.

I get all kinds of questions from lawyers who are interested in starting a meditation practice. It’s normal to have questions with anything new;  and us lawyers love exploring things as concepts before we jump in with both feet. So, they ask me all the things: how often should I sit? How long for each session? What’s the best app? Do I need a cushion? What if I can’t clear my mind? What if I get fidgety? And on and on. I answer these questions with understanding because I once had them too, but I think the best way to answer them all is with 4 simple words:

  1. Just start.
  2. Start small.

There are a lot of ways to learn about meditation. At first, I learned the practice from books and podcasts. Those offer great tips and tools, but nothing changed in my life until I started meditating consistently. That’s because meditation is an experiential practice – you have to do it to understand it.

It’s sort of like civil procedure. Do you remember how hard it was to make sense of the civil rules in law school from just reading about them? I do, but I’m a litigator now and they make sense (at least most of the time) because I have used the rules when litigating real cases. In much the same way, you will not fully understand meditation until you do it for yourself. So just start.

Maybe it’s true that you don’t know how to do it “right” but if you start to sit, you’ll notice things about your mind, your body, and your life. Over time, you will learn what it is right for you because you’ll notice what you need more or less of to be a happier, healthier person. Besides, in the beginning, all you really need to do is build up some tolerance for sitting and doing nothing, develop some inner resources for handling adversity, and get acquainted with your mind.

Don’t worry about doing it wrong because, if you make meditation a lasting habit, you will 100% do things wrong or learn that aspects of your practice need to change. That’s not just okay and part of being human, it is the path you have to take to learn any new skill, including meditation.

If this sounds scary, remember that my next tip is to start small. And by this, I mean very small. If you can sit for 5 minutes right away, go for it. I started with 1 minute because it was all I could handle. My thoughts were copious and judgmental and doing nothing was not my forte. But I quickly discovered benefits from tolerating the awkwardness and added minutes until I eventually worked up to 30.

In other words, starting small doesn’t mean staying small. It’s just a foot in the doorway to a life with an active meditation practice. Once you get started and learn a few things, you can let your practice grow at a pace that works for you.

Starting small is not only less intimidating, it’s also practical. Small increments of time are easier to work into a busy calendar than big ones. In addition, short sessions are ones that you could conceivably do every day and that makes it much more likely that your experiment with meditation will become a habit. Moreover, since the early part of practice is about building skills, you are less likely to get disgusted with yourself and meditation if you give yourself some time to adjust.

I love talking and writing about meditation. I love answering questions for other lawyers who want to learn how to bring mindfulness into their lives. But what I hope you get from this is that you don’t have to know everything (or honestly much of anything) about meditation to benefit from it. Instead, what you really need is curiosity, a little bit of courage, some self-compassion, and an open mind. If you invoke those traits as you begin your practice, you will be able to answer questions about meditation and so much more for yourself.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Why You Can’t Clear Your Mind in Meditation and You Don’t Really Want To

The other day, my good friend Talar Herculian Coursey shared a post on LinkedIn about the most common problem new meditators experience: the inability to “clear one’s mind.” In response, numerous people commented that they “couldn’t” meditate for this very reason. As I shared in my new book, I tried my best to explain that this isn’t the purpose of meditation. Nevertheless, the comments kept coming, so I am explaining here why you can’t clear your mind in meditation and you don’t really want to anyway.

When I speak about mindfulness, I often joke that this isn’t really a bad thing because it’s a surefire way to know that you are still alive. If you meditate long enough, you’ll eventually come to the realization that one of the functions of the mind is to generate thoughts. So, a thinking mind, annoying as it can sometimes be, is a healthy one.

Even so, many of us lawyers don’t have the best relationship with our minds. Some of us may view our minds as bullies who boss us around, shame us, call us names, and annoy us when we are trying to focus or sleep. When we sit to meditate, we may have grand delusions of regaining control over our lives by silencing the bully in our minds.

But if the mind is a bully–and I have had my own experience with this–does it really make sense to think more bullying is going to solve the problem? I mean, if we want our minds to be kinder and gentler to us, doesn’t it make sense instead to learn to be kinder and gentler with our minds?

After I had meditated long enough, I started to see my mind much less like a bully and more like a child. Sometimes my mind wanted to babble and play and make up nonsense songs like a baby or toddler. Sometimes it wanted to create stories and share them like an excited little kid. And sometimes it would argue for the things it wanted or call names when things didn’t go its way.

What’s the big difference here between bully and child? The difference is that I was bothered, incredibly bothered, by the bully mind, but I could let the child mind be. In a word, the difference is acceptance. At a certain point, and I can’t tell you exactly when, meditation helped me see that the mind just made thoughts and they didn’t always have to control what I did or how I felt.

Once I came to this realization, the whole dynamic changed. I could hear my mind tell me I am an awful person and a failure at life and I didn’t automatically believe it. That would empower me to challenge it with logic, console myself, or reach out for support. I could see my mind spin stories about how my plans would all come to ruin and my loved ones would reject me. And I could just reflect on the fact that my mind was spinning yarns again and redirect my attention to the present moment.

How did this magical power emerge? It came from never learning to clear my mind. I’ve been meditating for a decade. I have undertaken special training. I have not found a way to clear my mind and I don’t think there is one. My goal at this point is to convince everyone else of the same thing.

What you can learn to do, however, is to find clarity about your mind. Meditation can help you do that because (certain forms of it) require you to sit and watch your mind. Though it seems like it sometimes, this is not a cruel joke. You aren’t supposed to learn how to clear your mind. You’re supposed to see that the nature of the mind is not to be empty, but you can still find clarity in it.

Clarity comes from meditation practice because, if you don’t give up, you will eventually learn that there is no choice but to accept your mind as it is. In other words, you learn to stop fighting all the thoughts. You learn that control, the strategy that you have relied on for too many things for most of your life, is not the only way. Because what happens when you stop fighting all the thoughts? Most often, that’s when they settle down. That’s when you are likely to experience periods of clarity. That’s when you will experience what space between you and your thoughts looks and feels like, so you can more often be aware in your daily activities when your thinking mind is activated.

If you start meditating and you notice that you can’t clear your mind, perhaps consider this as something other than a pain point or a personal failure. Instead, it’s a preliminary realization that can lead to far more significant insights if you let it. Yes, you can’t clear your mind, so stop trying to clear your mind. Accept it. Accept yourself. Go back to the breath. And see what happens next.  

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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5 Healthy Ways to Handle Emotions as a Lawyer

The first question I ever asked a meditation teacher showed how uncomfortable I used to be with my emotions. In the Zen tradition, you get an opportunity for an interview with the teacher when you go on retreat. I was totally unprepared for this on my first one so I asked the question at the top of my mind: is it okay if I cry when I meditate?

In not so many words, the teacher kindly explained that, yes it was okay when emotions came up during meditation. She wisely didn’t push me too hard to examine why I had asked the question at all and let me figure out that more fundamental issue for myself. In retrospect, I now know that the question isn’t whether it is okay to cry during meditation. The better question is why did I ever think it was a problem in the first place?

As I eventually discovered, I had been making some assumptions about my meditation practice and myself. I had assumed that meditation was about being calm, so through that lens crying was a problem. To dive a bit deeper, I had generally assumed in my life that I should be in control of my emotions, so when I reacted in ways that I didn’t expect it seemed to signal a problem.

In years of practice, I have come to learn that meditation is not about being calm, but instead is about being as you are in any given moment. In addition, our lack of control over our emotions isn’t the problem either. Usually, the problems arise when we fight against that lack of control. Even so, us lawyers are in the position where we often must modulate and monitor our emotions to do our jobs. How can we do this in a healthy way? Here are the five strategies rooted in mindfulness and compassion that I use.

1. Give them time.

Emotions sometimes have deeper meanings and sometimes they don’t. One of the best ways to tell the difference is to give yourself a moment to watch them and see what happens. The first thing you will notice if you can let emotions be is that they don’t last very long. In themselves, the bodily sensations often last about 90 seconds before resolving or changing to something else. So, if you can pause for a few breaths, let your body settle, and give your brain a chance to catch up, you may understand better what your emotions are trying to tell you. If nothing else, you’ll be present for yourself in an authentic way and remember for a moment that you are a human being who is affected by the world and that’s not entirely a bad thing.

2. Give them space.

As you give your emotions time, it also helps to give them space. What I mean by this is a few things. First, don’t force a conclusion right away. Don’t immediately put your emotions under the microscope. Don’t demand an explanation. Remember that emotions are feelings and they are not necessarily logical, so don’t judge or add on extra baggage that doesn’t need to be there. Second, it also means to let yourself expand around the emotions. Sometimes big emotions can feel overwhelming. In those times, I find the breath helpful as a tool to help me feel a sense of expansion as I make space for emotions. Strong emotions can also push us to contract around them, so the practice of allowing them to float (not pushing them away or reacting to them) is a way to honor our emotions while avoiding rash and potentially harmful actions.

3. Move.

Meditation is excellent for some emotions, but I find movement more helpful for dealing with the energetic ones like anger, frustration, or nervousness. After years of practice, I can sense when I am too keyed up to meditate. In those situations, I take a walk, do a strenuous workout, or put my energy to good use by doing yard or housework. The movement helps me to avoid ruminating about the situation and, even if I don’t get full clarity by the end of the activity, at least I did something good for myself or completed a chore. I also use this strategy when my calendar or case load give me reason to anticipate strong emotions. I make a point of working out before difficult depositions or important presentations. Even if short, I take walks or do some stretching or yoga the weeks I am in trial. At their heart, emotions are sensations which is energy. Movement can make you feel physically better and discharge some of that extra energy, so it is a great response to emotional surges.

4. Share them.

Lawyers sometimes must remind ourselves that we don’t have to handle everything on our own. As an introvert, this is true for me. When things are awkward, I tend hide them or try to fix them before anyone notices. Eventually I learned, though, that all the self-care strategies in the world are no match for the loved ones in my life. The reason is that our emotions can easily get mixed up with shame. Sharing our experience with those we trust is the most effective way to counteract shame. In many cases, our loved ones or trained professionals can’t change the situation or even offer wise advice. They can, however, remind us that we aren’t alone and our feelings matter and that is valuable.

5. Care for them.

The first few strategies emphasized some distance from one’s emotions to build stability in the midst of turbulence. Ultimately, though, practice with your emotions may reveal the truth that you can’t and shouldn’t try to become aloof from them. One amazing thing I have seen repeatedly is that compassion emerges when we feel suffering, whether it is our own or someone else’s. This isn’t to say you should always take on suffering or never use strategies to help yourself get distance when needed. It is to say that feeling our emotions and treating them like they matter is essential. This means being present for and accepting of ourselves even when our emotions are inconvenient, irrational, or uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean we always act based on our emotions, but it does require dropping the pretense that we can somehow rise above them.  

Law practice is a rational, logical, and competitive. If we are honest, though, it’s also highly emotional, intuitive, and relationship based. Emotional intelligence is not merely about recognizing emotions in ourselves and others. Because of the toll that law practice can take on legal professionals, it is also essential to learn strategies to honor and care for our own emotions. This is not just true because it can help you maintain or improve solid performance at work, but also because you are a human being and your lived experience matters.

In short, the healthy way to deal with emotions as a lawyer isn’t treating your emotions as a problem, but instead embracing them as a part of the human experience. Coming from someone who used to struggle mightily with this, I know that this takes patience, trust, and effort but these strategies derived from mindfulness and compassion can help.    

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Noticing “Why” Questions Can Help You Be More Present in Life

Nonjudgmental awareness is the goal of most meditation sessions and cultivating it is the goal of most meditators. Teachers will tell us to “just notice what’s there” instead of getting lost in our reactions. But, for us lawyers, this is not an easy feat. We are trained to judge, evaluate, and appraise. Clients pay us and specifically ask for our reactions. This means that our jobs incentivize us to automatically react to any situation we encounter.

If we could easily restrain this tendency to our work lives, we perhaps wouldn’t have any need for meditation. Most of us are not that fortunate, however, and we may find ourselves lost in judgments instead of present in our lives, whether in or outside of work. Even so, the habit of reacting to our experiences in life rather than experiencing life directly is deeply ingrained. How on earth can we start to undo it?

For most of us, this will be a gradual process and it won’t do much good to simply resolve to stop reacting so much. But, in my years of meditation practice, I have found one simple thing that has helped me: being watchful of “why” questions. You may have never thought about this before. Asking “why” questions as a kid probably helped make you the smart, talented person that you are. And, to be sure, a sense of curiosity is actually a good thing for most of us trying to make meditation a habit.

When I tell you to watch out for “why” questions, I’m not saying to dispense with your inclination to explore. I’m actually saying the opposite. I’m recommending that you notice how the “why” questions come up for you. In many cases, you may find that they aren’t questions at all, but instead are implicit judgments about your situation.

For example, if you can’t focus on your breath in meditation, you may ask yourself “why is this so hard for me?” Implicit in that question are several latent assumptions: (a) that meditation shouldn’t be hard; (b) that meditation shouldn’t be hard for you; (c) that things in general shouldn’t be hard for you; and (d) that failing to focus on the breath means you are doing something wrong in your meditation practice. With questions like this, the word “why” is an illusion that suggests that there is an easy answer out there that we are missing, but in most cases in life there isn’t one. When we notice this pattern of speech, it can help us see a pattern of our mind to judge.

Even when we are using “why” in the exploratory sense, paying attention to how it arises for us can help us uncover less obvious judgments. Let’s shift the example above to a less overtly judgmental question like “why do I do this?” That may seem fairly innocuous, but even here the question still implies that (a) the thing you keep doing is wrong or a problem to be solved; (b) the thing you are doing is part of a pattern with a singular cause; and (c) the solution to the problem can be discovered through logical reasoning. Sometimes things fit those descriptions, but often in life they don’t. When we narrow the focus of inquiry too much with a pointed “why” question, we can miss some of what life experience is trying to show us.

So, what’s the answer here? It is literally in the question. Once we have started to become aware of all the “why” questions we ask about our lives and our practices, we can then start to ask something more fundamental: what. Instead of asking ourselves “why” things are the way they are, we drill down on the facts of what is actually taking place. Much like refocusing our attention on the breath when the mind wanders, the “what” question brings our mind back to reality instead of getting lost in theories about causation.

My experience with this shift has produced a paradoxical result. The more I have learned to ask “what” in my life and meditation practice, the more that the “why” questions became irrelevant. When I focused with more intention, clarity, and precision on the facts and situation before me, I implicitly understood the “why” or realized that the “why” wasn’t as important as I had previously believed it to be.

Not only did becoming skeptical of “why” questions help me become aware of my judgments, it also helped me understand that I couldn’t take a short cut to get to understanding about myself or the world. Instead, the only way to get that understanding and all the peace and happiness that came with it was to stay rooted in the realities of what life and the world really was.

There isn’t a quick and easy way to become less judgmental in life. It’s a deeply ingrained habit for most of us and it will take time and practice to change. Even so, noticing how we use the word “why” may be one small thing we can do to bring awareness to our habits of judging and reacting to life. Training ourselves to ask “what” instead–even when we think we already know–may help us come back to presence with life exactly as it is.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Mindfulness Basics: How to Find Your Breath

Breath practice is what many people think of when they think of meditation. The instructions seem simple. You are supposed to focus on your breath and return–ideally without mentally flagellating yourself–to the feeling every time your mind wanders. But as soon as you sit down to get started, you may be greeted by the somewhat disturbing recognition that you have no idea how to find your breath.

This may be shocking since, presumably, you’ve been breathing your whole life. You may think, “how can I not find my breath? I just had it a minute ago.” You may feel as foolish as that time (or in my case all those times) you rushed into the grocery store for a quick purchase and realized you didn’t pay attention to where you parked your car. Sigh.

In truth, this may be a collective sigh. Many of us have trouble finding our breath, or at least settling on a focal point that works for us, at first. In my view, if you notice that you aren’t quite sure what it means to focus on your breath, that’s actually a good sign. It means you are starting to slow down and you’re noticing things you never noticed before. It means you are starting to ask questions about experiences you previously ignored or overlooked. That’s one of the critical benefits a meditation practice can offer, so you should be encouraged by it instead of discouraged.

Beyond this, the reason it might be hard to find your breath is that there isn’t any right answer. When you are told to focus on your breath, most teachers mean to focus your attention on the sensations of the breath coming in and going out. The sensations are the thing and not the thoughts or judgments about it. Different teachers, however, recommend different focal points. Some traditions instruct students to focus on the tip of one’s nose to feel the flow of air in and out. Others recommend focusing on the feeling of rising and falling in the chest or belly as the air fills your lungs. Which should you choose?

My recommendation is to start with the place that calls out to you the strongest and stick with it. When I started meditating, I focused on my nose because one of the first books I read about meditation recommended that. I struggled immensely with this. For me, the sensations of the breath just weren’t very strong at the tip of my nose. When I finally went to a Zen retreat, I asked the teacher and she said she focused on her belly because she wanted “to get as far away from her head as she could.” I liked that answer a lot and tried focusing on my belly. Voila! Problem solved. My practice got much easier and my mind started unconsciously settling on my breath as I went about my daily tasks.

Does this mean that the belly is a better focal point than the nose? Not in my opinion. What it means is that the belly is a better focal point than the nose for me. For anyone new to meditation, I recommend focusing on the area that is strongest so you can get your practice started without much struggle. In the early stages, the important thing is to establish a habit and do what helps you focus and doesn’t discourage you. Once your habit is established and you know your mind and body a little bit better, you can branch out and explore. In fact, if you use guided meditations, you will probably end up doing this automatically because some teachers will direct you to focus on different aspects of the breath.

Breath practice is an excellent place to start when you are first learning to meditate. It is infinitely scalable so you can start with sessions as short as 1 to 2 minutes and grow your practice to lengthier sessions over time. In addition, the breath is an ideal focal point for meditation because it is always “with” you. Lawyers today lead busy, active, and mobile lives, but no matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pause for a bit of mindfulness during your day to calm yourself and refocus on the most important issues in any given moment. Once you have developed a comfort level with breath practice, you can use it to begin exploring other types of mindfulness practices that can help you in your practice and in your life.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Grounding Practices Can Catch You When You Feel Untethered

When I was preparing for my first ever appellate oral argument, I remember a swirl of questions flurrying through my mind. What if the panel is hostile to my position? What if they don’t like my presentation? What if they ask the dreaded question that exposes the fatal weakness in my case? What if they ask a question that I just can’t answer? When you prepare for oral argument, these questions are normal and can even be a healthy part of preparation. But, ideally, they settle down before you walk up to the podium and say “may it please the court.”

I love oral argument and always have. Answering questions on the fly is fun for me. I did 3 moot courts in law school because I loved it so much. Today, when I have an argument or present to an audience, I fear a cold panel much more than an active one. So, it came with some surprise when I did my first oral argument years ago and I was more nervous than I expected. It was a straightforward argument, and my brief was strong. But still, standing in the lush but austere chambers of the Sixth Circuit made me feel shaky and out of control. So, what did I do?

I walked to the podium and placed my hands down. As I was awaiting a cue from the bench, I felt my feet on the ground and let the weight of my body stabilize me. Having made a conscious choice not to mentally flee the experience, I began my argument and gathered momentum along the way. A few minutes in, I got questions from the judges that made it clear to me that I had already won so I made the best choice I could in that situation: to quit while I was ahead. I made a conclusion, ceded my time, and sat down to watch opposing counsel try to fight off blows from the panel on rebuttal.

In retrospect, I now see that I had little reason to feel nervous. We got a favorable ruling days later that indicated that the judges had no trouble accepting my arguments. But I was still super proud of my work and not just because it was my first victorious appellate oral argument. Instead, I was proud that I stayed present for the whole experience and didn’t let my nerves get in the way of seeing facts in the moment so I could react skillfully to them. If I had not been paying attention, I could easily have plowed onward in my argument, unnecessarily risking raising dangerous issues or annoying the judges. Because I had managed my nerves, this didn’t happen and I didn’t lose any of the ground I had gained with my brief.

That’s what grounding can do for us lawyers in times of stress. Grounding is a practice of feeling the physical sensations of the body and most commonly emphasizes the sensations of being rooted to the earth. Most grounding practices suggest feeling the weight of one’s body or the contact that one’s body (such as the rear end, back, or feet or even hands on a podium) with the earth or other stable object. When emotions are high, this strategy works on a practical level because it helps us find stability when things seem beyond our control. It also helps us minimize the impact of a mind churning with thoughts that usually only serves to increase our anxiety. On a psychological level, though, grounding is the first step of courage.

When we root into our physical experience, we say “yes” to it on a fundamental level. We make a conscious choice to stay with whatever experience arises instead of retreating into the dark recesses of our mind. By rooting into our experience and feeling whatever is going on in our body, we implicitly tell ourselves that we can handle whatever uncomfortable emotions may come as we do.

In doing this, we open our minds up to what is actually happening in the situation, rather than merely seeing our preconceived judgments or being blinded by the things we fear. In a situation like an oral argument, where a single question could change the course of a case, clear awareness is critical. But the same is true for so many other areas of our law practices and lives. To be sure, our ability to be fully present affects the way we interact with clients so that they learn to trust and rely on us. It affects our ability to care for ourselves as we deal with the risk, time pressure, and stresses of law practice. And, it affects our ability to show our loved ones that we care for and support them in life.

So, if you experience a time in law practice when you feel unsteady, resist the urge to judge yourself or panic. Instead, it may be more effective to just find steadiness. Fortunately, no matter where you go (on earth at least) the force of gravity is always connecting you to your bodily experience as a human. Look for that sensation by feeling the weight of your body in the chair or your feet on the floor. Pause for a moment and rest in the feeling. Though it may seem like a small thing, this first, tiny act of courage may be all that you need to stay present, see clearly, and react with wisdom and skill to whatever life sends your way.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Love Interval Training? Why Not Try It with Your Meditation Practice.

I previously wrote about how much I love Power Zone training and shared the lessons it taught me that could easily apply to life and meditation practice. Interval training, such as Power Zone, is an effective way to train the body and build physical fitness because it taps into the benefits of both high intensity efforts and periods of rest. When it comes to meditation, intervals may not be the first thing we think about because we may view the entire practice of meditation as a rest period. But, for new meditators especially, meditation can be challenging since most of us aren’t accustomed to relaxing and because it may put feelings and thoughts that we’d rather avoid front and center. Thus, while meditation is a practice that can ultimately help you deal with stress in life more skillfully, the truth is that it takes effort and discipline.

For this reason, it might actually help you to think about incorporating some rest periods into your meditation practice. I first learned about this idea years ago on a meditation retreat I attended. During one of the afternoon sessions (which are the the toughest for me because that’s when sleepiness sets it), the teacher reminded us to rethink our approach to meditation. He explained that, while we often designate a time period to meditate due to our busy schedules, we can play with the structure of our practice. In particular, he had us try a period of 4 minutes of meditation with alternating 1-minute stretch/movement breaks.

When I heard this, I instantly thought of all the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio classes I’d done. With this style of exercise, you do short bursts of high impact exercise followed by lower impact, active recovery periods. Of course, what the teacher at the retreat was proposing was actually “LIIT” or “low-intensity interval training.” I soon discovered that it was, indeed, quite LIIT. After several long periods of meditation that day, it was a breath of fresh air just to try a new way.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as with fitness, meditation practice is destined to run into roadblocks if you do it long enough. You may have injuries or illnesses. You may have mental resistance. You may just not feel like it. You may still be developing the skills needed to support a practice. Sometimes it helps to keep going if you free yourself of the mental constructs you’ve created as to the “way” you are “supposed” to do it. As one example, I usually try to get 30 minutes of meditation a day. When I ran into a bad patch a while back where I just didn’t feel like it, I committed to 5 minutes a day. I often ended up sitting for longer because, by the end of the 5 minutes, my resistance had passed. More significantly, though, I still have a practice today.

On the other hand, I have also had times where I needed more than my normal 30 minutes a day to work through particular stresses in my life. The problem, though, as I have learned with years of practice is that I tend to have diminishing returns when I practice for longer than 30 minutes. My feet fall asleep, my knees and back hurt, and I tend to be so low on energy that I am almost asleep. In those times, I have instead broken up my long sit into two shorter sessions of 20 minutes with a few minutes to stretch in between. The results were much better and more helpful for me than trying to power through just 1 session of 45 minutes.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The point isn’t to have an ideal practice. It isn’t to have a practice that competes with anyone else’s. The point is to have a practice that serves your life. So, while discipline is certainly part of any good practice, don’t put your practice in a box. If there is one thing my practice has given me, it is an awareness of the dangers of all or nothing thinking. Sure, 4 minutes of meditation may not be as “good” as 5 minutes, but it is way better than 0. More significantly, recognizing that 4 minutes might serve me better than 5 minutes on a given day is practicing self-compassion and self-awareness which, as a lawyer, I constantly need to practice.

So, if you are struggling to find the time to meditate or have a hard time sitting still for very long, perhaps you should consider adjusting the way you are doing it. Think about where you are in your life and, with kindness and generosity towards yourself, try a new way. That’s what the meditation teacher was saying when he told us to try intervals: don’t let your mind get in the way of your meditation practice. To do this, you have to factor in your body and heart along the way. Low intensity interval training for meditation is just one way that you could balance your practice to help your mind, while acknowledging the whims and needs of your body and heart.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

What Is Body Scan Meditation and Why Should Lawyers Try It?

When people think of meditation, they typically think of the breath as the focal point. But in truth, meditation can use almost any focal point and the focal point doesn’t necessarily have to be a singular, stagnant object. One of the most beneficial practices that I incorporate in my routine is the body scan. With this practice, the focus is on the sensations in the whole body, rather than exclusively focusing on the breath. Traditionally, this practice flows systemically through the body, flowing from one part or region of the body into the next.

Most commonly, body scan meditations start at the crown of the head and proceed down to other parts of the body until you reach the feet and toes. There are, of course, many potential methods and starting points for body scans. For instance, you could start with the toes and work up or do a body scan that focuses on the chakras or plexuses along the spine. Regardless of the particular method you try, the object of a body scan meditation is to feel the sensations in the body and notice what you feel, rather than to think about the body.

Body scan meditation can sometimes feel more manageable to new meditators because the practice is more active than breath practice. Because the focus of body scan is to flow through the body, the mind has to work a bit more to stay focused on the sensations in the body. For this reason, it may not seem as hard to keep the mind engaged with the focal point as it does in the early phases of learning breath practice. In addition, in my experience, getting into the body is a great (perhaps the best) way to get out of your head. It is for this reason that resting in sensations during a body scan can be deeply relaxing even to new meditators and after relatively short periods of time.

Body scan meditations are very useful for attorneys because they remind us to pay attention to and take care of our bodies. In law school, we learn to emphasize rationality in making decisions for our clients. While separating fact from emotion is critical, we lawyers are still human beings with human bodies. To do our best for our clients, we need to understand and respect the limitations of our own bodies so we can fulfill our responsibility to our clients. As I’ve written before, emotions are sensations in the body, so body scan practices may also have the incidental benefit of building emotional intelligence and tolerance when powerful emotions arise.

Even outside of emotions, however, the body awareness that body scan practice engenders can have more fundamental benefits for lawyers and professionals. Some of the most common bodily issues that can impede us from doing our best work are represented in the acronym HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These symptoms are fundamental to the human condition, but in our fast-paced world it is easy to skip lunch, push our emotions to the side, miss out on social opportunities, and deprive ourselves of sleep.

Body scan meditations are excellent for lawyers because they remind us that we are not merely brains filled with legal strategy, but people who must be fed, rested, and cared for. If you practice body scan meditation, you will develop the skills to notice the symptoms of various conditions and emotions in your body in the early and more subtle stages before they get to the point where they affect your performance, outlook, or demeanor. These skills are not only necessary to performing our responsibilities as lawyers, but they are also beneficial for anyone who wants to be a top performer in a high-stakes environment.

Finally, body scan is building block to support further growth in your meditation practice or just when dealing with the difficulties of life. When you start a meditation practice, it can seem like the focal point is the object of practice. As your practice advances, you may learn, however, that the focal point is really a tool. In other words, the point of practice is not just to focus on the breath or the sensations of the body. It is, instead, to build the skill of resting with the breath or the body.

If you can learn to do this with body scan practice, then you have one more tool at your disposal when meditation or life throws you curve balls. For example, perhaps troubling thoughts or overwhelming emotions come up during your practice. A meditator proficient in body scan might be able to shift focus to a less reactive part of the body, such as the feet, to rest from the experience until they find enough stability and calm to proceed with normal practice. You could also do this in life, if for instance you have tense meeting with opposing counsel and need to keep your cool.

In short, body scan is a simple practice to learn and may be more accessible to new meditators than other styles of practice. It offers many benefits that support a meditation practice and build coping skills for life. Lawyers in particular could stand to benefit from the practice, so give it a try.

Do you want to try body scan meditation? Check out our meditations that incorporate body scan techniques.   

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Meditation Is About the Practice and Not the Session

New meditators commonly worry whether their practice is doing anything for them. They often say that they struggle to sit still, experience a deluge or thoughts and emotions, and do not feel calm at all. Most teachers (including me) would say that this is normal and that the practice gets easier over time. But new meditators may wonder how this could be? How could it be that meditation sessions can feel so difficult–even painful at times–but can still be expected to impart the benefits of peace and calm over time?

I struggled with this initially too, until I remembered one important thing: the goal of meditation was not to get “good” at meditation, but rather to help me build a better life. When you are new to meditation, the practice can be alarming because it is likely your first close encounter with your mental chatter, bodily sensations, and emotions. Most lawyers today have active schedules and numerous demands on our time and attention. This means that we can easily just not notice what is really going on in our minds, hearts, and bodies.

Meditation can be so disorienting because all those distractions are removed, so we can experience our inner lives more directly. While this can be scary at first, over time we can learn to be watchful of judgment and harshness with ourselves. We can train our minds to rest in the sensations of the body and use the breath as a tool to focus and calm ourselves. And, we can watch and learn how a flurry of thoughts, emotions, and feelings can subside if we give ourselves enough time.

In this way, the struggles in early practice may actually be skill-building exercises. This is not to say that all struggles in practice should be handled on one’s own or that more sitting is always the answer. Individuals who have experienced trauma or who experience severe emotional or physical pain should always care for themselves first and seek out help from a trained professional, teacher, or loved ones. But, for many new meditators, the struggles in some meditation sessions are where the benefits of awareness, compassion, equanimity, and calm originate.

As an example, I experienced a great deal of physical pain on my first retreat because I had been accustomed to sitting only for minutes, as opposed to hours a day. My body hurt and that, in turn, made me sullen, irritable, and doubtful of myself and the practice. Eventually, the pain got so bad that I had no choice but to skip a sitting session so I could do some yoga in my room to try to feel better.

On the next session, I found myself much improved and I not only completed the retreat but was mentally present for the instruction and benefitted from it. The lesson from this, of course, was that I couldn’t expect my mind to grow when my body hurt. To be sure, this is a basic insight, but how often do we lawyers ignore the demands of our bodies because some other demand seems more important? Over the years, this lesson has helped me remember to care for myself first instead of always pushing through it and this has drastically improved my life.

This is why famed teacher Joseph Goldstein directs students not to evaluate one’s practice by one’s experience while meditating. Instead, he tells students to consider whether their lives are improving by considering whether they are rushing less, ruminating less, aware of their feelings and the feelings of others more, experiencing fewer physical signs of stress, and are happier. Even though I still experience difficulty in my meditation practice, I continue to meditate because all of these things have been true for me.

In short, the value of meditation comes from the practice itself and is not dependent on one’s experience in any single meditation session. While struggles during mediation are difficult to experience, those difficulties can help us build critical skills or examine detrimental habits, including judgment and harshness. Just like law, meditation is a practice because it never really gets easy. There is always room to grow, room to learn, grow, build skills, and better understand life and oneself. If you don’t get discouraged by poor experiences in individual sessions, the practice of meditation can help you create that room in your own life.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Scrooge, “Not Self”, and the Holiday Lesson It Offers Us All

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.