There is a slightly evil thing that happens when you start writing. You love reading other people’s writing. You want to be generous in your judgment because you know how maddening the craft can be. But inevitably you find yourself evaluating the work both as a reader and a writer. In some cases, this can ruin the pure appreciation of the work.
That’s exactly what Ozeki’s novels do. She covers the isolation and alienation of contemporary life, including our throwaway and commercialist culture that leads to massive garbage patches in our oceans and hoarding in our homes. Her novels explore inhumanity in our meat industry, media outlets, modern workplaces, and even among well-intentioned educators, social workers, and medical and mental health professionals.
For example, while reading Ozeki’s latest award-winning novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness I wanted to walk into the book and save the wayward Annabelle who couldn’t cope with all that life had sent her. She would frustrate and dismay me in one chapter with her refusal to face life and be the parent her son needed. Then in the next, she’d be positively brilliant in advocating for herself and her son and show that she didn’t need saving, but simple social support.
In our lives and in the world, we often look for the simple and quick answers and so the big, nasty problems may feel too overwhelming to address. One wouldn’t think that novels, a form of entertainment, could tackle the big problems of the world and still be enjoyable. Ozeki’s novels show that this assumption is wrong.
If you want to learn about mindfulness in a totally new way or you just want some novels that are as wonderfully strange as real life, check out Ruth Ozeki’s work, including:
Anyone interested in mindfulness is likely to understand the deep connection between thoughts and actions. The stories we tell ourselves about the world and our own lives often dictate, sometimes without our conscious awareness, the actions we take or don’t take. Given this, many people would intuitively agree that inner work, including reflection and healing, can lead to transformation on the personal and ultimately societal level.
This is the theory which underlies The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee, a law professor and world-renowned mindfulness teacher. In the book, Magee posits that the history of white supremacy in the United States and across the world requires personal and interpersonal healing. Building on her own personal experience of healing through mindfulness and compassion, Magee’s book shares stories, reflections, and practices to help all of us do the inner work needed to build a more just society.
Undoubtedly some of you reading this may be frustrated by this idea. You might see the state of the world and think that we don’t have time for inner work; we need action instead. I won’t argue with that perspective, and I think that is Magee’s ultimate objective. But Magee, like many thinkers and leaders before her, understands that wise action often requires self-reflection.
As Magee explores in her book, some of us may not see or fully understand the need for action due to privilege. Some of us may not feel the need for courage because we may have ignored the impact of race in our own lives or overlooked how it has impacted people in our own community. It is in this space that Magee’s book tries to create an opening, a space for reflection, and ultimately a bridge outside of ourselves.
If we think about it, most of us can understand how doing inner work can lead to a lasting and meaningful change in conduct. I’ve seen how examining my own inner stories and embracing the pain, hurt, and confusion there has helped me lead a more courageous life. But even though our news feeds are filled with stories of the lasting effects of racism many of us have not had the opportunity to look inside to see how these stories have affected us or identify what we can do about them.
Even if mindfulness and compassion may seem like a strange fit for this undertaking, since Western mindfulness remains predominantly white, this idea has deep roots in Buddhist philosophy. The path of the Bodhisattva instructs us to work to end suffering for all beings once we have attained peace for ourselves. Likewise, the Buddhist concepts that may help individuals address personal suffering—rooting out greed, hate, and delusion, wariness of judgment, and embracing common humanity—have obvious connections to the work of building a racially just society.
Given my prior understanding of these concepts and experience with them, I enjoyed reading Magee’s book. Like the best law professors (and teachers of mindfulness) do, she combined scholarly analysis, deep thought, and steady coaching to help the reader not just learn but also hear and internalize what she had to say.
She offered stories, both personal and from her teaching experience, to explain concepts and practices (journal prompts and guided meditations) to help the reader apply the concepts to their own lives. As a result, reading the book didn’t feel like a law school lecture. It felt more like talking over hard truths, but doing so in a circle with friends.
Even those new to mindfulness and compassion practices, however, may learn a lot from the book. One thing many new meditators struggle with is the notion that thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations are somehow bad or off limits when it comes to mindfulness. In the book, Magee shares how mindfulness helped her allow her emotions and heal as a result. She also shared several stories and practices about making space for the feelings and experiences of others which can lead to transformation in groups.
With that said, Magee’s book may be a frustrating read for some. For one thing, it is not a book that should be read straight through. A chapter or two at a time, allowing for pauses and reflection, is ideal. In addition, Magee’s emphasis on nonjudgment (though consistent with mindfulness practice and supported by research) may alienate readers currently experiencing anger and frustration about issues of race and inequity. Though Magee’s book is clearly intended to ultimately encourage conduct change, the book emphasizes inner reflection far more than direct action.
Overall, however, The Inner Work of Racial Justice is a worthwhile read and especially important for lawyers. It is ideal for those interested in exploring how they can support racial justice or curious about the ways that mindfulness and compassion practices can help us build a better world. Though the book does not offer many strategies for direct action, it offers instruction, reflections, and practices that may empower readers to see more clearly and act more courageously to make a more just world.
How many times have you read a book and thought or proclaimed to a friend that it “changed your life”? While it can be exciting at first to see new possibilities open up in your mind after reading a book, the true test is whether it helped you change your life in meaningful ways. Time management guru, Laura Vanderkam, is a writer, speaker, and podcast host whom I have followed for nearly a decade. Having had time to see the difference, I can honestly say her work changed my life.
When I first encountered Vanderkam’s work, I was in the throes of young motherhood with an out-of-control litigation case load. I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I had no energy and I assumed somebody out there must have some answers. When I read I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Timeon a friend’s recommendation, I suppose I was looking for hacks and tricks to make things easier. What I got, instead, was far more valuable: reassurance that my messy life was normal and a reminder to be practical instead of perfectionist about my time.
Over the course of years, the mindset shift to dispense with all or nothing thinking made a huge impact on my life. Gradually, I began incorporating more of what I wanted in my life (writing, exercising, time with friends, etc.) and I let go of the doubts, worries, and guilt that got in the way.
Instead of assuming that I didn’t have time for the things I wanted or couldn’t commit to a new habit, at some point I decided to let myself try. Fortunately for me, meditation was one of the first habits I established. Because it gave me a quick way to recharge, mental space for insights and ideas, and awareness, other good things soon followed. I quickly got more active in my community, started writing more, and established a regular fitness routine.
Of course, Laura Vanderkam is not the only person to credit for this awakening. Friends, family, therapists and coaches have all helped me understand and craft this for myself. But I just listened to Vanderkam’s latest book, right as my own first book was coming out, and it hit me that I had unwittingly put into place so many of her time recommendations.
In Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What MattersVanderkam shares more than a set of 9 steps to manage your time. Instead, this book is about managing how you feel about your time. It’s not a tome that tells you how to manage a to-do list or claims you can simply delegate the tasks you despise. Rather, it recognizes that you may be busy for good reason. In light of that, though, it offers strategies that can help you experience your life as rich and full instead of just overscheduled.
I can’t say that I have put all 9 steps into practice but many of them have been essential to helping me open my mind and my schedule for more of what I want. In particular, fifteen minutes of Friday planning has helped me envision the coming week and prioritize personal and work goals. Likewise, moving early in the day has helped me manage stress and start my days off with energy. Finally, the biggest shift came when I started to prioritize what Vanderkam brilliantly calls “effortful fun.”
Though that sounds like an oxymoron, it makes senses. It means fun that takes a little more effort than standard relaxation. I had never heard the term before I read Tranquility by Tuesday but I can tell you that allowing myself to pick effortful fun more often in my life is one of the most important changes I have made.
This is the shift that Vanderkam’s work can help you make. She has five kids, two podcasts, numerous books, and a well-updated blog. Even so, I reached out to her to ask for a quote for the blog and she responded within an hour with this gem for all the lawyers and professionals who read the blog:
I think that one of the biggest misconceptions with demanding jobs is that there isn’t any time for other things. There may not be much, but “not as much as I want” is a very different story from “none.” The first story invites us to study our schedules, and see where this time may be, and how we can make the most of what we have, and scale this up over time. The second story is just defeatist. So the first, which is more truthful, is a better option.
I also think it’s important to look at life in terms of weeks. Individual days might be long. But often, over a week, there is space for the things outside work that make us feel like whole people. There are 168 hours in a week. If you work 60 hours a week, and sleep 8 hours per night (56 hours per week) that leaves 52 hours for other things. Again, it is not an infinite amount of time, and you might need to be creative to seize it. But there is likely time for some exercise, reading or hobbies, and quality engagement with family. Think of it as a quest to find this time, rather than dwell on how little there is.
Indeed, lawyers rarely have as much time as we want but most of us have more than none. If you want to learn a few ways to make the most of the time you have, check out Vanderkam’s work and her latest book, Tranquility by Tuesday. I don’t promise that it will change your life, but if it changes your mind on a few things that will be a pretty good start.
Yes, we are supposed to be rule followers. In many cases, we are hired because we are experts of the rules. But anyone who has practiced law knows that there are times when the rules don’t tell us everything. Sometimes the rules shift suddenly. And there are instances when we have to blend creativity and ingenuity to chart a course around, through, or alongside the rules for clients.
This is why lawyers, steeped in rules as we are, are not mere rule followers. Instead, our jobs position us to be badasses. Our role is to help our clients shape the future for their lives, their businesses, or their families.
Much the same way, “badass” may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about mindfulness and compassion. The popular image of mindfulness these days is a blissed out yogi sitting on a cushion. We are more likely to think of our grandmas than a superhero when it comes to the word “compassion.”
That magic ingredient is compassion. It’s a word that I have seen mostly absent from discussions of stress management for lawyers. I think some people have believed lawyers wouldn’t listen. Some may have believed talking about mindfulness by itself would cover the bases.
I wrote it as a short and simple guide to help lawyers (or anyone else) understand the concepts of mindfulness and compassion and build a meditation practice of their own. Having meditated now for nearly a decade, I understand that meditation can be a challenge so the book creates a four-week program for you to build skills and stamina for meditation. As you do the practices, you’ll cultivate mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and emotional intelligence.
The book includes no metaphysical discussions, little complicated terminology, and is actively and ardently anti-perfectionist. Admittedly, it’s a self-help book but only in the sense that it may offer some new skills, strategies, and ways of thinking that may allow you to help yourself. Explicitly, the goal of the book isn’t to change you in any way. It’s to help you see how awesome you are because your clients, your family, your community, and the world needs it.
There are so many resources, websites, books, and teachers of meditation out there now that it is very likely that, at some point, you may come across one you don’t like. You know what? That’s not really a problem.
There are many different meditation techniques from numerous disciplines. Even though many meditation practices have been studied in a clinical setting, the practice can be deeply personal and spiritual. In this way, it’s a good thing that there are lots of different teachers out there because there is bound to be one or more who speak to your experience.
In this interview, our founder, Claire Parsons, talks with her friend, Talar Heculian Coursey about influential teacher, Eckhart Tolle. Claire isn’t a superfan but Talar is. Check it out to learn more about Tolle’s teachings and style and to consider how teaching style can affect the way you’ve learned mindfulness.
Not into video? No problem. Scroll on down for a full transcript of the video with some links to Talar’s profile and website, as well as the past blog posts and other resources we mentioned.
Claire Parsons (“CP”): All right. Hey, everyone. This is Claire Parsons from the Brilliant Legal Mind blog and we are trying something new this week. We are trying one of our first ever video blog series. So I have with me to Talar Herculian Coursey. And if I said her name wrong, I’m sorry. She’s a good friend of mine from LinkedIn.
I am debunking myths this month on the blog. And so one of the myths that I wanted to debunk in this series is to talk about the idea that what happens when you come across a meditation teacher, you maybe don’t care for that much. If you saw a few weeks ago, I did a post about Kendrick Lamar, his new album and men’s mental health. And in that album, Kendrick Lamar name drops, Eckhart Tolle quite a bit. Eckhart Tolle had been on my reading list for a long time and when Kendrick Lamar you know, mentioned him so much I was kind of intrigued.
So I listened to The Power of Now and my honest opinion, is it it wasn’t amazing to me. I didn’t think it was bad. I didn’t think you said anything wrong. But it just didn’t speak to me. But my friend Talar loves Eckhart Tolle, and so I wanted to have her here to talk about why, just to sort of point out that maybe you don’t like a meditation teacher, but maybe somebody else does and that there’s a lot of different opinions out there about meditation teachers and what works. So we can talk about this so Talar, can you first of all, give me just an overview, a quick snapshot of who you are.
CP: Yeah, congratulations. on that. I just saw that. So that’s amazing. Talar. I know in addition to all of those things, you you have been certified to teach yoga and I know you do have an interest in mindfulness. Can you talk about that? Just a little bit.
TC: Definitely. My, my first introduction to mindfulness was through yoga. And I, I used to refer to it as my moving meditation. And while I do meditate, I use the calm app, and I try to meditate at least 10 minutes every day through the daily 10 minute meditation. I am not very consistent. I do enjoy it, but not as much as yoga so for me, the mindfulness practice of yoga that includes both not just both mind, body and breath, the connection is what really works for me and what I look forward to doing as opposed to sitting down to meditate which confession, even when I do my 10 minute meditations, I do it lying down. I know she tells you straight back, sit up, stay alert. I don’t do it. I don’t follow those instructions. But it works for me.
CP: And yeah, I usually sit up because I don’t want to fall asleep. But I sometimes lay down to meditate and it’s generally okay to find a posture that works for you. She’s probably just telling you to try to be alert on that app, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. So I asked you here to talk about Eckhart Tolle, and I know at some point on LinkedIn, like you had like Eckhart Tolle, like fan girl or devotee or something on your LinkedIn profile. So what is it about Eckhart Tolle that you like so much?
TC: It’s groupie. I am a self proclaimed Eckhart Tolle groupie. I don’t think that group these are just for musical bands. I think that authors can have them too and I and I’m one of his. I would like to think I’m his number one groupie. It’s really hard to say it’s kind of like obscenity you know, when you see it you know, and I guess for Eckhart toll, it’s, it’s when you listen to it, or when you read it. And it’s funny, you mentioned that, you know, you’re not a fan.
My first introduction to Eckhart Tolle was actually in Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier. I don’t know if you’ve read that or if you’re Dan Harris, and he wasn’t a fan either. But I went down that rabbit hole, and actually started with listening to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Eckhart Tolle. She did you know, I think it was a 10 part series, one podcast episode, per chapter where she interviewed at cart. So I listened to that before I read the book, and I don’t know if perhaps that helped me. Get you know more comfortable with the book. But I have the book in print. I have multiple copies that I gift to people, whether they want it or not. Some people return that gift. It does happen because he’s not for everyone. It’s kind of like caviar. You know, I don’t like caviar, but apparently some people do. I also have the power of now and a new earth on audio.
And so I like going to various chapters on the audio when I’m taking a walk and need to recenter myself. I just I just the way that he explains concepts and what he talks about, really works for me, and specifically, this concept of us being the watcher of the ego. You know, for me when I am trying to practice mindfulness, and not just because I’m trying to meditate or do yoga, really in interpersonal relationships. And conflict, even in communications on LinkedIn. After reading a Eckhart’s work, I will literally take a step back and watch my ego my ego might want to trash talk and complain and and argue but I will take a step back to watch my ego and recognize that it’s my ego that’s having that reaction. And in my opinion, I think most of the time, when we are reactive, you know, that is the ego at work as opposed to your you no mindful, true self. I can’t remember the question, but hopefully somewhere in there I answered.
CP: I think you did. You might have gotten into some of my later questions too, but no worries I can adjust. So, one of the things that in when you say when you talked about this think the thing that I like about Eckhart Tolle was the fact that I think he does explain concepts with a lot of clarity. The thing about his story that I think is the hardest for me is that in everything that I’ve learned about meditation and Buddhism, the enlightenment piece is the thing I struggle with most like I can’t necessarily conceive of it. You know, I’ve read about it, and I understand like, what in general it means, but I think his story is the hard part for me to understand how that just happens.
And so I think, he doesn’t get into the method as much like how to actually do these things. You know, he talks about concepts, but he doesn’t as much explain how to do it. He does get into meditation a little bit. I do like that. He talks about the importance of the body and meditation because I agree that that is very central. But like, that’s the piece that I have a disconnect with. He tells me where what the goal is. And he explains it very clearly. He doesn’t as much tell me how to get there. So when you say that you can watch yourself and your ego because you listen to him. Like can you connect those dots for me at all like in a practical way how his his work helped you do that?
TC: Like, you know, it’s hard to explain and I don’t you know, I don’t disagree with you. I don’t know that. His work. I don’t necessarily think of it as a you know, handbook guide for how to meditate and how to go about life. I think I think of it is more conceptual. And that you know, if you want to really hone in your mindfulness practice, you need to go deeper. You need to, you know, subscribe to your blog and listen to people like you to get the how, I don’t think he necessarily talks about how. I think he’s just painting the picture of where you can get to, and you know.
It’s interesting. I’m gonna go to something else you just said about the enlightenment piece. So I in addition to being Eckhart groupie, I’m also a Jesus groupie. And one of the things that I like about the way Eckhart describes his concepts he does pull in these great teachers, including Jesus, including Buddha, and Muhammad and all these other people. And his point as these concepts already exist and beliefs that you may already have you don’t have to choose one or the other. They’re not mutually exclusive. And he I feel like he describes it in different ways that different members of the audience might be able to understand it and for me as a Jesus groupie his reference to the Holy Spirit resonates with me in terms of enlightenment. So that’s what you know, my goal Nirvana, enlightenment that I’m trying to get to is access to the Holy Spirit within me, and stay true to that rather than the ego of my human form.
And for some people, you know, who don’t follow Jesus there that you know, maybe something else will. I, you know, I don’t think I’m fooling myself. I have had these moments where I feel like I’m back there. I’m literally having this out of body experience. And when I say back there, because I feel like I consider, you know, the ego being the outer shell of my body, not necessarily just in physical form, but the, you know, the animal part of me, and and when I think about having my out of body experience or tapping into the Holy Spirit, I literally envision myself stepping back. You know what I mean?
And watching this other person that happens to be me having this human experience, and that’s what I think that’s one of the other things he says is, he describes us as the spirit having a human experience, you know, and I just, I don’t know for me, it. I really enjoy the kinds of visuals that he represents, and especially as it relates to how much emphasis he puts on connection of all of us, that we are all connected by one Spirit, one energy, you know, and it each one of us is just having a human experience of that energy. So I like that concept and and because I do believe that we are all connected, and I think it’s just not just in our own personal best interests to support that mission. But also for the greater good as well.
CP: So you got a little mystical on me there. And I’m not necessarily I don’t think that’s bad or unimportant because I think those pieces of life matter a lot, but in practical terms, because honestly, the reason I love meditation so much is because it’s practical, and it’s useful. So, you know, for our readers, who are lawyers and professionals, I mean, what are the practical things that his teachings have helped you, you know, do in your life, what are the practical benefits, and you can just list them if it’s easier.
TC: Well, you know, I think it just comes down to one general term. And, and it’s avoiding being reactive. You know, and I think that that’s part of the goal in meditation, as mindfulness is to be able to take that pause and be responsive instead of being reactive. And after reading his work several times and listening to it. I’ve gotten better and better at doing it both in my personal relationships work on LinkedIn in any situations where like, I can feel the fire of reactive, you know, bubbling up, but I’m able to step back and pause. And my personal method, like I said, is questioning you know, the reactivity that I want to deliver, questioning whether that’s my ego or my true self. So that’s, that that’s been how I’ve been able to adopt it. So
CP: Basically, my next question was going to be that, you know, I read the power of now and what other resources would you look to but it sounds to me that you maybe already answered that earlier when you said that interview with Oprah, to kind of go through that and listen to Eckhart talk about his book and what it means maybe in a more personable setting, since Oprah is a miracle worker in terms of her interviews.
TC: Yeah, it was phenomenal. And like I said, I don’t know if I would be such a fan had I not listened to that first because it made work so much more accessible. Okay, great. That’s a good tip. Definitely that one and for anybody who hasn’t read 10% Happier. You know, that was my introduction to mindfulness work, I think, but I really enjoyed that. He’s a good storyteller too.
CP: Well, on that note, I am a fan of Tara Brach and in 10% Happier Dan Harris actually is kind of critical of Tara Brach, too. And I referenced one of this on one of our earlier blog posts, but there’s a later interview of Tara Brach on Dan Harris’s podcast and they discuss that and they have a real nice conversation about how they both learn from that. So I definitely, I think for that reason, I’m probably like not wanting to go after Eckart Tolle and say bad things about him because like, I got really mad at Dan Harris. I was like “really?”
So I try I understand that there’s a lot of differences with respect to how people react to teachers, and that every teacher isn’t for everybody. So that’s kind of why I wanted to do this. So on that note, like if there is someone out there who finds a meditation teacher or reads a book or listens to some guided meditations or whatever, and they just don’t like the teacher, what would you tell them to do? If they were still interested in mindfulness?
TC: Keep looking. Absolutely keep looking. You know what, what I would analogize it to is food. We we all like different things. Just because you like fish and I don’t doesn’t make the fish bad. And you don’t stop eating. You keep searching for what works for you. And, I mean, personally, it’s been suggestions from friends and of course, my husband is also a certified meditation teacher, and he’s the one who first introduced me to Dan Harris and 10% Happier and he’s had a great practice for many years, but I would take suggestions from different people don’t hold it against them if you don’t like it.
I mean, Claire, you and I can still be friends even though you don’t understand how wonderful Eckhart is. He’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. But I think with the amazing amount of literature and people who are available in the mindfulness realm right now, you will find people that you love. It’s the same for yoga teachers with me. There’s, I love yoga, but if I don’t have a teacher, whose voice I like to hear, like if it’s cringy I’m gonna have a terrible practice the same with a meditation teacher, or if I don’t like the way that they are describing the poses or if they’re going too fast, whatever the case.
You know, I, I absolutely think it’s worth the effort to find someone that you like and you enjoy and it doesn’t have to be just one person you can find several. If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, have a mindfulness practice sooner. In fact, one of my goals is to start a yoga practice at my son’s middle school like once a week 10 minutes to start getting them familiar and use us to mindfulness at a younger age because, you know, I didn’t learn about it until I was in my 40s.
CP: Okay, so Talar I really appreciate you talking to me today and explaining some things that I may have missed with respect to Eckhart, so thank you very much. So just so people can find you. If people do want to find you, where should they look? You can find
TC: Find me most days at the LinkedIn coffee shop, which is just the platform but it’s kinda like a coffee shop, Talar Herculian Coursey. I also have a website, which is wwwtalaresq.com. And if you’re in Salt Lake City where I live, give me a shout just don’t be creepy and follow me home or anything like that. That’s where you can find me.
CP: All right, follow on LinkedIn. Do not follow home. All right, everyone. This is our interview blog with Talar and I really appreciate you taking a watch and checking out the blog. So I hope we’ll have some new stuff up next month including we might have a guest post from to Talar’s husband Bob so stay tuned for that. And we will see you later. Bye.
This month I am focusing on debunking myths relating to mindfulness, compassion, and mental health. After all my years of meditation, I still find myself holding onto a few myths every now and then. One of those myths is that stress is bad for you.
As a lawyer, I have been informally trained to know that stress is a scary thing. The lawyer mental health crisis tells me I have to “manage” my stress. Family, friends, and doctors will tell me to “limit” my stress. And even in my training to become a meditation, yoga, and compassion teacher, I learned that stress can impede us physically and mentally.
She explains scientific concepts in a simple and engaging way that shows she really understands them. She does this so well that, in turn, I feel like I really understand the concepts too. I thoroughly enjoyed The Willpower Instinct and The Joy of Movement and, despite it being only in audio form, learned a ton from her course on compassion.
So, even though the title made me skeptical, I decided to give The Upside of Stress a try. Guess what? It totally changed my mind. And when I say “changed” I don’t mean that it made me suddenly welcome and enjoy all the stress in my life. Instead, it refined my understanding of what stress meant and how it actually worked.
Most of us know the “fight/flight/freeze” reaction as the stress response, as if it was the only response to stress. In Upside, however, McGonigal explains that this is only one possible response to stress and it usually occurs in dire threat situations. This is when stress can harm us physically, impede our performance, and even lead to bad behavior and aggression.
On the other hand, humans can respond to stress in other ways, including the “tend and befriend” or “challenge” responses. In other words, we can learn to care for and forge connections to deal with stress or see a stressful situation as a challenge that can present opportunities. When we respond to stress in these ways, research shows that it can improve performance, cause us to behave more ethically and collaboratively, and create courage, motivation, and energy.
Now, of course, the skeptics out there are likely to wonder why we hear so many dire warnings about stress if it is good for us. McGonigal acknowledges that stress can be bad, even devastating for some of us, but she explains that the popular discourse of stress is often misleading.
One thing that is often left out of these discussions is that our reactions to and mindset about stress can determine how it affects us. That is why so much of The Upside of Stress is devoted to changing the audience’s mind about stress, because just acknowledging that stress can have an upside is the first step to healthy stress management.
When I read this part of the book, I was ever more surprised because I realized I already knew it or had at least experienced it. I had not officially accepted the idea that stress could be good for me, but I had learned through meditation to respond to stress differently.
Rather than ignore, evade, or fight stress, I had learned to regard it as a normal part of life, to accept it as human, and to treat it with care. In other words, meditation had helped me more frequently invoke a challenge or tend-and-befriend response to stress. As McGonigal argues, it didn’t make the stress go away but it made it easier to bear.
If, like most lawyers, you want some help managing stress, consider checking out The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. If the only thing it does is change your mind about stress, that alone could be enough to change your life for the better.
What is confidence? That question lies at the heart of Russ Harris’ book, The Confidence Gap. Most of us view confidence as a feeling and, in fact, that is how most dictionaries define the term. Oxford defines “confidence” as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” What this definition doesn’t tell us, of course, is when this feeling should or must emerge. To be confident, is it necessary that one start out that way?
Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us may assume that this is in fact the case. We may believe that good and necessary action emanates from an unshakable, and perhaps innate, belief in ourselves, our teams, or our values. We may have watched the courageous actions of others from movies, history, or even our own communities that made it appear that their bold acts flowed from confidence. As a result, we may value confidence highly and simply assume that feeling confident is essential to living a worthy life.
This, however, is the very confidence gap that Harris argues against falling into in his book. According to Harris, the confidence gap is the space between action and feelings of confidence. He argues with clarity and wit that many of us believe that feeling confident is a necessary precondition to acting with force and skill. As a result, many of us never begin and take the action necessary to develop true confidence. Over time, this process can accumulate into a cluster of memories and fears that make us feel powerless, stuck, and drained.
The way out of this, according to Harris, is to instead accept the reality that anything challenging in our lives will inevitably cause most of us to feel unsure. In other words, Harris tells us to stop expecting and trying to feel confident from the outset. He suggests that we use mindfulness strategies to help us allow uncomfortable bodily sensations and acknowledge the troubling thoughts that may impede action. Harris suggests that neither thoughts nor feelings are themselves problematic if we can learn to “defuse” from (or not overidentify with) them. As we go through this challenge and take on new risks, Harris also explains that a healthy amount of self-acceptance (or self-compassion as I would call it) is essential.
To that end, much of the book is devoted to describing strategies for defusing in detail, including my favorite, which is to sing your nasty inner commentary to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday” or to type the statements out and put them in a funny font. I mean, doesn’t the phrase “I’m going to ruin my life.” seem less threatening when you type it out in pink Comic sans? And don’t these well-worn self-doubt phrases seem a little less dire when you sing them to yourself in the tune of “Happy Birthday”: “I’m a terrible mom. I’m a bad attorney. I am a total failure. My life is a mess.”
They sure do. Because, as Harris suggests, the words and the feelings don’t have power in themselves. They only have power because they can create discomfort in us that can stun us into inaction. If we can use mindfulness strategies, however, to give ourselves some space and grace in the midst of that discomfort, we can still learn to move forward in the midst of discomfort. That’s when we find confidence because we learn that fear can come but it doesn’t have to hold us back. In this way, Harris suggests that confidence is in reality a process rather than a feeling.
You could learn a lot of the lessons from The Confidence Gap without reading the book. In fact, I liked the book because it seemed to explain back to me in logical and research-based terms what I had experienced in my own life. I had always struggled with self-doubt and overthinking, but started to work my way out of those habits with years of mindfulness practice. Eventually, I learned my pattern: I would feel a rush of inspiration to try a new thing, then set out to try it, and then feel scared and want to quit. After a while, my mindfulness practice became established enough that, instead of quitting or never starting at all, I learned how to not accept as true every thought that came to mind, care for my fear, and keep going. Over time, I noticed how often my fears were exaggerated and how rarely they affected my actual performance. Now, even though few new challenges go by where I don’t experience some fear and doubt, I am far more confident in myself because I know what to do with the fear and doubt. Now, I just bring it along for the ride instead of letting it drive the bus.
The Confidence Gap is a useful read because it can help you sort out the mélange of thoughts, sensations, and expectations that arise in the space between ideas and actions. The analysis in the book may help you understand what confidence really means for you and the strategies may help you avoid letting the confidence gap turn into a lifelong (or maybe just too long) inaction rut. So, if you want more confidence in your life or to understand the subject better, check out The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris for insightful analysis, useful strategies, and a much-needed examination of what confidence means.
After a few chapters, I immediately understood why people love Atomic Habits: it offers clear, concise procedural steps for building better habits and ending undesired ones. The book itself is a very easy read. It’s short and has crisp, concise chapters broken up into bite-sized pieces. Clear’s writing style is, well, clear. He writes in plain English and a conversational tone. Though he often supports his conclusions with scientific studies, he explains them with examples that most of us would recognize from popular culture or our own lives.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Clear’s book, though, is that it offers a much-needed structure to those of us who want to review and change our habits. Anyone caught in the snare of a bad habit knows that it can feel overwhelming and rob us of any motivation to change. As Clear explains, habits are incredibly powerful because, for a behavior to become a habit, we have to accept it as part of our identity and then practice it and hard-wire it into our brains. Undoing that process for habits we want to change, therefore, can seem confusing, daunting, and even futile.
To address this, Clear distills the process of habit creation into a succinct set of 4 laws: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy; and (4) make it satisfying. By offering this system and strategies to support habit change at each phase, Clear’s process is a practical, logical, but also self-compassionate way of cutting through the inner resistance, doubt, and angst that goes along with any effort to change one’s habits. At the heart of Clear’s advice is the fundamental idea that discipline and willpower aren’t the way to change habits, but instead processes, routines, and supports are how to do it. As I have written before, I heartily agree with this approach and have experienced its benefits in my own life when I attempted to start exercising, lose weight, or cut down on my alcohol consumption. And I am definitely going to use some of Clear’s advice to address my current struggle of watching too much Netflix before bedtime.
So, am I ready to declare myself officially wrong to be skeptical about Atomic Habits? Not so fast. My habit of resisting admitting when I am wrong is pretty engrained, so I can’t let this review go without some critique. One thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes made habit change sound a bit too easy. While Clear appropriately has a chapter devoted to the struggle of habit change, it is surprisingly devoid of personal experience with struggle. This may not have been so noticeable if the book had not begun with Clear’s compelling story of a high school head injury that set him on the path to becoming a habit guru. Another problem was that the book lost steam after the first few chapters because even its structure seems to follow a set of rules and it quickly began to feel formulaic and rote.
These criticisms, of course, are not enough to devalue the practical advice and actionable steps in Atomic Habits. Instead, they are perhaps wish lists for the future works I hope to see from James Clear and a suggestion to read the book one chapter at a time with a period to digest the content before moving onto the next. If you are thinking of habit change this January, Atomic Habits is a concise and easy read that is certainly worth your time.
Do you need some help making our meditation practice a habit? Download the Meditation Habits worksheet to apply some of the principles from Atomic Habits to get your meditation practice established as a habit. You can also check out our free ebook, Pause and Begin Again, to help you start or resume a meditation practice.
Editor’s Note: We originally published this review last June. As a tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed yesterday, we publish it again in gratitude for Hanh’s teachings and work.
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 Angerin 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.
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.
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.