A Socratic Dialogue with Thor about Anger in Meditation

If you went to see Thor: Love and Thunder last month, you probably spent less time focused on Thor’s discussion of meditation with genius scientist and lost love, Jane Foster. As the two discuss their past, they confided that they each had tried meditation to heal from their losses. Rather hilariously, Thor proclaimed that it didn’t work for him because it “just made him angrier.” It was a relatable quip that most people in the audience may have heard, laughed about, and moved on from to the rest of the movie. 

When I heard it, though, the biggest “well actually” line of dialogue began streaming through my mind. Obviously, I had to restrain myself from announcing this in the theater, but that only made me think about it more later. Because Thor’s misconceptions about meditation and anger are likely shared by many of us mere mortals, I offer this imagined dialog with Thor. Not sure it’s truly a Socratic method but what we experienced in law school probably wasn’t either, so close enough. 

Camera pans out to reveal a strange light in the sky. The light grows into a bright white circle. From it, emerges a woman never before seen in the movie and who does not rightfully belong in it. Thor stands back from the light and reaches for his weapons in alarm. When he sees it is just a woman who clearly has no martial arts training beyond the occasional Peloton shadow boxing class, he stands confused but at ease. 

Thor: Who are you and what are you doing here? 

Claire: Hey, Thor, I am a human from earth. You and Jane are doing a great job showing vulnerability to address some unresolved issues. I don’t want to derail that but you said something about meditation that isn’t quite right. 

Thor: How did you get here? Did Gorr the God Butcher send you?

Claire: I have no idea but no, Gorr is clearly the bad guy here. If only he had learned how to hold his grief, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That’s why I am here to talk about meditation and anger. 

Thor: You don’t appear to be one of Gorr’s monsters, but I’d really like to get back to talking to Jane. 

Claire: We all want you to get back to talking with Jane, so I’ll get to the point. That thing you said about meditation just “making you angrier” it’s not really true. 

Thor: Now I am concerned that you are Loki trying to trick me. Are you trying to tell me you know my experience better than I do?

Claire: Not at all. I also don’t know what kind of meditation you were doing. But, I’m guessing you tried to sit and focus on your breath or something? Did you try Headspace or 10% Happier?

Thor: I have an app called ZenGod. It’s specifically for gods but similar. Yes, I tried to focus on my breath, but I couldn’t because I just became filled with rage. 

Claire: Got it. And yes, that is totally normal. It happens to the best of us. What did you do when the rage came up?

Thor: I immediately stopped meditating and went to kill monsters with my ax.  

Claire: Did that help you feel less angry?

Thor: It felt pretty good to kill those monsters, but the feeling didn’t last. 

Claire: That’s really good too. Not good that you felt that way, but that you noticed it. 

Thor: What do you mean? How could it possibly be good that I noticed this?

Claire: Well, the reason we meditate is to notice what’s there. When we notice what’s there, over time that becomes wisdom and we are in a better position to know what to do about what’s there. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to let things be, but the wisdom is seeing this. 

Thor: I am a god. I don’t “let things be.” I hit bad things with my ax and summon power from the universe to destroy them. 

Claire: Well, how did that approach work for your anger?

Thor: It didn’t work at all and I can tell because I am getting very angry right now. 

Claire: That’s okay. It’s perfect actually. There’s nothing wrong with anger. You have every right to be angry. You’ve lost a lot. You’ve taken on a lot for other people. Your anger has helped you to protect others several times. Can you just let it be there now?

Thor: It’s hard. I don’t like it. I am very powerful and it makes me nervous to feel like I can’t control it. 

Claire: Excellent. You are doing so great. Anger does scare a lot of us because it makes us feel out of control. The more powerful we are the harder it can be because we are responsible for a lot and we don’t want to do something bad. But, remember, you are holding it now. What exactly does your anger feel like now?

Thor: Feel like? It’s anger. Why do I need to explain it?

Claire: Great job again. You are so good at this. You don’t need to explain it to me or anyone else. What I’m saying is to feel it. Where in your body do you feel the anger? What sensations are there that tell your brain you are angry?

Thor: My jaw is clenched. My hands are gripping my ax. My shoulders are tight. I feel like I am holding my breath. My neck and cheeks feel hot. I want to hit something. 

Claire: Wonderful. You are doing great. All of those things are normal. That feeling of wanting to hit is energy. We may not like it, but the function of anger is to make it clear to us when something is wrong and motivate us to act. Because you are a superhero, your habit is to discharge angry energy by hitting things. That can be good sometimes, but it can also be good to just learn to hold it for the times when you aren’t fighting monsters. 

Thor: So what do I do when I need to hold it? I still feel angry now. 

Claire: The first thing is to do what you just did. Notice what’s there. Recognize it as anger. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. After that, the most common way to come back to neutral is to breathe. 

Thor: Breathe? That’s so basic. I’m a superhero. Can’t you do better than that?

Claire: You are a god but you have enough human in you such that the breath is the way you can calm down the body. Think of your breath as the ax you use to fight the monster of anger? Does that help? When you focus on your breath, specifically the exhale, it sends a signal to the body that things are okay, that you’re safe. Try it out. Take a deep breath in, feeling what sensations happen as your lungs expand. Hold it for a moment. Then exhale and sense what it feels like to let go. 

Thor: *Rolls eyes but tries breathing* 

Claire: Let’s try that one more time. This time see if you can make that exhale just a beat longer than the inhale. 

Thor: *Continues on and then opens eyes*

Claire: Great job. How was that?

Thor: It helped. I still feel a little angry but I no longer wish to hit anything. But, I’m confused. I thought I was supposed to be calm when I meditated. You told me to feel angry. 

Claire: Excellent question. Meditation isn’t about just feeling calm. Many people do it to learn how to get calm or get back to it. But the real object of meditation is to learn to be present with whatever comes up. If that’s anger, then it’s practicing presence with anger. The reason this helps you get calm is that eventually you learn that when you are angry, you can just be angry and you don’t always have to act based on it. 

Thor: But what if I screw it up when things are too much?

Claire: You are going to screw things up. Meditation doesn’t make you perfect. It just gives you a new tool to use. The next part is forgiving yourself but I think the rest of the movie is going to cover that, so I will let you and Jane be. 

Thor: Movie? What? 

Claire: Ummm, errr . . . I just mean that I know you will figure that one out. But, if not, feel free to DM me @BrilliantLegalMind and we can talk again. Good luck with Gorr! 

Thor: Goodbye, strange woman from Earth! 

A bright light emerges again in the sky and a white circle enshrouds Claire. Thor and Jane return to talking and Claire continues watching from her seat in the theater. 

Don’t get me wrong, this post is not intended to tell you to meditation-splain to random people out in the world, particularly not if they are large superheroes with magical axes. But, if you have ever struggled with anger in meditation, at least you know you are in good company. Best of luck in your practice, fighting whatever monsters in life you have to fight, and I hope you enjoy the summer blockbuster movies as much as I have.

If you struggle with anger in meditation or otherwise, you aren’t alone. Check out this article I wrote for Above the Law which shared my experience with it and what helped me. If you have any strategies or practices that have helped you, leave us a comment to share your wisdom with others.

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5 Steps to Help Lawyers Handle Hopelessness

­There is a lot going on in the world right now, but if you are a lawyer in the United States the term “a lot” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s not just that major and devastating events are happening. It’s that the conflict surrounding each event may call into question the legal system in which we work every day. Regardless of your political viewpoints on the events themselves, the turmoil surrounding our institutions of government, the authority of that government, and the scope of individual rights are likely to leave any lawyer questioning their work or role in the legal system. The term that keeps popping up in conversations, messages from lawyer friends, and my social media feed is “hopeless.”

While you may not have thought about it this way, hope is important to legal work. Clients put faith in us to handle their problems. In turn, we put our faith in the law, the legal system, and our own talents and processes to secure the best results we can. All of this turns on the idea of hope: that we have the power to do something good for someone else. But, when institutions change, appear to change, or are called into question by political events, hope can be hard to muster. This can drain energy, distract us from critical work, and in the extreme lead to conditions like rumination, anxiety, and depression.

So, what can lawyers do when they feel hopeless? It’s a hard problem and I don’t know that there is one perfect answer, but I have experienced this before myself. Here are the steps that have helped me.

1. Let yourself feel hopeless.

People ask me all the time how to “mitigate” or “deal with” emotions like sadness, anger, loss, or even hopelessness. My answer is always the same: let it be there. This is the hardest step and perhaps the hardest truth of life to accept, but feelings just need to be felt. Sometimes we may want to push them away or try to rush through them because we may fear that the feelings will last forever or that they signify more doom and gloom in the future. As we all know, though, all things are temporary, and we can’t really know the future until it comes. So, if you are feeling hopeless, let yourself feel hopeless. That means noticing what’s there, whether it is thoughts or physical sensations or moods. Don’t push yourself to feel hopeful or pretend that you are happy when you’re not. Just let yourself feel how you feel.

2. Treat yourself like a friend who experienced a loss

When you allow your feelings to be there, it may be obvious to you what you need next. Directly experiencing your own pain or emotions often gives you clues about what you need to address them. If not, though, your imagination can help. My experience of hopelessness is often very similar to any other kind of loss. The good news is that it tends not to last as long for me as something like being heartbroken, but it can feel similar. Thus, the best approach is to care for yourself the way you would care for any friend who has experienced a loss.

To do this, you’d ask them if there was anything you could do or anything they might need. Do this for yourself and give yourself what you need. If this is too much for you to do effectively on your own, connect with a friend or loved one and ask for help. Most of us wouldn’t try to handle a broken heart on our own, so don’t feel any obligation to deal with your own hopelessness by yourself.

3. Reconnect with positive things

After you have given yourself the time to feel and heal a bit, it can help to start reconnecting with positive things in your life. When you experience hopelessness, you may almost need to remind yourself that good things still exist. Let yourself experience those things as if they are totally new to you. Let yourself be surprised by how much even small things mean to you. Resist the urge, however, to jump to this step to push the negative feelings away with positive distractions. The point here isn’t to override or ignore how we feel, but instead to reconnect with the positive parts of our life as part of the healing process.

You may have to be intentional about this because, when bad things happen, we can sometimes feel guilty or even foolish for enjoying positive things. In truth, however, the nature of our human experience is that we can enjoy beauty in a world that is often harsh and find goodness even in dark times. We don’t have to rid the world of all darkness or ourselves of all dark emotions to earn the right to good things. We deserve good things and, as a practical matter, we need them more when life is hard. Reconnecting with positive things, whether we plan them specially for ourselves or just enjoy what’s there is our everyday lives, is a way to remind ourselves of this truth.

4. Draw inspiration from those who didn’t quit.

Once I have reached a certain level of equilibrium with bouts of hopelessness, it always helps me to remember the people who didn’t quit when they faced hopelessness. I intentionally wait to do this step until later in the process because it can easily turn into comparisons and self-judgment. After stabilizing my emotions, though, I find it inspirational to remember the people in my life or from history who must have faced hopelessness and continued in their struggle. This is a way of connecting with the idea of “common humanity” because it reminds me that it is normal and human for even the best people to experience hopelessness at times. It also helps me because it reminds me that there is value in doing good work even if success doesn’t happen every time or if circumstances derail your efforts.

5. Remember your values.

One of the hardest parts of hopelessness is that it can cause us to question our identities or our roles in the world. Hopelessness happens when our faith in something essential is shaken, so it can create all kinds of doubts about the work we do, the way we are living our lives, and the people with whom we spend our time. Doubt can be hard for us lawyers because we often look for certainty and solidity since we rely on those things as we advise clients and help them through difficult times. Yet, the truth is, that we don’t really need certainty or solidity; those things just make us feel more comfortable, safe, and supported.

So, what can we do when the world gives us a lot of reasons to doubt? The same thing we do when there are gray areas in the law: we trust ourselves and make a judgment call. When it comes to something like hope, this means we remember what we value and we try to live accordingly. World events may shake our faith in institutions and may make us worry about what the future may bring. That’s when our personal values matter the most because wise action may be even more essential in times of uncertainty. For this reason, reconnecting with our personal values may help us remember the ways that we can bring good into the world even during difficult circumstances.

Hopelessness is a difficult emotion to experience because it is something that can make us feel helpless, alienated, unmotivated, and alone. Though it can be a challenging emotion to face, each of us can learn to hold our own hopelessness in kindness. This will help us reconnect to ourselves, reevaluate our roles in our communities, and better understand the values we wish to bring into the world. Perhaps we may never recover the same hope we experienced before, but I don’t know that must do so in order to lead a good and happy life. Instead, it may be more effective to learn to let new forms of hope grow in us in each new phase of our lives.

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Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

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How Mindfulness Helped Me Learn to Love Networking

One of my pandemic projects was publishing a book about networking with 19 other women lawyers. It’s called #Networked and it was a bestseller on Amazon in a few categories. For natural networkers, this might just be a cool thing but for me it was a milestone. It was one of the things that helped me fully and finally put to rest the idea that I was not good at networking.

In case my incessant droning on about sitting quietly had not clued you in, I am a bit of a nerd. I am an introvert and love reading and writing and quiet things. I love deep conversations or presenting on subjects about which I am passionate, but I detest small talk. I hate trying to come up with things to say to people I don’t know, and I am terrible at acting like I am having a good time when I am not.

In law school, these tendencies combined to cause me to literally run away from a networking event during a failed big law summer clerkship experience. On a Saturday in 90+ degree weather in full sun, I stood in the posh backyard of a soon-to-be partner trying to “get to know” the firm’s attorneys and socialize with my fellow clerks. That was the cover story, at least. It was really an audition and I knew it and the only thing I could think about while pretending to drink my warm beer was trying to not sweat. After an hour, I made some excuse and left, knowing my fate was sealed.

Though I clerked the following summer in the firm where I am currently an equity partner and had a vastly different experience, that memory haunted me for years. It repeatedly told me that I was no good at networking and that I would never be able to develop business and make partner. As I just said, though, I made partner and I literally just published a book about networking. So, clearly something very drastic has changed. As with a lot of things in my life, my mindfulness practice is one of the things that helped me change my own mind about networking. Here’s how.

1. Body Awareness Helped Me Manage Energy

Before I started meditating, I was constantly in my head. Body scans and breath practice, however, constantly reminded me to focus on the sensations in my body instead. Eventually, that shift in focus started to permeate my life even out of seated practice and I was better aware when I felt nervous or tired or just not into it when I had to go to a social event. When I could, I learned to meditate for a few minutes before or just send myself some loving-kindness during those times. That really helped and I found I was better able to tolerate and monitor the energy drain that large social events often caused me so I could focus better on the people there.

2. Awareness of Thoughts = Awareness of Ideas

 I really like to write and do it all the time now. Years ago, though, I only did “extra” writing outside of my law practice occasionally. As a big overthinker, one of the main benefits of my meditation practice was that it gave my thoughts enough space so I could see them more clearly. I eventually found that my thoughts were ideas for written content, so slowly and surely I started writing. Now, most of us don’t think of writing as a networking activity, but when I started to do it consistently and on platforms like LinkedIn, I found that it absolutely was.

When you put written content out there, you are sending out a verbal handshake to whomsoever on the internet may find it. If, like me, you learn to be yourself, people will reach out and want to talk more. But, unlike networking at happy hours with total strangers, you don’t have to make small talk because you already have something specific that brought you together. In other words, mindfulness turned my introversion into networking gold.

3. Consistently Returning to the Breath Practices Persistence

This next one is basic, but its importance cannot be overstated. Even if you never get a single amazing insight or spiritual experience from meditation, you can be pretty sure that the practice will teach you at least one thing: persistence. Anyone who has done breath practice knows that it can drive you nuts to keep going back to the breath over and over and over again. But we do it and hope it will pay off. It paid off for me and still does today. It helped me practice persistence and persistence is absolutely critical to networking. Nobody builds an empire or a community overnight. It takes a bunch of teeny tiny acts done consistently and maybe with a little bit of skill and luck mixed in. There is nothing that teaches you better about the impact of a bunch of teeny tiny acts than a regular meditation practice.

4. Compassion Helped Me Learn to Be Myself

The number one change I made to my networking game was to stop trying to “fit in.” I used to go to events and try to “look natural” and “seem upbeat” and “appear friendly.” In other words, I was trying to look like an extrovert and look like I was having fun doing it. Nobody bought this, including myself. My meditation practice taught me something that helped me stop this foolishness: there is nothing wrong with me. Specifically, loving-kindness practice helped me understand that I was loving, wanted to be of service to others, and was loved by many.

It also helped me appreciate that some particular social settings, small talk with strangers and loud group events, were painful for me, while others, deep conversation with a small group of friends, made me feel like I could conquer the world. When I learned this and accepted it as okay, I shifted my focus. I realized that my networking could include smaller events or activities with friends or even writing on LinkedIn. In other words, when I realized that my introvert tendencies were not bad character traits, I finally started to use them. And, when I started to network like me, instead of trying to mimic or go along with my extroverted friends, I made progress.

5. Giving Feels Good

Most of the best networkers tell you that their secret to success is giving. They will tell you to focus on proactively offering value to your network more than you focus on plucking benefits from it. This is good advice and my life experience tells me that we are more likely to do things when they feel good to do. My mindfulness practice helped me not only to pay more attention to how my body feels but also to more fully accept that I need to nourish myself to do my work.

Though I hated networking at first, everything changed when I started focusing on giving, rather than taking. I started small by taking on projects that I cared about, joining groups with a mission that I supported, or writing about topics that mattered to me. This soon put me in the position to help others by connecting friends, sharing tips that could help others, or doing good work for my community. When I noticed how good—how satisfied—that made me feel, I wanted to do more and had the energy to do it even with all my other obligations.    

If you hate networking, you aren’t alone but don’t discount the possibility that you may only dislike the version of networking you have experienced so far. I used to hate networking too when I tried to mimic the way that others did it. When I started focusing on what I liked and worked for me, I learned to enjoy and even love networking. Mindfulness practices could help you do the same thing. Sure, meditation in itself won’t turn you into a super connector, that will take many other steps and a whole lot of time. But it can help you do the preliminary work you might need in order to begin taking those steps. Meditation can help you turn inward to appreciate what is truly unique about you, so that you can turn outward with more confidence and skill. So, if you’ve had enough running away from crowded networking events in tears, try sitting quietly by yourself for a few minutes instead.  

If you need a meditation to get you started, check out this guided meditation we created that uses loving-kindness practice to help you shift your mindset about networking.

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Mindfulness Basics: Emotions Are Feelings in the Body

I have a love-hate relationship with the month of February. I love it because my birthday and Valentine’s Day fall right smack in the middle. Associating things with chocolate and pink cupcakes tends to help improve my view of them. But February is also right smack in the middle of winter. It’s almost always grey and super cold where I live and I am restless and ready for spring.

To try to make it a bit more fun, I am going to accentuate the positive and view February as a month of love. To that end, the basic tip for this month is this: emotions aren’t in your head; they are in your body.

“What?” You may be thinking. “I know when I am mad or sad or happy or whatever my mind if churning and churning and thinking away.” Of course it is. That’s because your mind and body work together and they do so almost instantly and usually without our knowledge.

But, if you slow down and actually watch, you will see that emotions play out in the body. If you can let them do just that, they don’t last nearly as long as they do when your mind gets involved to keep them churning. The most common places that you might see emotional reactions arise are in the area of your heart, belly, face, neck, shoulders, and hands, but with additional study you may see more subtle reactions elsewhere.

So, if like me, you have a range of emotional reactions to the month of February, you can learn a lot about yourself this month by trying to locate and just watch those reactions play out in your body. Once you learn to get in the habit of looking for emotions there, then you might get more comfortable sitting with those feelings, and that’s when the magic can happen. When you can just let the emotions be there in your body, you can learn to care for them and respond to them instead of reacting based on them. And, for lawyers and professionals, that’s huge.

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