This month, I am talking and thinking a lot about possibilities. It’s a fitting theme for me because a totally new possibility opened up for me when I published my first book How to Be a Badass Lawyer. No, the world didn’t stop and it wasn’t an international bestseller overnight, though I was ecstatic when it attained #1 New Release status on Amazon.
Still, I have wanted to write a book for years. When you achieve a long-term goal like that, it causes you to reconsider who you are and what you can do. I have a lawyer friend, Christon Halkiotis, who recently did something that caused the same reflection. She’s a lawyer in North Carolina and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro this September to raise money for Multiple Myeloma Research. All told, her group raised $200,000.00.
It’s a pretty amazing story and Christon has some others to share too. She started her law practice just before the pandemic started, she learned to market her practice on social media, and she is one of my awesome co-authors for the bestselling book Networked.
I had Christon join me on Instagram Live for one of the blog’s Easy Like Sunday chats. She shared her story and dropped some knowledge, badassery, and inspiration. What I loved most was that Christon explained that mindfulness helped her get through the toughest parts of the climb. Check out the interview here.
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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.”
But when you understand either of them, you realize how badass they really are (and maybe how badass your grandma was too). At it’s heart, mindfulness is accepting reality as it is without judging, resisting, or fighting it. Compassion, warm and cuddly as it sounds, is nothing less than courage. It means staying present for suffering and remaining willing to help.
In recent decades, some amazing pioneers have begun teaching lawyers about mindfulness. Much of the discussion, however, has focused on the calming aspects of mindfulness practice. To be sure, meditation can offer that and it’s not a small thing. But, my experience as a practicing lawyer has shown me that meditation has helped me so much because it helped me be okay with not being calm.
This may be hard for some lawyers to hear. I know we can feel like we need to look composed. I know it can feel awkward and vulnerable when you can’t control your emotions. Breathing strategies can help in these situations but at a certain point something else is needed too.
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.
Over the years, though, I have used compassion for myself and taught other lawyers about it. They do listen and I don’t believe merely talking about mindfulness by itself is enough. Mindfulness and compassion work together. In combination, they don’t just make us calm and soothed. They allow us to soothe ourselves and others and find clarity and stability in even the most troubling times.
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.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by experienced employment attorney and friend of the blog, Bob Coursey. You’ll learn about Bob’s character and values just by reading this piece but for more detail check out his bio below.
I was talking with a fellow management-side employment lawyer (who is also a friend) recently and I made an offhand comment encouraging her to go out and continue doing the good work of protecting our nation’s employers.
She corrected me: “Actually, I feel like most of what I do when it comes to counseling employers is protecting employees . . .”
She was 100% right.
I told her I was glad she “corrected” my comment about our job being all about protecting employers. I further told her I felt a little silly that we were even having this exchange, because this is one of my pet issues: I believe there is a common misconception among many (including some of my close friends and family) that, as an employment lawyer who counsels and represents management, my job is somehow anti-employee.
That is so far from the truth. But convincing anyone of that is not the point of this article. Instead, my point is that by lawyering with intentionality we can make the world a better place. My life experience is as a management-side employment lawyer, so the specifics I discuss here relate to employment law.
I’ve been a lawyer for a long time now, and it’s clear to me that management-side employment lawyers are in a position to be a great force for good for employees. But being in that position and acting on it are two different things. I can look to my own 24-year career as a management-side employment lawyer and see that.
Early in my career (before many humbling life experiences, and before discovering meditation, mindfulness, and intentionality), I didn’t consider, at least not with any intentionality, the bigger picture of my counsel to and representation of my clients. Being a zealous advocate meant the client’s interest was my singular focus. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that philosophy. I was very effective and abided by all of my professional ethical duties.
Fast forward a couple decades. I’m a work in progress, like all of us, but I feel confident saying the years have made me wiser when it comes to how I advise my clients.
If you’re not interested in making the world a better place, this article isn’t for you, and that’s fine. But for those of you lawyers who want to be a force for good but aren’t sure how, let me remind you that our jobs likely provide us many opportunities to be a force for good–if we’re intentional about how we lawyer. By lawyering with intentionality, we can help our clients do well by helping them do good.
There’s a lot of suck in the world. To counter the suck, we need good people to act. For most people, the ability to do good is often limited to their own direct actions. But if you’re a lawyer, doing your job often means advising other people on how to act. There’s power there.
We wield that power whether we are intentional about it or not.
Let me be clear: Nothing I’m saying here should be interpreted as suggesting we lawyers violate, or even flirt with violating, our ethical duties to our clients. Our counsel to our clients should never put our clients’ interests or legal compliance subservient to the interests of others. What I am suggesting is that for lawyers to ignore the bigger picture, the broader community of interests, is often to do a disservice not only to those other interests, but to our clients too.
It’s easy for lawyers to fall into the trap of thinking of the much of the world as an us-versus-them environment. We rarely hear from our clients when things are rosy. The world can sound like a pretty troublesome place when every call you take, every email you read, is about disagreements, arguments, accusations, and various troubles between humans. For those lawyers who spend a significant part of their time defending their clients in litigation (like I did for the first 10 years of my career), it may be even harder to avoid falling into this us-versus-them trap.
Now 24 years and lots of life experiences into my career, my heart is softer, my perspective is broader, and at the same time I feel like I’ve never been a better legal adviser. I guess practice makes perfect, because I’ve spent thousands of hours counseling companies to:
-protect employees from harassers/bullies/jerks
-accommodate employees with health, family, religious, or other needs
-support or coach employees instead of imposing discipline
-communicate better with employees
-promote deserving employees
-allow employees to work from home for health or other personal reasons
These are some examples of the type of employee-friendly counsel that I offer when I believe it’s in my client’s best interests, which is almost 100% of the time.
It’s exceedingly rare that good legal counsel in a workplace situation calls for taking an aggressively antagonistic, anti-employee approach. When those unfortunate situations present themselves, we management-side employment lawyers should counsel our clients accordingly. But treating employees with humanity, dignity, and fairness should always be the default.
In my field of employment law, this philosophy yields good client results. How do I know? Clients tell me. I see the lawsuits that don’t get filed. I see the careers that aren’t ended prematurely. I see workplace relationships salvaged. I hear about workplaces where trust exists between employees and management. I could tell you about countless situations that had lawsuit written all over them, but because I worked with my client to take an intentionally employee-focused approach to handling the situation, litigation was avoided.
I believe the same philosophy can yield similar positive results in other areas of law. Regardless of the area of law, there’s almost always a broader perspective to consider than our clients’ specific interest. There’s almost always going to be others affected by our clients’ decisions and actions, for better or worse. For me, it’s my clients’ employees and those employees’ families and communities that I choose to consider with intentionality when I advise my clients. Who is it for your clients?
The world can look like a very dark place to a lot of people in 2022. Our clients and their communities are dealing with everything ranging from mental health struggles to hate and violence. As lawyers, the nature of our job means that we are sought out by clients when they are facing some of the hardest times in their lives, and they look to us for counsel through these dark times.
Are lawyers going to solve all of these problems? Of course not. But in my small part of the world, I have no doubt that my clients have a huge role to play in their employees’ lives, which means that as their employment lawyer, I’m in a position to do some good, not only for my clients, but often in the broader sense. And the world needs every single bit of good it can get. I bet you can say the same about your clients, and your role in advising them.
Our jobs give us the privilege of having a part to play in the lives of many people, which has ripple effects on the world. It’s up to us what we do with that privilege, whether those ripples are positive or negative. Today, I’m going to look for opportunities to do some good in the world. I hope you’ll join me.
Author Bio: Bob Coursey has been an employment lawyer for over 20 years. He spent his first 10 years of practice at Fisher Phillips, one of the most respected employment law firms in the country, where he defended companies in employment related litigation. He then spent 11 years at Employers Council, where he focused his practice on keeping employers out of trouble. In 2021, Bob started his own company—Modern Age Employment Law—where he counsels, represents, and trains employers who are looking for a modern approach to their employment law and HR challenges. Bob is licensed to practice law in Utah and Georgia. He’s also a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP).Despite all that very dry sounding info, Bob is actually a real person too. He’s a music lover, an OK drummer who still dreams of being a rock star, a daily meditator and certified meditation teacher, a Peloton enthusiast, a t-shirt re-designer, a lover of Utah’s outdoors, and a husband and father of four kids who bring him immense joy.
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.
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.
I never ask anyone to explain themselves to me when it comes to meditation. Even so, I give talks about mindfulness a lot and people tend to volunteer why it can’t/won’t work for them. I never mind this because it’s an opportunity for both of us to learn something. The number one reason that people, especially other lawyers, tell me they can’t meditate is insufficient time.
For lawyers, this is surely a believable excuse. We are a notoriously time poor profession. There are significant financial incentives for using any extra time we have to bill hours or market and network to get the next client in the door. And then we might want to actually, hey, have a life to do things besides bill too. Trust me. I get it. I have no intentions here of telling lawyers that they have more time than they think.
Here’s the thing, though. Meditation is not a time suck. It’s a time-saver.
I’m a lawyer, a community leader, a blogger, and a mom. Do you really think I sit around meditating because I’m just bored? Even if you thought that, do you really think I’d pick the single most boring activity on the planet to fill my time? Of course not.
I don’t meditate because I have nothing better to do. I meditate because I have tons of other better things to do besides overthinking, reacting to every little thing in life with anger and hostility, and rushing so much that I miss those tiny joyous moments that creep into life unexpectedly.
Sure, over the last 10 years, I have probably spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours meditating. That’s a lot. But what I have not done or done far less is spend hours agonizing over some thing in the future I am worried about that never transpires. Or fretting for days about something awkward I said at a happy hour last week. Or scheming endlessly about the best way to handle a situation.
Instead, now I see when I am stuck in thought mode, regret mode, or perfectionist planning mode and I disrupt the loop. I make a decision to write down a few notes to get the idea out of my brain, talk to a friend, apologize, or just let it go by doing something else. The hours saved alone here is enough ROI for my practice, but the impact on my life by remaining engaged in the world rather than lost in thought is even more significant.
And can we talk about the sleep that I haven’t lost when I am dealing with a stressful situation? Or the fatigue or frustration that didn’t derail my work because I had a quick and reliable way of resting and recharging? Or the physical signs of stress I recognized early on and knew how to care for so I could avoid a disaster?
Look, I don’t write this piece to make you feel bad if you tried meditation and struggled with it because you are busy. The truth is that I have too. I have missed a ton of sessions over the last ten years. I have had to restart and reenergize my meditation habit multiple times. Sometimes it feels like a slog when I do.
I keep coming back to it though, not because I magically find extra minutes, but because I want to be present and content in the minutes I have. So, if time is the thing that sticks in your mind when it comes to meditation, maybe try thinking about time in a new way. Don’t just focus on the few minutes that it will take to meditate. Focus instead on the minutes that meditation might save you and the minutes of your life that meditation might improve.
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.
I have been quiet on the blog for the last few months, but I promise I have some pretty good excuses. One reason for the break is that, after several years with the same firm, I decided to transition to a new firm. Though I am thrilled with the new role and looking forward to expanding my practice, it was an emotional and complicated process and I needed some time to rest. The other excuse is also pretty awesome: I am writing a book. Actually, I am finishing up writing the book and should send a manuscript to my editor this week.
Of course, not much happened on the writing front for a few years, but in 2018 I decided to try to the Writers in Residence program for Ms. JD. That was the first time I had written about things that weren’t purely legal topics, including mindfulness. It went well and some of my posts were republished and got some kudos from people other than my best friends and mom.
After that, I started to think more seriously about the book and began talking to friends and contacts who had written books to gather information. Late in 2018, I attended a friend’s CLE and she did an exercise where she asked us to take a Jenga block from a symbolic brick wall and write our stretch goal on it to help make the world and legal profession better. I wrote the word “BOOK” on it and kept the block in my office.
Still, a clear idea of what to write about and the way to do it did did not emerge. So, I started writing on LinkedIn regularly. At the same time, I started speaking about mindfulness and compassion. I was nervous about that at first but it, too, went much better than I expected. The LinkedIn writing helped me build a network, allowed me to experiment with writing styles, and let me gather feedback about what people really wanted and needed. The pandemic gave me the time to focus on this writing, to speak a lot about mindfulness and compassion, and to get training so that I could better explain why mindfulness and compassion worked.
This blog was one of the fruits of that experience. I launched it the week I finished my meditation teacher certification as a celebration. The other fruit was that I realized that lawyers were fairly knowledgeable and comfortable with mindfulness but they knew a lot less about compassion. Lawyers like mindfulness because we like the idea of calm and we like the idea that we can get a handle on our thinking. But, compassion cultivation can give us emotional intelligence, resilience, greater happiness, and better relationships. It is the stuff we need when we are not calm and lawyers are often dealing with situations that are not calm.
Then, last year the idea for my book finally hit me. I texted a friend about how I want to write about how compassion is badass. I wanted to explain to lawyers how the soft, gooey, touchy feely side of compassion is actually really powerful. I wanted to write about mindfulness and compassion in a way that was real, funny, and let those of us with messy lives see how good we are. And, so the idea for my book was born in a text message to my friend. I still didn’t know what to do at that point, but at least a vision was starting to emerge.
Shortly thereafter, I met a fellow meditation teacher on LinkedIn who told me about a guy who ran a coaching program that helped people write mindfulness books. I was too busy at the time to act on it but made contact with the coach via email. At about the same time, I recorded an episode of the Legally Blissed Conversations podcast with Suzi Hixon, Esq. and said I planned to write a book “one of these days.”
I promptly forgot about that comment and episode because my law practice became incredibly busy. I dodged the emails from the writing coach and kept apologizing for being too busy. Then, late in 2021, I realized something interesting: I was turning 39 soon. I’m bad at math but even I could figure out what that meant. It meant I would be turning 40 in 2023. So, I reached back out to the writing coach, apologized for the semi-ghosting antics, and set up a call. Ten minutes into that I was convinced it was what I needed, so I signed up.
I got started with the process thinking it would be smooth sailing from there, but then out of nowhere I got the urge to make some changes in my law practice. That totally took over my life for a few months and I was able to write nothing. I even had to stop writing for the blog for a while because my creative energy totally faded away. I eventually decided to just pause the blog posts for while so I could recover and focus on the book.
My patience for myself was rewarded. I started writing the book in May and wrote more than 45,000 words in 12 chapters by the end of June. My coach guided me to scale this back and focus more directly on one topic, so I ultimately revised, removed chapters, and wrote a few more. Now the book is 30,000 words and 10 chapters but I have some extra content for a second book. In addition, as an added bonus, a strange little poem creeped out of my brain that I have turned into a children’s book (Mommy Needs a Minute which should be released in 2023) with my talented friend who draws pictures. Now, I will have my book published by the time I turn 40, have another on the way, and the beginnings of a third.
What is the lesson from all of this? The lesson is to follow your instincts and trust yourself. If something is important to you, a path will emerge. That may mean you have to keep coming back to the path when you get sidetracked. It may mean you have to be patient with yourself as ideas start to form and you learn the skills needed to make the project work. I have been thinking about writing a book for seven years now, but in that time I have not only been thinking. I see now that that steps I took along the way weren’t wasted time or distractions because they helped me build skills, create a community, and find my voice.
If you have a long-term goal, say it to yourself. Then say it to your friends. Even if the timing isn’t right to get started on the goal immediately, don’t let it go and don’t discount the impact that play and experimentation along the way can have for you. I have noticed in my meditation practice that the best ideas tend to come back to me again and again. This can be true in life too. Sometimes life can get in the way of our big goals, but the best ones for us, the most meaningful ones, may come back to us again and again until we are ready to act on them.
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.
One of the most common complaints I hear from new meditators is that they “can’t sit still.” My common refrain is that “you don’t have to sit still; you don’t even have to sit!” I’ve written about this before, but I am not sure I am the best emissary of this message. Stillness has never been the problem with my practice. Instead, I’ve craved it and relished every bit of silence I could get because my problems were excessive thoughts, doubt, and self-judgment.
So this week, I am going to let the story of my friend Hale Stewart, an insurance lawyer and moving meditator, make the point. I have never met Hale in person but became acquainted with him on LinkedIn. He is the Vice-President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler and he posts regularly on insurance topics. Because that area is adjacent to my own, which includes some insurance defense work, I became connected with Hale and his posts started showing up in my feed. Hale’s knowledge of insurance so vastly exceeds my own that I often couldn’t contribute in a meaningful way to his content, but he had a good sense of humor and always had a joke or funny GIF to offer on my posts about mindfulness.
I never expected Hale to tell me that he was interested in meditation. His sense of humor told me he was a pretty no-nonsense type of guy and I know he told me outright at least once that he wasn’t the type to sit and do nothing. But, one day, out of the blue, Hale messaged me to say that he appreciated my blog posts because they were practical, simple, and had helped him. This made me super curious, so I asked Hale to talk about his mindfulness practice. Despite Hale’s prior intimations that meditation wasn’t for him, I found out that he had created a unique, effective, and robust practice for himself.
Hale told me that he meditated during his daily cardio workouts on the treadmill. He had started this after thinking about spirituality and stress management for a while. In addition to being an insurance lawyer, Hale is also a former professional musician. While that experience exposed him to and made spirituality a part of his life, the steady march of time and the stresses of the current day caused him to begin exploring meditation as a new way to take care of himself.
After searching the internet, Hale found some guided meditations to pair with exercise. Hale said he enjoyed them because the teacher didn’t use a wispy, mystical, yoga teacher voice, so he could just do the practices without distraction. By doing those practices for a while, Hale learned to guide himself through the practice and he now meditates on the treadmill for nearly an hour most days. His practice includes body scan to get into his body as he begins his workout, breath focus to stay present with his experience, and visualizations of rainbow (“ROYGBIV” as Hale called them) colors.
Hale, it seemed, didn’t know or care that this was impressive. He didn’t seem to notice that a daily practice of that length of time was incredibly robust for a new meditator. He also wasn’t too focused on the fact that his practice ticked some important mindfulness boxes (mental focus, body awareness, and breath work) or that rainbow colors have traditionally been associated with the chakra bodies from yoga philosophy. Instead, what Hale cared about was feeling better, enjoying the workout, and getting benefits. Though his practice is not yet a year old, Hale reports that he is already reaping those benefits, including feeling more present and focused and rushing less.
Several things impressed me about this story. First, Hale’s willingness to explore and try something new is commendable. People new to meditation can take the practice and themselves too seriously at first, which can impede the curiosity and playfulness needed for the practice to offer its benefits. Hale didn’t do that and instead explored to see what was out there and played with the practice to make it work for him.
As someone who took way too much time reading and thinking about meditation before I tried it, I was also impressed that Hale didn’t need a lot of theory to get started because he trusted himself. Many people new to meditation worry initially about doing the practice “right” but Hale built a practice based on what felt good to him. This isn’t to say that theory is unimportant or that teachers and books are useless. On the other hand, though, it demonstrates that there are many paths to mindfulness and that we don’t have to know the path perfectly to walk it well.
When we talked, Hale confided that he had never thought of himself as the type to meditate because he wasn’t someone who could just sit there. Rather than let this idea hold him back, he paid attention to what he needed and embedded the practice into his life, rather than conforming himself to what meditation was “supposed” to be. So, now when people tell me that they struggle with meditation because they “can’t sit still”, I don’t have to convince them. I’ll just remind them that there are lots of ways to meditate and suggest that they go talk to my friend, Hale.
F. Hale Stewart JD, LL.M. is a Vice President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler. Hale has been involved in alternative risk for 12 years. He has written two books on the topic (U.S. Captive Insurance Law and Captive Insurance in Plain English) and provides periodic commentary for IRMI. A former professional musician, he remains an enthusiastic amateur jazz guitarist. You can learn more about or follow him on LinkedIn.
I used to have a love hate relationship with the New Year. In mid-December I’d start daydreaming about all the big changes I was going to make in January. I would feel hopeful – excited even – for the possibility of a fresh start. New exercise routine! Healthy eating! Plenty of water! I’m going to meditate every day! I’d spend hours shopping for a new planner hoping to find just the right one to make all my goal setting dreams come true. Because this year, this year is going to be different, I’d tell myself.
Sure, all the wishes and aspirations for self-improvement that come with the New Year aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Seeing the New Year as a time of self-reflection and renewal can be incredibly uplifting. Who doesn’t love the idea of a fresh start?
The problem for me came half-way through January when all of my high hopes would come crashing down because I could never meet my own high expectations. And, by the end of January, I would be in full “I suck” mode. I’d beat myself up for failing yet again to completely reinvent my life and erase all my bad habits in a matter of weeks.
But that started to shift when I really started to appreciate what Joseph Goldstein calls the three most important words in meditation: “simply begin again.” The idea is that it our minds will always wander and our good habits will wane sometimes. There will always be times when we slip into our old physical and mental habits. When we don’t meet our own expectations it’s natural to feel like we’re falling short and get caught self-judgment.
The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.
Self-improvement and being motivated to be the best version of ourselves are good things. The key is not to get caught in the mental loop of always feeling like we’re falling short, because the truth is, we will never be perfect. Let me repeat that: we will never be perfect. I will always have days or weeks where I don’t exercise, or meditate, or drink enough water, or cook Pinterest perfect meals for my family. I’ll always have days and weeks where my house is a mess and I struggle to make sure my kids have clean underwear.
The truth is, I still feel myself getting caught up in the pizazz of the New Year, but it’s not the same. I don’t set quite as high expectations for the month, but the most important part is that I don’t beat myself up (quite as much) as I used to when January doesn’t go the way I want it to. I am ever so slightly starting to feel the freedom that comes with self-compassion.
So, I say, “resolutions schmesolutions” – January 1 is just one opportunity of an infinite number to begin again.
Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.