How Mindfulness Helped Me Savor the Final Days of Summer

Even though it’s still hot outside, the days are starting to get a little shorter, kids are going back to school, and the stores are filling up with Halloween decorations. The signs are all around – summer is winding down.

The sense of summer ending and the change it brings can bring anxiety and even sadness. These feelings are intensified this year as another wave of COVID-19 surges and spending another winter cooped up and masked seems like a real possibility.

As a busy mom and lawyer I am no stranger to these feelings. As I write this I’m staring at one seems like an endless back to school to do list: are everyone’s vaccines up to date? Do the kids need new school clothes? Have I filled out all the school forms? The list goes on and on. Even if you don’t have kids, you might be thinking about that trip you didn’t take, squeezing in as many outdoor social events as you can, or even that meeting tomorrow or the dirty dishes in the sink. 

One of the things I find appealing about mindfulness is the idea that meditation can literally rewire our brains. Which means that we can use mindfulness and meditation to reprogram our brains to slow down, stay present, and enjoy the final weeks of summer.

I ran across a mindfulness tip to help enjoy summer by Jay Michaelson that he calls “meditate when you’re not meditating.” The concept is that you practice mindfulness while going about your day. I love this because it’s a reminder that, yes, sitting and meditating is important to develop the habit and to reap the long-term benefits of mindfulness, but it’s also an active process of integrating it into our daily lives. Michaelson calls this the “real secret sauce of mindfulness.”   

So, here a few tips to meditate when you’re not meditating to help you stay present and savor the last days of summer.

Get Outside

The simple act of getting outside helps me find a few minutes to soak up a little sunshine and warm weather. Maybe that’s 10 minutes on your porch in the morning sipping your coffee, eating dinner outside, taking 5 minutes to chat with your neighbor on the sidewalk, or a quick stroll around the block after dinner. Whatever it is getting outside to truly appreciate and enjoy the warm weather can go a long way in savoring these final weeks of summer.

Ask “what can I let go of”?

This is a mantra of mine that has been a life saver when I’m feeling overwhelmed and my endless to do list feels like it’s keeping me from enjoying the last days of summer. By asking this simple question – what can I let go ofI can create a little space in my day to have a little fun or enjoy a little sunshine.

For me, when I’m trying to enjoy summer, it can mean having frozen corn with dinner instead of chopping veggies. This simple switch can give me 15 minutes of kicking the soccer ball in the yard with my kids. Or it might look like leaving the dirty dinner dishes in the sink to take a short evening walk or walking to the new gelato shop for dessert.

There’s always something we can let go of today to give you even an extra few minutes to enjoy the day.

Just Slow Down

Slowing down is also one of the most challenging bust most rewarding mindfulness practices I’ve incorporated into my day. It’s also where Michaelson’s idea to meditate when you’re not meditating really comes in.

We all know that feeling: you’re trying to wrap up some work emails, you’re thinking about what’s for dinner, and, if you’re like me, you probably have a 9-year-old telling you in great detail all about his latest Roblox exploits. I can feel my stomach getting tight, my jaw tensing, and my mind starting to race. I’m starting to feel impatient and I’m just about ready to snap at said Roblox loving 9-year-old.

This is where a mindfulness practice kicks in. I notice these feeling coming up with gentle awareness, notice where the tension is in my body, take a deep breath, and turn to my 9-year-old and say “I need to finish this email and then you can tell me about Roblox.”

Ok, sometimes I just snap and I have to take a break in the bathroom to reset, but sometimes I manage to slow down and not react. All it takes is one moment to notice your racing mind and slow down and take it in – even for just a minute or two.

For me, my secret sauce for enjoying the end of summer is going to be finding even just a few moments every day to slow down, be present, and have a little fun.

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

Five Lessons Power Zone Training Taught Me About Meditation

It’s a running joke that Peloton users like to tell everyone about how much they love their bike, but there’s a subset of Peloton users who are even more intense about this: the Power Zone Pack. As a member of the Power Zone Pack, I cannot help myself from commandeering what should be a post about mindfulness to discuss my Peloton instead. Bear with me, though, because I plan to offer some useful insights about meditation practice.

Power Zone rides on Peloton provide interval training in seven targeted effort zones, measured by your output which visually display on your screen during rides. While you can (and I did) do Power Zone rides on your own and make progress, the Power Zone program offers regular challenges which structure the rides by week to help you build capacity in each zone over time. In the final week of the challenge, riders take a 20-minute FTP (“functional threshold power”) test to measure performance. Ideally, your FTP will increase, but if it doesn’t, your zones will adjust and you can work on growth in the next challenge based on where you are.

I started doing Power Zone rides soon after I got my bike in late 2019, but I didn’t try a challenge until May of 2021. Though I had been afraid to commit to the challenge initially, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it and how much sense the challenge structure made. As someone fascinated by mindfulness, it was hard not to think about how the same approach might help those new to meditation establish a practice that works for them. Here are the lessons that I learned.

1. Moderate but consistent effort is enough to make progress.

The reason that I was afraid to do the challenge is that I had been accustomed to working hard but not smart. When I did the Power Zone rides on my own, I did several regular Power Zone rides (in zones 3, 4, and 5) and only 1 Endurance ride (in the moderate zones 2 and 3) a week. When I started the challenge, however, I noticed that all the rides in the initial weeks were Power Zone Endurance rides and that those rides persisted throughout the program. Thus, when I did the challenge, I did more of the “easier” rides and fewer of the “harder” ones. Nonetheless, my FTP increased at the end of the challenge.

The lesson from this, of course, is that training doesn’t have to be painful to be effective. It can be really easy for type A people like lawyers to fall into the trap of thinking that working excessively hard or enduring punishment is the only way to rewards. If you are new to meditation, be watchful of this tendency. The practice isn’t easy, of course, but it shouldn’t be a constant source of irritation or pain. If you are struggling with your practice, consider if there are ways to make your approach or structure more supportive so that you can make progress without so much struggle.

2. Build skills first.

Why was I able to work “less hard” and still make progress in my first Power Zone challenge? Because the program was structured to help me build the skills at the beginning that I would need to power through the FTP test at the end. All those “easy” Power Zone Endurance rides in the early weeks helped change my experience in zones 2 and 3 from moderate to (comparatively) easy. In turn, that changed my experience in zones 4 and 5 to moderate instead of “no friggin’ way” and made brief spirts in zones 6 and 7 a possibility. Thus, the Power Zone challenge was structured to help me expand peak performance by building a solid foundation in endurance zones.

New meditators could learn a lot from this approach. In the beginning, meditation is most effective when meditators understand that they are building skills. Quite often, instead, meditators are impatient or have unrealistic expectations about themselves and the practice. They look for instant calm, life-changing insights, or bliss experiences and feel defeated or dejected if they don’t find them or those experiences don’t last. The more sustainable and practical approach is to use the initial experiences with meditation to build the skills of focus and compassion and to increase one’s tolerance for being with life, rather than unconsciously and habitually fleeing from it. Once you can do this, it is far more likely that you will experience more calm, insights, and bliss in your life and not merely in a few minutes of your meditation practice.

3. Community helps.

Though most Peloton users ride alone at home, a wide variety of Peloton communities have sprung up online. The Power Zone Pack has a massive group on Facebook, and I was fortunate to have found the Peloton Law Moms group even before I owned a Peloton. That group had a subgroup of lawyer mom Power Zone riders (shout out to #ProbableClaws) and their enthusiasm ultimately pushed me to join the challenge myself. The high fives from Power Zone riders are motivating, and during challenges tons of other Power Zone riders are there to ride along with you. In addition, the team names are hilarious and seeing them on the leaderboard is a source of amusement during long intervals. I made progress doing Power Zone rides on my own, but I had fun doing them as part of a team during the challenge. As in all things, community makes a difference.

Technology has opened up so many doors to busy people who are interested in meditation, but the downside is that most people experience the practice on their own. It is perfectly acceptable to meditate on your own and, for practical reasons, that’s what most of us will have to do most of the time. However, to the extent that you can incorporate support from others, your practice will benefit from it. Whether you find a social media group, attend a retreat, or just chat with a friend, community can support a meditation practice and make it more vibrant and even fun.

4. A compassionate teacher helps.

As a general rule, Peloton instructors are pretty positive, but the Power Zone instructors aren’t just there to entertain and motivate. They also instruct and are always focused on the long game. Matt Wilpers and Christine D’Ercole, as champion athletes, deeply understand that a growth mindset is critical to long-term success and they constantly remind riders not to focus on the numbers from one ride or interval, but instead to look for the trends over time. Denis, Olivia, and now Ben may kill you with a long Zone 5 interval, but they’ll encourage you for every second of it. The instructors don’t just want you to do well in the program, they want you to feel good about yourself so you can face the challenges in the ride and beyond.  

New meditators can benefit their practice by learning to be their own teachers, or at least cheerleaders. Whether you use guided meditations or not, it will help to pay attention to your inner voice. Notice whether your tone is critical or encouraging, focused on perfection or progress, or spends more time dwelling on errors than redirecting back to the present moment. If you’re anything like me, it may take some time until you are as compassionate with yourself as a Power Zone instructor is with the Pack, but if you give yourself time and grace your meditation practice and life will drastically improve.

5. You can learn from discomfort.

Just in case my first point made you think Power Zone training is easy, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. While the early weeks are comprised of many more moderate endurance rides, the later weeks include increasing efforts in zones 4 through 7 and culminate with the FTP test. I’m not going to lie: the FTP test is painful. It’s about testing your capacity, so it’s intended to be painful. Though these experiences are hard, they teach you (a) that you can handle hard things; and (b) how to handle hard things. In other words, the tough intervals and the FTP are where you put those skills you learned in the early weeks to the test. When you do, you not only experience the satisfaction and confidence of surviving an ordeal, but you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you as you deal with difficult things.

New meditators are often thrown off balance when they find calm and focus initially very hard to attain. They may struggle with copious thoughts, the tendency to fidget, self-judgment, boredom, or even physical or emotional pain. While it is not my advice to always “power through” all of those situations, it is my experience that discomfort of that nature can teach you a lot if you stay present with it. You can learn to stop fighting it. You can learn to care for yourself through it. You may even notice that the discomfort goes away on its own after a while. More fundamentally, you may finally and fully appreciate the fact that discomfort is a normal part of life and not something to be feared, pushed away, and avoided at all costs. Thus, while new meditators are encouraged to treat themselves gently as they face challenges that may arise during practice, it helps to remember that difficulties during practice are potential learning experiences.

To be sure, there are distinct differences between Power Zone training and a meditation practice. I don’t advocate treating your practice exactly like a data-based physical fitness regimen because one of the best gifts a meditation practice can offer for us lawyers is letting go of all our constant striving. But, I offer these lessons as an analytical tool to help you understand that, like Power Zone training, meditation starts exactly where you are and focuses on the long game. It’s about building skills by doing daily work, rather than quick gains borne from bursts of effort. For that reason, the Power Zone program offers a great workout and even some helpful life lessons. Best of luck in your practice and if you see #BrilntLegalMind on the leaderboard don’t hesitate to high five.

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

Why Lawyers Need the Big Magic of Creative Living

“You should read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.” This was advice from another lawyer, Jeremy Richter, after I appeared on his podcast The Lawyerpreneur where we talked about how we liked to write and make things and didn’t care if other lawyers thought we were “weird.” I like and respect Jeremy quite a lot, but I confess that I had assumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert because of Eat, Pray, Love (in truth the movie version of that book) and I ignored his advice. Months later, I wrote a LinkedIn post about the paradoxes of writing which said, essentially, that it takes time but makes energy, it is frustrating but somehow still offers happiness, and it is often lonely but provides a path to belonging. Another lawyer messaged me, asking if I had read Big Magic because my post sounded just like it.

This was enough to make me see the writing on the wall. I immediately checked Audible, found a remaining monthly credit, and started listening. Halfway through the 6-minute opening chapter, I saw even more writing on the wall: I was totally wrong about Gilbert. At this point, I am not even sure what my problem with Gilbert was, but in retrospect I think I just discounted her work because it was popular. After reading Big Magic, however, I wish more people, and in particular, more lawyers knew about it.

Big Magic is a series of mini essays on living a creative life. Some of the essays contain stories about Gilbert’s writing career, but many others offer examples of creative people from across the millennia, reaching all the way to those early humans who drew pictures on cave walls. While the stories are not chronological or even directly related, they come together at the end like random bits of fabric collected over the years to create the cohesive pattern in a quilt. This analogy is perfect for the book because Gilbert’s central thesis is this: creativity is an essential part of being human because it is the part of our humanity that gives us access to divinity.

By this, Gilbert does not deny that living a creative life is hard—even gut-wrenching at times. She devotes several of the essays, often comically, to discussing rejection, the pain that comes when the muse visits but then leaves too soon, jealousy, competition, and dealing with the worst critic of all: the one inside your own head. But she argues that it is still worthwhile, regardless of whether your particular creative pursuit brings you fame or fortune and even if it drives you nuts on occasion.

Why do I love this book so much? Well, because I have lived it. While I have not yet written a smash hit novel or lived the life of a professional writer, I have experienced firsthand the benefits that living a creative life can offer. It took me a long time to accept my own creativity and allow it to flourish. Like a lot of lawyers, I thought for too long that I should focus solely on my law practice. Then, I had to get over the idea that I was “wasting my time” if I put effort into projects that wouldn’t lead to any benefits. As it turns out, the benefits of my writing were pronounced for both my life and law practice, though the path that those benefits took to find me were often indirect. Ultimately, though, it was when I finally accepted the truth that my creativity exploded: I was going to write because writing made me happy and lack of attention and praise was not going to stop me.

There is a lot written these days about mental well-being for lawyers and professionals and for good reason. Many resources, and even those on this blog, attempt to help by offering to fit wellness practices into the nooks and crannies of our overpacked lawyer calendars. I don’t criticize this approach because it was how I started my own journey and because studies show us that a few minutes a day can make a huge difference for our minds, bodies, and even relationships. But, for my lawyer and professional friends, I hope that the quest for greater happiness does not stop once a daily habit of a few minutes of mindfulness or another self-care practice is established. Then next step, if you can afford it and brave it, offers rewards of a much greater magnitude.

Mindfulness practices can help lawyers and professionals find stability and even heal themselves in the midst of our stressful and busy lives. If we let them, however, they can also help us notice what we need to do next to grow and to create. As Gilbert posits, this is the birthright of all humans and it is essential for a happy life.  I know your schedule is busy. I know we are (still) living in a global pandemic. I know that nothing is certain right now or ever. But those realities don’t make happiness and creativity luxuries; they make them both essential. If this weren’t the case, those early humans would not have had the urge to paint on cave wells even as they faced the daily task of survival.

So, if you have a project in the back of your mind, maybe you want to write an article, maybe you want to refinish that piece of antique furniture, maybe you want to finally make one of those crafts you’ve been saving on Pinterest, I hope you will do it. If you need encouragement, to get over all the voices in your head that tell you it’s a waste of time, or permission to connect with your own spirit, go read Big Magic. Then go make stuff.

Are you a creative lawyer? By this, I mean do you make or want to make anything, including fiction, nonfiction, or even a podcast? You aren’t alone. Join the CLAW (Creatives. Lawyers. Artists. Writers.) Alliance to find a community of other creative lawyers. For more inspiration on this, check out the Instagram Live I did with CLAW member, Becki C. Lee, an IP lawyer and children’s book author.

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

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Mindfulness Can Help You Stop Rushing and Feel Like You Have More Time

The first book on meditation that I ever read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book had lots of practical tips that served me well when I started a meditation practice in earnest, but the text wasn’t quite as plain as it claimed to be. Gunaratana kept talking about how meditation can help you create space between you and your thoughts. I understood this as a concept but I had no clue what it meant in practice. In fact, the idea itself seemed counterintuitive, since my initial experience with meditation felt like being smothered by my thoughts, instead of creating space around them.

Even so, I pressed on because my mind had been running for so long that it felt like a relief even to take a brief pause just to watch the wheels spin. By the time I worked my way up to 10 minutes of meditation a day, I noticed a variety of spaces emerge in my life that I had never set out to find: I stopped rushing so much. In particular, I noticed my tendency to rush regardless of whether I was dealing with real time constraints.

For example, I used to be in a big hurry every time I went to the grocery store, racing around and grabbing items as if I were on a game show. Rather than prizes, this habit had usually only given me frustration when I had to stand in line or got caught behind someone walking too slowly. Soon after I started meditating, however, a magical voice from nowhere said “What’s your rush?” as I was briskly walking past the gliding doors. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old so time to myself—even running errands—was a rare and precious thing. I slowed down, strolling through the store with ease, gazing with interest at the lovely produce, and even chatting at check out with the clerk. I came home in a good mood, rather than a bad one.

Now, this isn’t to say that my tendency to rush doesn’t come back. It comes back to me all of the time. On one meditation retreat, I realized that I was rushing even in my meditation because I would force myself back to focusing on the breath the second I noticed my thinking. In addition to making me laugh heartily at myself, this also helped me realize that giving myself the time to see what thoughts had emerged would let me have the insights that vipassana (aka “insight meditation”) was supposed to produce.

Not only can rushing make us less aware of our lives, it can also cause us to behave less ethically. This was demonstrated by a famous study of seminary students who were told that they had to give a lecture across campus on, of all things, the Good Samaritan story from the Bible. Some of the students were told that they were late and others that they had plenty of time to get to their talk. The students were set up to pass a victim in need of assistance and, by a wide margin, the students with time to spare stopped more often to help. The conclusion from this is clear: time constraints—even pretend ones—can cause us to forget our higher ideals (and perhaps be totally oblivious to irony too).

This truth of this study is borne out by my life experience. In my small grocery store example, one of the other things that happened was that a petite woman asked me (I’m 5’11’’) to grab a product off a high shelf for her. Do you think she would have felt comfortable doing so if I looked stressed out and grumpy? Probably not. In that case, the absence of rushing on my part freed me up not just to feel better myself but also help someone else. This happened to me in more significant ways as my practice evolved. I was more likely to ask how other people were doing, to check in on friends I hadn’t seen in a while, or to plan ahead so that I had the ability to work fun and meaningful events with friends and family into my schedule. Over time, the reduction in my rushing made me feel less like I had no time, so I realized that, in fact, I had the time to do things I enjoyed, such as writing, or cooking or going to meditation retreats, even while practicing law and raising a family.

Now, if you are a litigator like me, you may think that rushing is somewhat predestined by the aggressive and deadline-ridden nature of our law practice. But, even here, I have found that being mindful of rushing is beneficial too. I try not to delay responding to emails to keep cases moving, but I give myself time if I need to craft a response. I definitely give myself time if the email is at all aggressive and irritating, as emails from lawyers can sometimes be.

I also take the time to be sure clients are on board with case management and that they feel supported and like their voice is being heard in the process. In addition, because I am more aware of how stressful time constraints can be, I am more proactive about managing cases and deadlines with clear communications so that the work gets done with as little human misery as possible. Sometimes there is no way around a hard deadline and you just have to work like hell to get the project done, but that only makes it all the more necessary to develop a habit of paying attention so that you don’t fall into the all too human habit of treating all deadlines that way.

In the years since I started meditating, I have experienced the space that Gunaratana promised in numerous different ways. Though it seemed to have little to do with my copious thoughts, reducing my tendency to rush may have been one of the most important. It provided me with the space that only time can provide to notice how I was living my life, and I was shocked to see that a small adjustment in how I behaved could produce such a significant change in my law practice, personal happiness, and relationships.

If, like me, you are someone who tends to rush, the first step is to notice when it arises. Notice what it feels like in your body when you rush. Notice the thoughts that emerge. Over time, you will see patterns and then the next step is to start to ask yourself whether the perceived time constraints are real. If they are, you can learn to take a deep breath and offer yourself compassion as you face the task. If they are not, take several deep breaths and offer yourself care by slowing down. Then simply repeat these steps over and over again for the rest of your life, congratulating yourself for crises averted and forgiving yourself for any mistakes. We cannot control how much space or time life gives us, but we have some control over how we perceive it. Meditation can help us remember this and that is one way it can make us free.

If you need a quick reminder to help you watch the rushing, check out our quick mini video here:

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

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Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

Like this post? Subscribe to the blog here or follow us on social media:

Just Learning to Say “This Is Hard” Can Change Your Life

My favorite unintended side effect of my mindfulness practice is that it gives me all kinds of opportunities to laugh at myself. I don’t mean mock myself in a cold or cutting way. Rather, I mean laugh out loud at how silly this thing I call my self can be. To be sure, there are times when my practice has called on me to go and find my inner child curled up on the floor in the dark recesses of my mind and stroke its hair and tell it that it’s beautiful and things will be alright. But some of the time, the only logical response to myself is to just say “Girl, I love you, but you are a goofy” and laugh.

My journey to learn to say “this is hard” is one of those things. Yes, you got it right. I’m not talking about enlightenment here or some vision quest type situation. I am telling you that I struggled for years (read: decades) to learn to (a) observe a difficult personal experience; and (b) acknowledge in the present moment that the experience was difficult. We are talking very basic stuff right here. But hallelujah when I finally learned to do this it was like I had worked a miracle.

Like most lawyers I’ve struggled with perfectionism most of my life. I’ve been the “smart” girl in school and the “good” girl in my family. And somewhere along the way, that got confused with the idea that I had to be innately good at anything I ever did. When I started practicing law and raising kids, I really struggled because—newsflash—those things are hard. As a new mom and lawyer, I was still in the mode of pretending like things were “fine” and that I was “on top of things” and, through gritted teeth, that it was all a “piece of cake.” How did that work out for me? Terribly. I totally fell apart and that’s when I turned to meditation to put myself back together.

Meditation is sometimes presented like magic but it’s actually much more like those times when you are running out the door looking frantically for your car keys and your spouse or child says “you are holding them.” Learning to say “this is hard” is a car key situation for me. It was right there all along and I was too busy trying to look like I knew what I was doing to see it. By learning to sit in silence, I saw my thoughts, I felt my body, and let my emotions have a voice. I suddenly started to see that—holy crap!—all kinds of hard stuff happened to me all the time. I would struggle to focus, I would have nasty voices in my head saying mean things, my foot would fall asleep, my knee would hurt, and my ego would be bruised and battered because I wasn’t the stoic meditator I had set out to be.

Do you know what all of this taught me? That just saying “this is hard” really, really helped. When I acknowledged the hard stuff, I was able to stop struggling against it. I could stop pretending it wasn’t there. I could stop putting on a brave face. By just letting go of that, I saved so much energy and opened up so much space. That extra energy and space left room to just experience the situation. Many times I would see that the situation passed on its own and that I didn’t have to do anything. On other occasions, I saw clearly what I needed to do to care for myself. For example, if my foot fell asleep, maybe I might just wiggle my toes or move my leg. In the case of an attack of the nasty voice in my head, I might just focus more on my breath or hold my own hand as I watched it rage in my mind like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor.

After I practiced this enough in meditation, I noticed it started to happen on its own in my life. When I notice my own struggle during a workout, admitting that my situation is hard helps my inner cheerleader come out and say “you got this!” When my daughter throws a real live tantrum on the floor, it helps just to take a breath in and internally say “ouch.” These moments of recognition are often enough to steady me so that I can respond with some semblance of calm. In my law practice, acknowledging when things are hard helps me manage my schedule to make my days easier or ask for help from a colleague on a tricky problem or when dealing with difficult opposing counsel. In other words, letting myself admit that things are sometimes hard was the necessary first step for managing my life and law practice more effectively.

This is why I have to laugh at myself because the thing I was running from my whole life is what I needed all along. It was so simple and so small that I kept overlooking it, so the only way I could see it was to stop everything, sit down for a while, and do nothing. When I did, I finally let the truth of life come raining down: that life is hard and pretending it’s not makes it harder. So, when life is hard, just admit it if you can because saying “this is hard” is the first step of self-compassion. But, if even that is hard for you, laughing at yourself is always an option too.

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

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Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

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.

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Book Review: Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

 I honestly don’t remember when or how I started following Quit Like A Woman (often shortened to “QLAW”) author Holly Whitaker on social media. It’s at least in part due to the fact that I’ve been giving a lot of thought in recent years about how much our work and social lives revolve around happy hour and what Whitaker describes as “a world obsessed with drinking.” And, it’s no secret that lawyers have high rates of problematic drinking. On top of that, like so many working women, with the pressure of juggling work and homeschool and dealing with the general stressors of life in a pandemic, I’ve found myself looking forward to happy hour a little too much at times. So, when Claire told me she was reading QLAW and that it was “mind-blowing” I thought it was time I actually read the book.

To be clear: a sober life is not something I’ve ever considered and it’s not something I’m considering even after reading QLAW. Nevertheless, I can unequivocally say that, like Claire, I found QLAW to be “mind-blowing” despite its flaws (more on that below). 

Whitaker offers a totally new approach to thinking about sobriety. Part memoir, part self-help, Whitaker wants to dispel myths about alcohol (what she describes as “Big Alcohol”); she offers a critical analysis of how Alcoholics Anonymous often fails women; and proposes a completely different approach to sobriety. And she relies on mindfulness and meditation to support her sobriety. She’s also funny and brash which makes it an interesting read in and of itself.

What really resonated for me is Whitaker’s basic premise that in order to “break the cycle of addiction” you need to get to the root causes of your addictions and develop routines and habits to build a life that that she describes as a life “I don’t want, or need, to escape from.” I’ve been thinking a lot about all of my habits and routines (not just drinking) and wondering what habits are “getting in the way of me living my best life” (as Whitaker describes it)? Looking at habits and routines this way is deeply rooted in mindfulness as a way of rewiring our brain to stop, slow down, and make healthier choices.

Another theme of QLAW is that there is no “right way” to sobriety. According to Whitaker, unlike AA’s one-size-fits-all approach, everyone’s road to sobriety must be deeply rooted in the needs and experiences of the individual. This is a basic premise of a mindfulness meditation practice: yes, there is a road map, but how you practice must resonate with you and actually work in your day-to-day life. She also want to eliminate the shame aspect of addiction. And, as Claire talks about her recent blog post, shame can be a barrier to making healthy choices (Kelly McGonigal does some amazing work around habit change and dealing with shame. I’m sure the basic premise of finding your own path and not feeling ashamed is a transformative concept for many. 

Unfortunately, I think where Whitaker misses the mark could keep people from her deeper messages. Most of what Whitaker describes as “tools for recovery” are only available to women with significant financial resources. Moreover, the tools she describes are only available to wealthy women that don’t have children (or at least have live-in nannies that could support the many hours of daily life Whitaker suggests need to go into supporting sobriety). Whitaker’s toolbox seems to consist a lot of spas, warm baths, lemon water, and kundalini yoga and meditation. In fact, at times she writes as if these are the only ways. She even crows at one point that she spent “thousands on therapy” and brags about dedicating her entire evenings to her “routine” as the only ways to get sober. A routine that involves an entire evening surrounded by yoga, tea, baths, reading, journaling, and meditating. An evening routine that a busy working mom could only dream of carving out. Let alone a single mom or a single mom with limited resources. She doesn’t really have any suggestions beyond “figure out what works for you.”  

And, while I found myself nodding along with her criticisms of AA, I couldn’t help but think of how many working women with limited time and resources would love to use her paid Tempest program and build a “toolbox” full of expensive teas and crystals, but AA Is free and available and despite its limitations probably provides comfort and support to women who have no other option. Whitaker doesn’t seem to even acknowledge this.

If you follow Whitaker on social media, you’ll see that she spends a lot of time attacking what she refers to as Big Alcohol. On her IG account she refers to herself as a “sobriety evangelist.” I think this is an accurate description. If you just google “is alcohol good for you” you’ll get about a zillion hits from respected health and medical professionals some saying moderate amounts are ok, while others agreeing with Holly – no amount of alcohol is safe. But it’s more nuanced than that and I think Whitaker’s sloppy logic could potentially alienate a lot of people that would otherwise benefit from her approach.  

She also wants you to believe that there is a direct causal link between the paternalistic society we live in and the alcohol industry that has brainwashed us into drinking poison. I don’t disagree that the alcohol industry is leaning into the Mommy Likes Wine culture that is troubling. Yes, alcohol is bad for you. And, yes, we are definitely living in a culture obsessed with alcohol, and that women are in desperate need of a sobriety model that actually works for them, but I think this kind of logical leap ignores how truly complex nuanced addiction really is. And I certainly don’t think that any hardworking women with serious addiction problems relying on AA and doing the best they can will appreciate being told they’re brainwashed victims of the patriarchy.

But I don’t want any misgivings or intellectual nitpicking to get in the way of what a life-altering book this is and how many women I’m sure it’s helped – including myself. I know that for many many women (and lawyers) alcohol can be an unhealthy way to cope. And, as Holly describes it can keep us from living our best life. Since reading the book (in conjunction with Kelly McGonigal’s work on habit change and Habits course on the 10% Happier App), I’ve drank less, meditated more, and generally re-examined all my habits that are getting in the way of my best life. So, whether you’re battling addiction or just re-thinking your own habits I suggest reading QLAW. It’s a good book to have your toolbox.  

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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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What Dry January Taught Me about Alcohol, Mindfulness, and Shame

I successfully did Dry January this year but it taught me a surprising lesson about shame. No, I have not been living under a rock. I know about Brene Brown. I watched the Netflix special. Yes, it was amazing. I’ve read many of her books. I know that the research says that shame can steal our power and keep us in a box. But it’s one thing to read or hear about a concept and another to live it, feel it, and understand it as you do.

I had experienced shame before this year, so it was not necessarily a new thing for me. But in general, the feeling was so intense and unmistakable that I could not ignore it. The shame I learned about after doing Dry January, however, was different. It was subtle. It was like a ghost in a haunted house that left signs of its presence but would disappear into the ether when you looked for it. It was not a big, bold feeling for me, but instead the faintest of senses that told me that I shouldn’t think too deeply (or even at all) about my drinking. It is for this reason that I had to try Dry January before I could properly diagnose my own condition: I had been ashamed that my use of alcohol had become so habitual.

For months before January, 2021 rolled around, I had been bored with alcohol. Literally bored. Still, I kept finding myself going to the fridge to grab a beer at the end of the day as if by compulsion. Like most people, I had come to associate alcohol with fun and relaxation. Those things being in short supply during the pandemic, my consumption of alcohol increased to fill this gap. Since I hardly ever needed to drive, there were usually very few reasons to say no either. So my habit became regular and stayed regular even after I started to be concerned about it.

But to be “concerned” about one’s own consumption of alcohol raises all kinds of issues, doesn’t it? If one is “concerned” about one’s use of alcohol, then it raises the question about whether one needs to stop. And we know that if one needs to stop, then they have a ”problem” with alcohol and they must stop totally and forever, full stop. Right? Furthermore, if I—a meditation teacher who espouses the values of mindfulness at every turn—could not control my own use of alcohol, what kind of teacher would I be? And don’t even get me started about what kind of lawyer I might be if I can’t even control myself.

As it turns out, I am just the human kind. Despite eight years of meditation, I’m not enlightened yet and I have cravings just like everyone else. My meditation practice certainly helped me maintain stability during the pandemic but I don’t think anything could make living through a pandemic easy for any of us. Ultimately, though, it was my meditation practice that helped me get out of this mess.

Though shame and anxiety about alcohol kept making my mind force concerns about it to the side, basic awareness helped me wake up. I love beer, but I started to notice that it didn’t seem to taste as good. That helped me to see that I wasn’t really getting the enjoyment I was seeking when I went to grab one from the fridge. I also noticed that many days I would make a secret goal not to get a beer, but find myself walking to the fridge anyway. This helped me see that I was not a terrible out of control mess, but rather just someone who developed less than ideal habits while stuck at home social distancing.

When I started to examine my beer drinking nonjudgmentally as a habit, rather than an inherent character flaw, it made me curious. Rather than worry about having to quit for all time and what that might imply about me, I instead started to wonder whether I could just change what I was doing. I had never tried Dry January before, but found myself in a Dry January Facebook group in December. Reading the posts and stories of other members helped normalize what I had experienced and it actually made me excited to try. As it happened, I had already signed up for a virtual meditation retreat for the weekend of New Years Eve. Having done this retreat before, I knew that I would refrain from drinking during the retreat. That was an ideal time to start, since the first few days of any new habit program are always the hardest.

To my surprise, when I returned from the retreat, it was easier than I had expected to just not drink. I had helped myself out on this by removing all the beer from the fridge because I knew I would be very unlikely to be so desperate that I drank a warm beer. Even so, I only occasionally had thoughts about drinking and I was able to avoid it by just doing something else, like playing with my kids, meditating, or working out. I also found other tasty things to drink, like hot tea with honey or seltzer water to satiate my hankering for bubbles. In other words, I learned that I wasn’t totally out of control when it came to alcohol. Rather, I had just needed to disrupt my habit of not exerting any control when it came to alcohol. Dry January gave me the chance to experiment with that and see what happened when I just gave myself a reason to say “no” for a while.

Did this experience drastically change my life? Not really, but it improved it. The most significant change was that I slept better. Sleeping better, in turn, helped me get up earlier, focus better, have more energy, and get more done. I liked that so much that, before the end of January, I committed to 300/65 – which means that I would only consume alcohol on 65 days for the rest of the year. In short, while I had been previously afraid to put restrictions on my use of alcohol before, because I didn’t want to think about that might mean, the reality was that the restrictions supported me and improved my life.

I was so surprised by this that I found myself doing something else entirely surprising: I wrote about my experience with Dry January on social media. Not only were people not judgmental; they were supportive and curious. In response to this, one contact reached out and told me to read Quit Like a Woman. I started it soon after and it helped me better understand my own experience. In the book, the author traced her own struggles with drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and how she used a gradual approach coupled with self-care practices, including yoga, meditation, and therapy to eventually lead a sober life.

I was not surprised in the least that meditation was among the author’s toolkit, but I had never heard anyone before suggest that one could adopt a reducetarian approach to alcohol. Everything I had ever heard about sobriety before was that you either were or you weren’t and there was no in between. In the same way, I had never consciously considered the possibility that a life without (or with less) alcohol might be better. As the author argued, I saw that I perhaps had been unwittingly affected by the negative and one-sided portrayals of recovery in TV and movies and the marketing efforts of the alcohol industry.

I did not think the book was perfect. I disagreed with the author often but it shared something about alcohol that I was finally ready to hear: a new way of thinking about it. Rather than considering whether alcohol and I just don’t mix, I learned that the better question was whether I was living my life the way I really wanted to live it? As it turns out, I already had everything I needed to make a change. Just like QLAW recommends, I got curious and let myself experiment and observe how alcohol affected me, I was open to a gradual approach, and I had already established a toolkit of self-care practices, including meditation, to help me deal with stress or cravings or bouts of self-doubt. In short, neither Dry January nor QLAW convinced me that I needed to entirely quit alcohol but they both made it clear that if I was going to examine my habits and build a better life I first had to quit shame.

To learn more about this subject, check out the IG Live I did with contributing author Loren VanDyke Wolff on the subject of alcohol, habits, mindfulness, and shame.

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

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You Can Meditate Even If You Can’t Sit Still

I wish I could meditate,” people often tell me when I speak or present about mindfulness, “but I can’t sit still.” To be sure, meditation is associated with stillness. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of mindfulness is the statue of the Buddha. He sits there with that half smile, perfectly still, looking totally unbothered and it can make some of us—mere mortals who have yet to attain enlightenment—think we can’t do the same. I’m here to tell you to forget that idea. You are allowed to move when you meditate.

Look, you don’t need my permission or anyone’s permission when you start a meditation practice. It’s YOUR practice. Do what works for you. But, as a recovering perfectionist myself and as a lawyer trained to never take an action without solid authority, I know how easy it is to forget that. In fact, I needed my meditation practice to learn even to notice what felt good to and worked for my body. With that in mind, I made this permission slip for you in case you want proof positive that a meditation teacher has authorized you to move during meditation. Share it with your friends and family and anyone who ever questions you or gives you side eye for moving during your practice.

Now, of course, you may think “but isn’t moving during meditation bad?” and wonder why I am giving this permission out so freely. My answer to that is that the classic lawyer response: “it depends.” Movement during meditation is generally something to be avoided because the point of meditation is usually to calm and settle the mind. If the body is moving, it is harder to do that and it may be nearly impossible for a new meditator. As such, the general advice and the strategy I use in my own practice is to try to find a posture I can hold for a solid period of time and avoid moving where possible.

But, this strategy has limits. Beyond stillness, the other way to calm and settle the mind and body is to comfort it. That means your physical comfort as you meditate supports your mental stillness. Thus, if something is making you uncomfortable during you practice, the wise and skillful thing may just be to move to take care of it. This means you can (and maybe ought to) scratch that itch or wiggle that leg that has fallen asleep.

Once you practice long enough, you start to realize that there really are no distractions from your practice; there are only new things that arise that become your practice. In reality, when a desire to move arises, it isn’t a zero sum game. Instead, if you remain mindful during the situation, it’s really a choice of what mode of practice you want to employ. You can choose to sit with the experience and stay with the physical sensations in the body and watch them arise, move, change, and fade away. That’s practicing body awareness, equanimity, compassion, and also exploring the temporary nature of life. Those are great skills and experiences to have in your life. But, if you choose to move, you practice body awareness, mindful action, and compassion. Those are also great skills to have.

The key with both of these things, of course, is to first maintain awareness of your experience. When you do that, you can choose the next course of action and whatever action you choose becomes your practice. Then you can simply return to the breath or whatever focal point you have selected for that session. Now, of course, if you lose awareness and just scratch that itch or wiggle your leg unconsciously, what then? I think you know the answer here: this is still practice. When you realize what you’ve done, you notice it, return to your focal point, and try to avoid mentally bludgeoning yourself in the process.

In short, you can move when you meditate. You don’t need to be a statue. You can find stillness (and wisdom and compassion) even when your body and the world won’t let you sit still. That is life. Don’t fight against it; practice with it. The wisdom, the lessons, and the benefits of meditation don’t come from trying to live up to a standard. They come from learning to move through life with greater compassion, awareness, and ease. You can learn that from sitting still in your meditation practice and moving on occasion too. Give it a try.

For more information about ways to respond to when the urge to move arises, check out the 1-minute video and slide deck on our Learn to Meditate in Less than 2 Minutes page.

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

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