Brilliant Attorney Profile: Hale Stewart Insurance Lawyer and Moving Meditator

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.

Resolutions Schmesolutions: In January I Just Begin Again

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.

As renowned meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg explains, this where self-compassion comes in::

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.

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Anyone interested in mindfulness is almost by default interested in habits too. Even if you start a meditation practice with the aim of finding just a little bit more peace and quiet in your life, you inevitably will end up reviewing in detail your daily activities, the patterns of your mind, and the impact of your habitual reactions and behaviors. If you give the practice long enough, you very likely may start to see the impact of your habits and be in a position to change them in a positive way.

This is what happened to me. Years ago, I was unhappy, stressed, lonely, and saddled by constant overthinking. I started meditating, created enough mental clarity and stability to see that I was making some fundamental mistakes, and I slowly started to change them. First, I started making more of an effort with my social life, then I reactivated my exercise habit, and finally I added creative pursuits into my life. Nearly a decade after my meditation practice started, my life is much improved and it’s largely because of some habit changes.

So, I was not at all skeptical when I heard about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I knew that habits were important and I understand that even tiny habits could, over time, have huge consequences for one’s life. I admit, though, that I was just a little bit skeptical because I kept hearing, over and over again, about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I heard so many enthusiastic reviews that my inner rebel/cynic thought it must be too good to be true. But, it’s January and I’m thinking about my habits like many people as we move all too slowly out of this global pandemic, so I decided to give it a shot.

After a few chapters, I immediately understood why people love Atomic Habits: it offers clear, concise procedural steps for building better habits and ending undesired ones. The book itself is a very easy read. It’s short and has crisp, concise chapters broken up into bite-sized pieces. Clear’s writing style is, well, clear. He writes in plain English and a conversational tone. Though he often supports his conclusions with scientific studies, he explains them with examples that most of us would recognize from popular culture or our own lives.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Clear’s book, though, is that it offers a much-needed structure to those of us who want to review and change our habits. Anyone caught in the snare of a bad habit knows that it can feel overwhelming and rob us of any motivation to change. As Clear explains, habits are incredibly powerful because, for a behavior to become a habit, we have to accept it as part of our identity and then practice it and hard-wire it into our brains. Undoing that process for habits we want to change, therefore, can seem confusing, daunting, and even futile.

To address this, Clear distills the process of habit creation into a succinct set of 4 laws: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy; and (4) make it satisfying. By offering this system and strategies to support habit change at each phase, Clear’s process is a practical, logical, but also self-compassionate way of cutting through the inner resistance, doubt, and angst that goes along with any effort to change one’s habits. At the heart of Clear’s advice is the fundamental idea that discipline and willpower aren’t the way to change habits, but instead processes, routines, and supports are how to do it. As I have written before, I heartily agree with this approach and have experienced its benefits in my own life when I attempted to start exercising, lose weight, or cut down on my alcohol consumption. And I am definitely going to use some of Clear’s advice to address my current struggle of watching too much Netflix before bedtime.

So, am I ready to declare myself officially wrong to be skeptical about Atomic Habits? Not so fast. My habit of resisting admitting when I am wrong is pretty engrained, so I can’t let this review go without some critique. One thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes made habit change sound a bit too easy. While Clear appropriately has a chapter devoted to the struggle of habit change, it is surprisingly devoid of personal experience with struggle. This may not have been so noticeable if the book had not begun with Clear’s compelling story of a high school head injury that set him on the path to becoming a habit guru. Another problem was that the book lost steam after the first few chapters because even its structure seems to follow a set of rules and it quickly began to feel formulaic and rote.

These criticisms, of course, are not enough to devalue the practical advice and actionable steps in Atomic Habits. Instead, they are perhaps wish lists for the future works I hope to see from James Clear and a suggestion to read the book one chapter at a time with a period to digest the content before moving onto the next. If you are thinking of habit change this January, Atomic Habits is a concise and easy read that is certainly worth your time.

Do you need some help making our meditation practice a habit? Download the Meditation Habits worksheet below to apply some of the principles from Atomic Habits to get your meditation practice established as a habit. You can also check out our free ebook, Pause and Begin Again, to help you start or resume a meditation practice on our Resources page.

Four Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Recover When You Struggle with Goals

January is a time for resolutions, and for some of us, that can also mean a time for disappointment, reality-checking, and self-flagellation. It’s easy to set goals, but much harder to keep them. It’s also simple to see how a habit change might improve our lives, but very difficult to change our engrained habits. I commonly see friends and acquaintances lose steam with their goals or lose faith in themselves when they struggle with keeping resolutions. To avoid that, here are some mindfulness-based strategies that may help you get back on track.

1. Notice how you feel.

Setting a goal is likely to inspire feelings of empowerment and hope. That feels great. But struggling or failing to meet a goal feels terrible. When you encounter setbacks or failures, it is normal to feel hopeless, powerless, and worthless. While, in the moment, this really sucks, these feelings can over time serve as motivation for wiser action if you don’t resist them or push them away. Mindfulness can help us in times like this in many ways. First and foremost, it can help us stay with and acknowledge these feelings, which in essence are sensations in the body. In times of struggle and failure, it can be easy to ignore or numb the uncomfortable, even painful, feelings that arise. If you can allow yourself to notice them, however, they may help guide you to care for yourself better and learn from your mistakes.

2. Be your own best friend.

If you can be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions as you deal with struggle or failure, you are bound to notice some rather nasty internal talk. Though this is normal, it won’t help you learn or get back on a personal growth track. Nevertheless, we humans tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are with other people. The solution to this is to develop a habit of treating ourselves like we do our best friends so that we can activate self-compassion. Just ask yourself the following question: “If my best friend set a goal and failed to achieve it, what I would tell them?” Most likely, you wouldn’t be judgmental, critical, or mean. Instead, you’d be supportive, understanding, and caring. While this may feel strange at first, it will become natural over time and it will make failure and struggle a lot less scary.

3. Be aware of “all or nothing” thinking.

Once you’ve experienced and cared for your emotions, it may be appropriate and helpful to consider next steps. In particular, you may consider whether you should abandon or revise your goals or just get back to them. In doing this, watch out for all or nothing thinking. Sometimes, but especially in January, we can set goals for ourselves that are really geared towards improvement, though we can implicitly add in an unstated standard of perfection. For instance, if you set a goal to exercise every day in January, you may be discouraged when you miss a day in the first week. Does this mean the goal is impossible and you should quit? Not in my view. The goal wasn’t really about the streak. The goal was about establishing the habit. If you exercise 30 or 28 or 26 days out of January instead of 31, it seems to me you’d be pretty darn close to that. As you heal and learn from struggles with your goals, therefore, be aware of all or nothing thinking because accomplishing some of your goals can still represent amazing progress.

4. Remember your values.  

The best kind of goals are specific, actionable, and measurable. The dangerous part of this, though, is that goals can make us so laser-focused on one thing so that we forget the bigger picture. When I struggle with goals, I find it helpful to zoom out to get more perspective. I do this by considering not just the reasons I set the goal, but also my long-term goals for life. For many of us, we’d probably say that our goals for life include happiness, health, connection, and meaning. Those kinds of goals aren’t necessarily dependent on achieving particular objectives in life. Rather, they are achieved by living our deepest values in life. The beautiful thing about values is that you can live them in failure as much as you can in success. When I remember my values in this way, I remember what motivated me to set the goal in the first place and, in turn, that motivates me to be gentle with myself and start again.

Professionals and lawyers accustomed to meeting goals every day at work can easily forget that achieving personal goals and changing habits is really hard. Doing hard things becomes much more doable, however, when you use practices and develop habits that help you build resilience. Mindfulness practices can help with this because they help us remember that achieving goals is not just about discipline, but also about accepting life the way it is and caring for ourselves along the way. This January and this year, I wish you luck in achieving your goals but I wish even more that you care for yourself as you do it.

Meditation Is About the Practice and Not the Session

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

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

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

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

As an example, I experienced a great deal of physical pain on my first retreat because I had been accustomed to sitting only for minutes, as opposed to hours a day. My body hurt and that, in turn, made me sullen, irritable, and doubtful of myself and the practice. Eventually, the pain got so bad that I had no choice but to skip a sitting session so I could do some yoga in my room to try to feel better. On the next session, I found myself much improved and I not only completed the retreat but was mentally present for the instruction and benefitted from it. The lesson from this, of course, was that I couldn’t expect my mind to grow when my body hurt. To be sure, this is a basic insight, but how often do we lawyers ignore the demands of our bodies because some other demand seems more important? Over the years, this lesson has helped me remember to care for myself first instead of always pushing through it and this has drastically improved my life.

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

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

6 Practical Steps to Support Yourself During Dry January or 300/65

This week, you may be one of many people trying Dry January for the first time. You may even have your sights set on the longer-term goal of 300/65, which limits drinking days to 65 for the year. Last year, I wrote about my experience trying Dry January for the first time and was surprised at how little I struggled with it. Like a lot of people, being at home social distancing during the pandemic had helped me develop some less than ideal habits, including drinking too frequently. By the time I tried Dry January, I was ready for it and I liked the results so much that I decided to do 300/65 too.

I had an amazingly productive year in 2021 and think that examining my use of alcohol helped to power that progress. If you are thinking about suspending or limiting your use of alcohol in January or for 2022, here are some practical steps that may help support your habit change.  

1. Start on the right foot.

One thing that helped me a lot in January, 2021 was that I had a meditation retreat planned for the days around New Years Eve. On most retreats, participants refrain from using any substances, including alcohol, that can impair the mind. While I had planned on doing the retreat well before I decided to commit to Dry January, it was a very happy accident for me. The retreat got me out of my house for a few days and gave me some distance from my habitual patterns. It also kept me focused so that I didn’t even think about alcohol. While we can’t always start the new year with a retreat, you can structure the first few days or week to support your goals. If you get off to a good start, it may make the whole process much easier. 

2. Get the booze out of sight (or out of the fridge).

I’m a beer drinker most of the time, so the first thing I did to prepare for Dry January was to take the beer out of the fridge. This was a tactical decision that made it harder for me to cave if a craving hit me. After I got through January and committed to 300/65, I decided to just not keep beer around the house. I also redecorate my formal dining room to accept it’s real use in my family: a craft room for the kids. Just to make space, I decided to move the liquor and wine to the basement, a space I only visit when I have a particular need to do so. The unintended benefit of this decision was that I wasn’t constantly reminded of the presence of alcohol in my house. With these subtle changes, it was a lot easier to not even think about drinking.

3. Be a scientist instead of a judge.

I am not the most disciplined person in the world. I’m actually a bit skeptical of discipline since I have tended to be too rigid with myself in the past, which inevitably ended up making myself rebel against all restrictions. But, I am naturally curious. Late in 2020, I started to wonder about my drinking and realized that only life experience could answer the questions I had about it. So, I treated Dry January, not as a referendum on my willpower or quality as a human, but instead as an experiment. Instead of a gold star, each day was another data point. I evaluated that data like a scientist and at the end of the month decided I needed to experiment further with 300/65. When I started drinking again, I made a point log the day as one on which I drank and note how the alcohol affected me. Sometimes it enhanced the experience, like when I shared a drink with a friend or had a nice wine with a favorite meal. Sometimes it just made me feel sluggish or not sleep well or gave me a headache. These data points helped me better appreciate that costs and benefits of using alcohol and to factor that in when I was deciding whether to drink or not.

4. Encourage accountability.

If you are trying to change a habit, one thing is clear: you can’t rely on willpower alone. Willpower is like a muscle; it gets tired. If you have to rely on self-control for your other daily activities (and most lawyers do), it can make you even more susceptible to cravings. Accountability can help this by forcing you to keep the consequences of your choices at the front of your mind. Using Try Dry or another app or tracking your dry and drinking days on a calendar or journal can help you keep yourself honest. If you need external accountability, set up a plan to check in regularly with a friend who can support your goals.

5. Plan for cravings.

Even if you take all the steps above, it is likely that cravings will still arise for you. Therefore, it may be best to have a plan of attack for responding when that happens. I did this by going shopping for tasty alcohol-free beverages before Dry January started. I intentionally looked for new things to try, so the fun of trying something new could remind me that disrupting habits had a good side. I also made a point of being kind to myself and avoiding self-judgment when a craving arose. One of the most common craving times for me happened when I cooked, since I loved to have a glass of wine while preparing meals. Looking for an enhancement that was neither food or beverage, I started listening to music or audiobooks while I cooked. It was just as, if not more, relaxing and it kept my mind off the drink I wasn’t having.  

6. Be prepared for feelings.

While most people who try Dry January or 300/65 are likely to first notice physical changes, it is possible that you may notice emotional differences too. Because alcohol is a depressant and is often used for the purpose of relaxing, it is possible that you may notice an increase in emotions when you limit it or stop using it. I noticed this myself during 2021 and simply relied on my other stress management strategies, including meditation, yoga, warm baths, hot tea, and talking to friends and family. On tough days, I did a combination of these things. Though it’s always difficult to deal with stress, the experience of caring for my emotions with healthy strategies cultivated personal confidence, strength, and helped me get to know myself even better.  

Changing habits is a tough thing to do. As I have written about before, changing habits relating to alcohol can be especially tricky, since shame and self-judgment can always arise. If you give yourself appropriate supports and a healthy perspective while attempting Dry January or 300/65, it may not just help you find success with your goals but also experience less difficulty while you pursue them.

What I Learned from Writing about Mindfulness for a Year

Today is an auspicious day for me. It is the one-year anniversary of the founding of this blog. Clearly, blogging is not a novel idea. There are tons of blogs across the internet. And, even for lawyers, side hustles are not super rare. So, why is this a big deal? I love writing and it helps me stay mentally healthy, so the fact that I have written consistently for a year is not all that surprising. What is surprising, though, is that I chose to keep writing even when I had other demands on my time. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I have to admit that it was not always easy to come up with topics and find the time to write each week.

Perhaps, then, the thing I am celebrating with this one-year anniversary is that I made a commitment to myself and stuck with it. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I am responsible for and accountable to a lot of people. Living up to my commitments to them is incredibly important. As a result, I have struggled over the course of my life with making commitments to myself. Though I am not necessarily a people pleaser, I have struggled with perfectionism most of my life. If I take on a job, I want to make sure I can do it well and I want to make sure my other commitments aren’t neglected.

Even though starting the blog seemed like a practical choice for me, since I’m a fast writer and loved writing about mindfulness, I was not totally convinced I would stick with it. After all, it’s one thing to do something for fun when the mood or energy strikes you and a totally different thing to commit to it long-term to build something new. So, even when I launched the blog, I was a little bit worried that life or law practice would distract me or I would just lose energy and quit.

Undoubtedly, this year has tested me on both levels. Life and law practice sent me many distractions. My energy was drained at times. But I kept going, sometimes even when I wasn’t sure why. Today, as I write this, I think I finally get it. I kept going because I had a vision for building something new. I wanted to create a space to share my view of mindfulness with the legal community and the world. In other words, I wanted to use my voice and my passions to help create a better world.

As you might imagine, that’s a tall order. So, I have had to continually remind myself that it takes time. I have had to keep going even when I felt tired. I have had to be gentle with myself when things weren’t easy or didn’t go as I had hoped. I have had to make a point of celebrating milestones, victories, or praise because I knew I would need the positive energy to sustain me during hard times. I have sometimes even had to just rely on faith when I thought I had no ideas and allow a post to emerge from me, seemingly without my conscious control.

In other words, this blog was borne out of my mindfulness practice in more than one way. The practice not only helped me live life in a better way so that I could be the mom, lawyer, and community leader I wanted to be. It also gave me the tools I needed to take on even more and to let a new part of myself emerge. It gave me the courage to handle adversity, the skills to stay calm when life is too busy, the space to allow a vision to coalesce, and the silence to listen to what my soul desires. When you have those skills, you can do more than merely achieve a goal; you can honor your deepest values while doing it.

That’s why I am so passionate about mindfulness. It’s not just a practice that builds the skills to survive life. It’s a practice that, if you let it, can help you build the life you really want. I’m proud that in its first year the blog has shared resources, ideas, and practices to bring mindfulness to lawyers and professionals. I’m proud that I made a commitment to myself and stuck to it. And I’m proud to go into 2022 as a lawyer, mom, community leader, and now established blogger. Thank you sincerely to all of the guest bloggers, readers, followers, and friends who have supported Brilliant Legal Mind and me. I hope we all find many more occasions to celebrate in 2022.

Holiday Stories Guided Meditation

Last week, we wrote about A Christmas Carol and how Ebenezer Scrooge’s miraculous change of heart can help us all examine our “selves” at the holidays. As a companion to that, I offer this guided meditation from the Brilliant Legal Mind collection. The holidays are a time for stories. They can help us connect with loved ones and learn from our experiences over the years.

Unfortunately, though, stories can also get in the way of connection at times or block us from insights about our lives when we let them play unconsciously in the background of our minds. In this meditation, I help you calm down and then walk you through the stories of the past and present so that you can bring more peace and joy to the future.

Happy holidays to all!

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

If you are interested in meditation or have studied Buddhism, you may know the concept of “not self”, but I bet you’ve never considered what that has to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course you haven’t, but bear with me because they are connected and there’s a holiday lesson in it for you. “Not self” or anatta as it is called in Pali is an intractable idea to understand and, at first, can even be disturbing. The idea generally posits that there is no permanent, lasting self. So when you first hear or read about it, you may react “wait, is this saying I don’t exist?” and start to spiral in doubt like Descartes.

But, with practice, you see the concept isn’t so scary. I remember on one of my first retreats thinking to myself how the experience of being on a retreat—where I was discouraged from talking or engaging with others—was a chance to put my identity down for a while. A little while later, I noticed that I could do the same thing—even if for only a few minutes—any time I meditated. And then, with a bit more practice, I saw the real truth: I could put my identity—or the story surrounding it—down any time I was sufficiently aware and made the choice.

In truth, I always had the ability to see a story created by my reaction to a life event and wiggle my way out of it. It’s just that, most of the time, things moved too fast (or I moved too fast) to see it. On those occasions where I saw it and chose how to respond instead of merely reacting, it felt like magic. So the concept of “not self” when we start to experience it, is actually not as scary as it sounds. Instead, it can be extremely liberating and empowering. And this is what brings us to Scrooge.  

I’ve never been the biggest Dickens fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ stock characters can make you cringe and his love of describing scenes can be overbearing. But Scrooge has been special to me for the last few years because I feel like I am one or at least was one. No, I’ve never proclaimed “Are there no workhouses?” (except ironically) and I’ve historically supported nonprofits, rather than hold onto my gold like a dragon in a cave.

But I had my own bad habits that I let calcify into an identity and one that was not very happy. Early in my law practice and as I was starting my family, I was plagued by overthinking and doubt. I wasn’t sure I could make it as an attorney. I wasn’t sure of my ability to network and make friends. For a few years, I basically hid out. I billed my hours and focused on myself and didn’t engage as much with the world as I really wanted to. I didn’t hoard my money from the world, but I hoarded my heart and personality and talents because I didn’t believe in them all the way and didn’t trust the world to accept me.

Amazingly, I was visited by some ghosts in the form of a difficult pregnancy, post-partum depression, the anxiety of never moving my career forward, and crippling loneliness. Those challenges forced me to learn to take care of myself, be compassionate with myself and others, and examine how I was living my life. When I did that, I changed what I did. Rather than withdraw, I started showing up, figuratively and literally. I joined (and even led) some organizations. I showed up to events. I reached out to old friends and invited new ones on adventures. I followed the things I thought were fun and learned to do things just because I enjoyed them. All of this happened after I started a meditation practice which helped me to become aware of my thoughts and learn which ones to follow and which ones to let go.

As this was happening, I heard someone mention A Christmas Carol at a business event and the idea took root in my mind. I bought the audiobook at Thanksgiving that year and have made it my personal tradition to listen to it every year to prepare for the holidays. Each year I listen, I notice something new. But this year, I listened and immediately thought “Oh, this is a great example of ‘not self.’”

And it is. What else could show us better that there is no permanent self than a story about a man who was dead inside one day, but brimming with life the next? How else are we to reconcile the potential for a man to ignore the needs of his assistant, Bob Cratchet, and buy him the prize turkey the very next day? We tell ourselves “people don’t change” and that may often be true. But stories like A Christmas Carol say they can. And so do stories like mine and I know I am not alone.

Of course, we all know the reality that people don’t change easily, but the fact that we can is a miracle. Our identities can sometimes feel solid and make us feel powerless and stuck. But we can examine our past and bring in compassion. We can explore the impact of our actions in the present and face the hard truths of where we are going wrong. And we can consider the paths that our present behavior may be leading us to in the future. When we do those things, we can get off the train tracks of identity and take the road less traveled to choose our steps more wisely.

We often think of A Christmas Carol as a man learning not to think about himself so much, but that only captures a part of the magic in that story. Yes, Scrooge did indeed become less selfish, but he did it only after he became more self-aware. When Scrooge finally started (with prompting from the ghosts) to think about himself, and to examine all of his self’s permutations over time with clarity and compassion, he was finally able to break out of the mold of identity. He was no longer a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”. He was no longer as dead inside as Jacob Marley. He was alive and ready to walk among the living again because, through exploration, he saw that his conception of the self was an illusion and he could just start living a different life—one that was not full of thin gruel, perpetual cold, solitude, and “Bah! Humbug!” And I can tell you from experience that when you see this in your own life, you will definitely feel “as merry as a school boy” and as “giddy as a drunken man.”

So as we go about looking for holiday miracles, it’s always great to think of ways to be less selfish and more focused on others. But don’t neglect the other piece of the puzzle. Routines turn quickly into habits. Habits turn over time into identities. And identities—these selves we make in our mind—can sometimes block us off from the good and prevent us from doing good out in the world. So don’t just ignore your “self” at the holidays, explore it a little too. Reflect with compassion on who you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going and don’t ignore those demons who may be there to prompt you along. By seeing the limits of the “self”, the boundaries between you and the rest of the world may start to fade away and your spirit can reemerge. And that would be a holiday miracle indeed.

10 Gift Ideas to Encourage a Loved One’s Mindfulness Habit

When I teach mindfulness, I always stress that you don’t need to buy anything when you start a meditation practice. With that said, some accessories can support a practice. Beyond that, around the holidays we always need some gift ideas for those in our lives. If you have someone in your life looking to create or establish a mindfulness habit, some of these ideas might help.

1. Meditation Cushion or Bench

A chair is perfectly sufficient to meditate, but if you do it regularly it can help to have a defined space for the practice. In addition, once you are able to sit for longer than 15 minutes, a cushion can help you maintain a good posture. You can find any number of meditation cushions or benches online, including on Amazon. I recommend a buckwheat fill for your cushion because it offers support and you can refill the cushion with more hulls over time.

2. Meditation App

A meditation app can help make a practice accessible because the world’s best teachers are always with you on your phone. Many apps also have courses available to teach the practice to you. Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier each have gift subscriptions available.

3. Books

There are so many good books on mindfulness and meditation practice out there that you really can’t go wrong. Any of the books we have mentioned on this blog would make a fine gift, including:

Zen Habits

Mindfulness in Plain English

Radical Compassion

The Craving Mind

Happiness

Every Body Yoga

Ten Percent Happier

4. Courses

You may be able to find courses and retreats at your local yoga studio, dharma or zen center, or other public facilities. If you can’t, Sounds True has a number of self-paced audio or video courses available from the best teachers in the world. They also regularly have sales that make these courses really affordable. For those new to the practice, we recommend Tara Brach’s and Jack Kornfield’s Power of Awareness.

5. Blanket

It’s not unusual to get cold during meditation practice since you are sitting still for extended periods of time. In addition, a blanket can add a sense of comfort and even protection to help you calm during your practice. I recommend a blanket that is soft and comforting, but also light so that it doesn’t make you too hot as you sit.

6. Candle or Diffuser

The jar candle seems to be the ubiquitous holiday regift. But, on the bright side, nice smells can support a meditation practice. In the same way, an essential oil diffuser can do the same thing. If you are intending it to be used during meditation practice, pick something with a scent that is soothing so it doesn’t overpower or distract you while you sit.

7. Gift Card to Yoga Studio        

Sitting isn’t the only way to learn mindfulness. You can also learn it from yoga and many yoga studios offer practices or courses on meditation. Many yoga studios offer holiday promotions for gift cards or class passes. In this way, you can support a local business while offering a friend a chance to establish or refresh their mindfulness or yoga practice.

8. Yoga Props

Restorative yoga is an excellent way to ease into meditation practice but this practice is not as prevalent at brick and mortar studios now due to the pandemic. You can solve this problem by offering the gift of yoga props. With a couple of blocks, a yoga blanket, and a bolster, your friend could easily start a restorative practice at home on their own. In fact, Amazon even has a restorative yoga starter kit and Judith Lasater has several great books that teach the practice for beginners.

9. Devices

Extra devices aren’t really necessary for a meditation practice, but some items can support it or solve a particular problem. A nice set of wireless earbuds can make your meditation practice mobile or help reduce distractions while you sit. If you are really into gadgets and have a larger budget, you could look into the Muse. By the time I tried the device, my practice was already established so I have not really used it much but it could be helpful to someone new to meditation. I also recently discovered Zenimals which offer a screen-free way of providing guided meditations to kids.

10. Time

The biggest impediment to a meditation practice is the lack of time. So, if you want to give the gift of mindfulness, you may not have to spend any money. You could offer to babysit, take care of pets, or water plants for a friend who wants to go on a retreat or take a meditation course.

As a caveat, don’t push any of these gift ideas on anyone. Meditation is a deeply personal practice and it may not be right for everyone. Thus, I wouldn’t give any of these gifts unless I knew that the person was interested in mindfulness, yoga, or looking for some help with their stress management strategies. For those friends or family members looking to develop or establish a meditation habit, however, any of these gifts can support their practice and help it grow.