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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I know you started meditating because you want more calm in your life. I know you are looking for peace. You want to not fight things in life so much. You want to stop overthinking everything. You want to be kinder, gentler, and just better. But there’s this problem. You don’t feel calm when you meditate. Your mind won’t shut up. Your knee hurts. You keep thinking of painful memories or, worse, frightening fantasies of things that will never happen. You fall asleep. You can’t sit still. You think that you and your meditation practice are doomed.
Guess what? All that stuff doesn’t mean you can’t meditate or benefit from meditation. Instead, all that stuff is meditation practice. At least, it’s the food of meditation practice. Yes, you read that right. The nasty, uncomfortable, and sometimes even gut-wrenching crap that comes up during meditation practice is all part of it. While this may be disappointing news, at least you know you aren’t doing something wrong.
Sometimes when people talk about meditation they can convey the idea that it’s magic. We see people sitting calmly and we want that calm ourselves. So, we think that if we just do the thing they are doing we will get calm too. What we don’t see is all the crap and inner shenanigans that person had to wade through to find that calm.
Meditation isn’t magic; it’s practice. Tell me something. How do those basketball players sink game-clenching free throws in the final seconds of the NCAA tournament? Do you have some illusion that they are just naturally calm? Clearly not. They have practiced free throws so much that even the situation can’t shake them. In the same way, you aren’t going to find real calm and stability in meditation practice until you work on your free throws. Those free throws are learning some skills as you encounter the unpleasant bits of life.
It works like this. You get distracted and, instead of getting mad or disgusted with yourself, just focus back on the breath. Right there, you practiced restraint, self-kindness, and persistence. Or maybe your knee hurts and you feel the pain for a moment and watch how it affects you. In that case, you practice mindful awareness, holding space, and patience. If a painful memory arises and you can let yourself sit with it, you practice self-compassion, awareness, and courage. And maybe you just fall asleep or are lost in thought the whole meditation session and you laugh it off. You know what that’s practicing? It’s practicing being human and imperfect and still being worth the effort to try again.
Do you see my point here? All the so-called “bad” stuff that happens during your practice is not a distraction from the practice. It feeds the practice because it forces you to build the skills you need to handle the hard parts of life. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your practice. It means that life is imperfect and so are we. The practice of mediation can help you experience, though, that perfection isn’t required for a good life. Instead, it can help you learn how to create a good life by bringing joy and kindness to even the hard parts of life.
So, when you start to meditate, and you find too many thoughts, physical discomfort, and all the judgment your mind can muster, don’t be surprised. The struggles of human life don’t magically disappear when you sit for a few moments and focus on your breath. But, if you can learn to sit long enough and watch those struggles arise and fade away, you can start to see them as the very substance from which calm, happiness, kindness, and presence can grow. The challenges that arise during meditation aren’t problems in your practice; they feed your practice.
This week is Thanksgiving, so it may not be all that surprising that I have the idea of “abundance” on my mind. As someone who loves to cook (and eat), Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant cooking all day for my mom’s large family and then eating all night. This is the traditional (and maybe American) view of abundance: having so much that even when you share it with a group you still have too much.
I am celebrating these small pockets of time this week because this is the blog’s 50th post. I remember when I launched the blog worrying that my writing wouldn’t be consistent. Somewhat stuck in a scarcity mindset, I worried that things would get too busy. I worried that I’d run out of ideas. I worried that I would decide it was too much work. I worried that nobody would care. In the end, as it turns out, none of these worries born from the idea that my time and I weren’t enough ended up being true.
My writing was not always consistent but that was not actually a bad thing. Some weekends, I could crank out blog posts for the whole month, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t write for a few weeks. Life was very busy for much of the year. My law practice was hectic and I did a 500-hour yoga teacher training. This life craziness, however, inspired me to write rather than keeping me from it and fortunately some friends pitched in with guest blog posts too. And, while none of my 50 posts have gone viral, the blog has some followers and I still love writing.
Now, at this point, you could say I have written an abundance of blog posts. Indeed, this year I’ve written about the same amount as a short novel. But I didn’t need all the things my mind in its scarcity mode told me that I needed. I didn’t need unlimited time, freedom from all distractions, and a group of fans cheering me on to keep writing. Instead, all I needed was my laptop and some bits of time, when my law practice and kids allowed it, to deposit a few words here and there.
This Thursday, as you celebrate the abundance of the season, remember that the bounty on your table is the product of small acts done consistently over time. Abundance is not just something you can experience, but something you can create. This Thanksgiving, I wish you abundance in your celebrations and that you find it in yourself.
I did not know that “languishing” had a clinical meaning until I listened to Adam Grant’s interview on the Ten Percent Happier podcast the other day. According to Grant, it’s the state between wellness and depression. As a busy lawyer and mom, I immediately recognized this description. As Grant put it, it’s a state where you might say that you “aren’t sick but aren’t well.” We’ve all been there, but Grant suggests that too many of us stay there and allow ourselves to progress on into depression.
He suggests that we ought to look for an activity that offers us the 3 m’s:
In the interview, Grant explained that playing Mario Kart with his family really helped him during the pandemic. Why? Because it required mindfulness by totally occupying his mind. It engendered in him a sense of mastery or prowess in playing the game and improvement as he progressed. And, it mattered. It was a fun thing to do with his kids and a way to connect with family that he couldn’t see in person.
I’m not a video game person and, historically, I have been extra terrible at driving games. Even so, as I listened to Grant, I knew what my Mario Kart was: cooking. I love cooking. I have loved it since I was a kid and outgrew my Easy Bake Oven in a matter of weeks because the small light bulb inside was insufficient to properly bake my cakes. This pushed me to start making recipes from old kids’ cookbooks that I’d scrounged from yard sales by age 7. By middle school (much to the delight of my parents), I was cooking family dinners by myself.
After 30 years of cooking, I can now walk into the kitchen and come up with dishes on the fly to either make a classic dish I’ve been craving or use up what I have on hand. It’s a thrill to reuse leftovers in inventive ways and a game to transform one dish into something else entirely. During the pandemic, it offered me the practical benefit of forcing me to stop my work for a while and get away from my computer because my family and I had to eat (and my husband is a terrible cook). So, instead of using my brain to find answers, I got to take a break and use my senses and creativity to come up with something good. And, of course, it mattered that I ate something good and decently healthy, that my kids experienced some new kinds of foods, and that I could offer us something that we couldn’t get delivered from takeout.
As a litigator, there are many days and weeks that I don’t have the time to cook or have to come up with something super easy, like tossing meatballs and marinara in a crockpot. Even so, cooking during these times helps me find little pockets of play in the midst of the grind. When my calendar opens up again, it’s like coming home when I get to cook something that requires more thought, planning, skill, and attention. After some time in the kitchen, I usually find myself ready to dive back into work again because letting my senses drive the bus in the kitchen gave my rational brain a much-needed chance to rest.
I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should have an activity that they can rely on the same way I rely on cooking and Adam Grant relies on Mario Kart. Look for something that fills up your mind and appeals to your senses, helps you feel a sense of mastery, and, for whatever reason, matters to you or someone else. If you find this activity and keep coming back to it, you may find that it is a powerful antidote against languishing and part of a happy life.
A. Intuitive eating is an evidenced based approach to health and wellness that has ten guiding principles to help people have a positive relationship with food, mind and body. Intuitive eating was created by two dietitians, Evelyne Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book was first published in 1995, and the fourth edition came out last year. Over the last roughly ten years or so, there has been a lot of research supporting the positive outcomes related to intuitive eating, which support both mental and physical health. Intuitive eating is also very much so aligned with Health at Every Size (HAES), again promoting health and wellness without focusing on weight loss.
Q. What drew you to focus on intuitive eating in your work with clients?
A. Once I was a little over ten years into my career, I had enough experience to know that diets don’t work. And when it comes to kids especially, I recognized how promoting weight loss causes harm. I saw firsthand how the pursuit of weight loss damaged one’s relationship with food and their body, and that dieting was a predictor for weight gain and risk factor for eating disorders in adolescents. About the same time, I was starting my private practice, and I kept coming across the topic of intuitive eating in the area of nutrition entrepreneurship. The more I learned, the more it resonated with me, both personally and professionally. I truly believe intuitive eating can be life changing.
Q. What makes intuitive eating stand out from other practices or strategies for managing nutrition?
A. Intuitive Eating respects an individual’s lived experience and honors their health goals without focusing on weight. Intuitive eating allows people to focus on health promoting behaviors, without the pursuit of weight loss. It also has over 125 research studies supporting its efficacy.
Q. Many mindfulness practices emphasize paying attention to and honoring thoughts, feelings and body sensations, could those practice support intuitive eating?
Definitely! One of my favorite strategies is to encourage my clients to check in with their bodies midway through the meal and take notice. Whether they notice they are still hungry or are comfortably full, it doesn’t matter. Being in tune with your body is essential to being an intuitive eater. Honoring hunger and feeling fullness are just two of the principles of intuitive eating, but they are very important to the practice.
Q. Is self-compassion important to intuitive eating or managing nutrition in general? If so, can you explain why?
Q. Are there any other practices that you recommend for people who are interested in intuitive eating?
I would encourage anyone that is interested in intuitive eating to experiment with viewing food as emotionally neutral. So many clients come to me using the language that food is “good” or “bad”, or “healthy” vs “unhealthy”. All food offers some nutritional benefit, and I think if we can trust ourselves and our bodies, we will realize food holds no moral value. It is so liberating to know that all foods fit. I like to encourage a diet with enough nutrition, variety, and satisfaction because to me, that is what is healthiest.
About Kathryn Riner: Kathryn Riner is a masters level educated, pediatric dietitian living in St. Louis, MO. She has 14 years of experience working both in her community and at a local US News and World Reports nationally ranked children’s hospital. In 2016 she opened her private practice, Healthy Kids Nutrition, LLC providing compassionate, individualized nutrition therapy to families. In 2019, Kathryn trained with Evelyn Tribole, a co-author of Intuitive Eating and became a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. Her mission is to help parents and kids have a positive relationship with food, so everyone can feel happy, healthy and confident around the table. You can follow her on Instagram @intuive.eating.for.moms.
As someone who writes and speaks publicly about meditation, it may surprise you to learn that I did not tell anyone—anyone—when I started meditating. At first, I didn’t know whether the practice would work for me or what I hoped it would help me find. It was a weird little thing I did because I’d read some books and articles and I was so stressed and bogged down with overthinking that I was willing to try anything. But meditating seemed like a break from my personality—driven, logical, intense, goal-oriented—and so, I suppose, it seemed like a deviation even for a few minutes to do nothing with no particular goal at all. Why would I risk people thinking I was weird or worse woo-woo for something that was admittedly out of my character and might not even work?
My experience has shown me that meditation isn’t woo-woo at all (or at least it doesn’t have to be) but many people tell me that it remains a stumbling block for them. With that in mind, here are my tips for processing the issue if you want to meditate but are nervous about being woo-woo.
1. You Don’t Have to Explain Your Practice to Anyone
I write and speak about meditation because it helped me and I think it could help others. But you have no obligation to talk to anyone else about your self-care practices. In fact, you may find benefits from keeping your practice to yourself. Meditation is about learning to be with yourself, so it stands to reason that keeping your practice to yourself may give you the space to let the practice work its magic. In addition, letting your practice be your own little secret for a while may make it more appealing because either it can serve as your own haven from the world or it may make you feel like some secret, rebel, meditating badass. In short, you don’t have to share your meditation practice with anyone else until you are ready, which includes fully processing your concerns about it being woo-woo.
When done in this way, the practice of meditation isn’t weird at all. It’s simple, practical, and has been shown by research to be effective. So, one way to get over the worries about meditation being woo-woo is to consider what images, symbols, or cultural influences you think are intertwined with the practice of meditation. When you remember that the practice of meditation can be very simple, you may be able to drop some of the baggage that makes you feel it is mystical or strange.
If all of these strategies still don’t help, there’s always the catch-all line from grade school: so what? Let’s say you give meditation a try and you end up loving it. You go crazy with it and you woo-woo it up. You chant, burn incense, add crystals, bells, and mandalas and you love every bit of it. You learn that you’ve had a secret woo-woo persona lying in wait your whole life just dying to get out.
This isn’t to say that your concerns about meditation and questions about your identity don’t matter. They matter a lot. But, by asking “so what” to the concerns about being woo woo, you are not letting the label of woo-woo and the attempt to avoid it decide what you do in your life. Instead, you are considering the meaning of that label for yourself, assessing its veracity, considering whether it fits you and what you are doing, and deciding if it’s a deal-breaker or not.
Isn’t that the way we lawyers handle problems every day? Our clients present us with a set of facts and raise concerns and we don’t throw up our hands and give up. We study the facts, try to uncover and root out assumptions, and then we decide what approach to take. Decisions about what practices might serve our mental and physical well-being deserve at least that much attention. So don’t let labels or vague worries get in your way if you want to meditate, instead ask what those labels and worries are about and you may just learn something interesting about yourself in the process.
In the end, I can’t tell you whether meditation is woo-woo or not. Meditation practices are varied and unique and what qualifies as woo-woo to one person may just be normal to another. My point here, though, is only to demonstrate that the concerns about whether the practice of meditation is woo-woo, weird, or strange are really a starting point instead of a dead end.
Doubts are a normal part of life, especially for us lawyers who are habituated to valuing our time highly and trained to think critically about everything. Though the practice of meditation may seem new and different to many, research indicates that it could offer your life and law practice many benefits. The only way to know for sure, of course, is to try it out with an open mind and heart. So don’t let doubts about being woo-woo get in the way. Examine that label and your doubts and focus instead on building a life that you want to live with whatever practices serve you best.
A friend shared a meme recently which listed 4 buckets of self-care strategies, including physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. I was glad to see that it included meditation, but my lawyer brain fired up when I saw it listed meditation only in the spiritual bucket. Literally starting with the phrase, “Well, actually” my mind began drafting a response to my friend’s social media post to explain that meditation was not just a spiritual practice.
So, am I telling you to stop sharing that meme and others like them that separate out human needs into categories? Of course not. But as you share or view memes like these, it may help to just consider for a moment if they are 100% true and, more significantly, whether they are true for you. It may be even more eye-opening for you to think about the personal practices that you rely on to keep yourself well and whether they fit in just one, multiple or all of the “human needs” buckets. Considering this myself, I can’t agree that meditation is only a spiritual practice any more than I could agree that exercise is just a physical one. In the end, I think meditation is a human practice made for human needs, including those that are spiritual, physical, social, and mental.
I had never heard of French pianist and composer, Riopy, until last year. As a chronically uncool person, I am always the last person to hear about any new kind of music. So, I rely on friends or the media I consume to tip me off about new things I might enjoy. Since I have already discussed my love of Pelotonmultiple times on the blog, it won’t surprise you that it’s what led me to Riopy too. Last year, I took Peloton’s Riopy slow flow class one night when I wanted some nice evening yoga. I was just looking to move a little after sitting at a desk all day, but I ended up being moved in a totally unexpected way.
As the class went on, the instructor, Aditi Shah, explained that Riopy had a past history with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Though music had offered him solace over the years, he found a peace in meditation that helped him heal and keep creating. This helped him realize that he didn’t need mind-altering substances or unhappiness to fuel his craft. When he tried meditation, he found his muse in stillness and peace and began creating music for meditation. His music, which is primarily piano instrumentals, sounds like it. Indeed, several of Riopy’s pieces are called “meditations” including his most well-known (and my favorite) piece, “Meditation No. 22”, which is made to support a 22-minute meditation session.
Now, you may think that piano music crafted by a man with a history of depression and fondness of meditation might be morose, heavy, or even dark. But it’s not. Though Riopy’s works do not shy away from the heavy or dark, they are light, delicate, and intimate. Overall, the tone of the pieces is playful and sounds like a flow state and the beauty that derives from it. Some, like “Caught in Infinity” from Breathe, can capture joy and sorrow in the same piece and not just in certain movements but, at times, in the same moment. While the pieces don’t tell stories the same way popular songs might, they seem to tell stories about past states of mind. Listening to them, each note seems to represent a moment in meditation and you can almost envision the very meditation from which the melody was born.
Since I like the space that silence gives my meditation, I usually don’t listen to Riopy when I meditate, but I frequently listen to his music when I work or write or do yoga. The calming tone of the music aids relaxation and the absence of words means it doesn’t distract or clash with other mental processing. His music is available on most major outlets, like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon. He has a new album out currently, Bliss, as well as a collection of many others. You can also find an extended, hour-long, version of his “Meditation 22” on the Calm app.
You may not meditate at all or need music to support your meditation practice. You also may not be drawn to Riopy’s music for the peculiar reason that I have come to love it. But, if you want some beautiful music to bring calm and peace into your life or help you appreciate the value of fleeting, delicate moments, check Riopy’s music out.