Real Talk About the Study Finding Meditation as Effective as Medication to Treat Anxiety

In the last 2 weeks, several contacts have reached out when they read news reports about a study which suggests meditation could be as effective to treat anxiety as medication. Due to my own life experience, I was not surprised when I read the report. Actually, my reaction was closer to relief. After all, I was also aware of the recent research suggesting that medication may not be as effective as once thought to treat depression.

I have used medication to treat depression in the past so I don’t suggest that other people shouldn’t. I have also used therapy several times in my life and benefited each time. The reason I felt relief when I read about the new study, though, is that more information may provide us with more options for treating mental health conditions.

Even so, I have to admit that I was also a little concerned about how the study might be spun or construed. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider when thinking or sharing news about the study.

1. The Good News

We have known for decades that regular meditation can have physical and mental health benefits, but it is not until much more recently that meditation has been embraced as a treatment for mental health conditions. The fact that researchers thought it worthwhile to consider the impacts of meditation practice v. medication shows how much of a mindset shift has occurred.

It is also good that researchers are exploring various treatment modalities because mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are often contextual and individualized. My own life experience has shown me that mental health needs may require a menu of tools, instead of just one or two. The more we learn about how meditation can affect or promote mental health, the more we hopefully can discover about how it can be part of a mental health regimen.

Overall then, the new study signals continued growth of research into the impacts of mindfulness and greater acceptance of meditation by the medical and scientific community.

2. The Potential Downside

Despite the positive indications from the new study, I also had some concerns . The first one that sprang to mind was that, perhaps well-meaning, but uninformed people may tell others to “just meditate” to address their mental health needs. Over the years, I have heard many friends confide in me that a loved one told them this. I have also had friends or contacts beat themselves up about not being able to manage their mental health needs with meditation.

When I speak and write on the topic of mindfulness, I regularly warn people that they shouldn’t feel compelled to rush in with the practice. And I don’t instruct people to attempt meditation to avoid other mental health treatment options. Indeed, I attempted meditation when I was deeply depressed and it only resulted in me crying alone in a dark room feeling even more like a failure. Now, once I stabilized and learned gradually to tolerate the practice, meditation has helped me tame my long-standing anxiety and avoid depression.

So, while it may be accurate advice to tell a person with mental health needs that meditation can help, I don’t think it is good advice. Individuals struggling with anxiety or depression may hear it as an instruction to manage their situation on their own. Instead, the better route is to offer support or encourage someone struggling with mental health to reach out for help.

Moreover, before you share information about the study, you should be aware of what it really says. The study didn’t compare 5 minutes of meditation a day with medication. Instead, it compared an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (“MBSR”) course with medication.

I have taken the MBSR course and it includes weekly classes, a recommendation to meditate 45 minutes a day outside of class (a huge amount for new meditators), and a half-day retreat. In other words, it is an intense and immersive commitment that is at least as time-consuming as therapy. So, be careful when you talk about the study that you understand that context.

3. What I Hope Happens Next

As we know, scientific progress is continually unfolding. Thus, this new study clearly does not represent the final limits of what we can know about the impact of mindfulness practices on mental health. Given the limitations of the MBSR program, I hope researchers continue to study the impact of mindfulness practices at shorter intervals but over longer terms on mental health conditions. I didn’t start at anything even close to the amounts recommended in the MBSR program but experienced significant relief after a few weeks and more pronounced benefits after several months.

I hope researchers also continue to develop studies that show us how meditation may work with medication, or therapy, or exercise, or time in nature, etc. And, of course, I hope we see more studies showing the effects of various meditation practices. Again, MBSR primarily relies on body work and breath practice, but other practices such as loving-kindness can have profound impacts on how we relate to the world and thus our mental health.

In short, I see the new study as an overall positive sign, but care should be taken with how its findings are discussed. Having personally experienced how much meditation helped me manage my own anxiety, I am glad the study shows that meditation may be a promising treatment option. I hope further research will help us understand more to ensure that all people have an array of potential tools to meet their mental health needs.

If you want to learn more about what mindfulness and compassion can do for you in a gradual and approachable way, check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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Severance: A Thought Provoking Show about Controlling Thoughts

How would it feel to be fully present at home, without a thought or worry about any work-related issue?

How would you feel if you could experience that same presence while at work?

If that sounds appealing, would you ever consider a procedure that could create complete work/life separation?

That’s the premise of Severance, a sci-fi series set in a fictional town in which employees undergo a surgical procedure to separate their thoughts about work and home. Employees who are “severed” can’t think about work once they leave the office and they can’t carry their home stressors into the workplace.

I binge watched the series this summer and I can’t stop thinking about it, both because of its stellar cast and the thought-provoking questions it presents.

The first season focused on Mark, an office worker who undergoes the severance procedure as a way to deal with the loss of his wife. The procedure enables him to shed his grief each day as he rides the elevator to his office. Once the elevator doors open, Mark has no awareness of his life outside the office, which enables him and his colleagues to focus solely on their work.

At least that’s the intention. The reality is that the severed employees spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their “outies,” their selves outside the workplace. They wonder if they have families, whether they are good people and if they are happy. And when they need support, the severed employees are treated to stories about their “outies,” which suggests that the company understands how important it is for the workers to understand all aspects of their lives.

Although the show provides an extreme example of corporate culture and the quest for work/life balance, it presents some fascinating questions like:

  • What does it mean to be fully present? Is it necessary to clear our mind from distracting thoughts in order to focus on the present moment? If you’ve studied or practiced mindfulness, you know how unrealistic that is. And even in the fictional world of Severance, the goal of having a singular focus is not achieved, despite surgical intervention.
  • Is there an expectation that we can (or should) be able to compartmentalize our lives? In the show, the severance procedure is touted as a way to be more productive at work and to be more present at home. But is separating these parts of our lives a good thing? Do we want coworkers who can’t draw on life lessons, ambitions and beliefs formed outside the workplace? Is it good for them to be severed from the connections that ground them and the commitments that provide the motivation to tackle hard things? Conversely, don’t we want people to apply lessons learned on the job in their lives outside the workplace? And don’t we want coworkers to build connections and support networks outside the office?
  • Do we sometimes use work as an escape? Mark’s choice to undergo the severance procedure to escape his grief is not unlike the choices many people make to keep themselves busy and avoid feeling difficult emotions. [Spoiler alert] In the show, as in real life, that doesn’t really work.
  • What happens when we can’t find meaning, purpose or a reasonable amount of autonomy in our work? Mark and his team work in the Department of Macrodata Refinement sorting numbers. Aside from being told that their jobs are “mysterious and important,” they don’t understand the purpose of their work or how it fits into the larger picture. Instead, they are given rigid instructions, kept under constant surveillance and given meager incentives like company branded finger traps and team photos. Not surprisingly, this creates discontent, makes them less invested in their work and [another spoiler alert] sets them on a journey to change things. It is not that hard to see how this part of the series is an example of the disconnect that often exists between what employers think will lead to job satisfaction and what employees need or want.

My takeaway from Severance is that a complete separation of thoughts about your work and home life is neither achievable nor desirable. Although you may view the person you are at work as different than the person you are to your family and friends, the reality is that we bring our whole selves to the workplace – our experiences, our biases, our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes – all of it. And when we leave the job at the end of
the day, a piece of that work self comes home with us.

The story of Mark and his severed coworkers also shows what can happen when we are stuck in a life that exists solely for work. It demonstrates how connection is a powerful motivator and that even surgically induced-work life separation or carefully curated employee incentives are no match for the human need for community and purpose.

Laura Anthony is a lawyer who is fascinated by the intersection of law and human behavior. She is an education lawyer as well as a mediator, investigator and hearing officer and often draws upon her background and interest in psychology in her practice. She is also a not-so-regular practitioner of yoga and meditation and brings her real-world struggles making healthy choices to her role as the chair of her firm’s Wellness
Committee. Laura can be found posting about her practice and her love of chocolate and libraries on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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

PSA: 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Is Now Available

Today is an important day in the United States, we now have a national, dedicated hotline for individuals to call for mental health emergencies. In the case of fire, severe physical injury, or crime, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to say “call 911.” Mental health situations may be different, however, and may require a response from trained professionals other than traditional first responders. Starting today, we can now call 988 for such situations.

What happens when you call 988? The program connects you immediately with a trained mental health professional. This is significant because anyone who has experienced any kind of mental health situation knows that there is almost always a waiting period to begin care. Moreover, like any other professional, counselors, therapists, and other mental health providers usually work during normal business hours. Though we have existing emergency services, like fire, EMTs, and police, those officials are not always trained to provide care for mental health needs.

With the new 988 lifeline, anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency can now receive immediate help. There is also a chat function available at 988lifeline.org that will allow individuals another means of connecting to help. In addition, the website offers resources to help those of us who may be supporting a loved one experiencing a mental health emergency. It even offers a resource for helping someone you may know less well from social media.

In addition to providing a support for people in need during a mental health emergency, another aspect of the lifeline is normalizing seeking help. The 988 lifeline has media kits and logos for public use and a hashtag #Bethe1To to spread the word about suicide prevention. It also has a collection of stories of hope and recovery from those who have experienced suicidal thoughts or mental health challenges in the past and tools to help those who wish to share their own story. As someone who has written about my own mental health challenges, these are powerful tools for individual healing, building community, reducing shame and stigma, and spreading awareness.

Having experienced mental health challenges myself, I have experienced how hard it can be to recognize symptoms in yourself and to seek out help. For this reason, it is essential to have a lifeline, supports, and education available to empower communities to promote and protect mental health. I am glad that this new tool exists to support lawyers, professionals, and the entire community in the United States with mental health emergencies. Please help spread the word about it.

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

What Is Body Scan Meditation and Why Should Lawyers Try It?

When people think of meditation, they typically think of the breath as the focal point. But in truth, meditation can use almost any focal point and the focal point doesn’t necessarily have to be a singular, stagnant object. One of the most beneficial practices that I incorporate in my routine is the body scan. With this practice, the focus is on the sensations in the whole body, rather than exclusively focusing on the breath. Traditionally, this practice flows systemically through the body, flowing from one part or region of the body into the next.

Most commonly, body scan meditations start at the crown of the head and proceed down to other parts of the body until you reach the feet and toes. There are, of course, many potential methods and starting points for body scans. For instance, you could start with the toes and work up or do a body scan that focuses on the chakras or plexuses along the spine. Regardless of the particular method you try, the object of a body scan meditation is to feel the sensations in the body and notice what you feel, rather than to think about the body.

Body scan meditation can sometimes feel more manageable to new meditators because the practice is more active than breath practice. Because the focus of body scan is to flow through the body, the mind has to work a bit more to stay focused on the sensations in the body. For this reason, it may not seem as hard to keep the mind engaged with the focal point as it does in the early phases of learning breath practice. In addition, in my experience, getting into the body is a great (perhaps the best) way to get out of your head. It is for this reason that resting in sensations during a body scan can be deeply relaxing even to new meditators and after relatively short periods of time.

Body scan meditations are very useful for attorneys because they remind us to pay attention to and take care of our bodies. In law school, we learn to emphasize rationality in making decisions for our clients. While separating fact from emotion is critical, we lawyers are still human beings with human bodies. To do our best for our clients, we need to understand and respect the limitations of our own bodies so we can fulfill our responsibility to our clients. As I’ve written before, emotions are sensations in the body, so body scan practices may also have the incidental benefit of building emotional intelligence and tolerance when powerful emotions arise.

Even outside of emotions, however, the body awareness that body scan practice engenders can have more fundamental benefits for lawyers and professionals. Some of the most common bodily issues that can impede us from doing our best work are represented in the acronym HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These symptoms are fundamental to the human condition, but in our fast-paced world it is easy to skip lunch, push our emotions to the side, miss out on social opportunities, and deprive ourselves of sleep.

Body scan meditations are excellent for lawyers because they remind us that we are not merely brains filled with legal strategy, but people who must be fed, rested, and cared for. If you practice body scan meditation, you will develop the skills to notice the symptoms of various conditions and emotions in your body in the early and more subtle stages before they get to the point where they affect your performance, outlook, or demeanor. These skills are not only necessary to performing our responsibilities as lawyers, but they are also beneficial for anyone who wants to be a top performer in a high-stakes environment.

Finally, body scan is building block to support further growth in your meditation practice or just when dealing with the difficulties of life. When you start a meditation practice, it can seem like the focal point is the object of practice. As your practice advances, you may learn, however, that the focal point is really a tool. In other words, the point of practice is not just to focus on the breath or the sensations of the body. It is, instead, to build the skill of resting with the breath or the body.

If you can learn to do this with body scan practice, then you have one more tool at your disposal when meditation or life throws you curve balls. For example, perhaps troubling thoughts or overwhelming emotions come up during your practice. A meditator proficient in body scan might be able to shift focus to a less reactive part of the body, such as the feet, to rest from the experience until they find enough stability and calm to proceed with normal practice. You could also do this in life, if for instance you have tense meeting with opposing counsel and need to keep your cool.

In short, body scan is a simple practice to learn and may be more accessible to new meditators than other styles of practice. It offers many benefits that support a meditation practice and build coping skills for life. Lawyers in particular could stand to benefit from the practice, so give it a try.

Do you want to try body scan meditation? Check out our meditations that incorporate body scan techniques.   

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

Yoga Has Been There the Whole Time

When Brilliant Legal Mind’s founder Claire Parsons told me September’s theme was yoga my immediate response was “I don’t really have a yoga practice anymore. I don’t really have anything to write about.” But then I read Claire’s post Confessions of a Reluctant Yogi and Aman Costigan’s post Yoga is More Than Just Stretching. Both posts made think about how much I use yoga daily and the role my yoga practice had in setting a foundation for my meditation practice.

I first discovered a regular yoga practice the summer after I finished law school. My husband and I moved from Chicago to Northern Kentucky, I was studying for the bar, we were rehabbing a 150 year old house, and starting our own law practice. I was trying to exercise occasionally mostly just to keep myself sane. One day I tried a yoga class at the gym and let’s just say I was hooked. I had tried yoga sporadically over the years but looking back I’d just never found the right teacher. The teacher I found that summer was perfect for me.

She was an athlete and busy professional so the classes were mostly vinyasa and ashtanga style yoga which are considered more athletic forms of yoga. But they are also flow styles of yoga that connect the breath to movement so my teacher focused heavily on moving through each pose with your breath. Because the yoga teacher was a busy professional and mom she also focused on the mental aspect of the practice. We’d set an intention for each practice, focus on that intention throughout the class, and then end with a meditation. Looking back, these yoga classes were part of the beginning of my regular meditation practice. I got stronger, more flexible, I had less aches and pains, and I started to notice my busy mind felt a little calmer too.

That teacher moved out of state and since then I’ve taken yoga classes on and off at various studios, but looking back I can see now that I developed a foundation that’s helped not only helped me physically but was an important step in building my meditation practice. A few years back, when I suffered from two herniated discs in my back I discovered restorative yoga. While I craved doing the more rigorous styles of yoga, the restorative helped me work through the pain. Restorative yoga can be deeply meditative which helped me mentally deal with the pain and discomfort.

Right now I’m training for a half-marathon and after reading Claire and Aman’s blog posts I noticed that my stretching routine is almost a yoga flow series. I also noticed that I use my stretching time at night and after a workout not only to just stretch my body to help my aches and pains, I use it as a meditation time as well. Like my meditation practice, without even realizing it, yoga has been with me all along.  

Want to explore restorative yoga further? Check out this guided meditation from founder @claireeparsons to pair with the legs up the wall pose. Even if you don’t have any props at home, you can try this by positioning your legs up a wall or over a chair. This meditation offers a variety of breath instruction tools so you can explore meditation and restorative yoga practice t at the same time.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator and yogi 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 my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Book Review: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley

I have this bad habit of buying books so that I don’t forget about them. Then I flip through them once, decide I don’t have time to read them right now, and set them on my bookshelf only to forget about them. I did this with Every Body Yoga years ago. I had heard the author, Jessamyn Stanley, on an episode of Call Your Girlfriend and thought she sounded so personable, down-to-earth, and cool that I couldn’t resist.

But life and law practice intervened and I didn’t get around to reading it until I enrolled in yoga teacher training and heard multiple classmates and teachers mention it with affection. When I dusted off the book and finally read it, I wished I had done so sooner. Then, I shared it with a friend who told me she was interested in trying out yoga to balance out her fitness routine. As I wrote previously, my own yoga practice got off to a rocky start because I was saddled with judgments about my body’s appearance and perceived limitations. I found in Stanley’s book an experience that, though it was undoubtedly unique, reminded me a bit of my own.

Stanley came to prominence when she began posting pictures of herself learning and mastering yoga poses on Instagram. At the time, Stanley wasn’t anyone famous or even a yoga teacher. She was just a person seeking community and support as she did her practice, largely on her own. Indeed, Stanley recounts in the book how she learned the basics of yoga with studio classes, but practiced on her own in her apartment for a time due to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until she gained a following and built her own confidence that she became a yoga teacher. Now, she’s got nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram, her own online studio, and a second recently released book.

Though this story certainly showcases the power of courage and following one’s passions, it also demonstrates how yoga as a practice can help yogis of all kinds learn to love and care for themselves. In Every Body Yoga, Stanley relates how yoga helped her care for herself through the difficulties of her own life, including making decisions about education and work, challenges in her intimate relationships, and even losing loved ones. While yoga was a powerful force for her, Stanley explains that practical impediments to yoga practice still exist for many people. She offers examples throughout her story of the emotions elicited for her as she walked into a class with only thin white women and the expense of maintaining a yoga habit with studio classes. It is for this reason that Stanley felt compelled to start documenting her own practice for others.

To make yoga truly accessible to everybody, Stanley also offers a thorough but concise summary of yoga philosophy and the varieties of asana practice. This may help those new to yoga determine what classes might best suit their bodies. In addition, about one half of the book is devoted to explanations and demonstrative pictures of commonly used poses and props, and sequences paired for specific purposes. Thus, any new yogi could pick up Stanley’s book, a yoga mat, and some blocks, and start a home practice for the same price of attending two or three yoga classes in a studio.

In short, Every Body Yoga is a how-to guide intended and best suited for those new to yoga, but it offers inspiration, heart, and a great story of self-love that even experienced yogis might enjoy. If you are curious about yoga but aren’t sure it’s for you, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Everybody Yoga. But don’t let it sit on your shelf gathering dust. Give it a read, give Stanley a follow on Instagram, and get on the mat.

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

Knight School: What New Lawyers Can Learn from The Green Knight

Author’s Note: Spoiler alert. There is some detail in this post about what happens in the movie and how it ends. The symbolism in The Green Knight is heavy and I personally benefited from some excellent analysis about the movie that I read online. In addition, though the movie is new, the story is not. If you aren’t familiar with the poem and prefer to be surprised, watch the movie first and then come back later to read.

When I left the theater after watching The Green Knight, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was mostly confused, a little surprised that the theater wasn’t totally empty, and I wondered out loud to my husband why the critic reviews had been so good. It wasn’t really that the movie was bad, but it was slow. Though it was about knights, there was hardly anything knightly about it. There was only one sword fight, and I knew going in how that would end. Even while watching the movie, I wasn’t rapt with suspense, though curiosity glued my eyes to the screen as I tried to unpack the symbolism in each scene.

The curiosity, it turns out, didn’t stop when I waked out of the theater. Most of the time with movies, you have an experience, perhaps a catharsis. You know the message. You feel the emotion. You may reflect or talk for a few minutes about what the movie meant, but then you quickly move on. But I couldn’t with The Green Knight. I kept thinking about it for days after I watched it. What did the movie mean? What was the point? Having studied mindfulness enough to know some Buddhist philosophy and being familiar with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I knew the basic gist of the story: we humans aren’t in control of many things in life but it is the acceptance of our lack of control that gives us the capacity for greatness.

That part was clear with the Green Knight’s threat to take off Gawain’s head and Gawain’s obsessive clinging to the magical green girdle he thought would protect him. It was only when Gawain finally set the girdle aside, and leaned forward to accept his beheading, that the Green Knight pronounced him a “good knight.” The movie doesn’t tell us what happens next, but, if you are familiar with the poem, you may know that Gawain does not get beheaded after all.

So why was this movie stuck in my brain? Because it didn’t just give us the needed reminder that we aren’t in control of things in life, it also showed how the stories we create and try to live up to as we go about our lives are part of the illusion of control that we must escape. From the outset of Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight, he fails to live up to the standards for knights from the epic poems. Gawain appears to agree to fight the Green Knight at first, not out of courage or conviction, but instead because Arthur primed him in the minutes before the Green Knight’s appearance to believe he ought to start becoming somebody important.

When he leaves the castle walls on his quest, Gawain is quickly bested by 3 nihilistic teens and robbed of his horse, armor, and the green girdle his mother made to protect him. He’s left hogtied in a forest, presumably to die but narrowly and awkwardly escapes death. Gawain then wanders lost through the woods and stumbles upon the ghost of St. Winifred, a woman beheaded for her chastity, who must shame him into helping her secure her disembodied head. And he utterly fails in the house of a lord he encounters before facing the Green Knight. He is totally outsmarted, outclassed, and beguiled by the lady of the house and accepts in rather humiliating circumstances the gift of his magically restored protective green girdle from her.  She brands him “no true knight” for this encounter because Gawain cannot let go of the lust for protection and control. As Gawain runs from the house, telling himself he’s heading to face the Green Knight and not merely running away from his shame, Gawain fails again. He meets the lord of the house in the woods and reneges on his promise to give everything he received at the house back to the lord before he departs. Though he offers a farewell kiss, Gawain leaves without mentioning the green girdle the lady had given him.

So why do I love this? I love this because Gawain is us. Though played masterfully by Dev Patel, the character Gawain doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He goes out into the world, like us, with no instructional manual. He’s forced to try to make something out of himself, perhaps due to pressure from his family or the idea that he’s got big shoes to fill. At first, he falls flat on his face. He gets taken advantage of by bad people and suffers dearly. But from that he learns something really important: what it’s like to suffer. And he uses that knowledge for good when, after a little prompting from her, he helps Winfred even though she has nothing to give him. But then, just like us silly humans, Gawain fails again. He goes back to a house that looks enough like his home in Camelot and he forgets what he just learned. He falls prey again to the idea that he can find a lasting security and he clings again to his green girdle and hides it from the lord.

But even this big dope of a guy—even Gawain who keeps messing up—learns. By the end of his relatively uninspiring journey, he learns the truth he needs to understand to do anything great at all: that security and safety (at least the lasting kind) are myths. Before he faces the Green Knight, Gawain is shaking with fear and has a vision of himself running away and returning to Camelot. In this vision, Gawain’s unearned legend for bravery precedes him and leads him to rise in favor and ultimately become king. The vision though foretells the personal costs he must suffer and the harm he must do to others to take that path. More significantly, the death of his loved ones and the depicted fall of his empire tell us that none of this so-called greatness will last anyway. It is this vision, stark as it is, that knocks sense into Gawain and forces him to set the green girdle aside and lean in as the Green Knight prepares to take his head. 

In other words, Gawain is not a perfect knight or a terrible knight. He’s a deeply human knight. When he tried to look like a perfect knight, he failed to live his values and suffered for it. When he, instead, faced life as it was, unmitigated by any appeals to magical thinking, he became the true knight and even his past failings couldn’t tarnish that. I love this movie because it depicts the silliness we humans fall prey to, but also how we learn and progress. It shows how easily we fall into old stories and mental images of what we think we ought to be.

It also shows how those stories can keep us from helping each other and being ourselves and how they can even make us feel justified to cause others pain. Indeed, unlike many films depicting Arthurian legends, this one examines some of the old stories and legends even as it retells one. It contrasts the tale of St. Winifred, a woman brutalized and robbed totally of her agency, with the often violent heroism for which men of the time were praised. Likewise, Gawain’s final vision examines the merits of the knightly legends as well as the value of titles and power, which not only fade but may also lead to the perpetration of violence against others, including loved ones.

So, why on earth do I offer this review in a blog about mindfulness for lawyers? Well, for one thing, the Arthurian legends are some of the best-known examples of the hero’s journey in the West and those tales still have a lot to offer us in terms of illustrating the paths of mindfulness and compassion. More significantly, though, I’ve been a new lawyer. I know what it’s like to go out into the world, thinking you have a part to play and battles to fight to make your name. I have experienced the pain of not fitting the stories in my mind about the lawyer I thought I was supposed to be, but that was soon followed by the benefits of learning to be myself. When I stopped emulating the myth of the lawyer persona in my mind, I started practicing law my way and I served my clients better, found much more happiness, and, even in the midst of stress and fear, had some fun.

I think the creators of The Green Knight made a tactical decision to make Gawain much younger and less established than the well-sung hero of the ancient poem. They made him young because I think the filmmakers were talking to the young. They were telling the young that, like Gawain observed, our leaders are aging, our stories from the past need to be examined, but we have no choice but to go and try and fail. If we do this with open hearts, a willingness to face our own shame and accept what we cannot control, we may just become good knights and do some good in the world. It’s a hard world to be living in and a difficult time to be practicing law, but The Green Knight tells us that you don’t have to be perfect or fit the mold to be a “good knight.” Instead, you only have to accept the realities of life, including your own humanity, and be willing to face the things that scare you. This is a lesson any young knight, human, or lawyer could certainly use. Thus, just like life, The Green Knight may confound, confuse, and mystify you, but if you can sit back and let the lessons it is offering come to you, you may come to see how good it really is.

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

Which Compassion Cultivation Course Is Best for Lawyers?

Though the studies demonstrating the benefit of compassion practices are no less compelling than those relating to mindfulness, I find that lawyers and professionals are far less familiar with compassion than mindfulness. Perhaps this is because, for cultural reasons, lawyers are more comfortable with the idea of mental focus than they are anything to do with emotions. Or, maybe it is because most of us humans would like to think we are compassionate already. But, whether you are a compassionate person or not, research tells us that compassion can also be cultivated and offer benefits, including a reduction in stress, improvement in focus, and significant mental and physical health benefits. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, you may be gratified to know that there are a number of high quality and accessible courses for you to explore compassion practices further. Here’s a brief comparison of some of the most well-known courses available that can help you get started with the process of cultivating compassion for yourself and others.

1. Best Introduction: Science of Compassion by Kelly McGonigal 

This is an audio course available for purchase from Audible or Sounds True. It is divided into chapters and each chapter contains a brief lecture on a compassion topic as well as relevant strategies. This course is an exceptional introduction into compassion research and practices. McGonigal is a psychologist but she knows how to tell a story and understands the science well enough to explain it in plain language. She does a remarkable job embedding research-based practices into human stories to convey the power of compassion and how we can all bring it into our lives and the world. At only $30 for the audio version, this course is a fraction of the price of the others covered here. While it cannot compare to the benefits obtained from a more interactive course, it is an excellent and accessible introduction to compassion practices and a great value.

2. Best for New Meditators: Power of Awareness by Tara Brach & Jack Kornfield

This is an introduction to mindfulness and meditation created by popular and renowned meditation teachers and psychologists, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. It is available at regular intervals throughout the year from Sounds True. The course is primarily composed of video and audio recordings but they are high quality and informative. Tara Brach is famous for her RAIN technique, a compassion practice for handling painful emotions and an entire section is devoted to this strategy. If needed, online community options and Zoom meetings are available to participants who need more detailed instruction. Although this course is not live, the teachings were recorded before a live audience. Recordings of Q&A sessions with the audience are included and this is where Brach’s and Kornfield’s teaching really shines. In addition, the course includes a self-study, half-day retreat, which offers a chance to explore the practices in more depth. 

3. Most Practical and Comprehensive: Compassion Cultivation Training from CCARE at Stanford University

This course is the marriage of ancient meditation practices and modern science. It was founded by researchers at Stanford University and Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., a Tibetan refugee who served as translator to the Dalai Lama for more than 30 years and later earned a Ph.D. in religious studies. This course uses Tibetan compassion practices, including loving-kindness and tonglen, as well as others derived from research to teach students how to increase compassion for themselves and for others. CCARE has limited in-person choices for instruction but trained teachers offer the course elsewhere, including virtual options. Because compassion for self and others is intertwined, I found the subject most practical when both aspects were treated together in this program. The structure of the CCT program, as well as the small class size, permitted more time for discussion with and learning from classmates. 

4. Best for Self-Compassion: Mindful Self-Compassion from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

This course may be one of the most well-known compassion courses across the globe. It was created by researchers and teachers, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. It is available in either a live or online format that ranges from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the course structure. It is packed with strategies and resources to expand and employ self-compassion, regardless of one’s experience with meditation. The tone of this course is very soft, so soft in fact that lawyers or others not familiar with compassion practices may struggle or be put off by it. Like the Power of Awareness above, it includes a half-day retreat as well but the retreat for MSC is live and done with other participants, which is generally more supportive for a first retreat experience. Because MSC is so well-known, one other neat aspect of the course, especially if you take it online, is that your classmates are likely to include people from around the world. Interacting with classmates around the world on the topic of self-compassion may help you understand more than anything how universal and critical the human need for self-kindness is. 

So, which course should you choose? I’ll admit that CCT was my personal favorite, so if you could pick only one I would tell you to try CCT. With that said, I benefited from and enjoyed every course mentioned here and compassion is a capacity that I don’t think you can overtrain. The real question isn’t which course you should choose, but which one you should try first.

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 Should Prioritize Joy and Practices to Help Them Start

I admit it. The word “joy” used to make me cringe a little bit inside. For a while, it was plastered on the walls of so many homes along with signs reading “Live. Laugh. Love.” and showed up in the titles of countless self-help books. The frequency with which I saw that term used, often inaccurately, gave me the distinct and bizarre impression that “joy” was somehow omnipresent, yet also mythical and unattainable. After all, how could conflict, unhappiness, and social problems be so prevalent when everyone seemed hellbent on praising joy?

More recently, though, I have come around to the “joy” camp. The transition had nothing to do with all those signs and books. Instead, it happened when I started to study suffering and the response to it. When I learned about compassion practices and saw their impact in my life, I realized something I had previously overlooked: joy is powerful. The overuse of the word had made joy seem frivolous and meaningless, but when I feel it—especially in response to suffering—it is nothing short of magic. Joy has a potential to connect us in good times and to bind us, to ourselves and others, in hard times.

Many of us may think that joy is an emotion that simply arises without warning and lasts only a moment. This is true but also incomplete. We can cultivate joy and in so doing, cultivate compassion and a greater sense of well-being. For many of us, joy may seem like a temporary and elusive state because we aren’t accustomed to staying present with the experience of strong emotions. Regardless of the type, emotions are sensory experiences in the body. Even positive emotions like joy can feel uncomfortable, if not overwhelming, so we may unconsciously register them as stress that induces a mental flight reaction. For this reason, many of us may need to learn to sit with and savor even positive emotions. This is just one of the reasons why meditation practice can be so powerful, because it may provide a rare opportunity to experience emotions in the body.

Whether in meditation or otherwise, sensing emotions as they are cultivates a capacity to accept the true and full experience of life. This can mean greater courage to accept the hard parts of life, as well as welcoming in those joyful emotions that provide a respite from our struggles and energize us to keep going. As a result, savoring the good aspects of life and taking the time to celebrate can be some of the most powerful things that lawyers can do to improve our mental health for the long-term.

Despite this, many lawyers and other professionals may worry that savoring victories and positive experiences may lead to resting on one’s laurels, apathy, or cause a reduction in drive. Leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has found that, while this is a common fear, it isn’t true. Self-compassion is not an impediment to a good work ethic; it is positively correlated with attainment of goals. Far from causing people to lack ambition, self-compassion practices, including savoring joy, result in higher motivation, more courage in taking risks, and increased stamina to persist through difficulty.

Some simple ways to savor joy in life are to remind yourself to mentally “check in” during a good time. Notice what you hear, feel, taste, smell, and see and notice what that experience causes you to feel in your body. For instance, if you are playing with your kids, hear them laugh, see them smile, and notice what reaction those things elicit in you. You can also be on the lookout for joy in your daily activities. One of my favorite savoring activities is to watch the kids run to the parents at daycare pickup time. Watching their love and excitement turns what might have been wasted time into a joy break for myself and it prepares me to greet my own kids with love.

In the work setting, one simple way to savor experiences is to acknowledge a win and congratulate your team. When the praise is directed to you, you could practice savoring joy by learning to simply say “thank you” when you receive a compliment and allowing the warm feelings just wash over you, instead of deflecting or talking to hide your embarrassment. If you struggle with paying or giving compliments, a simpler place is to establish a habit of internally congratulating yourself for a job well done. For example, after a difficult deposition, you might reflect on how you handled yourself and appreciate the discipline, organization, and restraint you showed in hard circumstances. These practices generally don’t take much time, but research suggests that the cumulative effect over time can yield major benefits for your motivation, outlook, stamina, and capacity to handle difficult moments. 

So, does this mean that I am telling you to go put a big “joy” sign on your wall? Not quite, unless hanging a sign like that reminds you to cultivate joy in your own life. The object here isn’t the performance of joy or convincing others that you feel joyful. Instead, the power of joy comes in when we fully experience it and prioritize it in our lives. Because when we open to joy, in all its overwhelming glory, we’ll find courage, energy, and strength care for our families and ourselves, serve clients, and make more joy for the rest of the world. So, I don’t care if you put a big “joy” sign on your wall, as a long as you make space for it in your heart.

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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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 (but I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming blog post). 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.  

To learn more about this subject, check out our IG Live on Friday 4/23 at 1:30 PM EST. You can find us on IG @brilliantlegalmind.

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 my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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