Review of Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Editor’s Note: We originally published this review last June. As a tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed yesterday, we publish it again in gratitude for Hanh’s teachings and work.

You don’t really need to read all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books to understand his central teachings. This may be a good thing, since the world-renowned Zen master, peace activist, poet, and spiritual leader has written or had his talks compiled into so many books that it was difficult even to account for all of them. Over the years, I have read over 10 of his books, since they are readily available and seem to address any number of the problems in life. On one occasion years ago, I had been struggling to maintain calm during my youngest daughter’s tantrum phase and happened upon Anger in a bookstore. I saw it as a sign and purchased it, grateful for any advice I could get on that subject.

On another occasion, I’d had a fight with my husband and stumbled upon a pocket tome called How to Fight while hunting for diapers and baby food at Target. Hanh’s wisdom, it seemed, showed up whenever I needed it. Though I had not had the foresight to summon it, I at least knew enough to accede when the universe was trying to tell me something. So, this month, when I planned the theme for the blog as joy and happened upon Hanh’s book Happiness, it was too perfect to pass up. Like the other occasions, I hadn’t been looking for the book. Rather, in a happy accident, I found Audible Plus, which has a lot of free books for members, including a treasure trove of excellent books relating to mindfulness and meditation. While scouring through the titles, I came upon Happiness.

I found in that book what I found in most of his others: simplicity and truth. I had already read several of Hanh’s books before so I had a sense of what he would say is the key to happiness: to use your breath to come back to the present moment, no matter what you are doing or what circumstances you are in, and to treat yourself and all around you with kindness and compassion. In Happiness, that’s what he says in a nutshell and he offers examples, applications, and practices to help you do this in your life. All of those things are critical, of course, but I don’t keep coming back to Hanh because I needed to be taught those ideas. Instead, I keep coming back to his books because I need to remember them.

As a lawyer and mom, my life is so busy and changes so regularly that it is easy to get knocked off balance. I am frequently tired, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. If anything happens to trigger my perfectionism, competitive streak, or cause an onslaught of social comparison, it can be easy to feel like I’m on the wrong track and my efforts will never be good enough. The thing that helps me in those times is to remember what actually matters. And that’s what Happiness does: it reminds the reader that happiness is not something to seek out but instead something to relax into.

Book after book offers us hacks and self-help advice to fix our lives. In Happiness, Hanh says that your life isn’t broken, though he suggests in the compassionate way that only he can, that you may be missing the best parts. The key to happiness, he recommends, is to avoid becoming constantly distracted by your “projects” and to keep coming back to the present moment over and over again to discover how perfect it is. As he explains, when we let ourselves do that, we notice more how we feel, what we need, and how to connect deeply with people and face the problems in our lives. That’s how we find happiness.

“Yeah, but it’s not that simple,” you may be thinking. After all, life is hard. Real calamities happen. Being present doesn’t fix that. Of course, that’s true and Hanh, who was exiled from his home of Vietnam for nearly 40 years, doesn’t deny that. Rather than pretend, like so many books offering platitudes and life hacks that suffering can be avoided, Hanh argues instead that happiness is resilient enough, powerful enough to persist even in the midst of it if we can allow ourselves to experience it.

In this way, don’t read Happiness if you want a how-to or self-help book. Don’t read it if you are looking for easy solutions or hot takes on current trends. Don’t read it to improve yourself. Rather, read Happiness if you are sick of books like that and you want to just remember for a little while that you are fine just as you are. Read it to remember that slowing down, calming down, and being present for the experiences of life are the things that create real happiness. And, then, when you have forgotten all of that as you are bound to do, read another of Hanh’s many books to remind yourself again.

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.

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.

Discomfort Is the Food of Meditation Practice

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.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not telling you here that any problems in meditation practice should simply be powered through or that you can manage all turmoil that arises in your practice on your own. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to move during your practice, to take a break, or to rely on your community, teachers, or trained professionals for help. But I am saying that struggle in meditation is a normal part of the practice. If you give yourself time, patience, and kindness as you encounter those struggles, they can teach you and help you build the skills to live a calmer, gentler, happier 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.

5 Ways to Rethink Meditation If You’re Worried That It’s Woo-Woo

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?

Of course, for me, it did work and that’s when I started to tell other people in my life about it. I first admitted to my husband that I wasn’t actually “napping” but instead meditating when I asked him to mind our daughter so I could have some quiet for a few minutes. I then raved to a few friends and family members I could trust about how much it helped. Some had questions but nobody responded with judgment. So, eventually, I started writing and speaking about it and I was astounded to find that other professionals, colleagues, and even clients supported me and shared their own struggles with mental health or experience with meditation.

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.

2. Drop the Baggage.

To be fair, some people think meditation is woo-woo because there are so many ways to meditate. Religious traditions can attach practices like chanting and incense that can make some people feel excluded. Some secular figures have used the practice of meditation as an affectation to virtue signal or demonstrate their own spiritual superiority. And some others for their own personal reasons like to add things like crystals or intense affirmations to a meditation practice and those things might not appeal to you. Guess what? There is no monopoly on meditation. Just because some people do their practice in one way doesn’t mean that you can’t do it in your own way.

While I consider myself a spiritual person, I am also a deeply practical one. I frankly don’t have time for crystals and incense. My brain rejects affirmations, flowery language, and theatrical voices with great fervor. And, though I find chanting builds a sense of community when meditating in groups, it feels awkward to do it on my own. So generally, my practice is straightforward: I sit, I breathe, I notice sensations in the body, and I let the thoughts and feelings and distractions come as they may.

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.

3. Change Is a Little Bit Woo-Woo.

If you are exploring meditation, the odds are that you want some kind of change in your life. Though new things can scare us a little, it’s hard to get change without being open to new things. Even though meditation might scare you because it is different, that different approach, outlook, or way of thinking may be exactly what you need. In other words, the fact that meditation may seem strange to you at first is not necessarily a bad thing.

Remember that it is normal and common to feel uncomfortable at first when you start any new practice or learn any new skill. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do it. Though your mind is bound to ask questions like “Is this right for me?” or “do I really want to get myself into this?”, you don’t have to answer those questions right away. Only experience can give the answers to those questions. The good thing about meditation is that it encourages you to take note of your present activities, the thoughts in your mind, and the feelings in your body. If it’s not right for you, you’ll know. But if it is, you might just get the change you set out to find.

4. Is Woo-Woo Really the Issue?

Sitting and watching my mind for a number of years has taught me that the mind is a tricky thing. It won’t always be straight with you about what it’s trying to do. Sometimes the mind comes up with stories or doubts to keep you from looking at things that scare it. As human beings, we don’t always want to get up close and personal with our habits and patterns. Those things can make us feel pain, regret, or even shame. They can push us into new situations and raise feelings we’d long since buried. Cleary, I can’t tell you whether that is true for you. But, it’s at least worth it to consider whether the whole “woo-woo” issue is even the issue at all.

Are you really worried about the practice being weird or looking weird to others? Or is your mind a little afraid of losing control? Are you a little afraid of changing or seeing that you need to change some things in your life? None of those fears deserve judgment. They are all deeply human and normal. Most of us know, of course, that making life decisions based on fear usually doesn’t make us happier. So, if the concerns about meditation being woo-woo are coming up for you, one thing to ask yourself is whether that concern is masking something else.

5. So What?

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.

So what?

Do these new tendencies mean you can’t be a good lawyer? Do they mean you will no longer be a tax-paying productive member of society? Do they mean you will have no choice but to grow your hair long, find a drum circle, and go live on a commune? I really doubt that they do.  

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.

Is Meditation a Spiritual Practice?

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.

Rather than alienate my friend, however, I decided that a blog post would probably be a better forum for these thoughts. So, here it goes. Is meditation a “spiritual practice?” Undoubtedly it is, since various forms of meditation have overtly been part of numerous spiritual and religious traditions throughout history. Meditation also may be a spiritual practice for many individuals outside of the context of religious and spiritual traditions. In my view, a spiritual practice is one that establishes or promotes a sense of connection between an individual and other beings or the universe. Meditation has clearly offered that for me and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

But I rail against putting meditation only in the spiritual bucket for a few reasons. The biggest is that, as a lawyer, I am a super practical person. Emphasizing the spiritual aspects of meditation can therefore be problematic when it is done to the exclusion of other practical benefits. Sure, meditation can connect you with the universe. It can also help you not be troubled by your thoughts. In my case, it consistently reduces or abates my headaches and other physical signs of stress. And, it routinely helps me get over myself by letting me see that I need to apologize/ask for help/forgive myself/ease up/just let something go. Having experienced all of these practical benefits firsthand, I can’t put meditation into the “spiritual” bucket alone because it contributes regularly to my mental/emotional/physical/social wellbeing.

But maybe that really takes me to a different point altogether. Maybe the problem isn’t with calling meditation a “spiritual” practice at all. Instead, perhaps the issue is that all of these aspects of personal well-being – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social – are actually intertwined. As a pedagogical tool, it may be helpful to separate out these needs so that us wayward humans who often stray from the path of health and happiness can find our breadcrumb trail to stumble back to sanity. But the truth, as my meditation practice regularly reveals to me, is that these human needs are intertwined and interdependent. Thus, most wholesome activities can’t be put into one bucket alone, but rather support, cycle, and flow into all the others.

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.