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.

Why Cultivate Compassion? Because It’s Not the Weight You Carry but How You Carry It.

Founder’s Note: I found Laura where I found a lot of other wonderful people I have never met in person: LinkedIn. She posted great content about compassion and so I connected with her. When she offered a CCT course this spring, I signed up even though it ended the week after I finished Mindful Self-Compassion training. I was a bit afraid I would be sick of compassion by that point, but Laura’s style of teaching was so real, practical, and filled with heart that I ended up being even more enthusiastic about it. Please welcome Laura to the pages of Brilliant Legal Mind and check out her bio below for information about another CCT course she’s offering this fall.

In late February 2020, I traveled to New York City for a compassion workshop. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, it felt like coming home. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells were as familiar as my heartbeat and the first bite of a folded slice of pizza brought me right back to childhood. As people jostled on the subway and scrambled up the stairs that Saturday night, the coronavirus still seemed like news from the other side of the world. Thousands of bodies crowded around Times Square, oblivious to what was just around the corner. We could not have imagined how soon and suddenly our lives would change, and how much strength and courage we would need to summon in response.

We all have done brave, hard things over the past 18 months – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – and we still have a ways to go before this journey is over. But we can do it. As humans, we are wired not only to be able to do hard things, but to do them with love and, when we do, we tap into a profound and renewing source of strength, courage, and connection. Wisdom traditions, art, and even science call this capacity compassion. It is our ability to both be aware of suffering and willing to relieve that suffering. Viktor Frankl described it this way:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Compassion looks different for each of us in the changing circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is yielding. Other times, fierce. Sometimes it calls us to make difficult sacrifices for others. Other times, to make the bold choice to take care of ourselves. Whatever its expression in any given moment, compassion is how humans have survived and made meaning out of unimaginable tragedies across time – both individually and collectively.

As a species, we are born completely vulnerable and dependent on others for our safety and well-being. This dependence develops into interdependence as we give and receive care across the span of our lives. We need our loved ones, strangers, and even people we don’t like to survive and thrive, and they need us. Take a moment to reflect on your last meal, the clothes you’re wearing, or the technology that allows you to read this and imagine the countless other lives who make these things possible. Likewise, the positive impact of your life ripples out and benefits others that you will never know.

Whether or not we recognize it, we have all drawn on this compassion for ourselves and others to navigate the past turbulent months. And it is compassion, this awareness of suffering and willingness to relieve it, which will continue to resource us moving forward.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Moya Cannon wrote:

Light is what days are made of –

it pulls the daffodils up out of dark earth,

prompts the eagle and the stub-tailed wren to nest

and draws the humpback whale north with its song.

Stones, warm on the morning sea-shore, know it.

Such tempests of grief our sun has scanned

yet light, the sun’s light and compassion’s light,

deep in every soul, eternally draws us on.

Recent discoveries in neurobiology and other sciences have begun to map out how “compassion’s light, deep in every soul” literally “draws us on” as it unfolds in our bodies. It is both an innate capacity which manifests as a specific physiological process and a skill that can be nurtured and strengthened through experience and deliberate practice and training. In addition, research shows that profound physical, mental, and social benefits result from offering and receiving compassion.

Compassion, however, is not the only way humans respond to suffering. We also react with anger, hatred, shame, blame, fear, overwhelm, anxiety, denial, violence – the list goes on. We burn out or become injured when we don’t have enough external support or we don’t know how to hold suffering when it comes too much, too fast like wildfire or lingers long like slow moving rain. These are natural responses which increase suffering within and around us, but which can in turn be met and alleviated with compassion.

So the invitation is to train our compassion muscles, so to speak, in order to become capable of holding the hard that life hands us. We can cultivate internal and external conditions that nurture compassion. We can develop our awareness and sense of care, our courage to act. We can get clear on what we love, what really matters to us, and what kind of world we want to live in, to be part of. We can ask for help and offer it when asked. We can have each other’s backs and discover our common humanity. We can pay attention to the moments that compassion flows freely and those in which it freezes rock solid or goes dry as a desert. We can learn to carry the weight of our lives in ways that make us stronger and more connected rather than hurt and broken apart.

As Mary Oliver observed:

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

“Heavy” from Thirst

Want to learn more about Compassion Cultivation Training? Check out this interview our founder, Claire E. Parsons, did with Laura here.

Five Lessons Power Zone Training Taught Me About Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Build skills first.

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

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

3. Community helps.

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

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

4. A compassionate teacher helps.

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

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

5. You can learn from discomfort.

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

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

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

Why Lawyers Need the Big Magic of Creative Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh

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.

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.

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.