Joy Is Remembering Heaven Is a Place on Earth

I got to my mother’s house late to pick up my daughters. I was exhausted and had just finished a too long evening meeting. I had an early meeting the next day and felt overburdened by life. As always, it took too long and too much frustration for my daughters, one 8 and one 4, to get on their shoes, gather up their belongings, and trundle out to the car. After I buckled them in and sat in the drivers’ seat, I started to pull out of the driveway in a rush to get home and into pajamas as quickly as possible.

Before I got to the end of the drive, the four-year-old chirps “Mommy, can we listen to ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’?” Sometimes, I admit, I brush her off and tell her “Not now, baby; it’s only a short ride.” But that night, I needed her to ask me this question. I needed the reminder that life is what we make it and what we see in it. So instead, I stopped, looked back to smile at her, and said “Good idea, Ellie. Yes we can!”

I don’t remember exactly how this song came to be a special one for us. Most likely the genesis is some 80’s playlist on Amazon Music, but I can see why the girls loved it even though it came out when I was Elinor’s age. It’s catchy, easy to sing, and has this uncanny sound – like a new beginning and happy ending all in one. I started playing it and as I sang “when the night falls down, I wait for you and you come around” I was already in a better mood than when I had pulled into the driveway.

As I started to drive towards home, the song blared on reminding me that I’m still “just beginning to understand the miracle of living.” The girls were singing and smiling in the backseat and I found myself smiling too. At a light, my little one yelled “mommy!” at me to get me to hold her hand and bounce it as we sang “I reach for you and you bring me home.” And suddenly I wasn’t just an overburdened, overwhelmed lawyer mom anymore. Instead, for a moment, I was a little girl sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan singing that song with my sister as it played on the radio.

There are lots of warnings for us parents to be “present” for our children. When you live as a lawyer, that can be hard to do. Our cases can fill up our calendars as well as our minds. They can leave little room for things like fun and memories and random adventures that lead to joy and connection. So that’s why we need other people to call us back to real life every now and then, even if sometimes we have to make ourselves listen. When we give them the chance, they remind us that there is no need to constantly worry and plan because the past and future are in each moment if we only choose to see it.

This memory was only a small moment, and many would argue an insignificant one. After all, I am telling you a story about a time when I played an old (and some might say silly) song in the car with my kids. But you know what? I don’t necessarily just remember the big, momentous occasions with my parents. I remember the small ones. I remember riding around to soccer practice and piano lessons in my mom’s minivan. I remember listening to the news on public radio in my dad’s Ford. I remember making up silly games with my sister in the backseat. For this reason, I know a truth that is easy to overlook: joy doesn’t require hours to emerge and it doesn’t require life-changing events. Instead, joy can be made in moments, and it is those moments that actually change our lives.

The key to living a joyful life is to be open to these moments so we can appreciate as many of them as possible. Of course, we won’t catch every one. Of course, there will be times when we will be too tired, or too distracted or too busy. But this only makes the moments we appreciate, fully take in, and share with others more precious. This memory with my daughters was one of those times. In a few moments, it transformed an exhausting and frustrating day into a good memory. It turned a silly song into a meeting place for my four-year-old self and the four-year-old now riding in the backseat of my car. That night when I went to pick up my girls, I was lost at sea, but I heard that four-year-old’s voice and it carried me. It reminded me that joy, fleeting as it may be, is powerful. It can forge a connection in moments that lasts well after the emotion that sparked it has passed. Indeed, when we let ourselves remember it, heaven is a place on earth.

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

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Litigating a Big Case Terrified Me, but Left Me Feeling Like a Badass

Every so often, there are cases that come along that test your limits as an attorney. Maybe they are high profile. Maybe they come from an area of law that is outside of your comfort zone. Or maybe the result in the case could have huge consequences for your client or community. Earlier this year, I had a case that included all these things and it scared me to death. This was a problem because I was lead counsel and it was my job not only to develop a strategy to manage the litigation, but also look confident enough for my client to have faith in my abilities.

For days after the case was filed, I was in a nasty mood. I was tensed up like a spring that had been held back and might burst open at any moment. I found it difficult to do small tasks on the case and focus, dig in, and do the work. While I had support from colleagues and friends, I kept feeling like I was lost in an unknown land with no idea how to get home. When I interacted with my client, I gave directives, identified risks and strategies, and offered consolation for their nerves. But as I did, I knew I was in ‘fake it until you make it’ mode.

I knew I had to get my head right to litigate the case well. I had critical and complex briefs to write and I had to quickly prepare to put on and attack proof in a hearing. How was I going to shake my fears and get my head in the game? I didn’t know what to do, so I kept doing what I always did. Fortunately, for me, that included meditation.

I am adamant about reminding people that meditation isn’t magic but it is a practice that has helped me over the years and gotten me out of many mental jams in the past. Honestly, the fear and loathing I was feeling about the case made me reluctant to sit. In times when I am really struggling, meditation is the last thing I want to do because I know it will force me to confront things I’d rather not feel. Even so, I knew I needed to manage my stress and that I needed a lifeline to keep me steady. I made myself sit even though I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it.  

I didn’t do any special practice or guided meditation and I barely focused on my breath. Instead, I just sat in the dark of my mind and let the thoughts swirl around. The thoughts were so intense and mixed up with my emotions that it took me a few days to get my bearings. Something in me must have recognized that I just needed to give it time. My meditation on the first night was a dark haze with little focus and minimal relief. I forgave myself and tried again the next night. I was surprised to find that my mind was less scattered and I was even able to do some loving-kindness practice for myself. That seemed to unlock a door because the third night was when I broke through.

As I sat, I found my mind settling on its own and connecting to my body like a final puzzle piece falling into place. Even as thoughts surfaced about the case, I was calm without effort and could just see them arise. This let me look at—examine—my fear. I could see it as a vision in my mind in addition to feeling it in my body. I saw the vision of me losing the case, making a mistake, and having to deal with the consequences. As I watched, my favorite phrase from my loving-kindness practice– “may I greet my life with joy”—sprang to mind. I selected this phrase for myself because embedded in it is the idea that life isn’t always a joy, but I can still choose to bring it in when I respond to situations in my life. This recollection made me break down in tears for a moment.

When I recovered, my mind collected itself and, in a kind, wise voice from nowhere, said: “Claire you can’t control what happens in this case. But you can control two things: how hard you fight and how kind you are to yourself as you fight.” And that was it. I didn’t conquer my fear at all. I acknowledged it. It was big, and drawn out, and overwhelming. It went right to my ego and shook it to its core. It took me 3 days before I was ready, but I stared that fear right in the eye and saw the truth: that I couldn’t make the fear go away but I could care for myself as I felt it.

Remembering this set me free. I slept better that night than I had in a week. I got up the next day and found it easier to focus. I wrote one of the best briefs I have ever written, with force, clarity, and solid legal analysis. I orchestrated a defense and showed confidence and compassion in preparing my client to testify. The litigation was stressful and worrisome to be sure, but I remained focused and steady throughout. Despite all my fears, the results for my client were much better than I had expected, and I was proud of the job my team and I had done. The funny thing is, though, that the results were not what made me most proud. I had started the case focused on the result and it made me feel alone, vulnerable, scared, and even a little like a fraud about to be revealed. I ended it feeling like a badass because I let the results go.

My meditation practice helped me get out of the mindset of treating the case like a test of my worth as an attorney or a person. It helped me stop punishing myself for all of the things in the case I couldn’t control so I could focus solely on the things I could. In the end, the case didn’t test my limits as a lawyer, but rather expanded them. I had believed unconsciously that a scared lawyer wasn’t a good lawyer. I now know that a scared lawyer can be a great lawyer. I didn’t have to conquer all of my fears to do great work for my client. Instead, I needed to let myself expand to hold the fear with kindness so that it could transform to compassion and courage.

If you are dealing with anxiety relating to a case, you aren’t alone. We have a guided meditation for you. It uses visualization and loving-kindness practice to help you take care of yourself as you serve your clients.

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

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Just Learning to Say “This Is Hard” Can Change Your Life

My favorite unintended side effect of my mindfulness practice is that it gives me all kinds of opportunities to laugh at myself. I don’t mean mock myself in a cold or cutting way. Rather, I mean laugh out loud at how silly this thing I call my self can be. To be sure, there are times when my practice has called on me to go and find my inner child curled up on the floor in the dark recesses of my mind and stroke its hair and tell it that it’s beautiful and things will be alright. But some of the time, the only logical response to myself is to just say “Girl, I love you, but you are a goofy” and laugh.

My journey to learn to say “this is hard” is one of those things. Yes, you got it right. I’m not talking about enlightenment here or some vision quest type situation. I am telling you that I struggled for years (read: decades) to learn to (a) observe a difficult personal experience; and (b) acknowledge in the present moment that the experience was difficult. We are talking very basic stuff right here. But hallelujah when I finally learned to do this it was like I had worked a miracle.

Like most lawyers I’ve struggled with perfectionism most of my life. I’ve been the “smart” girl in school and the “good” girl in my family. And somewhere along the way, that got confused with the idea that I had to be innately good at anything I ever did. When I started practicing law and raising kids, I really struggled because—newsflash—those things are hard. As a new mom and lawyer, I was still in the mode of pretending like things were “fine” and that I was “on top of things” and, through gritted teeth, that it was all a “piece of cake.” How did that work out for me? Terribly. I totally fell apart and that’s when I turned to meditation to put myself back together.

Meditation is sometimes presented like magic but it’s actually much more like those times when you are running out the door looking frantically for your car keys and your spouse or child says “you are holding them.” Learning to say “this is hard” is a car key situation for me. It was right there all along and I was too busy trying to look like I knew what I was doing to see it. By learning to sit in silence, I saw my thoughts, I felt my body, and let my emotions have a voice. I suddenly started to see that—holy crap!—all kinds of hard stuff happened to me all the time. I would struggle to focus, I would have nasty voices in my head saying mean things, my foot would fall asleep, my knee would hurt, and my ego would be bruised and battered because I wasn’t the stoic meditator I had set out to be.

Do you know what all of this taught me? That just saying “this is hard” really, really helped. When I acknowledged the hard stuff, I was able to stop struggling against it. I could stop pretending it wasn’t there. I could stop putting on a brave face. By just letting go of that, I saved so much energy and opened up so much space. That extra energy and space left room to just experience the situation. Many times I would see that the situation passed on its own and that I didn’t have to do anything. On other occasions, I saw clearly what I needed to do to care for myself. For example, if my foot fell asleep, maybe I might just wiggle my toes or move my leg. In the case of an attack of the nasty voice in my head, I might just focus more on my breath or hold my own hand as I watched it rage in my mind like a child throwing a tantrum on the floor.

After I practiced this enough in meditation, I noticed it started to happen on its own in my life. When I notice my own struggle during a workout, admitting that my situation is hard helps my inner cheerleader come out and say “you got this!” When my daughter throws a real live tantrum on the floor, it helps just to take a breath in and internally say “ouch.” These moments of recognition are often enough to steady me so that I can respond with some semblance of calm. In my law practice, acknowledging when things are hard helps me manage my schedule to make my days easier or ask for help from a colleague on a tricky problem or when dealing with difficult opposing counsel. In other words, letting myself admit that things are sometimes hard was the necessary first step for managing my life and law practice more effectively.

This is why I have to laugh at myself because the thing I was running from my whole life is what I needed all along. It was so simple and so small that I kept overlooking it, so the only way I could see it was to stop everything, sit down for a while, and do nothing. When I did, I finally let the truth of life come raining down: that life is hard and pretending it’s not makes it harder. So, when life is hard, just admit it if you can because saying “this is hard” is the first step of self-compassion. But, if even that is hard for you, laughing at yourself is always an option too.

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

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Self-Compassion Is the Path Out of Mom Guilt and Into a Better World

“Am I a bad mom . . . ”

I cannot tell you how many times I have sent texts starting with this phrase to friends when life feels like a mess. I’ve seen countless posts in Facebook moms groups that start this way too. These questions about one’s quality as a mother may finish with anything from missing a child’s school event because of work, to forgetting a child’s lunch when rushing out the door, or even for far less dire things like bringing store bought treats to the bake sale. When I ask the question myself, I usually couch it as a joke, though I am seeking some level of real-world affirmation or at least sympathy from my friends. So, when I see other moms ask this question, my answer is always “no” and I’m usually part of a chorus of other moms who, in unison, proclaim “hell no!”

I’m glad these supports are out there. I appreciate it when my loved ones come to my aid when I get down on myself. But I hate seeing so much evidence that wonderful women are seriously considering whether they are good mothers every time life happens. I’ve struggled with this myself in the past and occasionally still do. In fact, mom guilt is why I started meditating in the first place. I had it so bad when my first daughter was born that I developed post-partum depression and it took years to work out of my self-judgmental tendencies. How did I do it? Self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the way out of mom-guilt. Am I saying it is the only way? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that moms, and parents for that matter, are doing far more on their own than they have ever done before. Our modern culture has lost many of the supports for parents we enjoyed in more traditional times. Unfortunately, legal and social networks in the United States have not progressed to fill in the gap with things like paid family leave and corporate cultures that really walk the walk in terms of respecting the demands of working caregivers. As a society, we’ve got to do better for moms and caregivers overall.

But self-compassion isn’t at odds with that. Self-compassion is what we can do right now to care for ourselves in the imperfect world in which we live. It’s not a vague platitude to “make time for self-care”. Rather, it’s a practice that you can bring into your life to care for yourself even when you have no time. More importantly, the practices are based on traits we all have as humans, so we can all cultivate them with subtle shifts in mindset and practice.

So what is self-compassion? It’s the same compassion you offer to everyone else in your life. The only difference is that you offer it to yourself. Compassion is nothing more than presence with suffering and the willingness to help. Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. breaks down the elements as (1) awareness/mindfulness; (2) kindness; and (3) common humanity. If anyone understands compassion, it’s moms. For cultural reasons and maybe because our time and energy are often so short, the hard part is factoring ourselves in.

How can moms bring in self-compassion to reduce mom guilt? They just need to remember one rule: self-compassion is always the answer. By that, I don’t mean the only answer but it’s always the first response. I bet this sets off all sorts of alarm bells and “buts” and “what ifs” in your mind. So let me break it down.

First, let’s start with the easy one: a situation where you feel guilty or bad about your performance as a mom, but your better angels (and maybe loved ones) are telling you that you didn’t do anything wrong. As an example, maybe you were tickling your child and they fell back and hurt themselves. It’s totally normal to get down on yourself about this situation but it’s not really something morally bad, is it? I mean, it’s actually good that you were playing with your child, right? So why the bad feelings? Because our brains are trained to react to bad things and assign blame. If there’s no one else around, we are the only targets. So we blame and attack ourselves. The problem is, of course, that our kids being hurt causes pain for us too. We may comfort our kids in that situation, but who’s comforting us?

That’s where self-compassion comes in. We can use awareness to recognize that we hurt too. We can offer ourselves care just by experiencing the pain and reminding ourselves that all we can do is our best. And we can remember the common humanity: how many parents across time and the world have done the same thing? We aren’t alone in this struggle. It’s a human struggle. We aren’t bad at life; life is hard. Going through this process feels a lot better than guilt and it keeps the mind rooted in the present so it doesn’t go down the path of blame, shame, and rumination about the past.

Now, you are probably thinking: “Hold your horses on all of this self-compassion business. If I did something wrong, I deserve a kick in the ass.” Yeah, I struggled with this one too. It’s true that even us moms screw up sometimes. We lose our cool. We make bad choices. We say and do hurtful things to people we love. You know why that is? Because we are not superheroes, or saints, or martyrs, or TV moms with a makeup artist just outside of camera view. We are humans. And humans make mistakes.

Guess what? When we humans make mistakes, we get a kick in the ass in the form of consequences and bad feelings. As an expert at losing my cool with my kids, I can tell you I always get payback. They react to my anger with anger and bad conduct that I have to eventually control. And then I get treated to a nice tepid bath of shame and regret. In those situations, I don’t really need to pile on by kicking myself while I am down. Instead, what I really need is to restore calm, forgive myself, recognize what caused the problem, make amends, and move forward.

Will nasty internal comments help me do that? Hell no. So I have learned to recognize instead that parenting is hard, that I do a lot, that my limits get tested and pushed every day, and that me breaking sometimes is what most other moms and parents around the world experience too. Then I remember how good I am, how much I love my kids, tell myself I can do better, and go apologize. In the process, I remind myself that I deserve forgiveness and teach my kids that, instead of hiding from our mistakes, we own them and fix them.

And what if it’s more complicated? What if the causal chain of your screw up is mish-mashed up with someone else’s or that of society at large? I’d argue that this category comprises the vast majority of the incidents that may trigger your feelings of guilt. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a complex social system and are subject to all the restrictions and mores and whims that entails. How on earth could we possibly distill our role in a situation, with the aim of doing better next time, if we don’t employ clear vision and a relatively friendly attitude towards ourselves? We can’t.

This complexity, of course, leads to something even bigger:  the reality that self-compassion isn’t even just about us and isn’t something we necessarily have (or ought) to do alone. It isn’t about coddling ourselves or giving ourselves a pass on our nonsense. Rather, it’s about adding a baseline level of comfort so that we can face the cold hard facts about ourselves and the world in which we are living. When we can do that, we are more likely to foster and rely on relationships that can support us through hard times. Through this process, we become stronger, healthier, happier, and we can offer our kids, teams, and communities so much more. Because when we learn to pick ourselves up when we fall, forgive our own mistakes, and take care of our own pain, we find new courage to reach higher, take risks, and face the pain of others and the world.

Self-compassion is therefore not just the way out of mom guilt. It is one of the steps we can each take to make a better world. Imagine what might happen if, all of a sudden, 90% of moms didn’t feel guilty but instead knew that they were good, kind, loving, strong, and resilient? Rather than asking whether they are good or bad, those moms would ask two much better questions over and over again: “what do I need?” and “how can I help?”

For more resources on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s work which is linked above or our Guided Meditation for Caregivers.

For more discussion on the topic of mom guilt and self-compassion, check out the Instagram Live I did with Mom Life and Law podcast host and lawyer, Megan Whiteside.

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

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Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Book Review: Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

 I honestly don’t remember when or how I started following Quit Like A Woman (often shortened to “QLAW”) author Holly Whitaker on social media. It’s at least in part due to the fact that I’ve been giving a lot of thought in recent years about how much our work and social lives revolve around happy hour and what Whitaker describes as “a world obsessed with drinking.” And, it’s no secret that lawyers have high rates of problematic drinking. On top of that, like so many working women, with the pressure of juggling work and homeschool and dealing with the general stressors of life in a pandemic, I’ve found myself looking forward to happy hour a little too much at times. So, when Claire told me she was reading QLAW and that it was “mind-blowing” I thought it was time I actually read the book.

To be clear: a sober life is not something I’ve ever considered and it’s not something I’m considering even after reading QLAW. Nevertheless, I can unequivocally say that, like Claire, I found QLAW to be “mind-blowing” despite its flaws (more on that below). 

Whitaker offers a totally new approach to thinking about sobriety. Part memoir, part self-help, Whitaker wants to dispel myths about alcohol (what she describes as “Big Alcohol”); she offers a critical analysis of how Alcoholics Anonymous often fails women; and proposes a completely different approach to sobriety. And she relies on mindfulness and meditation to support her sobriety. She’s also funny and brash which makes it an interesting read in and of itself.

What really resonated for me is Whitaker’s basic premise that in order to “break the cycle of addiction” you need to get to the root causes of your addictions and develop routines and habits to build a life that that she describes as a life “I don’t want, or need, to escape from.” I’ve been thinking a lot about all of my habits and routines (not just drinking) and wondering what habits are “getting in the way of me living my best life” (as Whitaker describes it)? Looking at habits and routines this way is deeply rooted in mindfulness as a way of rewiring our brain to stop, slow down, and make healthier choices.

Another theme of QLAW is that there is no “right way” to sobriety. According to Whitaker, unlike AA’s one-size-fits-all approach, everyone’s road to sobriety must be deeply rooted in the needs and experiences of the individual. This is a basic premise of a mindfulness meditation practice: yes, there is a road map, but how you practice must resonate with you and actually work in your day-to-day life. She also want to eliminate the shame aspect of addiction. And, as Claire talks about her recent blog post, shame can be a barrier to making healthy choices (Kelly McGonigal does some amazing work around habit change and dealing with shame. 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.  

Loren VanDyke Wolff is an attorney, mom, community leader, and long-time meditator who lives and practices law in Covington, Kentucky. She has contributed several pieces to the blog and has a passion for improving the legal profession. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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You Can Meditate Even If You Can’t Sit Still

I wish I could meditate,” people often tell me when I speak or present about mindfulness, “but I can’t sit still.” To be sure, meditation is associated with stillness. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of mindfulness is the statue of the Buddha. He sits there with that half smile, perfectly still, looking totally unbothered and it can make some of us—mere mortals who have yet to attain enlightenment—think we can’t do the same. I’m here to tell you to forget that idea. You are allowed to move when you meditate.

Look, you don’t need my permission or anyone’s permission when you start a meditation practice. It’s YOUR practice. Do what works for you. But, as a recovering perfectionist myself and as a lawyer trained to never take an action without solid authority, I know how easy it is to forget that. In fact, I needed my meditation practice to learn even to notice what felt good to and worked for my body. With that in mind, I made this permission slip for you in case you want proof positive that a meditation teacher has authorized you to move during meditation. Share it with your friends and family and anyone who ever questions you or gives you side eye for moving during your practice.

Now, of course, you may think “but isn’t moving during meditation bad?” and wonder why I am giving this permission out so freely. My answer to that is that the classic lawyer response: “it depends.” Movement during meditation is generally something to be avoided because the point of meditation is usually to calm and settle the mind. If the body is moving, it is harder to do that and it may be nearly impossible for a new meditator. As such, the general advice and the strategy I use in my own practice is to try to find a posture I can hold for a solid period of time and avoid moving where possible.

But, this strategy has limits. Beyond stillness, the other way to calm and settle the mind and body is to comfort it. That means your physical comfort as you meditate supports your mental stillness. Thus, if something is making you uncomfortable during you practice, the wise and skillful thing may just be to move to take care of it. This means you can (and maybe ought to) scratch that itch or wiggle that leg that has fallen asleep.

Once you practice long enough, you start to realize that there really are no distractions from your practice; there are only new things that arise that become your practice. In reality, when a desire to move arises, it isn’t a zero sum game. Instead, if you remain mindful during the situation, it’s really a choice of what mode of practice you want to employ. You can choose to sit with the experience and stay with the physical sensations in the body and watch them arise, move, change, and fade away. That’s practicing body awareness, equanimity, compassion, and also exploring the temporary nature of life. Those are great skills and experiences to have in your life. But, if you choose to move, you practice body awareness, mindful action, and compassion. Those are also great skills to have.

The key with both of these things, of course, is to first maintain awareness of your experience. When you do that, you can choose the next course of action and whatever action you choose becomes your practice. Then you can simply return to the breath or whatever focal point you have selected for that session. Now, of course, if you lose awareness and just scratch that itch or wiggle your leg unconsciously, what then? I think you know the answer here: this is still practice. When you realize what you’ve done, you notice it, return to your focal point, and try to avoid mentally bludgeoning yourself in the process.

In short, you can move when you meditate. You don’t need to be a statue. You can find stillness (and wisdom and compassion) even when your body and the world won’t let you sit still. That is life. Don’t fight against it; practice with it. The wisdom, the lessons, and the benefits of meditation don’t come from trying to live up to a standard. They come from learning to move through life with greater compassion, awareness, and ease. You can learn that from sitting still in your meditation practice and moving on occasion too. Give it a try.

For more information about ways to respond to when the urge to move arises, check out the 1-minute video and slide deck on our Learn to Meditate in Less than 2 Minutes page.

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

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How Mindfulness Helped Me Learn to Ride the Wave in a Life Full of Transitions

Spring is about transition. The days are getting longer, the weather is warming up a bit, and we’re starting to shake off the winter blahs. For me right now, it is also about life transitions. I’m 44, I have 3 kids one of which had a kidney transplant as a baby, I left a job at a law firm in December, and we decided to move in January. And, of course, let’s not forget we’re a year into a global pandemic that has required us to basically reinvent our lives. So, let’s just say that transition is kind of my jam these days.

The past year, strange as it has been, is not strange at all in the context of the last decade. These past 10ish years feel like they have been nothing but transition for me. In the span of a few years, my husband and I started our own law practice, rehabbed a house built in 1870, and had our first baby. Then, in 2012, our second child, William, was born with end stage renal disease which began what I like to refer to as: The Five-Year Pause.

For the first 18 months of William’s life we were in perpetual crisis mode. It was exhausting – both physically and emotionally. At 18 months old William received a kidney transplant and by the time he was five he was in school and we had settled into a life with an immunosuppressed kid. Our law practice continued to grow and in 2015 we had a third kid.

Loren with her kids.

Then I turned 40, and thought “now what”? I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do next and I ended up leaving the law practice I had with my husband and joined a law firm. Though I learned a lot at that firm, it wasn’t the right fit. And, like so many others, COVID also had my family in turmoil. My son’s ADHD and anxiety made virtual school incredibly stressful. My 11-year-old daughter was suffering—we were all suffering. So, I joined the 140,000 women that left their jobs in December.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve realized that I’ve experienced growth. Here I am—spring is around the corner, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and I’m in the middle of yet another major life transition trying to figure out what’s next for my career. But, unlike when William was born, I now have a regular meditation and mindfulness practice to help me. Through all that change, I have learned a skill, a strategy, a practice to cling to when times feel hard.

Let me be clear. I have a lot of days where life feels really hard. Mindfulness does not mean I’m floating around blissed out all the time (picture one of those smiling Buddha statues). That is definitely not me. I’m still a mom that yells at my kids sometimes, feels overwhelmed a lot, and sometimes feels like I’m not smart enough. I still fall victim to all the other harmful thought patterns that go with anxiety and stress to which women lawyers are especially prone. And did I mention we’re in the middle of a global pandemic?

The difference is that my mindfulness and meditation practice makes me feel a little less terrible. I now have a more skillful way to handle difficult feelings when they come up and I’m able to ride the wave of the hard days with a little more ease. And I’m able to appreciate the less-hard days which has brought a little more joy and happiness into my life. And above all, my mindfulness practice helps me show up every day and practice – again and again.  

At its core, a mindfulness meditation practice is about cultivating the ability to be fully present – to bring awareness to how we feel. It’s also about compassion—for ourselves and others. An essential step in a meditation practice is cultivating a nonjudgmental space in our own brains where we can feel our body and experience emotions without being reactive or feeling overwhelmed. And for me, a major ah-ha moment in my meditation practice was reaching the understanding that it is just that – a practice. Which means I will be working on it for my entire life. I mean, sure, maybe I’ll reach enlightenment, but assuming I won’t, I’m going to continue practice because the truth is I just feel a little better when I do. And especially during times like now – when life feels especially overwhelming – my mindfulness practice allows me to be present with the hard feelings without completely freaking out. And, sometimes, when life is hard, not freaking out is a victory.

So, here’s my intention for this spring: I’m going to use this time to reset. To begin again. To remind myself that while life’s transitions can feel difficult, they also bring growth. I will be brave and remain open to the possibilities. I’m also going to work on my self-compassion practice (which means I’m going to practice cutting myself some slack because life is hard right now and I’m doing the best I can).

And, maybe for just a moment, I will celebrate all the change, and all the joy and pain, and all the people in my life who helped me survive and grow in the last 10 years. Because the truth is life will be hard sometimes no matter what I do and I’ve learned that sometimes it helps to just take a deep breath and ride the wave.

To learn more about this topic, check out the video of founder Loren and our Founder, Claire E. Parsons, discussing how even short mindfulness practices can help you deal with the turbulence of life:

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out the new book from our founder, Claire E. Parsons, called How to Be a Badass Lawyer which is now available on Amazon.

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How Mindfulness Can Help You Survive Virtual Litigation

Before the pandemic, I had almost never used Zoom at all but I have now litigated numerous virtual hearings and done too many webinar presentations to count. If the past year was good for anything, it at least forced me to learn how to take depositions and put on proof over Zoom. Virtual litigation offers many benefits, especially efficiency and convenience, but it is exhausting in every sense of the word. When litigation is already exhausting in normal circumstances, this impact cannot be taken lightly.

Even as we begin to come out of the pandemic, I think its fair to say that virtual litigation options are going to persist even if they are not so common as they have been in the last year. So, you may wonder if there are any tips or tricks for making virtual litigation a little less painful. Several lessons from my own mindfulness practice helped me stay steady during virtual hearings and they might help you too. Here are my tips:

1. Remember Your Limits

One of the first mindfulness lessons I learned is one that many of us lawyers often forget: we are not just brains. We have bodies. Those bodies have needs and limits. When we don’t respect those limits and honor those needs, our performance suffers and we experience a lot of needless pain. The way I handled this when litigating cases remotely was to be conservative in scheduling the cases on the front end. Rather than try to power through with 8-10 hour days on Zoom, we opted for ½ days spread out over time. While I was initially concerned that we wouldn’t finish even with the days allotted, we ended up finishing the proof early because we were conscious of time every day. This reduced the need for multiple breaks and allowed us all to avoid the fatigue and problems that came with prolonged time staring at the computer. Even if you can’t schedule a case this particular way, think practically about how long you can tolerate Zoom litigation as you set the schedule because remembering your humanity in scheduling will help the case go more smoothly.

2. Pick Your Battles

Another lesson my mindfulness practice taught me is that fighting is often unnecessary. Stipulations are essential for managing many hearings and trials to avoid wasting time on undisputed things. When you add the logistical complications of virtual presentation to the mix, that sentiment is even more important. In addition to stipulations of fact or evidence that could make things go more quickly, consider setting procedures or developing plans to make sure everyone is on the same page for the hearing. It may even be useful to hold a dry run with counsel for all parties to ensure that everyone is familiar with the platform you are using. While it may seem foreign to work closely with your opponent in this way, you may find that letting go of fights about minor things can help you all focus better on the disputes that really matter.

3. Plan for Disruptions

Anyone who meditates knows that disruptions happen no matter how much we try to avoid them. Likewise, anyone who has tried a trial or lengthy hearing knows that they almost never happen without a hitch. Prepare yourself for the disruptions. Have a plan for technology issues. Try to develop schedules of witnesses to avoid lag times if testimony goes quicker or slower than expected. In addition, it generally helps not to be a jerk about your opposing party’s situation because it will eventually happen that you are the one who needs the mercy. In one of my virtual hearings, I learned an hour before testimony was set to start that my daughter was required to quarantine due to a close contact at school. I was fortunate that my client, opposing counsel, and the hearing officer granted me a postponement for that day so I could pick her up from school. If my relationships had been less cordial, however, I may have gotten a different result.

4. Slow Down. Then Slow Down Some More.

Rushing is something we all do, especially when we are stressed, but my mindfulness practice has helped me notice it, slow down, and respond more skillfully to life. For most of us, hearings are going to make us stressed whether they are virtual or not. When you present virtually, everything goes through a filter so rushing can quickly become disastrous to your case. To avoid this, remind yourself as much as possible to slow down. Come back to your breath frequently or do a quick body sweep (check your brow, eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest belly, hips, hands) to return to your body. If you are noticing the signs of tension or quick or shallow breathing, try to relax your body and open up your breath. You can do those things in a second or two and it can help keep you steady, focused, and even as you ask questions and present proof.

5. Get Some Rest.

Finally, another important mindfulness lesson is the importance of rest. When we let our attention settle on the breath, we give our minds a chance to stop trying for a moment. For us achiever types, even a little bit of rest goes a long way. When you sit in front of a glaring screen all day and have to listen intently to less than great audio, you need to check in with yourself after and give yourself a break. That likely means an activity away from your computer with some different sensory input. Your normal exercise or relaxation routine might be enough, but I found that I needed to pull out all the stops for my weeks of virtual hearings. In addition to normal exercise, I needed some extra yoga sessions, warm baths, and any time outside that I could get. When you are in a trial or a hearing, it may be tempting to dive right into your inbox piling up with emails but a well-timed break may make your efforts less painful and more efficient.  

I hope we are leaving the COVID-19 era of social distancing but I think the brave new world of virtual litigation is here to stay. Litigating cases remotely presents its challenges to be sure, but the lessons from our mindfulness practices can help us to reduce suffering on Zoom in the same way that they help us to reduce suffering in our lives. If we remember to care for ourselves and bring awareness to the unique challenges and opportunities that virtual litigation presents, we can then focus our whole attention on getting great results for our clients.

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

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Brilliant Book Recommendation: Together by Vivek H Murthy, M.D.

If I told you that I read a book about loneliness and really enjoyed it, you might think I was insane. Americans don’t like loneliness. As an introvert, I agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that our culture is more inclined to favor the proclivities of our extrovert friends. As a result, the idea of loneliness for Americans is almost taboo. I mean, if you are lonely, it raises the awful question as to why? Who wants to answer that? Nobody. At least, for many years of my own life, I know that I didn’t.

But Vivek Murthy, M.D., our once and current Surgeon General wants us to answer that question both individually and collectively. He wants us to answer it because he has seen the impact that loneliness can have on his individual patients and the consequences that those individual stories–played out millions of times over–has on our system of public health. In Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Murthy argues that loneliness is a huge social and medical problem but one that has a solution.

In the book, Dr. Murthy traces the evolutionary reasons that loneliness has such an effect on human beings. He argues quite convincingly that society has somewhat misdiagnosed the condition. While many of us fear that our loneliness suggests that there is something wrong with or undesirable about us, Dr. Murthy suggests that we instead ought to think of loneliness more like other biological conditions. He explains that our bodies are wired for connection with other humans because those connections have throughout our history been so closely associated with our survival. Thus, when we feel lonely, it is our body’s signal that we need connection much like the feelings of hunger or thirst indicate we need food and water.

Unlike hunger and thirst, however, Dr. Murthy explains that many of us tend to see loneliness as a sign that there is something wrong with or bad about us. This is where things break down for many of us because it can cause us to retreat, self-isolate, and lead to even worse conditions, including depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure or other physical consequences. As a result, though loneliness is common–pervasive even–and normal–the very byproduct of our biology–we humans get tangled in it because we see it is abnormal and the product of some character flaw.

I got caught in this tangle myself. When I started my law practice, I had returned home after seven years away at school. At the time, I was focused on billing hours like any good associate should be and growing my new family. I didn’t make much of an effort to make friends and neglected reaching out and sharing my life with the ones I had. Though on a subconscious level I knew that I wanted more of a social life, I didn’t want to face the issue because I was worried that I was lonely because there was something wrong with me.

Unable to let myself think critically about these issues, I let myself believe the stories that I “didn’t fit in” and “wasn’t good at making friends.” After a period of depression, I was forced to reckon with these ideas and you know what I found out? I found out that I didn’t fit in and that was exactly what helped me make friends. I realized that it was my lack of effort and my disconnection with myself that caused my loneliness. Meditation helped me connect with and accept myself. I started showing up and reaching out and soon realized that I was good at making friends and being one because I was good at being myself.

Dr. Murthy, too, shares his own experiences with loneliness and captures the stories of many others who have successfully faced it. In many cases, he relates how many of those people (like himself) experienced deeply troubling times of loneliness but used their experiences to create and foster connections that served a wider community of people. In some cases, people created communities–whether online or in-person–that did not exist before. I hope that you read the book for yourself because each story is covered with a grace that can’t be captured in a single blog post. The pattern that emerges from reading them all, however, is this: loneliness can be addressed by accepting it as normal, looking inside yourself to heal, and then reaching out to build connections.

The past year has taken a toll on all of us and has done nothing to improve the social and public health problem of loneliness. If anything is to be gained from this, though, I hope it is acceptance of the magnitude of the problem that loneliness presents and a recognition of how solvable it is. We Americans pride our individualism but we are humans first and our human biology tells us we need each other. As we try to make our way out of a global pandemic that has forced us to socially distance, I am at least hopeful that our Surgeon General is someone who deeply understands loneliness on a personal, social, and scientific level. For, if we begin to understand the issue of loneliness, I believe that as a society we can heal and then begin to forge the new connections we need to rebuild, progress, and thrive.

If you are feeling lonely, monitor your reaction to it and your thoughts about it. This short video offers some ways to help you do that.

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

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