4 Steps to Help Lawyers Handle Shame Triggers from Opposing Counsel

Though most of the attorneys I have litigated cases against are wonderful people who only want to represent their clients well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some just like to play games. They don’t want to turn over documents that are clearly relevant. They don’t want to think practically when evaluating a case for settlement. And they want to object all the time just to be difficult. Sometimes this happens because people lose their patience, get too emotionally invested in a case, or have other pressures that affect their decisions. Since I am an imperfect human and litigation is stressful, I can forgive a lot.

The kind of game that is the hardest to forgive, however, is when lawyers attempt to play games with other lawyer’s minds. Perhaps the most vile instance of this is the intentional shame trigger. This happens when one attorney tries to control another without legitimate power or authority with comments intended only to make the other attorney feel bad. By now, most attorneys know that they can dance like nobody is watching, but must email like it may one day be read in court. Thus, I usually don’t see attorneys flat out calling names or spewing hate explicitly. Instead, most shame trigger attempts I’ve encountered have been embedded in a discussion of legal or factual issues. This can make them even more insidious, however, because it means that an opposing attorney without good intentions might be able to worm their way into your head without you realizing it.

What is to be done about this situation?  I’ve found that several tools from my mindfulness training have helped me avoid becoming distracted when opposing counsel throws out shame triggers. Here are my tips.

1. Recognize.

The first step for dealing with a shame trigger is to see when it is happening. Clearly, mind games in litigation can come in all sorts of forms, so there isn’t necessarily a single definition that can apply to all situations. Even so, I find that shame triggers tend to occur when one party wants something from the other, but they don’t have legitimate means of obtaining it. I’ve commonly seen this arise in settlement negotiations when opposing counsel wants me to increase my offer but doesn’t have a good basis for explaining why the risk necessitates an increase. I’ve also seen it occur when parties are discussing things like deposition scheduling or discovery and there is a lack of guidance from the court or civil rules about how something must be done. When the respective parties’ interests and preferences clash, shame triggers might be thrown out to intimidate or manipulate opposing counsel into doing what they want.

Now, of course, it is our job as attorneys to sometimes point it out when things about the other side’s actions or case are wrong. For instance, it’s not inappropriate to tell another attorney that their client’s discovery responses are overdue or that their legal theory has flaws. Shame triggers, though, aren’t pointing out a lack in the other party’s case or a failure to undertake an essential procedural step. Rather, they are intended to point to a lack in an attorney’s worth as a person or professional. The calling card of the shame trigger, therefore, is that they usually involve passing judgment on an attorney and are unnecessary to making a legitimate request or explaining a position in a case. If you notice this happening, slow yourself down if possible and acknowledge what’s going on before you do anything else.

2. Equanimity.

The thing about shame is that it really hurts. Humans have an innate need for the approval and support from our communities. We go out of our way to avoid feelings of shame and judgment from others, including strangers and people we don’t approve of ourselves. This is exactly why lawyers sometimes stoop to the level of tossing out shame triggers to try to get their way: they sometimes work. Thus, once you are aware that another attorney is trying to shame trigger you, the next step is to draw on equanimity.

If you can give yourself a few minutes to take a break from the situation, that might be enough to calm you down. Unfortunately, though, we don’t always have that option. In times when opposing counsel is playing mind games, I remember my objective for my client and my values. I also recognize that the point of nasty, shaming comments is to elicit an emotional reaction from me and to distract me from my purpose in representing my client. I remind myself that the true test of my worth as a lawyer isn’t what another lawyer might say about me in the heat of a dispute, but only my own actions. This helps me find steadiness and stability as I venture on to respond in a way that serves my client best.

3. Choose Your Response.

Because lawyers use shame triggers to try to exert control when real control is lacking, the best way to undermine them is to choose your own response. As a child who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, the image that comes to mind with this is in the final scene of Labyrinth when Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) proclaims “You have no power over me!” to Jareth (David Bowie), thereby dispelling the illusion that his emotional manipulation could dictate her actions. Just like Jareth, lawyers who use shame triggers can present as powerful with their bluster and arrogance but those behaviors often mask a position of relative weakness.

Does this mean you have to call out the other attorney as a shame-triggering hooligan who “has no power” over you? Not necessarily, though an explicit but skillful calling out when discussions get overly personal or aggressive may be necessary in some cases. In general, though, I prefer to just let my actions do the talking. After determining what aspect of the commentary from opposing counsel requires a response, I show my strength with my next move. This may be a motion or settlement offer based on my evaluation of risk or no move at all as I call the bluff of the other attorney threatening a motion of their own. In other words, I redirect my energy away from their emotion and judgment back to the legal and factual issues in the case where it belongs. Wherever possible, I try to project calm and confidence as I do. In doing this, I avoid wasting time arguing with other lawyers about the propriety of their conduct and I neuter any power the shame trigger might have had because I stay focused on the work for my client.

4. Care for Your Feelings.

Now, this is not to say that emotions can simply be ignored when dealing with nastiness and shame triggers from opposing counsel. As I’ve written before, emotions need to be felt and it’s usually a waste of time to pretend they aren’t there. Though I try to avoid making decisions about legal strategy based on my emotions, it is necessary to deal with them later on in an appropriate and healthy way. In the moment, this may include simply sitting with the feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, or even fear that may arise when opposing counsel uses shame as a weapon. Coupling this with some breathing to calm your body and self-compassion may be enough to steady you so that you can respond and address the situation.

When you have more time, I have usually found it necessary to release the emotions further. Physical exercise has helped me let go of frustrations and the stress of dealing with difficult opposing counsel. Self-forgiveness and self-kindness are usually essential because, in stressful situations with adversarial people, I rarely handle situations perfectly. More significantly, though, I have usually found it most helpful to share my frustrations without revealing client confidences with a loved one or colleague.

More than anything, getting the perspective of someone else helps me ensure that I was seeing the situation clearly, and to validate my experience. Sharing my feelings doesn’t make the other attorney’s conduct any better but it has always helped me feel less alone in dealing with it. Often in litigation, we are in a situation where we must learn not to act on our emotions, so it is essential at some point to reckon with and honor them as normal and human. You deserve this support because the work of an attorney is hard and important, but offering this ongoing support to yourself will also help you build confidence as you face new challenges.

Unfortunately, bad behavior from opposing counsel is part of litigation. To be sure, firms, courts, and the profession must do its part to police and reduce unnecessary personal attacks that arise in the litigation context. As those actions emerge, however, us litigators have the power to not add to the nastiness, to keep ourselves steady, and to focus on the work of our clients. Shame triggers from opposing counsel are too common in litigation but they don’t have to derail your work as a litigator or haunt you. With mindfulness, intentionality, and proper supports, you can stay steady as you litigate cases even with difficult opposing counsel, get the job done for clients, and build confidence in your own abilities.

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

Love Interval Training? Why Not Try It with Your Meditation Practice.

I previously wrote about how much I love Power Zone training and shared the lessons it taught me that could easily apply to life and meditation practice. Interval training, such as Power Zone, is an effective way to train the body and build physical fitness because it taps into the benefits of both high intensity efforts and periods of rest. When it comes to meditation, intervals may not be the first thing we think about because we may view the entire practice of meditation as a rest period. But, for new meditators especially, meditation can be challenging since most of us aren’t accustomed to relaxing and because it may put feelings and thoughts that we’d rather avoid front and center. Thus, while meditation is a practice that can ultimately help you deal with stress in life more skillfully, the truth is that it takes effort and discipline.

For this reason, it might actually help you to think about incorporating some rest periods into your meditation practice. I first learned about this idea years ago on a meditation retreat I attended. During one of the afternoon sessions (which are the the toughest for me because that’s when sleepiness sets it), the teacher reminded us to rethink our approach to meditation. He explained that, while we often designate a time period to meditate due to our busy schedules, we can play with the structure of our practice. In particular, he had us try a period of 4 minutes of meditation with alternating 1-minute stretch/movement breaks.

When I heard this, I instantly thought of all the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio classes I’d done. With this style of exercise, you do short bursts of high impact exercise followed by lower impact, active recovery periods. Of course, what the teacher at the retreat was proposing was actually “LIIT” or “low-intensity interval training.” I soon discovered that it was, indeed, quite LIIT. After several long periods of meditation that day, it was a breath of fresh air just to try a new way.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as with fitness, meditation practice is destined to run into roadblocks if you do it long enough. You may have injuries or illnesses. You may have mental resistance. You may just not feel like it. You may still be developing the skills needed to support a practice. Sometimes it helps to keep going if you free yourself of the mental constructs you’ve created as to the “way” you are “supposed” to do it. As one example, I usually try to get 30 minutes of meditation a day. When I ran into a bad patch a while back where I just didn’t feel like it, I committed to 5 minutes a day. I often ended up sitting for longer because, by the end of the 5 minutes, my resistance had passed. More significantly, though, I still have a practice today.

On the other hand, I have also had times where I needed more than my normal 30 minutes a day to work through particular stresses in my life. The problem, though, as I have learned with years of practice is that I tend to have diminishing returns when I practice for longer than 30 minutes. My feet fall asleep, my knees and back hurt, and I tend to be so low on energy that I am almost asleep. In those times, I have instead broken up my long sit into two shorter sessions of 20 minutes with a few minutes to stretch in between. The results were much better and more helpful for me than trying to power through just 1 session of 45 minutes.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The point isn’t to have an ideal practice. It isn’t to have a practice that competes with anyone else’s. The point is to have a practice that serves your life. So, while discipline is certainly part of any good practice, don’t put your practice in a box. If there is one thing my practice has given me, it is an awareness of the dangers of all or nothing thinking. Sure, 4 minutes of meditation may not be as “good” as 5 minutes, but it is way better than 0. More significantly, recognizing that 4 minutes might serve me better than 5 minutes on a given day is practicing self-compassion and self-awareness which, as a lawyer, I constantly need to practice.

So, if you are struggling to find the time to meditate or have a hard time sitting still for very long, perhaps you should consider adjusting the way you are doing it. Think about where you are in your life and, with kindness and generosity towards yourself, try a new way. That’s what the meditation teacher was saying when he told us to try intervals: don’t let your mind get in the way of your meditation practice. To do this, you have to factor in your body and heart along the way. Low intensity interval training for meditation is just one way that you could balance your practice to help your mind, while acknowledging the whims and needs of your body and heart.

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

Book Review: Zen Golf by Dr. Joseph Parent

I am not really a golfer, but I owe a lot to the game. Despite being a lawyer, I have only played at the occasional outing during my practice and even then have not been serious about it. In high school, however, I took up the game because my basketball teammate was an excellent player and needed another girl to round out my school’s newly formed team. Knowing right off the bat that I would have no obligation to be any good, it seemed like a low-pressure compliment to the physically demanding and lengthy basketball season, so I gave it a shot.

While playing golf was certainly a change of pace, I quickly found that “low-pressure” was not the word to describe it. Yes, I got to hang out on a beautiful golf course in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky and chat with my teammates and competitors rather than run suicides or fight them for position on the court. Though my surroundings and relationships with competitors were comparatively more peaceful with golf, I soon learned that my relationship with myself was far more difficult. Suddenly, I had to learn to coach myself to focus acutely, deal with setbacks, and use my judgment to try to make the best of hard circumstances. After 3 years of high school golf, I never became a great player, though my team generally used my score and won some matches, but the game helped me start the process of becoming a decent adult.

So, when a lawyer who had seen one of my mindfulness seminars reached out to me this year and suggested I read Zen Golf, it was almost like a blast from the past. I have no ambitions for rejuvenating my own golf game, but having played, I knew immediately how mindfulness might help anyone who wanted to do so. Zen Golf is written by Dr. Joseph Parent, a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s best golfers and a long-time meditator. In the book, he offers some basic instruction in mindfulness practice and describes strategies that he uses to help golfers struggling with various aspects of the mental game of golf.

The book is now 20 years old, so some of the references to golfers may seem a little bit dated. In the same way, knowledge and awareness of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed since that time, so some of Parent’s sayings and references such as “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” may sound a bit hackneyed. Overall, though, Parent’s analysis of the many ways that the mind can block even the best golfer’s success and his recommendations for a path out are ones that I don’t think can get old.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Zen Golf was when he describes the concept of “unconditional confidence.” While at first this sounded like business-book drivel and made me skeptically wonder how one could expect to be confident all of the time, I quickly realized that Parent wasn’t talking about cocky bluster or promising 100% good results. Instead, Parent was explaining the Buddhist concepts of essential goodness and self-compassion. According to Parent, unconditional confidence didn’t come from results, but instead from a player’s acceptance of their own intrinsic goodness and choice, time and time again, to treat themselves with kindness regardless of the circumstances.

This concept came through best when Parent talked about his approach to teaching putting, which for many players can be the most maddening and heart-wrenching aspect of golf. Parent explained that golfers, much like Happy Gilmore, usually define success with a putt as getting the ball in the hole.  But Parent suggests a different approach that defines success with the process rather than the result. He says that a golfer has “made” a putt when they have a clean, steady stroke, use the appropriate force, keep their head down, and select and execute the right strategy. For golfers who play regularly, this makes sense because it emphasizes and rewards the process of putting, which is within the player’s control, and lets the player off the hook for result, which (despite our frequently recurring delusions) is not.

Clearly, this utility of this advice may extend well beyond the golf course. As a lawyer, it is often tempting to judge ourselves based on the results we get in our cases. Despite our best efforts and even when the law seems to favor us, we just cannot entirely control the results we get. Thus, as Parent suggests, it may make a lot more sense and be a whole lot kinder to ourselves if we judge success based on the things we can control: doing our best, putting client’s interests first, complying with ethical rules, and advising, assessing risk, and counseling along the way.

In short, Zen Golf is a good read for golfers or anyone who wants to understand the practical benefits of mindfulness. The book explains in easy-to-understand language how the mind-body connection works and the many ways mental states and assumptions can ensnare us and impede performance. It also offers many lessons for not just playing the game of golf better, but also enjoying it more and treating yourself better as you play. In this way, even if Zen Golf doesn’t make you a better golfer, it offers strategies and advice that may make you better at dealing with life.

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

Resolutions Schmesolutions: In January I Just Begin Again

I used to have a love hate relationship with the New Year. In mid-December I’d start daydreaming about all the big changes I was going to make in January. I would feel hopeful – excited even – for the possibility of a fresh start. New exercise routine! Healthy eating! Plenty of water! I’m going to meditate every day! I’d spend hours shopping for a new planner hoping to find just the right one to make all my goal setting dreams come true. Because this year, this year is going to be different, I’d tell myself.

Sure, all the wishes and aspirations for self-improvement that come with the New Year aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Seeing the New Year as a time of self-reflection and renewal can be incredibly uplifting. Who doesn’t love the idea of a fresh start?

The problem for me came half-way through January when all of my high hopes would come crashing down because I could never meet my own high expectations. And, by the end of January, I would be in full “I suck” mode. I’d beat myself up for failing yet again to completely reinvent my life and erase all my bad habits in a matter of weeks.

But that started to shift when I really started to appreciate what Joseph Goldstein calls the three most important words in meditation: “simply begin again.” The idea is that it our minds will always wander and our good habits will wane sometimes. There will always be times when we slip into our old physical and mental habits. When we don’t meet our own expectations it’s natural to feel like we’re falling short and get caught self-judgment.

As renowned meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg explains, this where self-compassion comes in::

The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation for the practice of self-compassion — to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism. Beginning again is a powerful form of resilience training.

Self-improvement and being motivated to be the best version of ourselves  are good things. The key is not to get caught in the mental loop of always feeling like we’re falling short, because the truth is, we will never be perfect. Let me repeat that: we will never be perfect. I will always have days or weeks where I don’t exercise, or meditate, or  drink enough water, or cook Pinterest perfect meals for my family. I’ll always have days and weeks where my house is a mess and I struggle to make sure my kids have clean underwear.

The truth is, I still feel myself getting caught up in the pizazz of the New Year, but it’s not the same. I don’t set quite as high expectations for the month, but the most important part is that I don’t beat myself up (quite as much) as I used to when January doesn’t go the way I want it to. I am ever so slightly starting to feel the freedom that comes with self-compassion.

So, I say, “resolutions schmesolutions” – January 1 is just one opportunity of an infinite number to begin again. 

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.

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Anyone interested in mindfulness is almost by default interested in habits too. Even if you start a meditation practice with the aim of finding just a little bit more peace and quiet in your life, you inevitably will end up reviewing in detail your daily activities, the patterns of your mind, and the impact of your habitual reactions and behaviors. If you give the practice long enough, you very likely may start to see the impact of your habits and be in a position to change them in a positive way.

This is what happened to me. Years ago, I was unhappy, stressed, lonely, and saddled by constant overthinking. I started meditating, created enough mental clarity and stability to see that I was making some fundamental mistakes, and I slowly started to change them. First, I started making more of an effort with my social life, then I reactivated my exercise habit, and finally I added creative pursuits into my life. Nearly a decade after my meditation practice started, my life is much improved and it’s largely because of some habit changes.

So, I was not at all skeptical when I heard about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I knew that habits were important and I understand that even tiny habits could, over time, have huge consequences for one’s life. I admit, though, that I was just a little bit skeptical because I kept hearing, over and over again, about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I heard so many enthusiastic reviews that my inner rebel/cynic thought it must be too good to be true. But, it’s January and I’m thinking about my habits like many people as we move all too slowly out of this global pandemic, so I decided to give it a shot.

After a few chapters, I immediately understood why people love Atomic Habits: it offers clear, concise procedural steps for building better habits and ending undesired ones. The book itself is a very easy read. It’s short and has crisp, concise chapters broken up into bite-sized pieces. Clear’s writing style is, well, clear. He writes in plain English and a conversational tone. Though he often supports his conclusions with scientific studies, he explains them with examples that most of us would recognize from popular culture or our own lives.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Clear’s book, though, is that it offers a much-needed structure to those of us who want to review and change our habits. Anyone caught in the snare of a bad habit knows that it can feel overwhelming and rob us of any motivation to change. As Clear explains, habits are incredibly powerful because, for a behavior to become a habit, we have to accept it as part of our identity and then practice it and hard-wire it into our brains. Undoing that process for habits we want to change, therefore, can seem confusing, daunting, and even futile.

To address this, Clear distills the process of habit creation into a succinct set of 4 laws: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy; and (4) make it satisfying. By offering this system and strategies to support habit change at each phase, Clear’s process is a practical, logical, but also self-compassionate way of cutting through the inner resistance, doubt, and angst that goes along with any effort to change one’s habits. At the heart of Clear’s advice is the fundamental idea that discipline and willpower aren’t the way to change habits, but instead processes, routines, and supports are how to do it. As I have written before, I heartily agree with this approach and have experienced its benefits in my own life when I attempted to start exercising, lose weight, or cut down on my alcohol consumption. And I am definitely going to use some of Clear’s advice to address my current struggle of watching too much Netflix before bedtime.

So, am I ready to declare myself officially wrong to be skeptical about Atomic Habits? Not so fast. My habit of resisting admitting when I am wrong is pretty engrained, so I can’t let this review go without some critique. One thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes made habit change sound a bit too easy. While Clear appropriately has a chapter devoted to the struggle of habit change, it is surprisingly devoid of personal experience with struggle. This may not have been so noticeable if the book had not begun with Clear’s compelling story of a high school head injury that set him on the path to becoming a habit guru. Another problem was that the book lost steam after the first few chapters because even its structure seems to follow a set of rules and it quickly began to feel formulaic and rote.

These criticisms, of course, are not enough to devalue the practical advice and actionable steps in Atomic Habits. Instead, they are perhaps wish lists for the future works I hope to see from James Clear and a suggestion to read the book one chapter at a time with a period to digest the content before moving onto the next. If you are thinking of habit change this January, Atomic Habits is a concise and easy read that is certainly worth your time.

Do you need some help making our meditation practice a habit? Download the Meditation Habits worksheet to apply some of the principles from Atomic Habits to get your meditation practice established as a habit. You can also check out our free ebook, Pause and Begin Again, to help you start or resume a meditation practice.

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

Four Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Recover When You Struggle with Goals

January is a time for resolutions, and for some of us, that can also mean a time for disappointment, reality-checking, and self-flagellation. It’s easy to set goals, but much harder to keep them. It’s also simple to see how a habit change might improve our lives, but very difficult to change our engrained habits. I commonly see friends and acquaintances lose steam with their goals or lose faith in themselves when they struggle with keeping resolutions. To avoid that, here are some mindfulness-based strategies that may help you get back on track.

1. Notice how you feel.

Setting a goal is likely to inspire feelings of empowerment and hope. That feels great. But struggling or failing to meet a goal feels terrible. When you encounter setbacks or failures, it is normal to feel hopeless, powerless, and worthless. While, in the moment, this really sucks, these feelings can over time serve as motivation for wiser action if you don’t resist them or push them away. Mindfulness can help us in times like this in many ways. First and foremost, it can help us stay with and acknowledge these feelings, which in essence are sensations in the body. In times of struggle and failure, it can be easy to ignore or numb the uncomfortable, even painful, feelings that arise. If you can allow yourself to notice them, however, they may help guide you to care for yourself better and learn from your mistakes.

2. Be your own best friend.

If you can be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions as you deal with struggle or failure, you are bound to notice some rather nasty internal talk. Though this is normal, it won’t help you learn or get back on a personal growth track. Nevertheless, we humans tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are with other people. The solution to this is to develop a habit of treating ourselves like we do our best friends so that we can activate self-compassion. Just ask yourself the following question: “If my best friend set a goal and failed to achieve it, what I would tell them?” Most likely, you wouldn’t be judgmental, critical, or mean. Instead, you’d be supportive, understanding, and caring. While this may feel strange at first, it will become natural over time and it will make failure and struggle a lot less scary.

3. Be aware of “all or nothing” thinking.

Once you’ve experienced and cared for your emotions, it may be appropriate and helpful to consider next steps. In particular, you may consider whether you should abandon or revise your goals or just get back to them. In doing this, watch out for all or nothing thinking. Sometimes, but especially in January, we can set goals for ourselves that are really geared towards improvement, though we can implicitly add in an unstated standard of perfection. For instance, if you set a goal to exercise every day in January, you may be discouraged when you miss a day in the first week. Does this mean the goal is impossible and you should quit? Not in my view. The goal wasn’t really about the streak. The goal was about establishing the habit. If you exercise 30 or 28 or 26 days out of January instead of 31, it seems to me you’d be pretty darn close to that. As you heal and learn from struggles with your goals, therefore, be aware of all or nothing thinking because accomplishing some of your goals can still represent amazing progress.

4. Remember your values.  

The best kind of goals are specific, actionable, and measurable. The dangerous part of this, though, is that goals can make us so laser-focused on one thing so that we forget the bigger picture. When I struggle with goals, I find it helpful to zoom out to get more perspective. I do this by considering not just the reasons I set the goal, but also my long-term goals for life. For many of us, we’d probably say that our goals for life include happiness, health, connection, and meaning. Those kinds of goals aren’t necessarily dependent on achieving particular objectives in life. Rather, they are achieved by living our deepest values in life. The beautiful thing about values is that you can live them in failure as much as you can in success. When I remember my values in this way, I remember what motivated me to set the goal in the first place and, in turn, that motivates me to be gentle with myself and start again.

Professionals and lawyers accustomed to meeting goals every day at work can easily forget that achieving personal goals and changing habits is really hard. Doing hard things becomes much more doable, however, when you use practices and develop habits that help you build resilience. Mindfulness practices can help with this because they help us remember that achieving goals is not just about discipline, but also about accepting life the way it is and caring for ourselves along the way. This January and this year, I wish you luck in achieving your goals but I wish even more that you care for yourself as you do it.

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

Meditation Is About the Practice and Not the Session

New meditators commonly worry whether their practice is doing anything for them. They often say that they struggle to sit still, experience a deluge or thoughts and emotions, and do not feel calm at all. Most teachers (including me) would say that this is normal and that the practice gets easier over time. But new meditators may wonder how this could be? How could it be that meditation sessions can feel so difficult–even painful at times–but can still be expected to impart the benefits of peace and calm over time?

I struggled with this initially too, until I remembered one important thing: the goal of meditation was not to get “good” at meditation, but rather to help me build a better life. When you are new to meditation, the practice can be alarming because it is likely your first close encounter with your mental chatter, bodily sensations, and emotions. Most lawyers today have active schedules and numerous demands on our time and attention. This means that we can easily just not notice what is really going on in our minds, hearts, and bodies.

Meditation can be so disorienting because all those distractions are removed, so we can experience our inner lives more directly. While this can be scary at first, over time we can learn to be watchful of judgment and harshness with ourselves. We can train our minds to rest in the sensations of the body and use the breath as a tool to focus and calm ourselves. And, we can watch and learn how a flurry of thoughts, emotions, and feelings can subside if we give ourselves enough time.

In this way, the struggles in early practice may actually be skill-building exercises. This is not to say that all struggles in practice should be handled on one’s own or that more sitting is always the answer. Individuals who have experienced trauma or who experience severe emotional or physical pain should always care for themselves first and seek out help from a trained professional, teacher, or loved ones. But, for many new meditators, the struggles in some meditation sessions are where the benefits of awareness, compassion, equanimity, and calm originate.

As an example, I experienced a great deal of physical pain on my first retreat because I had been accustomed to sitting only for minutes, as opposed to hours a day. My body hurt and that, in turn, made me sullen, irritable, and doubtful of myself and the practice. Eventually, the pain got so bad that I had no choice but to skip a sitting session so I could do some yoga in my room to try to feel better.

On the next session, I found myself much improved and I not only completed the retreat but was mentally present for the instruction and benefitted from it. The lesson from this, of course, was that I couldn’t expect my mind to grow when my body hurt. To be sure, this is a basic insight, but how often do we lawyers ignore the demands of our bodies because some other demand seems more important? Over the years, this lesson has helped me remember to care for myself first instead of always pushing through it and this has drastically improved my life.

This is why famed teacher Joseph Goldstein directs students not to evaluate one’s practice by one’s experience while meditating. Instead, he tells students to consider whether their lives are improving by considering whether they are rushing less, ruminating less, aware of their feelings and the feelings of others more, experiencing fewer physical signs of stress, and are happier. Even though I still experience difficulty in my meditation practice, I continue to meditate because all of these things have been true for me.

In short, the value of meditation comes from the practice itself and is not dependent on one’s experience in any single meditation session. While struggles during mediation are difficult to experience, those difficulties can help us build critical skills or examine detrimental habits, including judgment and harshness. Just like law, meditation is a practice because it never really gets easy. There is always room to grow, room to learn, grow, build skills, and better understand life and oneself. If you don’t get discouraged by poor experiences in individual sessions, the practice of meditation can help you create that room in your own life.

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

What I Learned from Writing about Mindfulness for a Year

Today is an auspicious day for me. It is the one-year anniversary of the founding of this blog. Clearly, blogging is not a novel idea. There are tons of blogs across the internet. And, even for lawyers, side hustles are not super rare. So, why is this a big deal? I love writing and it helps me stay mentally healthy, so the fact that I have written consistently for a year is not all that surprising. What is surprising, though, is that I chose to keep writing even when I had other demands on my time. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I have to admit that it was not always easy to come up with topics and find the time to write each week.

Perhaps, then, the thing I am celebrating with this one-year anniversary is that I made a commitment to myself and stuck with it. As a lawyer, mom, and community leader, I am responsible for and accountable to a lot of people. Living up to my commitments to them is incredibly important. As a result, I have struggled over the course of my life with making commitments to myself. Though I am not necessarily a people pleaser, I have struggled with perfectionism most of my life. If I take on a job, I want to make sure I can do it well and I want to make sure my other commitments aren’t neglected.

Even though starting the blog seemed like a practical choice for me, since I’m a fast writer and loved writing about mindfulness, I was not totally convinced I would stick with it. After all, it’s one thing to do something for fun when the mood or energy strikes you and a totally different thing to commit to it long-term to build something new. So, even when I launched the blog, I was a little bit worried that life or law practice would distract me or I would just lose energy and quit.

Undoubtedly, this year has tested me on both levels. Life and law practice sent me many distractions. My energy was drained at times. But I kept going, sometimes even when I wasn’t sure why. Today, as I write this, I think I finally get it. I kept going because I had a vision for building something new. I wanted to create a space to share my view of mindfulness with the legal community and the world. In other words, I wanted to use my voice and my passions to help create a better world.

As you might imagine, that’s a tall order. So, I have had to continually remind myself that it takes time. I have had to keep going even when I felt tired. I have had to be gentle with myself when things weren’t easy or didn’t go as I had hoped. I have had to make a point of celebrating milestones, victories, or praise because I knew I would need the positive energy to sustain me during hard times. I have sometimes even had to just rely on faith when I thought I had no ideas and allow a post to emerge from me, seemingly without my conscious control.

In other words, this blog was born out of my mindfulness practice in more than one way. The practice not only helped me live life in a better way so that I could be the mom, lawyer, and community leader I wanted to be. It also gave me the tools I needed to take on even more and to let a new part of myself emerge. It gave me the courage to handle adversity, the skills to stay calm when life is too busy, the space to allow a vision to coalesce, and the silence to listen to what my soul desires. When you have those skills, you can do more than merely achieve a goal; you can honor your deepest values while doing it.

That’s why I am so passionate about mindfulness. It’s not just a practice that builds the skills to survive life. It’s a practice that, if you let it, can help you build the life you really want. I’m proud that in its first year the blog has shared resources, ideas, and practices to bring mindfulness to lawyers and professionals. I’m proud that I made a commitment to myself and stuck to it. And I’m proud to go into 2022 as a lawyer, mom, community leader, and now established blogger. Thank you sincerely to all of the guest bloggers, readers, followers, and friends who have supported Brilliant Legal Mind and me. I hope we all find many more occasions to celebrate in 2022.

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

Scrooge, “Not Self”, and the Holiday Lesson It Offers Us All

If you are interested in meditation or have studied Buddhism, you may know the concept of “not self”, but I bet you’ve never considered what that has to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course you haven’t, but bear with me because they are connected and there’s a holiday lesson in it for you. “Not self” or anatta as it is called in Pali is an intractable idea to understand and, at first, can even be disturbing. The idea generally posits that there is no permanent, lasting self. So when you first hear or read about it, you may react “wait, is this saying I don’t exist?” and start to spiral in doubt like Descartes.

But, with practice, you see the concept isn’t so scary. I remember on one of my first retreats thinking to myself how the experience of being on a retreat—where I was discouraged from talking or engaging with others—was a chance to put my identity down for a while. A little while later, I noticed that I could do the same thing—even if for only a few minutes—any time I meditated. And then, with a bit more practice, I saw the real truth: I could put my identity—or the story surrounding it—down any time I was sufficiently aware and made the choice.

In truth, I always had the ability to see a story created by my reaction to a life event and wiggle my way out of it. It’s just that, most of the time, things moved too fast (or I moved too fast) to see it. On those occasions where I saw it and chose how to respond instead of merely reacting, it felt like magic. So the concept of “not self” when we start to experience it, is actually not as scary as it sounds. Instead, it can be extremely liberating and empowering. And this is what brings us to Scrooge.  

I’ve never been the biggest Dickens fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ stock characters can make you cringe and his love of describing scenes can be overbearing. But Scrooge has been special to me for the last few years because I feel like I am one or at least was one. No, I’ve never proclaimed “Are there no workhouses?” (except ironically) and I’ve historically supported nonprofits, rather than hold onto my gold like a dragon in a cave.

But I had my own bad habits that I let calcify into an identity and one that was not very happy. Early in my law practice and as I was starting my family, I was plagued by overthinking and doubt. I wasn’t sure I could make it as an attorney. I wasn’t sure of my ability to network and make friends. For a few years, I basically hid out. I billed my hours and focused on myself and didn’t engage as much with the world as I really wanted to. I didn’t hoard my money from the world, but I hoarded my heart and personality and talents because I didn’t believe in them all the way and didn’t trust the world to accept me.

Amazingly, I was visited by some ghosts in the form of a difficult pregnancy, post-partum depression, the anxiety of never moving my career forward, and crippling loneliness. Those challenges forced me to learn to take care of myself, be compassionate with myself and others, and examine how I was living my life. When I did that, I changed what I did. Rather than withdraw, I started showing up, figuratively and literally. I joined (and even led) some organizations. I showed up to events. I reached out to old friends and invited new ones on adventures. I followed the things I thought were fun and learned to do things just because I enjoyed them. All of this happened after I started a meditation practice which helped me to become aware of my thoughts and learn which ones to follow and which ones to let go.

As this was happening, I heard someone mention A Christmas Carol at a business event and the idea took root in my mind. I bought the audiobook at Thanksgiving that year and have made it my personal tradition to listen to it every year to prepare for the holidays. Each year I listen, I notice something new. But this year, I listened and immediately thought “Oh, this is a great example of ‘not self.’”

And it is. What else could show us better that there is no permanent self than a story about a man who was dead inside one day, but brimming with life the next? How else are we to reconcile the potential for a man to ignore the needs of his assistant, Bob Cratchet, and buy him the prize turkey the very next day? We tell ourselves “people don’t change” and that may often be true. But stories like A Christmas Carol say they can. And so do stories like mine and I know I am not alone.

Of course, we all know the reality that people don’t change easily, but the fact that we can is a miracle. Our identities can sometimes feel solid and make us feel powerless and stuck. But we can examine our past and bring in compassion. We can explore the impact of our actions in the present and face the hard truths of where we are going wrong. And we can consider the paths that our present behavior may be leading us to in the future. When we do those things, we can get off the train tracks of identity and take the road less traveled to choose our steps more wisely.

We often think of A Christmas Carol as a man learning not to think about himself so much, but that only captures a part of the magic in that story. Yes, Scrooge did indeed become less selfish, but he did it only after he became more self-aware. When Scrooge finally started (with prompting from the ghosts) to think about himself, and to examine all of his self’s permutations over time with clarity and compassion, he was finally able to break out of the mold of identity. He was no longer a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”. He was no longer as dead inside as Jacob Marley. He was alive and ready to walk among the living again because, through exploration, he saw that his conception of the self was an illusion and he could just start living a different life—one that was not full of thin gruel, perpetual cold, solitude, and “Bah! Humbug!” And I can tell you from experience that when you see this in your own life, you will definitely feel “as merry as a school boy” and as “giddy as a drunken man.”

So as we go about looking for holiday miracles, it’s always great to think of ways to be less selfish and more focused on others. But don’t neglect the other piece of the puzzle. Routines turn quickly into habits. Habits turn over time into identities. And identities—these selves we make in our mind—can sometimes block us off from the good and prevent us from doing good out in the world. So don’t just ignore your “self” at the holidays, explore it a little too. Reflect with compassion on who you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going and don’t ignore those demons who may be there to prompt you along. By seeing the limits of the “self”, the boundaries between you and the rest of the world may start to fade away and your spirit can reemerge. And that would be a holiday miracle indeed.

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

Discomfort Is the Food of Meditation Practice

I know you started meditating because you want more calm in your life. I know you are looking for peace. You want to not fight things in life so much. You want to stop overthinking everything. You want to be kinder, gentler, and just better. But there’s this problem. You don’t feel calm when you meditate. Your mind won’t shut up. Your knee hurts. You keep thinking of painful memories or, worse, frightening fantasies of things that will never happen. You fall asleep. You can’t sit still. You think that you and your meditation practice are doomed.

Guess what? All that stuff doesn’t mean you can’t meditate or benefit from meditation. Instead, all that stuff is meditation practice. At least, it’s the food of meditation practice. Yes, you read that right. The nasty, uncomfortable, and sometimes even gut-wrenching crap that comes up during meditation practice is all part of it. While this may be disappointing news, at least you know you aren’t doing something wrong.

Sometimes when people talk about meditation they can convey the idea that it’s magic. We see people sitting calmly and we want that calm ourselves. So, we think that if we just do the thing they are doing we will get calm too. What we don’t see is all the crap and inner shenanigans that person had to wade through to find that calm.

Meditation isn’t magic; it’s practice. Tell me something. How do those basketball players sink game-clenching free throws in the final seconds of the NCAA tournament? Do you have some illusion that they are just naturally calm? Clearly not. They have practiced free throws so much that even the situation can’t shake them. In the same way, you aren’t going to find real calm and stability in meditation practice until you work on your free throws. Those free throws are learning some skills as you encounter the unpleasant bits of life. 

It works like this. You get distracted and, instead of getting mad or disgusted with yourself, just focus back on the breath. Right there, you practiced restraint, self-kindness, and persistence. Or maybe your knee hurts and you feel the pain for a moment and watch how it affects you. In that case, you practice mindful awareness, holding space, and patience. If a painful memory arises and you can let yourself sit with it, you practice self-compassion, awareness, and courage. And maybe you just fall asleep or are lost in thought the whole meditation session and you laugh it off. You know what that’s practicing? It’s practicing being human and imperfect and still being worth the effort to try again.

Do you see my point here? All the so-called “bad” stuff that happens during your practice is not a distraction from the practice. It feeds the practice because it forces you to build the skills you need to handle the hard parts of life. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your practice. It means that life is imperfect and so are we. The practice of mediation can help you experience, though, that perfection isn’t required for a good life. Instead, it can help you learn how to create a good life by bringing joy and kindness to even the hard parts of life.

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

So, when you start to meditate, and you find too many thoughts, physical discomfort, and all the judgment your mind can muster, don’t be surprised. The struggles of human life don’t magically disappear when you sit for a few moments and focus on your breath. But, if you can learn to sit long enough and watch those struggles arise and fade away, you can start to see them as the very substance from which calm, happiness, kindness, and presence can grow. The challenges that arise during meditation aren’t problems in your practice; they feed your practice.

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