Mindful Mondays: Learning to Breathe in Law School
The scene every Monday at noon in October was not the typical first-year law school classroom with a professor calling on anxious students, asking tough questions about assigned readings, with students frantically reviewing notes or nervously hoping to avoid the hot seat for one more class.
Instead, these first-year students sat still, relaxed, their eyes closed, listening quietly as the instructor guided them in meditation, asking them to become aware of different physical, mental and emotional sensations they were having at that very moment.
Mindful Mondays, the new four-week series of mindfulness training, was specifically tailored for Georgia State University College of Law students. Supported by Dean Steven J. Kaminshine and co-sponsored by the Center for Law, Health & Society, the weekly series was based on the Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) program, which was founded in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Professor Scott Rogers, a nationally regarded mindfulness teacher, author and trainer, introduced mindfulness to the college with a lively presentation in September that kicked off the four-week Mindful Monday series in October. Rogers is the founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies and the Mindfulness in Law Program at the University of Miami School of Law.
“Many students find law school a fairly intense and stressful experience,” said Charity Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law, who organized the series. “Having weekly sessions where they could come and learn relaxation and stress-relief techniques helped them to address anxiety and learn how to ignore distractions and improve their focus and attention.”
The one-hour weekly training sessions covered the basics of mindfulness practice. Participants learned to sharpen their focus by becoming more aware of their own breathing. Through guided meditations, they learned to gently bring their awareness back to their breathing every time their minds wandered. The students also were given guided meditations, lasting 10 or 20 minutes each and accessible online, to help them practice daily at home.
“When people begin to learn to meditate, they often think they are not doing it right because so many thoughts keep coming into their heads while they are trying to focus on their breathing,” said Linnie Vassallo, the MBSR-trained mindfulness instructor from Miami who co-taught the classes with Scott. “That’s just what minds do. It’s perfectly normal.”
Vassallo said the key to mindfulness practice is to notice when the mind wanders and then to kindly and nonjudgmentally bring it back to the focus of attention. “And to keep doing it over and over – that’s why it’s called ‘practice.’”
Increasingly, American lawyers have been seeking mindfulness training and adopting its meditative practices to cope with the pressures of professional life, avoid burnout and find work-life balance. Other law schools across the country have also begun to offer mindfulness training.
“As far as I know, Georgia State Law is the first law school to do so in Georgia,” Scott said.
The weekly sessions introduced a variety of different types of meditative practices: body scans, awareness of breath, mindful walking, mindful yoga – even mindful eating. Students committed to attending each weekly session and to engage in home practices five times a week throughout October. More than 50 students, along with a few faculty, participated.
Scott was assisted by Chae Mims (J.D. ’17) and Austin Charles (J.D. ’18). Both students had been meditating for a number of years before coming to law school.
“I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be attending Georgia State Law at exactly the same time that it was launching this new mindfulness program,” Charles said. “I am hoping that the law school will continue to offer mindfulness sessions to all interested students next semester as well.”
As a certified yoga instructor, Charles hopes to offer yoga classes to the law school community in the spring.
“It’s all about maintaining perspective. The circumstances won’t change, but your perspective can,” Mims said.
In a post-training survey, student respondents said they would like to be able to continue with Mindful Mondays in the spring semester. They found having a regularly scheduled time and place to engage in meditative practices once a week helped to bring balance and perspective into their school and personal lives.
“With their studies, jobs, families, and other commitments they are juggling, law students can be challenged to find the time to take care of themselves and attend to their own health and well being,” Scott said. “Mindfulness training can help students from becoming overwhelmed by the law school experience and to develop resilience – and hopefully even to enjoy the experience.”