Tips for Practitioners | Practicing Mindfulness in Law
Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners (2012)
The college of law launched a mindfulness program to help law students reduce stress, improve concentration and ability to cope with distractions, develop resilience and increase mental health and well-being. In light of national reports about the high levels of substance abuse and mental illness within the legal profession, lawyers might consider developing a mindfulness practice to maintain their own equanimity and resilience in an increasingly distracted and stressful profession and world.
We spend so much of our time living in our own heads, especially as lawyers, that we actually miss a lot of what’s happening around us. Without even intending to, our minds constantly ruminate on what happened in our past — yesterday, last week, or years ago — which can eventually spiral us into depression. Or our minds can raise continual fears about the future — deadlines, client or colleague demands, family worries — so that we live in states of perpetual stress and anxiety. Without realizing it, we can become captive to our “monkey minds” that leap from thought to thought, past and future, anywhere but the present moment. That results in a lot of distracted and wasted energy. Mindfulness practice is a way to become aware of our life in the present, moment to moment. Although the present moment is sometimes difficult, if we miss it, we’re missing our lives. As lawyers, we might miss very important cues or information if we’re not trained to be present.
Law school taught you to think like a lawyer: analyze and critique everything, find flaws in reasoning, make counterarguments. Those skills feed our naturally judging human mind, which endlessly makes judgments about what we like or don’t like in nearly everything: the weather, this person, that food, this music, and so on. Yet our likes and dislikes are simply judgments, not facts. The more negative judgments we accumulate, the unhappier we become — particularly when they are turned inward in negative self-criticism. Mindfulness practice helps us to cultivate curiosity, compassion and a discerning rather than judging mind.
We tend to become hijacked or captivated by our distracted thoughts and negative judgments, which then drive us crazy, interrupt our sleep and don’t serve much other useful purpose. Yet they do contribute deeply to our sense of identity, and thus they can be hard to let go. Mindfulness offers a way to learn to let go of our thoughts, negative judgments and other selfdefeating habits of mind. It substitutes healthy, intentional coping strategies for maladaptive ones that give only temporary relief.
Be open and curious
Lawyers are understandably achievement-oriented and spend years of hard work to become experts in their fields. Professional expertise can come at a cost to personal growth, however, if it closes off your natural attributes of openmindedness and curiosity. We can get stuck as human doings, rather than living fully as human beings. For all of our use of the Socratic method in law school, we too often de-emphasize the first Socratic principle: know thyself. Learning to become a self-reflective practitioner, continually open and curious about oneself and one’s world, is perhaps the most important lawyering skill.
Mindfulness practice fosters the habit to STOP in stressful or emotional situations: Stop; Take a breath; Observe what’s happening in your body, your feelings and your thoughts; and Proceed when you have gained the awareness to understand what’s going on in your own mind. Meditation practices often use the breath as a focus of concentration. Repeatedly bringing the mind’s focus back to the breath when thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations inevitably arise during meditation promotes the skill of being non-judgmentally aware of them when they inevitably arise during everyday life. Learning to STOP allows us to become less automatically and mindlessly reactive to people and events and instead to be more thoughtfully and appropriately responsive to them. You can’t control other people — you can only control your own attitudes, behaviors and responses.
Charity Scott, Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law, was the founding director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at the College of Law. She teaches various courses on health care law and policy, bioethics, tort law and negotiation.