Do you have a pre-conceived notion that mindfulness involves a hippie way of life, like tuning out the world and living in a temple at the top of a mountain? Do you think it’s a fad with no supporting evidence of its benefits? Or, like many people, do you think mindfulness can only be found in shavasana?
Although I hope to inspire you to practice mindfulness (as the benefits far outweigh the investment), I know many of you may take a quick glance at this article and simply continue on with your busy, stressful and demanding day.
Before moving on though, I encourage you to take a moment to see if you can relate to any of the following statements: Do you find yourself wasting precious time thinking about the past or worrying about the future? Are you often multitasking, but unable to focus? Is stress or anxiety keeping you from performing at your optimal level? Are you constantly on overdrive? Do you feel depleted by the end of the day but unable to sleep?
That was me the first five years of my career as a lawyer, and in all honesty, I loved it. I lived for the adrenaline rush; I wanted to help as many clients as possible; I wanted to move up the corporate ladder to partnership as quickly as my mind and body would allow; I absolutely did not want to slow down—I was Wonder Woman. My mind was constantly going 180 miles per hour with no end in sight, but I thought this was the life of a lawyer and that I had to accept it. It was not until year six, when I realized that a career in law would not be sustainable at this pace, that I found a way to stay focused, calm, and controlled: I discovered “mindfulness.”
Yes, it may still be viewed by some as a bunch of people seeking spiritual growth, but the undeniable benefits of mindfulness have led to its adoption by businesses such as Google, Facebook, Target and many others. Today’s professionals are busier than ever. With increased client demands and workloads, technology at our fingertips, industry pressures, and distractions abounding, lawyers must be capable of focusing on the task at hand to better serve their clients and themselves.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness. This buzz word is found everywhere but what does it actually mean? Well, it can have many different meanings and can be practiced in many different ways. This is probably why, as lawyers, we find it so difficult to grasp, practice and implement. When I tell friends and colleagues about it, they often ask questions like: Show me how. Where do I start? It sounds complicated. I can’t. And, my favourite: I have no time.
Mindfulness, simply stated, is a full awareness of precisely what is happening in the present moment. It involves stilling the internal chatter of the mind and concentrating on what’s happening in the moment, without dwelling, judging or trying to change anything. In other words, no over-thinking (which can be extremely difficult for lawyers but a nice change)—or the opposite, banishing all thoughts.
Mindfulness to me means “self-awareness.” Being aware of your thought patterns, your breath, your body, your surroundings, etc.—what is happening at this very moment in time. Self-awareness can truly be as simple as focusing on your breathing (slow down your breath) while you are standing in line to file a motion versus worrying about the motion you must argue, panicking that you may not have enough time, followed by the negative self-talk. Which of these scenarios would actually be beneficial to you?
The Benefits to the Body, Mind, and Work Performance
Research has shown that when we stay focused on the past or the future it can cause unnecessary stress, which activates our sympathetic nervous system, the driving force behind the body’s fight-or-flight response (aka the adrenaline rush). Working continuously in high gear can have serious negative effects on our mind and body. Physical symptoms of stress include low energy; headaches; upset stomach and nausea; aches, pains, and tense muscles; and insomnia, to name a few. Serious mental health risks include depression, anxiety, and burn-out.
Although it is highly unrealistic to live stress-free, we can “dial down a prolonged fight-or-flight impulse” by activating our parasympathetic nervous system (our relaxation response) through mindfulness/self-awareness. We are training our minds to reduce the activities in the part of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight response and activate the parts of our brain responsible for “executive functioning” so that we can respond appropriately in difficult situations.
Self-awareness has been shown to cultivate many attitudes of joy, peace, and calmness that contribute to a more satisfied life. Being aware makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur, easier to be fully engaged in activities and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events as they may arise. By focusing on the present, many people who practice self-awareness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or the regrets over the past, and have deeper connections with others.
On top of greater well-being, research has shown that mindfulness/self-awareness can also help reduce psychosomatic symptoms and improve physical health in a number of ways, such as reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Further, in recent years, psychotherapists have turned to mindfulness as an important element in the treatment of a number of problems, including depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
But how can it really improve your performance at work? Given that self-awareness has an impact on your attention, it has been shown to improve focus – meaning you are less distracted and can complete tasks more efficiently. Mindfulness also improves listening skills, as you are present in the moment, attentive, and focussed on the conversation and the flow of information instead of thinking of your response, your to-do list, or even what you will have for dinner later. An article in the Harvard Business Review noted, “Neuroscientists have shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence has been compelling.”
Tips for Lawyers to Practice Self-Awareness
Let’s face it, lawyering is difficult. We all have days where it feels as though the ground beneath us is about to give and we’re spiraling out of control. When you feel this way, what coping mechanism do you use to feel grounded again? Practicing self-awareness allows us to pause, reflect and respond from a place of calm rather than reacting.
To start, try to set aside a few minutes each day: when you are brewing your first pot of coffee in the morning, on your commute to work, while waiting in line. It is important to remember that you will likely not spend much time in a true state of self-awareness, as the mind tends to wander, which is entirely expected given its true nature. Mindfulness is not about “controlling” the mind, it’s about being aware.
Here are a few tips that may help:
1. Breathe: The very thing that makes mindfulness so accessible is that it can be practiced anywhere. The simplest way to begin is with your breath. Sit or stand in a comfortable position and breathe naturally. No need to count inhalations or exhalations: simply relax, focus on the sensations in your throat, chest and abdominal wall as the air enters and leaves your body. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
2. Use what you enjoy: Try bringing the present “here and now” awareness to everyday activities. For example, when walking to work, notice the warmth of the sun on your face, observe the leaves, grass and smells around you (note to self: put your cellphone away for just a few minutes, the world will not end, I promise!). This can be done for any activity. When the mind starts a narrative, bring it back to the activity/pleasure of the moment. What brings you joy—hot showers in the morning, spending time with loved ones, a good meal, listening to music, working out, yoga, etc. Use the things you enjoy and practice full awareness in those moments.
3. Find your center: Start using the above self-awareness techniques in a variety of situations, especially when life becomes stressful. “Check in” throughout the day. If you notice you are, for example, stressed about an upcoming deadline, spend a few minutes in mindful breathing. Don’t try to push your anxious thoughts away, rather try observing your thoughts and acknowledge your stress and where it is stemming from. Calm your breath. After a few moments, return to the task.
5. Stay aware: You can try mindfulness in higher stakes scenarios as well—such as difficult conversations with opposing counsel, contentious mediations, in court, etc. Practice mindful breathing beforehand, and then, even in the thick of a conversation, stay aware of your breath, body and emotions. Remain in the moment rather than jumping ahead to how you’ll respond or fend off an argument. This will help you be a better listener and avoid saying something that will not help advance your client’s case.
STOP: In the midst of your day, a stressful situation, or a moment of bliss:
Take a deep breath;
Observe what is happening inside and around you at the moment; and then
Proceed with whatever you are doing.
Eventually, your default setting will be calmer—and your body and mind will thank you.
We as professionals must start valuing and making time for self-care, wellness and taking care of our emotional, psychological, and physical health. It is imperative, not only for a long and prosperous career in law, but also to provide our clients with the best and most efficient legal services possible.
I hope you will practice a little self-awareness, one breath at a time.
About the Author
Marie T. Clemens is an attorney with Moodie Mair Walker LLP in Toronto, and is a yoga instructor. Contact her at 416.340.6808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.