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Mindfulness: An essential tool for the modern lawyer

Your mind is like a snow-globe… keep shaking it and there will always be snow or glitter floating around and preventing you from thinking clearly.

Put down a snow-globe for a one to two minutes and the snowflakes settle, the liquid becomes clear and you can better see the object at the centre. The same can happen with your mind and mindfulness is the method to settle that snow.

Mark Twain said: “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely of facts and happening. It consists mainly of the thoughts that are forever flowing through one’s head.”

Don’t ask me how but researchers have calculated that people have up to 50,000 thoughts a day! I’m pretty sure lawyers are to the far right of any statistical bell-curve with factors such as working in an adversarial system with tight deadlines, demanding clients and (many) recording time in six-minute units.

There is no shortage of research to show that lawyers are not only more stressed and at risk of experiencing mental health issues than the general population but also more than other professionals.

And of these 50,000 thoughts, how many of them actually relate to what you are doing and how many are ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

Mindfulness is not magic. Nor is it about making thoughts and feelings disappear – trying to achieve a ‘blank mind’. But it is a proven method to calm the mind and create significant improvements for the individual and teams. Plus, it can be practised in many ways from extended practices to micropractices and other options in between and so fit around/within a busy life. Dare I say that six-minute practices might work well for lawyers?

Mindfulness is about being aware: “(It) means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.” (Mindful Nations UK report).

The opposite of mindfulness is being on autopilot, where your attention is in the past or the future, you are distracted, less aware of your surroundings and tend to act based on habit, patterns and assumptions. Our brain loves to switch off and tune in to autopilot to save energy but this is not a good way for us to meander through life and certainly doesn’t seem to be the right way to be spending our work day.

I love this quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankel’s teachings summarised by Steve Covey).

Mindfulness is one way to create a space or more space between stimulus and response. For example, the aggressive email from the other side or stressed client is the stimulus. Without space, you fire off a reply in the moment that is influenced by emotion, or it’s your autopilot response.

Need more examples? The staff member who has not followed instructions, the IT issue that caused a document problem, the unforeseen delay, the overflowing email inbox or X unreturned phone calls. These triggers can’t be avoided but we can create space to manage our response.

There is a world of science behind all of this. A threat, real or imagined, physical or social, fires off our amygdala, putting us into fight or flight response. All kinds of changes happen within our body and brain, including a flood of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

One major effect is the disconnect that happens between parts of the brain, that is, our salience network (which contains the amygdala) and our pre-frontal cortex or executive network. This means our emotional responses take over and we decrease our ability to respond rationally.

And whilst this worked for our cavemen ancestors to respond to very real physical danger, they were only in this state – acute stress – for certain periods of time, switching back to the parasympathetic system – rest and digest state after the danger was over.

Cortisol levels would drop and things would calm down. But if our modern world is triggering our fight/flight response for extended periods (or all day), then our mind and bodies are in a constant state of arousal and we are dealing with chronic stress.

Mindfulness allows us to move out of the fight/flight state and to calm the mind and body. I like to think of it as a mini-vacation for the mind during a busy day. Short, regular practices can make a world of difference. And there are many ways to bring mindfulness into the office and your workday. I can’t ‘teach’ mindfulness in this article, but I’ll set out some ideas that you might be able to try.

Dedicated or integrated mindfulness practice

Mindfulness can be both a dedicated OR integrated practice.

If I’m looking to improve my fitness, I can go to the gym, walk/run/swim or head to a yoga or Pilates class.

I can also incorporate practices during the day that help, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus a few stops before my actual one, parking far away from the shop entrance, or standing on one leg while brushing my teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil (seriously, one of the best habits to form).

Dedicated mindfulness might be setting aside 30 to 60 minutes at some point in the day to practise either on your own or with others, or using a spoken-word recording. You could sign up for an in-person or online eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course – a great place to start and how I first developed my practice many years ago.

Integrated mindfulness might look like one or more of these options:

  • Using an app on your phone to access a one to 10 minute practice at a convenient time of the day.
  • Taking some time on your commute to focus on breathing or listen to a practice.
  • Mindful coffee: Try to let go of thoughts and just focus on the smell and taste of the coffee, really savouring the moment and being present.
  • Mindful walking: Focus on your breath and the act of walking as you move between locations either in the office, at home or out and about. Consider your surroundings and appreciate what you can see, hear or feel at that time.
  • Mindful queuing: This has changed my life as I no longer get frustrated but use the time to offer ‘loving kindness’ to those in the queue. I know, you have raised your eyebrows but it works. Loving Kindness is a powerful exercise and would take another whole article to explain. Google it, especially Sharon Salzberg.

More on mindfulness next week

This content first appeared in Brief, the journal of the Law Society of Western Australia. It is reproduced with permission.

Cathryn is a West Australian lawyer who works as a Professional Skills Trainer and Practice/Risk Management Consultant. She is also a Certified Teacher at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

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