Once a month in a secluded room at the top of the Law Society building on Chancery Lane, something magical happens. Far removed from the bustle of legal life in the streets below, a growing and diverse band of legal rebels ascends into a world that most pass through without noticing: the world of The Present. This is where some of the most advanced lawyers of their generation are to be found. This is where the Mindfulness in Law Group holds its regular meetings.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years. Everyone claims to be doing it. But what is it, and what does it mean for lawyers?
What is mindfulness?
At its essence, mindfulness is the practice of bringing oneself back from distraction, to attention of the present. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the person credited with introducing meditation to the western mainstream, describes mindfulness in these terms: mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. In this way we can enjoy a direct experience of the world around us as it is.
Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind of all its thoughts. After all, it is hard to see how anyone can be tending to the present while thinking nothing. What it is about is acknowledging and uncoupling oneself from the thoughts that take us out of the present moment. These may be benign thoughts, about what we want to have for lunch or what time the children need picking up from school. Or they may be more profound, deep rooted thoughts that are stuck on repeat play: internal dialogues about why we are not good enough, reasons we give ourselves for being unhappy, or blame we direct at others for our perceived misfortunes. This kind of thinking detracts from our direct experience of the world and instead gives us a narrative experience, an experience filtered through interpretation, judgment and story. We can literally become lost in our thoughts.
Neuroscience has observed that the parts of the brain engaged in the perception of the self in the present moment are distinguishable from those engaged in the perception of the self over time, and that the brains of those who regularly engage in mindfulness practices develop new and enhanced neural pathways that increase their ability to stay present (see for example, Farb and others, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 2, Issue 4, December 2007). In other words, practising mindfulness changes the brain and strengthens its ability to experience what is happening in the here and now.
Why should lawyers care about mindfulness?
Lawyers pride themselves on their excellent cognitive skills so it would be strange if they showed no interest in enhancing the function of their brains. There are many direct benefits which mindfulness can bring to legal life, and we mention three.
First, mindfulness enhances communication. Communication with clients, teams, opponents and judges, cross-examining witnesses, pitching for work, and anything else you may think of involves being attentive to the present. In particular, active listening – something very few lawyers are even trained in – requires both presence and non-judgment. Non-judgment is a difficult concept for lawyers to grasp. At its most practical it means keeping a genuinely open and enquiring mind during communication.
Secondly, mindfulness can increase choice by reducing the likelihood of behaviour defaulting to an unconscious or pre-conceived pattern. We all know of people who have buttons that can be pressed, provoking a familiar, predictable reaction. When people are triggered they are no longer present: their behaviour has become hijacked by their triggered self. Triggering an opponent can render them unskilled, helpless and ineffective. By contrast, mindfulness increases self-awareness and the ability to stay present, allowing lawyers to be purposeful and to make deliberate choices about how to respond in the particular moment.
Thirdly, mindfulness is very successful at reducing stress. Stress is often caused by anxiety and anxiety is usually rooted in a past experience and finds its expression in a fear of the future. The present moment rarely presents anything to be anxious about. By bringing oneself back to the present, through focussing on breath for example, we can ground ourselves back in the safety of the moment and uncouple ourselves from our concerns of the past or future.
How can you practice mindfulness?
Meditation is a classical way of practising mindfulness, but it is not the only way. At a recent meeting of the The Mindfulness in Law Group, US Attorney Robert Chender, who is the founder and co-chair of the New York City Bar Association Mindfulness and Wellbeing Committee, shared a dozen daily mindfulness practices that anyone can do. Here are three of our favourites:
- STOP: this stands for Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. This is a helpful practice for dealing with emotions that can seem overwhelming, such as the feeling of being triggered. Once you observe and notice, you can choose how to react.
- Changing body stance. Practice changing your body stance – how you sit, how you stand, how you walk – and notice how it changes your state of mind. This awareness can help you to cultivate the use of your body as a resource to support the attitude you want to bring to a work situation.
- Set a daily intention. Start each day by deciding not what you will do, but how you will be. By keeping your intention in mind, your actions become more purposeful, and your self-awareness increases. This can support the formation of new, more resourceful habits, and increase your ability to make and execute choices.
Give it a go!
Mindfulness is no longer the fringe practice of the outsider; it is fast becoming mainstream. Its benefits are obvious, and accessible to all. And you don’t have to undergo a pilgrimage to Tibet to find it. Once a month, in a secluded room at the top of the Law Society building on Chancery Lane, something magical happens. Go on, give it a go!
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are coaches and co-founders of the Libra Partnership. The Mindfulness in Law Group can be contacted on @LawMindfulness and email@example.com; and their events can be found on Eventbrite.