Mindfulness: Staying in the Now
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 1
OK, c’mon. How many of you read the above and thought to yourself, “rest in the grace of the world?” “Free?” “Easy for you to say, but try balancing my practice, my family, time to do the things I love, and time for myself.” Or, as Manhattan criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield commented, he has “nothing against stress relief but doubts that a regimen of meditation, daily affirmations and Qigong training will cure the ills of the profession.”2
No one can argue that the law is not a “jealous mistress.”3 We deal with deadlines, statutes of limitation, billable hours, expectations (often unrealistic) placed on us by clients, judges, supervisors, and, most often, ourselves. Law students deal with competition from other students, an atmosphere of “dog eat dog” (sometimes fostered by the administration itself), the elusive scramble for the highest GPA, class rank, extracurricular honors, such as law review, moot court, and student government, and a sometimes brutal admission process.
All too often, these stressors can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, unresolved anxiety and depression, and online addictions, including porn and gambling. A number of studies indicate that lawyers and law students suffer from substance use disorders and mental health issues at a substantially higher rate than the general population.4 At Florida Lawyers Assistance (FLA), our clinical director, Dr. Scott Weinstein, receives almost daily hotline calls from lawyers who are paralyzed because of stress, and I and our assistant director, Judith Rushlow, deal with calls from lawyers, law students, partners, spouses, and judges regarding possible substance abuse and other harmful behaviors that often represent an attempt to self-medicate stress and depression.
Suppose there was a way to deal with the stress we face as legal professionals that could benefit our quality of life, rather than diminishing it? Mindfulness practice would certainly be at the top of that list. There is a wealth of information in this Journal issue and online regarding the techniques of mindfulness itself, so I won’t duplicate that information, but I do want to illustrate how that practice has helped a number of FLA clients.
FLA participates in every session of Practicing with Professionalism sponsored by The Florida Bar. We also participate in many law school wellness sessions, local county bar meetings, and other CLE functions. At all of those, the concept of mindfulness as a stress management tool is introduced. We receive regular feedback from those who followed the suggestion of implementing mindfulness that it has led to unanticipated, beneficial changes in their lives, practices, and family interactions. Some responses have called the practice of mindfulness “life changing” and “life saving,” and many (especially younger lawyers) have stated it has been a factor in allowing them to persevere in their law practices when facing adversity and anxiety. A number of FLA clients have faced serious personal or family trauma, and have utilized mindfulness practice as one of the components allowing them to get through a difficult situation without having to resort to self-harming methods. FLA is developing other internal programs to introduce mindfulness practice to all FLA clients, such as monthly guided meditations at the 30 weekly FLA attorney support groups around the state.
The practice of mindfulness does not conflict with stress management techniques and can complement the various approaches to recovery.5 Many FLA clients participate in 12-step recovery groups, and mindfulness, though nonsecular, can be understood to dovetail with one of the recommendations incorporated in the steps. For example, the 11th step states that members of AA “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, seeking only knowledge of His will and the power to carry that out.”6 Clients draw upon mindfulness in conjunction with individual or group therapy, or within the context of their religious or spiritual organization. One of the universal concepts of any spiritual program (including the 12-step programs) is the importance of “staying in the now,” of understanding that although the past and the future have a role to play in our daily lives, they do not have to control our thoughts, emotions, or actions. At its heart, this is the teaching of mindfulness — to center oneself and appreciate that all we really have is this moment. With that understanding, everything else falls into its proper place and perspective.
As you have read this issue of the Journal, the concepts of mindfulness and meditation have gained a great deal of attraction throughout the legal profession. Law schools, including the University of Miami, have departments and curricula focused on teaching the practice to students at a stage when it can be incorporated throughout the rest of their professional careers. Law firms are acknowledging their younger associates’ demands for a quality of life that does not include only billing 80 hours a week, but also makes allowances for stress management, family time, and mentoring. Many years ago, Dallas lawyer John McShane,7 an early pioneer in advancing the importance of quality of life issues, predicted that the profession would start turning away from a focus on “all work, all the time” to a more holistic view of law when the profession reached a “critical mass” of attorneys who would no longer accept the century old “jealous mistress” paradigm. It is possible we have reached that critical mass and, to follow the analogy, have started a chain reaction that can change the profession. This chain reaction does not mean a bunch of lawyers sitting in a conference room contemplating their navels. It does envision a profession composed of lawyers who are more human and less stressed, which actually has been shown to produce more focused, efficient, and productive professionals. Certainly, the anecdotal evidence we have at Florida Lawyers Assistance of the positive changes in the lives of participants who have incorporated mindfulness into their daily routines has been universally positive, and it is our hope that through organizations, such as The Florida Bar (whose commitment is demonstrated by this issue), Florida Lawyers Assistance, the University of Miami, and other law schools around the state, law firms, and local county bar associations, the benefits of mindfulness can keep expanding that critical mass and the chain reaction of bringing the legal profession back to a healing art that benefits both the parties and the lawyers.
1 Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (1998).
2 Jacob Gershman, “Mindfulness” Movement Spreads to Legal Field, Wall Street J. Law Blog, June 18, 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2015/06/18/mindfulness-movement-spreads-to-legal-field/.
3 Justice Joseph Story, A Discourse Pronounced Upon the Inauguration of the Author as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University on the Twenty-fifth Day of August, 1829 at 5 (1829).
4 Butler Center for Research, Research Update, Hazelden Foundation , Attorneys and Substance Abuse (Sept. 2012); Krieger, L. & Sheldon, K., What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 George Washington L. Rev. (Feb. 2015).
5 Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment (2010).
6 Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) (4th ed. 2001).
7 The Law Offices of John V. McShane, John V. McShane, http://www.jvmcshane.com/Attorneys/John-V-Mcshane.shtml.
Myer J. (Michael) Cohen is the executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance and previously served on the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. He sits on the Bar’s Standing Committee on Professionalism and the Senior Lawyers Committee. Cohen is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional, and a contributing editor to The Fix online magazine.