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The Mindful Lawyer: Finding the sweet spot

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The Mindful LawyerA core component of many definitions of mindfulness and to many mindfulness practices is “attention.” You may have heard that mindfulness involves “paying attention on purpose” or been instructed to direct attention to the breath. Given how easy it is to become distracted, lose focus, and get lost in mind wandering, practices that can help steady attention and regulate emotions are being looked to more and more. At the same time, with so much emphasis on attention—the very capacity that is so easily compromised—practicing mindfulness can feel like a losing battle, like pouring water into a bucket with holes.

Today’s column explores a second core component that tends to be underemphasized: awareness. It’s implicit in statements like “and when you notice your mind wandering, return attention to the breath.” And because mind wandering amid moments of deliberate focus can be frustrating and agitating, I hope that by elaborating on the role of awareness, readers will gain a better understanding of mindfulness and enjoy a more engaged connection to its practice.

A Delicate Balance

Mindfulness involves the delicate balancing of attention and awareness, two terms often treated as interchangeable (e.g., aware of the breath; attending to the breath) and worthy of teasing apart. We’ll look to some everyday examples to help elucidate them.

As many of us might long for a getaway, especially now, let’s take a vacation:

You are visiting a part of the world known for a famous mountain range. As you look across the vista consisting of mountains, valleys, trees, birds, the clouds, and so on, your eyes are drawn to the tallest peak, as you marvel over the majestic and stunning beauty of the place.

In this example you are paying attention to the tallest peak with an awareness of the surrounding vista. The peak is in the foreground of the mind whereas the vista is in the background, or in the periphery.

Let’s more fully explore this distinction with a visit to the symphony.

The program begins with the conductor entering the hallway. She steps onto the podium, lifts her baton and gestures to the musicians as the woodwind and strings sections begin playing in unison, creating a beautiful and soothing melody. A few minutes in and the sound of a lone cello emerges, its melancholic voice rising above the orchestra.

How might you apply “attention” and “awareness” to this experience?  First, attention is directed to the conductor entering the hall. Though the orchestra begins playing, your attention remains fixed on the world-famous conductor, the melody held in awareness. The cello solo begins and you can’t help but listen with rapt attention, the conductor receding into the background.

Both the symphony and vacation are powerful experiences. While the enchanting cello solo and majestic peak deserve credit, it should be no surprise that it is the fullness of the experience in all its manifold aspects that generates the joy and delight we feel. It is in this respect that the balancing of attention and awareness is so important.

Our Relationship to Our Experience

A key mindfulness insight is that the quality of our experience in any given moment has more to do with how we relate to the situation than the situation itself. This is a powerful expression of our innate resilience. It does not deny that events can be tragic and painful, but allows for the possibility that, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us, “we were made for these times,” and that there is an inherent stability and okayness in the moments that life brings our way.

Often this insight inspires an intellectual reframing of what’s taking place to step outside of limiting beliefs, self-critical judgments, erroneous assumptions, and catastrophic thinking.  This helps establish a more mindfully aware assessment of what is actually taking place, calling for a loosening of attention, a redirecting of the mind to beliefs, possibilities, and perspectives that are robust and offer more degrees of freedom. Mindfulness practices tackle this head on by deliberately monitoring the moment-to-moment balance of attention and awareness. We could restate the insight that opens this section as “the quality of our experience in any given moment has more to do with the balance of attention and awareness than to the situation itself.” Balancing acts are not so easy, but with practice we become more skillful in making the subtle adjustments that can make all the difference.

The Practice of Law and of Mindfulness

Take a moment and reflect on some of the more consequential events in your workday with an eye to the importance of balancing attention and awareness. In trial, you are cross-examining a witness, taking in the larger context of the courtroom. With too rigid a focus on the witness, you may miss a juror’s eye rolling. Distracted by the juror and you miss a subtle inconsistency in the testimony. This balancing is not limited to the external environment. In your office an upset client blames you for an adverse ruling. Should your attention be hijacked by the thought of not getting paid, or begin constructing a defense, the quality of the communication and relationship is likely to suffer. In practically every scenario, an optimal response may well depend on finding the sweet spot between attention and awareness.

The practice of mindfulness is an exercise in balancing these two capacities. Attention is placed on an object like the sensations of the breath while maintaining awareness of what is arising in the periphery. The key is to maintain enough focus so as to remain attentive to the object while remaining open and receptive to what arises in the larger field of awareness. The activity of the internal landscape of the mind and events transpiring in the external environment continually lure us off balance. If our focus becomes too intense, the field of awareness dims and we lose access to relevant information. At the same time, if focus is too diffuse, we are prone to distraction and susceptible to becoming lost in thought and carried away by agitating emotional states. The practice is one of maintaining equipoise, notwithstanding these potential distractions, and continually reestablishing it. This is why the practice of focusing attention amid mind wandering can be challenging; it’s like dropping balls you are learning to juggle.

But when we realize that noticing mind wandering (which you cannot will yourself to do) depends on accessing the larger field of awareness, we appreciate that such moments are quite profound and serve to further develop this very capacity. Just as returning attention to an object reinforces our ability to focus, noticing mind wandering reinforces our ability to access what arises in awareness.

Attention is Narrow

The mind attends to objects, one at a time, and is readily captured. When the conductor enters the music hall, attention quickly and spontaneously zeroes in on her. The accompanying sights and sounds of the symphony persist, but in (the background of) awareness. It might be that your cousin plays the French horn and you choose instead to attend to him. Sooner or later, however, your attention is likely to be lulled away by the enchanting sound of the cello, for which the concerto was written. Returning to our mountain view, imagery of the mountain peak is sharp, while that of the surrounding vista is less well defined, its features less crisp. As a general rule, the sharper our attention on a primary object, the fuzzier the objects in the field of awareness. But as we’ll see, through mindfulness practice these two capacities can be simultaneously strengthened. This cannot happen purely by focusing attention for the simple reason that attention cannot keep track of itself. For that we need awareness.

Awareness is Broad

One of the primary characteristics of awareness is that it can hold many objects at the same time. These commonly include sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and tastes. Even now, as you focus on these words, there is a rich landscape of sensory experience evident in the background. A beverage, cell phone, traffic, the hum of the air conditioner. These are perceived in a more diffuse way, a general sense of the relationships among objects offering context. The crucial role of awareness is made clear when we consider its interplay with attention, which is limited to holding but one object at a time. When something interesting or important arises within the field of awareness, such as a bald eagle flying overhead, or the crackle of a camp fire we thought had been sufficiently doused, it can capture attention, allowing for an even richer vacation experience or helping to avoid a fire. What had been foreground (peak) instantly moves into the background as something arising in the periphery of awareness (eagle, crackle sound) takes center stage. The flexibility of this exchange is fundamental to performance and wellbeing.

Importantly, while attention and awareness have a push-me, pull-me relationship (think attending to a witness’s testimony while being aware of a juror’s facial cues) both attention and awareness can be developed. Together they work like a flashlight. Attention illuminates the object it is aiming at, while the broader beam brightens the surrounding area. Narrow the focal point and the broader beam dims. Practicing mindfulness is akin to increasing the voltage of the light bulb. You see with greater clarity not only that to which you are aiming the flashlight, but also to that in the periphery surrounding it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to experience more moments — be they at work, home, on vacation, or at the symphony — with the ability to aim and sustain attention where you choose while maintaining vivid awareness on what is arising in the larger field of experience, nimbly balancing the two as needed?

The Internal Landscape of Experience

In the example of listening to an upset client, an important factor was introduced, one which will be further explored in a subsequent column. The hijacking of attention is neither seen nor heard, as it takes place in the interior landscape of the mind. Just about every object that we considered while visiting the mountains and symphony was found in the “external” environment. Mountains, eagles, the crackle of fire, the appearance of a conductor, the sounds of a cello. But what of the “internal” landscape?

Recall how when paying attention to the mountain peak, you marveled over the majestic and stunning beauty of the view. Where was that marveling taking place? You can’t see or hear it. Rather, it is a series of pleasant feelings and thoughts arising within the mind. And when you heard the surprising crackle of a still smoldering flame, the feeling of alarm and thought to douse the firepit all arose on the inside. Such phenomena are invisible to the eye and ear, yet they can exert great influence on the quality of our experience and decision making. Carried away by a client’s (or family member’s) anger and we lose focus and say or do something we come to regret. Holding attention steady on the information being communicated while maintaining awareness on the parade of thoughts and feelings allows for a deeper and more nuanced read of the situation, and for the emergence of our capacity to be wise and compassionate.

Mindfulness Practice as a Delicate Balancing Act

The next time you sit down to practice mindfulness, placing attention on the sensations of the breath, remember that you are also engaging the faculty of awareness. By intentionally keeping both in mind — monitoring the sensations of the breath, open and receptive to whatever arises in the periphery, you are developing the capacity to establish that marvelous sweet spot of attention and awareness, moment by precious moment.

If you have a question about mindfulness and integrating it into the practice of law that you would like answered in this column, send it to [email protected].

Scott Rogers, M.S., J.D., is a nationally recognized leader in the area of mindfulness in law and founded and directs the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program where he teaches mindful ethics, mindful leadership, and mindfulness in law. He is the creator of Jurisight, one of the first CLE programs in the country to integrate mindfulness and neuroscience and conducts workshops and presentations on the role of mindfulness in legal education and across the legal profession. He is author of the recently released, “The Elements of Mindfulness.”

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