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The Mindful Lawyer: Mindfulness and Anxiety — A Process of Elimination

Special to the News Columns

MindfulnessIn today’s column we cut to the chase and make explicit one of the ways that practicing mindfulness can help support lawyers’ emotional well-being. The comment that mindfulness practice enhances awareness can leave many scratching their head as it begs questions like, “What does that mean?” and “Why does that matter?”

Neuroscience findings on the benefits of practice allow us to glimpse the internal mechanisms that explain these benefits. To help us better understand what “enhanced awareness” means and why it matters we will take a closer look at the activity of the mind and body when we experience agitated emotions, like anxiety and frustration.

Take a moment and jot down a thought that might arise out of the blue that relates to a future event of consequence. It could pertain, for example, to a client, relationship, or health concern.

Thought:  _____________________________________________________

As one thought often begets others in rapid succession, quickly write down related thoughts that might follow from the first, each building on the one before it.

Thought #2:  _____________________________________________________

Thought #3:  _____________________________________________________

Thought #4:  _____________________________________________________

Thought #5:  _____________________________________________________

So that we all might be on the same page, below is an example of a thought stream that might arise while exercising, driving home, eating dinner, or while sleeping that wakes you up.

Chart 1

As this example demonstrates thoughts can proliferate in ways that zero in on deep-seated concerns. In this case, a concern for (financial) security.

Mindfulness teacher, Sharon Salzberg, offers the insight:

Mindfulness is being able to tell the difference between what is happening
and the story we tell ourselves about what is happening.

In the example above, all that is happening is that a judge is in the process of making a decision. That alone is not a source of worry or concern. It is the stories that emerge — often gratuitously and out of proportion to reality — that sound an internal alarm and is the source of anxiety.

Importantly, thoughts alone do not pack much of a punch. Afterall, they represent a transient crackling of synaptic activity. They dissipate as quickly as they arise. (If you’re not convinced, sit for a few minutes and notice your thoughts.) Of course, a thought can fuel the arising of similar thoughts, and they never arise in isolation, which brings us closer to understanding why they can capture our attention and we can become so agitated.

Our Feelings About Thoughts

As thoughts proliferate, the complexity and intensity of feeling states tends to grow. These, in turn, fuel more thoughts and their rapid succession in ways that often align with core needs and concerns. As you look back over your five thoughts, what feeling (or feelings) might arise alongside them?  Building on our example, we might notice something like this:

Chart 2

Taking this one step further, along with thoughts and feelings, sensations in the body readily take hold.

Chart 3

You can flesh out your own example by inserting some of the physical sensations you might experience.

Though we have tracked through thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a linear progression, all three are pretty much always at play and in a state of flux. Any one of them can pull ahead and fuel the others to heightened states of intensity and activation.

About how many thoughts do you think arise during the course of a day? Estimates hover around 65,000. Just imagine the frequency with sudden bursts of thoughts, feelings and sensations and their potential to drag us down endless rabbit holes.  Not surprising, this can all too easily disrupt our focus, wellbeing, and decision making.

Now that we’ve put a microscope to what might be happening internally throughout the day as unbidden thoughts arise, we’ll answer the questions posed at the outset: What does having greater awareness mean and why does it matter?

Aware of Mind Wandering

The practice of mindfulness offers many benefits, both in the short and long term. A primary mindfulness practice commonly known as Focused Attention involves focusing attention on an object, like the breath, with the intention to remain focused on the object. Then, when one notices that attention has wandered away from the object, attention is  returned to the object. Misunderstanding this practice can limit one’s appreciation of its potential.

While it is tempting to think that the purpose of this exercise is to stop mind wandering or to enhance focus, the primary object is to notice when the mind wanders in the first place. With regular practice we become increasingly expert at catching the mind wander. That is, we become more aware of the activity of the mind.

Putting Things Together

Look back over the first thought you identified, the one that arose seemingly out of the blue and set in motion a stream of thoughts, feelings and body sensations. In all likelihood, it was an instance of mind wandering. You were eating, reading, talking, relaxing, sleeping — whatever — and the thought arose. Then, before you knew it, you were taken for a ride — likely an unpleasant one.

What do you think would happen if you were to have noticed the arising of that thought — or one of those that follows — sooner? Research finds that the mind wanders almost 50% of the time. Often we are unaware this is happening. Research also reports our mood tends to drop when our mind wanders. We quickly become lost in thought and an affective and physiological storm.

Putting things together, consider, as a practical and logical matter, what might be different if you were able to detect mind wandering sooner? It is one thing to be lost in mind wandering — which is when the mind is most apt to run wild with assumptions, judgments, rumination, and catastrophizing. It is quite another to realize it — which inserts a wedge of awareness and disrupts the cycle. Place your hand over the far right of the diagram and slowly move it to the left. Notice what is avoided — what may never arise in the first place. Greater mindful awareness allows us to avoid the all-too-common mental travel into past and future that so often disserves our interests. It also allows us to investigate the accuracy of thoughts that arise as part of a story (“thoughts are not facts”) and to correct the record.

Becoming more mindfully aware allows lawyers to see things more clearly. And that clear seeing has innumerable benefits when it comes to the regulation of emotion, the steadiness of attention, and the quality of decision-making. It is neither magical nor mystical; it just makes sense.

Scott Rogers

Scott Rogers

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, mindfulness and negotiation, 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 Mindful Law Student: A Mindfulness in Law Practice Guide,” written for all audiences.

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