Accepting Resistance

stress-joelOver the last couple of weeks, I, along with approximately 200 other legal practitioners, sat exams as part of the Law Institute of Victoria accredited specialization program. Having not sat an exam in more than ten years, along with the added pressures of running a business and 2 young children to negotiate, the stress was extreme. Not to say that I was in a different position to any of the other candidates – far from it. In some ways being self-employed meant that at least I had some control over my work hours and could manage enough time to dedicate towards study (others were not so lucky).

Yet here I was, a so-called expert on mindfulness and stress management, going completely crazy with stress. I was a nervous wreck, unable to sleep, disconnected from others and in bare survival mode for the period leading up to and during the exams.

What was going wrong? I kept wondering why I wasn’t feeling more relaxed considering all the strategies that I had in place to ensure a balanced equilibrium that would see me cruising through. Surely I should be an example of calm and peace. After all, wasn’t I the meditating lawyer, the one that no matter what life threw at me, nothing phased?

Now, having come through the other side, I look back curiously at how crazy I was. I wanted my experience of exams to be different – for them to be stress-free. After all, what was the big deal? I had time to study. Having 10 years of practice under my belt I knew a few things about the law. I have done exams before. Why was I so stressed?

What I failed to grasp at the time is that as much as I desired the experience to be stress-free, it just wasn’t. Exams are stressful, and no amount of wanting it to be different was going to change that. In fact, my wanting it to be different and my resistance to the reality of the experience simply amplified my anxiety and deepened my suffering.

Accepting things as they are, particularly if they are something we would rather not experience, like the stress of exams, is oftentimes the greatest challenge. We want things to be a certain way, and when they are not, we suffer. And this is a great paradox – that in order to relieve ourselves from suffering, we need to accept the suffering that comes our way.

As my experience of my exams shows, this is easier said than done. Resisting pain and suffering is something that we have been practicing for a long time. It is at the core of our survival instinct as human beings. We have a natural aversion to uncomfortable experiences. We don’t like feeling stressed or anxious, so we do all we can to avoid it.

This would be a perfectly sensible approach – only that we all know that the unpredictability of life means that it simply doesn’t work. No matter how much we wish to avoid it, we will all experience suffering.

Although it is true that suffering is unavoidable, what we can change is our approach towards it. Instead of rallying against it, we can understand suffering to be as much a part of us as is joy and peace, and in this way practice real acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean going to war with the part of us that is resisting suffering, which was the trap that I fell into during my exams. Knowing that the problem was my reaction to the stress, I quickly judged myself for having such feelings, and set about trying to change them. This made my suffering exponentially worse as I became caught up wanting things to be a certain way as opposed to accepting the reality of how they were.

True acceptance therefore is an exercise in heart-felt surrender to the reality of what is. It is self-compassion in its most essential expression that does not require doing or changing anything. The irony is however, that it is truly transformative.

Mindful Practice – a different approach to sustainable and effective lawyering

warriorThe metaphor of lawyer as warrior is celebrated in fact and fiction. Yet for a profession beset by stress, the scars of war are increasingly manifest through early burnout, cynicism, and increased incidence of depression, anxiety, mental illness, relationship breakdown and substance abuse. Although there is a growing awareness of the high indicators of poor mental health amongst lawyers, perhaps lesser known is the growing community of legal practitioners engaging in mindfulness to promote their own health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness in its most basic form is simple present-moment awareness. A faculty that is innate in all of us, mindfulness is not thinking, rather awareness of thinking, of emotions, and of the ways we experience the sensory world through seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting and smelling. Mindfulness practices develop and cultivate this faculty by purposely paying attention to what is occurring inside and outside of us, moment-to-moment, in a nonjudgmental and openhearted way.

Why would we want to develop and practice mindfulness?

Basically mindfulness makes us feel better balanced. With awareness we are able to better deal with the ups and downs of life by directly counteracting the negative effects of stress. If you stop and watch your thinking for a moment you will notice very quickly that the human mind is a wandering mind. Inattention and distraction form the majority of our daily mental activity as the mind constantly seeks favourable experiences and pushes unfavourable experiences away. The result of wandering is distorted thinking, dissatisfaction, worry and churning of the mind, which is at the heart of stress, anxiety and depression. By grounding yourself in awareness of all that is occurring, including the wandering itself, you no longer need to get dragged along by it.

Simply put, mindfulness is just noticing what is happening in each moment without attempting to change anything. It is self-help that is immediately available and is radically different to our habitual way of dealing with life’s ups and downs, as it doesn’t require eliminating difficulty or imagining ourselves in a better place. With mindfulness we learn to discover a storehouse of clarity and calm that has been here all along.

With perseverance of practice, we are able to observe with greater clarity, cutting through the distortions and reactions that habitually form the basis of our thinking. We can live life more fully and less on automatic pilot, thus being more present in our own lives.

Mindfulness has greater relevance than just stress reduction. Mindfulness helps us to be fully present, to be aware of our own thoughts and reactions and more in tune with those of others. Consequently we are able to listen with more presence, space out less and remain focussed for greater periods of time.

Greater focus and calm naturally improves the clarity of our decision-making. Remaining centred through mindful awareness allows our intelligence and wisdom to function fully, which has an enormous practical benefit on our skill base as lawyers.

At the same time, the more we are mindful, the more external circumstances stop affecting us in the same way they once did. In this way the unpredictability of life does not dictate our functioning nor cause us the same distress. Consequently whether we win or lose, how well we slept, whether we receive praise or criticism, is no longer determinate of our level of satisfaction or success.

Learning to Practice Mindfulness

Generally one cultivates the ability to be mindful through formal meditative practices, and then applies that ability in everyday life where it is most needed. With practice, mindfulness can be immediately available in any moment, even the most stressful.

Like any lifestyle change, you actually need to do it for it to be effective. And similar to physical exercise, it is regular, daily practice that is required to experience the most benefit. Although there is no exact science as to what is optimal, thirty minutes per day of formal meditation practice is a good yardstick.

Although mindfulness sounds simple enough, in practice, at least initially, it is quite difficult and for many it can take discipline, motivation and time to develop a new positive habit. With perseverance however, you will soon discover that the benefits of regular mindfulness practice far outweigh habitual unawareness and the rollercoaster of stress reactivity.

As you integrate mindfulness into your life, you soon begin to experience mindfulness practice as a compassionate act of self-care, rather than a chore that gets in the way of your busy life. With this understanding, practice becomes filled with meaning and can become truly transformative.

No doubt suffering poor mental health can be hugely disempowering. Looking after your own wellbeing through mindfulness practice is a way of rediscovering the peace that is at the core your being. And because mindfulness is not dependent upon external circumstances, it is effective even in the most outwardly stressful moments.

Given the highly charged and unpredictable nature of legal practice, mindfulness therefore is invaluable. As more and more of us are discovering, mindfulness is a core resource that not only makes us healthier, but also makes us better lawyers.

Becoming Unstuck

becoming-unstuckWhilst recently waiting for a matter to get before a Magistrate, I bumped into an old friend from Uni days. He looked up at me and smiled, happy to recognize someone from a different time. Despite the smile, he looked completely drained.

Over a coffee he said that he was feeling exhausted and stuck. He shared that he had been working 12-hour days and visiting clients in custody on weekends in an effort to keep up. Despite all the hours he was putting in, he felt undervalued and unsupported by his employer and said that the morale at work was terrible. He also felt pressure from his wife and guilt at not being around for his daughter, which just added to the resentment he was feeling.

Over the last 12 months he had been desperately trying to find a new job. He explained that although he’d gotten a few interviews, nothing had eventuated. Either he was rejected or positions were withdrawn because of “no suitable applicants”. He said that he had also started applying for non-law jobs, thinking he might try teaching, but again nothing was presenting. Feeling unable to stay where he was, and at the same time unable to find something else, he felt completely trapped.

I sympathized with his position. I well remember being stuck in a similar situation that I knew was no good for me, yet at the same time feeling trapped as if tethered by a leg-iron. I recall the sickening anxiety that comes with stuckness – like being a blowfly in a jar, buzzing around and around banging its head against the glass desperately trying to find a way out.

I shared that looking back, what I had experienced externally was simply a manifestation of a deep emotional stuckness that was underlying my inability to move forward or back. The more I wanted out and tried to control my outer circumstances by force of will, the more stuck I became. Trying to control my situation was simply feeding the anxiety and plunging me into depression.

The problem that we have when we are feeling stuck is that we are convinced that we can work it all out in our heads. We are absolutely sure that the problem is that we just haven’t thought enough about it and we need to think some more. We buzz around looking for a way out and get more and more wound up, and more and more stuck. The result can be extremely debilitating. At the same time we cannot force our way out of stuckness – it may change our external circumstances, but guaranteed that without embracing the underlying emotional content, we soon find that familiar constricted feeling returning.

Yet it is actually when we let go of the effort of coming up with a solution and relax – when we stop thinking – that we get some clarity. Choices become a lot clearer and flow naturally. It seems that the more we try to force it with our thinking, the farther away we get from truth. Paradoxically, the more we open to our experience, the more in tune we are to our own innate wisdom. It is in this space that things naturally shift and at the same time emotional healing can take place.

Even with this understanding, we soon learn that relaxing is easier said than done, particularly if we are so habituated to the opposite. When we are stuck we can become so tense about needing to relax, we just wind ourselves up even tighter. The problem is that we approach relaxation as another thing on the list to do or fix, and only succeed in creating more tension.

Relaxation is a complete letting go – it is not doing. Imagine the freedom in that!

Getting unstuck requires enormous kindness. With patience and compassion for ourselves, we say stop and allow acceptance to flow over and through us. We make peace with ourselves and embrace the entirety of our being. Letting go of needing to be anyplace else but right here and now, we can allow ourselves to feel our anxiety and frustration, to hold it with an open and welcoming heart. This will naturally allow our emotional stuckness to shift. In so doing, we stop trying to change the external to fix how we are feeling, which is what has got us stuck in the first place. As we open our eyes with peace to what is actually here, things shift of their own accord.

The irony is that we no longer have any need for them to do so.

The Path of Wisdom

joels-feb-picture-125x125
Wisdom has become an overlooked virtue in modern life. Although we innately value wisdom – we want to make wise choices and find the right answers to our questions – there is little public discourse of the central importance of the development of wisdom, both for our own personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of society as a whole.

Our obsession with achieving and acquiring has led to the loss of perspective and understanding, often resulting in complete craziness in the way we live and interact with others and our environment. The way lawyers work and the resultant mental health crisis within the legal profession is an example of this. And even though the world is screaming out for us to exercise wisdom, our lack of emphasis on the importance of wisdom has meant that oftentimes we simply lack the resources to make wise choices.

Certainly there was no emphasis on the development of wisdom throughout my formal studies, which centred on intellectual understanding of concepts and fostering a certain way of critical thinking. Upon reflection, although I learnt to “think like a lawyer”, I was completely under-resourced to deal with the realities of legal practice, which required an emotional maturity and understanding – both of myself and those that I was coming into contact with.

When I started my career I spent a lot of time worrying over my place in the scheme of things, asking myself where I was going and always trying to come up with the right answer. This inevitably led to angst and mental anguish, especially when what I wanted in my mind was not in alignment to what was presenting in reality.

Eventually, through sheer exhaustion, I started on the path of wisdom. I began to practice simple acceptance of my situation and environment, no matter what was presenting. When joy would arise, I would allow myself to be with that. When fear and anxiety would arise, I would consciously lean into the experience with compassion and non-judgement. With persistence and courage, I began to allow myself to be just as I was, and through this process, healing and transformation would take place. This brought greater understanding and better balance and clarity, resulting in a discerning wisdom in recognizing opportunities and making choices.

My experience has been that to be happy and successful in the law, it is absolutely invaluable to emphasize the development of inner resources that lead to wisdom. It is extremely important in achieving good legal outcomes, and is more important in terms of life satisfaction than the actual work you are doing, your employer, your work environment, how much you are getting paid, etc. This is because with wisdom, you will be able to manage anything and everything that life throws at you. The rest, I have discovered, will look after itself.

So how do you develop wisdom? Start by allowing yourself to be exactly as you are, without judgement or criticism. Be completely honest with your experience and open your eyes, ears and heart to the truth of each moment. Be kind to yourself and generous with others. Acknowledge your painful moments, not as weaknesses, but as a reflection of your humanity. Laugh when you need to laugh, and cry when you need to cry.

It is true that the stresses of professional life often make us want out. Yet with all its challenges and pressures, work is the perfect place to start developing wisdom. Instead of worrying about each day and its challenges, approach the ups and downs of life as golden opportunities to develop understanding and insight. Let this be the focus and you will transform your career in law into the path of wisdom, which is the most precious gift you can give to yourself, and to the world.

Country Practice

Gm09S7Z7p-US8WUkEqdaIqC9UDpy7OKzlqrw_9JEBE0-125x125Whilst at a recent event at the Law Institute a fellow practitioner introduced himself and we struck up a conversation. When I told him that I was now back practicing in the city after working in regional Victoria over the last 7 years, he began to reflect on the time he had spent practicing law in the bush some 20 years previous.

He noted with a sense of nostalgia how congenial, civil and generally good-natured practitioners were with each other in the country, even when on opposing sides of hotly contested matters. He further lamented how his experience in legal practice in the city was so rarely like this – that oftentimes interactions with other lawyers were replete with posturing, obstruction, rudeness and aggression. He wondered whether it was a city/country thing of whether it was just in his area of law that was like this.

I shared with him that this had also been my experience of legal practice since returning to the city – that the default mode when engaging with another practitioner seemed to be aggression and opposition, as opposed to shared experience and problem solving. I went on to explain that I felt there was a real sense of heaviness in city practice that simply was not present during my time in the country

After our interaction, I began to ask myself what is it about legal practice in the country that makes practitioners seem to treat each other so much better? Is it that in the city the game is played that much harder that there is no room for softness? Is it this same hardness that seems to lead to such poor mental health outcomes amongst the profession?

What makes country practice kinder and more gentle? After all, the law is the same in the city and the country, as are the prerequisites of practice. Apart from the specific details of legal matters, the casework is also largely the same. It appears to be practiced by human beings in both city and country. Yet it also appears one default approach is congeniality and the other is opposition and defiance.

Although my observations of country practice are purely anecdotal, and no doubt largely subjective, I wonder if my conclusions about how law is practiced in the bush are reflective of a culture of practice that leads to generally higher levels of contentment amongst practitioners there.

In terms of a successful and fulfilling legal career, the city has many attractions – but the culture of practice in the city is certainly not one of them. I’m not suggesting that we should all up and move to the country – but I do believe we can all do something to improve the way law is practiced here. We actually have a choice about how we treat each other and what type of environment we want to work in. That choice can be practiced in each and every interaction, be that with fellow practitioners, our kids, our neighbours, our husbands and wives, or those who serve us our morning coffee. We can also exercise that choice regardless of how we ourselves are treated. We can refuse to engage on a level of aggression and emotional reactivity no matter what the apparent provocation or justification.

Some may suggest that treating others with kindness is pie in the sky – that really what I’m advocating is that we all become pushovers and that the only way to meet aggression is with aggression. That there is a reason that we practice law like this in the city and that those that don’t like it just need to harden up. What this view fails to recognize is that we have been unsuccessfully attempting to deal with conflict through aggression since year dot.

The reality is that the country has a lot to teach the city, and not the other way around. Treating someone with dignity and respect, and in doing so acknowledging our shared humanity, is not a sign of weakness. It is quite the opposite. It demonstrates a level of emotional maturity and wisdom, which has real positive power for change. This not only makes us happier but extremely effective advocates.

Joyful Practice

cartwheel-125x125Mindfulness is openness. Opening to experience, whatever it may be, is the key to joyful lawyering. As we open our eyes and ears and hearts, with a sense of curiosity and welcome to the world, in all its manifestations, every moment, even the most outwardly stressful, becomes filled with wonder and joy.

It sounds so simple, yet in practice, the reality of our experience is so often the opposite of this. We approach our days as a pitted battle against our world and our experience. Although we understand in theory how mindfulness – as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness – is so beneficial, we continue to experience work and life as a constant frustration.

The problem is that we are so habituated to the opposite of openness. The instinct to self-protect – to close ourselves off to experience – is something we have been practicing from the very first moment we experienced suffering or loss. And because we have been doing it for so long, the grooves of habit run very deep. When you consider this, is it really any surprise that we find openness such a challenge to put into practice?

The first step to openness is to have some compassion for ourselves and our predicament. For some, this is extremely difficult.

Whether it is because we think we are undeserving, or think that compassion is a sign of weakness, we struggle to open our hearts. However counterintuitive, we need to reassure ourselves that we are in fact deserving, and compassion is the perfect medicine.

Practicing compassion can take a lot of courage and often requires baby steps to begin with, but the result is incredible strength. This is because compassion is the beginning of the journey to acceptance that will, inevitably, lead to an open heart.

But don’t take my word for it. Have a go. Approach every moment as an opportunity to practice opening your heart. Like this moment right now.

Leaning In

balance-125x125Sitting in the foyer of the Children’s Court the tension is palpable. I am here for something completely inert – a directions hearing without any real acrimony. But as often happens, the stars do not align for a quick getaway and I am forced to wait all day to get before a Magistrate.

So why am I so on edge? Sitting to wait in the foyer, I begin to acknowledge how I am feeling. I make the decision to lean into my anxiety long enough to feel the energy behind it.

What I feel is heavy, creeping uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. I feel the shallowness of my breathing and the buzzing of my head. I notice the resistance that my being forced to wait has generated, suffocating my instinct to be someplace else.

I take the next moment to expand my awareness, touching the pain of this place and the ghosts that inhabit it. Through the bravado and aggression I can feel the deep hurt all around me. I feel the hurt of the mums and dads and kids and grandparents and lawyers and interpreters and workers and magistrates. This place breathes in hurt all day everyday. It is soaked in it.

Somehow I have chosen to do this work – to be in this place. I notice other practitioners and I wonder how they cope. Walking with ghosts it would be easy to become one.

I notice my habit to self protect – to shut down and not allow myself to feel anything. How easy it would be to surrender to this.

Breathing into my heart space instead, I turn towards the rawness of my own hurt. Acknowledged and held, it seems to soften and melt. My heart expands and I feel it able to embrace the darkness of this place. My hurt is everyone’s hurt, and my healing becomes everyone’s healing.

After arriving at 9.20am, at 3.30pm my matter is called and at 3.36pm I am walking out the door past security.

Some days are like this.

The Fearless Lawyer

courage-125x125In my practice as a lawyer, I seem to come face to face with my fear on an almost daily basis. Although this fear is often about the latest calamity to have befallen my clients, oftentimes it is fear associated purely with what is befalling me. I often experience fear about my own performance or fear of looking the fool, by second guessing how I will be received or perceived by others. I also experience fear when faced with things that are out of my apparent control – this can be appearing before an unfamiliar or difficult magistrate, or having to deal with fellow practitioner who has a prickly reputation.

It seems that in legal practice we often find ourselves in situations where, if we had a choice, we would run a mile. This is because we deal with people at their worst, in an environment can be extremely toxic, combative and played at very high stakes. The most common way we deal with this is to put on a suit of armor – we project a persona of the bulletproof – that nothing, no matter what the context or circumstances, can touch us. For some of us who have been around a while, the result can be a patina of hardness that seems rusted on. We are like the aged homicide detective that no matter how gruesome, we only need look at things forensically and don’t, and won’t, feel anything.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an essential part of our humanity. Emotional reactions to circumstances and events are actually what make us human – and no amount of suppression or denial will stop this. Burying an emotional reaction doesn’t make it go away, it just plants the seed that is certain to manifest sooner or later, and usually in circumstances that really knock us for six.

And the truth is that we need to feel to do our jobs – as so much of what we deal with has emotional content beyond what the bare facts are.

We need to be able to understand people; their failings, their strengths, their insecurities, their fears and anxieties. And the measure of our ability to do this is often our ability to understand ourselves.

That said, it takes a lot of courage to really look at our own humanity – to allow ourselves to feel all those feelings that are oftentimes so painful, because they touch us at our very core. Allowing ourselves to be open in this way takes a special type of fearlessness. It is a fearlessness that has its motivation in compassion for ourselves and our predicament, that allows us to be fully present, often for the first time, with the entirety of our being.

The Mindful Lawyer

IMG_7157-125x125Being a law student is stressful –and the irony is that if law school is training you for the professional life of the lawyer, they are doing a good job – the stress of practicing law can be extreme.

Study after study has identified that lawyers tend to be unhappy in their work, suffer high rates of depression, anxiety, divorce and substance abuse and have difficulty balancing work and family life.

Stress and conflict seem to be a daily occurrence in the practice of law – phones ring, emails pile up, deadlines loom, clients cry, partners demand results, magistrates yell, machines break, files are lost, mistakes are made, long hours are worked, cases are lost, etc, etc.

My own experience was to land my ideal job as an articled clerk at Fitzroy Legal Service and then move to Bairnsdale to work with an Aboriginal community at VALS.

The extreme pressure I was under as a new lawyer has long stayed with me. I was on my own, fronting up to court with a pile of briefs, with no instructions, and I was the only thing standing between vulnerable and damaged clients, and the heavy hand of the state.

My reaction in this situation was the same as what I have seen again and again in our profession. Continued, anguished, mental chatter that made my heart sink each time the phone rang to discover what latest disaster I had to face. I couldn’t switch off at all and stopped sleeping or communicating with those closest to me. All my mental energy was taken up with either second-guessing my abilities, catastrophising various outcomes or playing over the day’s events on repeat over and over and over.

Unsure how to handle the situation, I took a short break (3 months). When I returned I was determined to do things in a better, more sustainable way. This was informed by my mindfulness meditation practice which I had been pursuing in some form or another since I was 19 years old. Over the subsequent years I began integrating my mindfulness practice into my work as a lawyer, and my practice and experience of legal practice changed exponentially for the better.

So what is mindfulness and what’s the big deal?

Essentially, mindfulness is awareness. It is allowing ourselves to use our natural wakefulness to be fully aware of our environment and our inner thoughts, feelings and emotions, on a moment-by-moment basis without judgment or criticism.

Firstly, in essence, what we deal with as lawyers, and often what we think of as legal practice, is a focus on the outer: issues in a legal problem, how parties to a dispute may relate, strategy in a proceeding, what the law says about certain sets of facts, what the likely outcome to a problem will be. Yet this is only ever half the story. As human beings we are also dealing with a whole other layer of inner thoughts and emotions – our fears, anger, boredom, excitement, judgments and criticisms.

It is these inner thoughts and emotions that we are so often unaware of and under-emphasise. Yet we know that unless we can successfully navigate them – the pressure of a deadline, our nerves at appearing before a hostile judge or magistrate, family pressures, our fear of failure or looking the fool – our practice of law can never be successful, satisfying or sustainable. Rather, if left unattended or dealt with unskilfully, these thoughts and emotions cause us stress, unhappiness, anxiety, sleeplessness and all the flow-on negative effects to our health.

So mindfulness allows us to be aware of our inner world, and as a consequence we have greater control and choice, as opposed to being caught up in our usual cycle of unconscious reactivity.

When we are mindful, we also have greater capacity to be aware of many things that otherwise we would have missed – details that are so beneficial to our role as advocates. We can tune into the world around us, better “read” people and be more in touch with both our own emotions and those of others. Furthermore, mindfulness allows us to have a clear mind as our stress reactivity as reduced, and as a consequence the clarity in our decision-making is greatly enhanced.

Mindfulness – a different approach

We realize that stress is the problem, but our usual attempts to escape stress don’t seem to allow us to relax for long, as they usually involve trying to remove ourselves from the stressful situation. As we know, we can only go on holiday for so long, and we can only change so much about our work and our environment. No matter what we change in our outer world, eventually and inevitably, that constricted feeling keeps coming back.

Mindfulness is a completely different approach. It does not involve attempting to eliminate stress from our lives or running from a stressful situation. In fact, mindfulness is simply about noticing what is happening in each moment without attempting to change anything. In so doing, we learn to locate peace, relaxation and rest, even in the middle of our most stressful moments. By tapping into our natural wakefulness there is no need to manufacture relaxation or import peace from somewhere else. We just need to allow ourselves to look closely enough to discover what is already here in each moment and learn how to reconnect.