Reflections on the Mindful Lawyer Conference at Berkeley Law
“Insight enables you to know your own heart.
Clarity enables you to accept without illusions.
Objectivity enables you to view any person or situation with compassion”
My favorite story about enlightenment is the one where a woman asks a monk to teach her what she needs to do in order to wake up. The monk gives her a stack of books, pushes her into a cave and says: “I’ll be back in the morning.” The next morning, he walks inside the cave and asks the woman: “are you enlightened yet?” Seeing her shake her head no, he pulls out a bat and hits her over the head. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he says. This scenario repeats itself during the following twenty eight days. On the thirtieth day, as the monk raises the bat over her head, she grabs the monk’s arm with her hand. The monk smiles and says: “now you’re enlightened.”
Walking away from the Mindful Lawyer conference last weekend, I wondered how many days it would have taken a lawyer to get enlightened. Attorneys, it turns out, are very resistant to suffering, wearing anxiety like a badge of honor. Does it have to be this way? Is this way of life sustainable, or effective? The panelists at the conference spoke openly about the causes of suffering in our profession and gave us great news: the way through is within. Carl Jung said that within each person there is a two million year old being. How then to re-establish communication with our inner elder, our wise self, especially when the mind’s chatter is so darn loud? Jack Kornfield suggests we “learn the architecture of anxiety.”
The mindfulness model prescribes forming the intention to pay attention to the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. This of course requires training, focus, determination - what lawyers do best- and - here’s the clincher - letting go of the outcome. It also takes getting out of our heads and feeling our bodies, our feelings. Good thing lawyers love a challenge! The mindful lawyer is not one to escape in a meditation cushion, but one whose practice of inner listening may initiate in a cushion only to extend to all areas of daily life. More than merely cultivate coping skills, mindful lawyers embark on a developmental process of emotional intelligence and character development that connects them with the fullness of their human experience. Given the universality of human experience, connection with others naturally arises. Conference Chair Charles Halpern calls this wisdom. Go figure. It’s not enough to know the law, it seems. Turns out there is also value to cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to make space to accommodate different perspectives, analyze different choices and devise informed strategies. That takes effort and commitment!
Clearly, stress is harmful to one’s health, and not very productive. Philippe Goldin, a clinical researcher at Stanford, discussed not only how stress kills neurons and pre-disposes us to disease, but how negative self-beliefs (ie., “I cannot get this done”) affects functional neuroanatomy. Yet - what causes stress? Robert Chender, director and founder of the New York City Bar Association Contemplative Lawyers Group, defined it as “wanting things to be different than they are”, or “I don’t want to feel what I am feeling,” therefore “shut up,” “get me out of here,” freeze, procrastinate or desensitize. Stress can arise in response to outer pressure (lose case) or inner pressure (I should not feel angry). It is something that threatens to exceed our resources, our well being. Chender suggests, however, that stress is not the enemy, and suggests receiving it as an alert that something is out of balance. The key is not to resist. Chender explains that just as fearlessness does not imply an absence of fear, inner peace does not imply an absence of emotions. Rather, in developing an inner stability, an eye in the storm, that inner calmness allows one to recover more quickly. And, as Jack Kornfield put it, “without reactivity we can choose to act wisely.”
And to act wisely, shouldn’t we feel free to access all of our qualities instead of disowning some of them? To this end, Judi Cohen, a law professor at Golden Gate University, spoke about the need to incorporate feminine qualities such as creativity, inspiration, intuition and compassion into the law so the field can be whole. Quoting Confucius, she ended her lecture by saying: “to put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”
But is mindfulness just about creating sustainability in practice? Could it also affect our ability to transform legal doctrine? Linda Sheehan, director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, shared how she was unprepared for an experience of meditation as revelatory of the interconnectedness of beings to the Earth community. She pointed out that mindfulness brings awareness to unconscious assumptions about whether legal rights reflect intuitive understanding. Peter Gabel, a former law professor at Boalt and other law schools, invited participants to re-shape the doctrine of “strangers pursuing isolated destinies in a competitive marketplace and socially separated worlds,” and to link justice to aspiration.
This is a brief overview that does not do justice to how, in a windowless room lit by florescent lighting, two hundred lawyers managed to connect as a community of souls. In me remains the feeling of gratitude and a renewed sense of optimism that we do not need to endure toxicity nor abandon the practice of law altogether. Maybe we are finally at the point where, like the woman in the cave, we have grabbed the monk’s arm. Oddly enough, I feel a fresh desire to review the aspirations that brought me to the field of law in the first place, and build a new home.
Res ipsa namaste.