COLAP Wellness Corner ~ Mindfulness for Lawyers: Decrease Your Stress and Improve Your Performance ~ By Debra Austin, J.D., Ph.D.

“Mindfulness” involves increased awareness of what is happening from moment to moment. It requires letting go of ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. It has been defined as being fully attuned to the moment — without resistance or judgment. Mindfulness is, in other words, a form of self-understanding that involves self-awareness rather than thought. It is a simple concept that nonetheless requires practice to achieve. The most common method for increasing mindfulness is through meditation. In Search Inside Yourself (2012), Chade-Meng Tan discusses two approaches to meditation:

The Easy Way: Bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes, and when your attention wanders, bring it back; and
The Easier Way: Sit without an agenda for two minutes; shift from doing to being.

Tan states that there is no such thing as bad meditation because when you notice your mind wandering, and you return your focus to your breath, your attention becomes sharper. In this sense, meditation can be compared to weight training, as growth comes from resistance. This is the practice, or exercise, of meditation. Lawyers are perpetual doers, generally with “Type A” personalities, who suffer from higher rates of anxiety and depression than does the general population. Stress is the likely culprit. The stress response is initiated by the fight-or-flight system. Some lawyers suffer from perpetual fight-or-flight activation, causing stress hormones to be present in high levels in the body and brain. It can be hard for busy, self-demanding lawyers to calm their minds, but learning to do so provides both physical and mental benefits.

Meditation can decrease the stress hormone cortisol, and it enhances attention and concentration. Meditation also improves mood and anxiety. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the rest-and-digest system. The rest-and-digest system is the other half of the autonomic nervous system, and it returns the body to equilibrium after a fight-or-flight stress response. The psychological benefits of meditation that occur when focusing on your breath means you are fully present and temporarily free from reflecting on the past and worrying about the future. You are, in short, “mindful.”

The objectives of mindfulness range from working to calm the racing mind to developing poise and increasing the capacity to respond thoughtfully rather than to react mindlessly to life’s challenges. Lawyers are often perfectionists with high expectations of themselves and can be harshly self-critical. Trained to be objective, lawyers also suppress their emotions. The practice of mindfulness and meditation can become part of a commitment to zealously guard a lawyer’s wellbeing, soften self-judgment and reduce stress.

Mindfulness improves information processing and decision-making. It affords space between awareness, judgments and reactions. This may empower flow, the state of effortless concentration where a lawyer loses track of time due to engagement in a task. Brain enhancements from mindfulness and meditation include increased gray matter, more effective connections between brain regions and a greater number of neurons firing together. This may explain the thinking benefits experienced by meditators.

Businesses utilizing mindfulness to improve personnel development and enhance corporate culture include Google, Patagonia, LinkedIn, AirBnB and Seventh Generation. Highly-productive meditators include: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods; Robert Stiller, Green Mountain Coffee; Mary Cranston, former CEO Pillsbury; Anderson Cooper, CNN; Oprah Winfrey; and Arianna Huffington. Doctors and medical students (the professional population most often compared to lawyers and law students) are using mindfulness and meditation training to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, as well as to improve wellbeing, attrition, empathy, relationships with patients and attention to detail.

If you are interested in starting a mindfulness meditation practice, here are four books and an app to help you. If you have time to read, The Anxious Lawyer (2016) by Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford provides an eight-week guide to mindfulness and meditation for lawyers. The authors connect the benefits of mindfulness to the practice of law. If you love sports, George Mumford’s The Mindful Athlete (2015) is an introduction to mindfulness meditation that incorporates stories about athletes and sports organizations that employ it. Finally, Google’s “Jolly Good Fellow,” Chade-Meng Tan, authored two humorous and accessible books about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation: Search Inside Yourself (2012) and Joy on Demand (2016). You don’t, however, need to take the time to read a book to begin a mindfulness practice. If you just want to get started, download the free app Insight Timer on your phone and explore numerous guided meditations to find something right for you.

Set aside 10 to 20 minutes per day to practice meditation and mindfulness. Research shows that this improves attention, executive function and working memory while reducing heart rate, anxiety, depression, confusion, fatigue, tension and negativity. Carve out some quiet time to empower your rest-and-digest system. It is an invaluable investment in stress reduction and improved thinking. D

august wellnessDebra Austin is a professor of the practice of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She writes and speaks about how neuroscience and positive psychology research can improve law student and lawyer wellbeing and performance. Her articles can be downloaded at debraaustin.info. She can be reached at daustin@law.du.edu.