If you often find that your mind is racing, and you are stressed out by an ever-growing to-do list and the pressures of your career, you are not alone.
The law is a fast-paced, conflict-laden, stressful profession ruled by behemoth workloads, long hours and intense competition—all of which can take a toll on your focus, productivity and resilience, not to mention your health. Compared to other professions, lawyers disproportionately suffer from depression, anxiety, burnout and substance abuse. So how can you manage that stress, take care of your health and make yourself a better lawyer all at the same time? The answer is mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice and a way of living that has been empirically shown to have positive effects relating to managing stress, easing anxiety and increasing focus and mental alertness. In short, mindfulness is about focusing your attention to the present moment; being present with yourself, slowing down your racing mind, tuning in to your body and your immediate environment with intention.
Everyone is capable of mindfulness and its benefits can be cultivated through simple techniques which you can do practically anywhere (including in your office, an empty conference room, on a park bench during your lunch break, or during your commute). If you are engaging in the practice somewhere you are not alone (such as a shared office or on the subway), you may want to use noise cancelling headphones.
Of course, incorporating lengthy mindfulness practices into your regular routine would maximize its benefits. But even short or irregular practice can make a big difference.
So how do you practice mindfulness? Mindfulness is achieved through simple meditation, which can be done on your own (with or without music) or you can use a guided meditation (there are many options including apps and YouTube videos). The idea is to train your awareness on your body, most typically on your breath. This lowers your heart rate and blood pressure which in turn causes you to relax.
By turning your attention inward, you slow the rush of swirling thoughts such as ruminating on past events (“I thought I did a good job on that memo, I can’t believe the partner ripped it apart”) or worrying about the future (“Will I meet my billable hour requirements?” or “How will I get all this work done?”). As you grow your mindfulness practice, you will find yourself being more present in the meditation and aware of your body.
Eventually, you will notice that you are bringing this same presence and awareness to other parts of your life. This will allow you to be more focused on the tasks in front of you, such as paying attention to a long, droning conference call, without zoning out into worry about all the work on your plate or that you forgot to enter your time. Being more present will not only make you more productive at work but will allow you to notice and enjoy the pleasant and happy moments of your day, which will lead to greater happiness overall.
How to start a mindfulness meditation
Start by finding a comfortable seat. This can be cross-legged on the floor or a cushion or on a chair or a couch, with your feet planted on the floor. If you’re home, you can even lie down on your bed (though you run the risk of falling asleep and not reaping the full benefits of the practice). Let your arms fall naturally at your sides and place your hands in your lap if you are seated. You can close your eyes, or not.
Breathe normally and notice your breath—the cool air as it enters your body and the warm air when you breathe out. After a little while, start to deepen your breath. Slowly inhale into your chest and your belly and take a pause before exhaling all the air.
Notice the sensations in your body. Notice your chest and belly expand as you fill up with air and deflate as you exhale (if you like, you can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to assist your awareness). Feel the sturdy support of your chair, cushion, or floor below you. Breathe into areas of pain or tension with the intention of relaxing those areas.
When you find that your mind has wandered, notice those thoughts, gently brush them away and return to your breath. This may happen repeatedly. It is extremely common and is probably the hardest part of meditation. Don’t judge yourself or take it as a failure of the practice. It is in this very part of the exercise that you train yourself not to get caught up in the bustle of your mind.
If you find it extremely difficult to focus on your breath and your body, you can try a tactile meditation in which you hold an object (or even something mushy like clay) and focus on how it feels in your hands.
There are many variations to explore but you will find that these are the common elements of most mindfulness meditations. If you engage in mindful meditation for even five minutes you will notice a new sense of calm and focus on the present. As you do it more and more, you will begin to see the benefits accumulate.
Find a few minutes in the next week to do the basic mindfulness meditation above, and note how you felt going into it, coming out of it, and a few hours after.