We’re so glad you asked!
What is mindfulness?In its simplest sense, mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing our attention to the experience of the present moment. It is the ability to be fully attentive in the here and now, aware of what is happening without reaction, judgment, or upset.
Mindfulness is a way to live more of our lives in the present, so we can better appreciate and respond to what’s going on right now.
"Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone." - Louis L'Amour
Why should attorneys care about mindfulness?Being a lawyer is inherently stressful. Of course, many attorneys choose the profession because they operate well under pressure, and enjoy the intensity and competition. Still, the long hours and frequent conflict can take its toll.
Chronic stress is not a sustainable lifestyle. We are all aware of the effects of stress on cardio-vascular health. According to a 2016 study, lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to suffer from depression as non-lawyers and twice as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.
Mindfulness is a simple mental practice that offers a much healthier alternative to depression and substance abuse. Mindfulness can:
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Increase focus and productivity
- Improve your physical health and emotional resilience
- Lead to better decision making
- Enhance interpersonal skills
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." - Victor FranklInterested? Want to know more?
Since you’re reading this article, you probably are, and do. So let’s get to the questions.
What’s wrong with thinking about the past or future? Isn’t it good to learn from mistakes and make plans?There’s nothing wrong with thinking about the past or future, and you’re absolutely right that we need to do that.
The problem is that we are often so focused on the past or future that we miss important cues in the present that could help us. We are often unaware of our own emotional state and our responses, and behaviors. This can create problems from both an interpersonal and professional standpoint. Sometimes we miss cues regarding others’ behaviors or words, which can limit our performance. Sometimes we’re so lost in thought we miss things like freeway exits or meeting times.
The patterns that keep us focused on the past tend to be either nostalgic (“I wish I were back in the good old days”) or regretful (“I wish I hadn’t done that”). These thoughts really don’t help us to be happier or more productive, and can even lead to or worsen depression. Thoughts of the future like worry or anxiety can be similarly unhealthy and unhelpful.
Viewing the past mindfully allows us to appreciate what there is to learn or gain from it in the moment, and then let it go. Imagining the future from a more mindful perspective allows us to make sensible plans and preparations without obsessing on outcomes that may or may not happen.
Doing both gives us more time to enjoy our lives while we’re living them.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” - John Lennon
Isn’t “mindfulness” just a lot of psychological mumbo-jumbo?Well, sure, if you want to look at it that way. But you’re here, reading this, so our guess is that you just might be open to seeing things another way. (But way to use the Socratic method - you obviously know what you’re doing.)
As human beings, everything we experience is processed through the brain, and interpreted so that we can understand it. Our brain has three main areas:
- The reptilian brain includes the brain stem and the cerebellum. It’s responsible for the body’s vital functions.
- The limbic brain contains the hippocampus, amygdala, and the hypothalamus, and controls memory and judgement.
- The neocortex, or the “learning brain,” comprises the two cerebral hemispheres: the left brain and the right brain. These control human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness.
Our reptilian and limbic brains are programmed to interpret thought through the “four Fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and - well, let’s say reproducing (or physical enjoyment, if you want to maintain the phonetic theme). This interpretation of thought is designed to keep us alive and safe from prehistoric predators; however, these responses don’t always serve us well in the modern world. Success in today’s world requires us to use our neocortex more: to be persuasive, logical, eloquent, innovative, compassionate, expressive.
When we are being mindful; that is, attentive in the present moment, we are primarily using our neocortex, and creating new neural pathways between it and the other sections of the brain. We are literally training our brains to be less reactive and better able to respond to our thoughts in a way that is more appropriate for the situation.
If we need to act on one of the four Fs, that is always an option. Practicing mindfulness allows us to decrease our reliance on those responses, and gives us a calmer perspective to facilitate more creative solutions.
“Every time we become aware of a thought, as opposed to being lost in a thought, we experience that opening of the mind.” – Joseph Goldstein
Is mindfulness based on some Eastern religion?Again, absolutely correct.
Mindfulness is based on the ancient practice of meditation, which has been used in many religions, beginning with Hinduism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The precepts of mindfulness and meditation are also found in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish practices. Now, it is commonly used in clinical psychology; cognitive behavior therapy helps to treat people with anxiety disorders, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), specific phobias, depression, and pain.
Today, mindfulness does not belong to any particular belief system, but cultivates universal human qualities. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t require anyone to change their beliefs.
“Mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Why should I make time for mindfulness?So, here you’ve uncovered another important point. (You’re brilliant; did you know that?)
You don’t actually have to make time for mindfulness. You can introduce mindfulness into your life the way you already live it, just by starting to be more aware of what you’re doing as you do it.
In fact, you can try it right now. You’re somewhere reading this post, so you probably have a few minutes free. Take these few minutes to simply be still and observe the present moment.
Everything around you doesn’t need to be quiet or unmoving, just you. Sit and notice what is happening; what you hear, see, smell, taste, feel. Notice your thoughts without judgment, and let them go.
If it helps, focus on your breathing. If your mind starts to wander, don’t be bothered. Just notice it, and refocus on inhaling and exhaling.
Do this for just a few breaths. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
There! You’ve just practiced mindfulness.
You may notice that you feel just a bit calmer, and that there is just a bit more distance between you and your emotional state. You have just a bit more perspective than you did a moment ago.
You can do this almost anytime - you just need 10 seconds (or more) to breathe in and out a few times, and consciously focus on what’s happening in this moment.
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.” - Sharon Salzberg
Is it just that simple?Yes and no. (Again, you’re asking all the right questions. How do you do that?)
The exercise you just did is a start. The key is to begin doing this more intentionally and purposefully, and make it a practice.
As you do it more often, you will begin to notice the benefits of doing it, and will probably start to do it more, and for longer periods of time. You can do this when you’re sitting, standing, walking, running, exercising, doing repetitive tasks, and in many other circumstances.
The more you do it, the more often you will notice when you are lost in thoughts of the past or future, and better able to view your life with greater perspective.
If you’re so inclined, you can combine mindfulness with mindful meditation - which is simply spending longer periods of time in the process. There are many different meditation practices, many involving movement for those who want to combine it with their fitness routine. Spending only 15 minutes a day in meditation can exponentially increase the benefits listed in the beginning of this post.
But even if you’re not into meditation, you can still benefit from making mindfulness an intentional way of being.
“The real meditation is how you live your life.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn