Legal Sanity: What’s on Your Mind? Our Streaming Thoughts Both Invigorate and Stress Us

Most of us experience a steady stream of ideas, concerns and preoccupations—to-do lists, bills and reams of information to digest and act on. As lawyers, we tend to consider the mind a great ally. After all, it churns out all the strategies and arguments that build our businesses and boost our reputations.

Unfortunately, productive thoughts usually come bundled with others that make us fearful, anxious and stressed: Can I cover my overhead and mortgage this month? My adversary is such a jerk. What do I do now that the computer is down? This isn’t why I went to law school!

Given the well-documented mind-body connection, all the unproductive thoughts you entertain inevitably take a physical toll, weakening your immune system, raising your blood pressure and encouraging insomnia. Under their influence you feel burnt out; your work and personal lives suffer.


Meditation Controls The Mind’s Inventory

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could control your mind’s inventory by cultivating useful and uplifting thoughts and disarming the useless and harmful ones? What a competitive edge you’d have! What a boon to be free of the physical fallout negative thoughts engender!

This is not a fanciful notion. You can change your mind right now by retraining it. Like any new skill, it simply takes understanding and practice. And the foundational practice is meditation.

Meditation rests on the premise that the mind works best when it’s quiet and poised. During meditation, when the flow of thought slows to a trickle, any ideas, questions and understandings that do arise are often inspired and profound.

As a regular practice, meditation helps us tune out the stream of information that inundates us at work and at home. It also allows us to access calmness and clarity and to de-stress from the rigors of everyday life.

Imagine you’re listening to Beethoven on your car radio when, all of sudden, you’re flanked by SUVs blaring hard rock and rap. The dissonance is intense. You can’t hear the nuances and sweetness of your music. That’s just how it is with the mind. It serves us optimally when unencumbered by dissonant thoughts. Meditation helps you turn down the mind’s noise and tune in to a place of calm and clarity.


There’s No Wrong Way To Meditate

The beauty of meditation is its accessibility. Anyone can meditate. You don’t need to renounce your worldly ways or even dramatically change your daily routine to reap the many physical and mental benefits of meditation. Best of all, you simply can’t do it wrong.

And that’s the real key to a healthy meditation practice—giving ourselves permission to suspend judgment and accept each meditation session for what it brings. This can be difficult for those of us used to critiquing and labeling for a living. But it’s essential for beginner and advanced meditators alike.

You also don’t need any special tools or gadgets in order to meditate. In fact, you get all the assistance that you need from something you already possess—your breath.

As a regular practice, meditation helps us tune out the stream of information that inundates us at work and at home.

Medical science has come to recognize and promote the breath’s ability to calm and sooth us. In meditation, you become aware of your breath and gradually slow and deepen it. In the process, you trigger a chain of biological reactions that raise the level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and counter the buildup of oxygen that can cause irritability, confusion, anxiety and lightheadedness.

Although there’s no black-letter rule, most people meditate for 10 to 30 minutes at a time when getting started. However, the number of minutes is not as important as the number of times you meditate each week. The more you meditate, the faster the practice will bear fruit for you.

My advice is to start out by meditating 5 to 10 minutes a day using the following directions.

Find a quiet place and time where you will not be interrupted. (It’s great to establish a regular meditation site and time in your home or office.)

Shut the door, silence the phone and tell your work or housemates that you’re taking some quiet time. Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor. Rest your hands on your knees, palms up or down, or fold your hands in your lap.

Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Returning to a natural, rhythmic breathing, start to focus on your in-breath and out-breath. Observe the qualities of your breath as it flows in and out.

If your mind chatters or wanders, which it will, gently return your focus to your breathing.

Slowly bring your awareness back to your body and take in the sounds around you.

Move your fingertips and toes, stretch a bit and open your eyes.


What do you notice?

It’s good to have a journal or small notebook to jot down your observations. By noting the positive effects of your meditation session, you’ll be more inspired to try it again and commit to a consistent practice. By noting the challenges (I couldn’t stop thinking; I came away exhausted; I couldn’t sit still), you’ll get to know yourself better as a meditator and give yourself permission to approach the process gradually and with lightness of heart. You might also gain insight into life issues that you need to face and work through.

At one point in my regular meditation practice, I found myself endlessly thinking about a particular work dynamic that was troubling me. I couldn’t get it off my mind. After a week or so of the same preoccupation, it became clear that I needed to address the situation directly. I did and, afterwards, was able to experience a quiet mind in meditation.

For me, and many others, one surprising side effect of meditation is creativity. As a lawyer, I was always proud of my logical mind and didn’t focus on, or take much stock in, being creative. But during a month-long stretch a few years ago, I felt tremendous poetic inspiration while meditating. In the ensuing months, I wrote poetry in my journal and then created a hundred-page book of poems. I couldn’t believe that it came out of me.

As lawyers, we’re usually so busy and have so much competing for our attention that we barely even notice what we’re really feeling and thinking. Author Timothy D. Wilson expresses this dilemma in a great book I read a few years ago, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Through meditation and the process of debriefing our meditations, we gain essential tools for getting to know and love ourselves.

Please let me know if you found this article helpful, and email me any of your observations. I’d love to use the dialog that emerges in a future article (don’t worry, I’ll change the names to protect the innocent).

Congratulations for committing to get to know yourself through meditation.

This article is reprinted from The Complete Lawyer, Volume 4, No. 3, May/June, 2008 with permission of the author.