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ON BALANCE: There’s No Time Like the Present

STEVEN KEEVA

Learn to look at a given situation through a new lens. Ask yourself provocative questions to arrive at fresh solutions. Gain a sense of presence in your thinking. It’s all about how we manage our lives as lawyers.

 

Even at the rate of "a penny for your thoughts," there would be real money to be made in thinking. Think about it ( ka-ching, ka-ching): Although we’re often unaware of it, we’re constantly thinking, perpetually visiting other times and places. And often, in the process, we’re mistaking those imagined worlds for a present reality.

Our thoughts can take us anywhere, and that can be great, particularly when we consciously choose to go there. But usually, we do not choose, and the reveries arise spontaneously. You know the experience. You leave your office, walk to the parking garage, drive onto the street and suddenly … you’re home. You don’t remember the on-ramp, the flow of traffic around you or your exit from the highway. Apart from knowing that you drove, you have no idea how you arrived at your house.

The fact is, you were riding in two vehicles at once—your actual car and a virtual thought train. Perhaps the train took its energy from a perceived slight, something that happened months ago: She never should have talked to me that way! Or, the journey could just as easily have been fueled by anticipation or fear: He’ll be so angry that I’m running late! Whatever the impetus, from there the emotion kicks in and sends you on your way, blind to the texture of the moment at hand.

More Than a Repertoire of Reactions

We live in an age of unprecedented distractions, making it easy to lose a sense of presence in our lives. Indeed, people in all professions need tools to help them calm their minds and open their hearts to what matters most to them.

There are two reasons I’m making this particular point here: First, because it can’t be said too often. After all, the quality of our lives is at stake. And second, because it has everything to do with law practice and the way one manages one’s life as a lawyer.

It is hard to be an effective manager when you cannot manage your own mind. You might still have a repertoire of reactions designed to cope with possible crises, but you can’t be an "artist of the moment"—and that’s where creativity is born and intuition is fed. What’s required is the ability to watch your thoughts as they arise, with neither judgment nor identification. Then, by letting them go without getting involved in inner dramas, you open up wonderful new options for how to spend your time in the world.

When you’re angry, for example, and consciously "see" the anger as it arises (yes, it can be done), you can then choose how you want to deal with the feeling. Will you express your anger or just let it go? If you choose to express it, how will you do so? Shout? Threaten? Reply quietly?

Or, you can choose to look at a situation through a particular lens, one that might evoke helpful, enriching ideas—ideas that, absent your conscious awareness, never would have broken through the scrim of mindless thought. For example, in dealing with a staff member who hasn’t been performing optimally, you can approach the problem as an opportunity to problem solve together—as opposed to automatically reacting with irritation and taking a punitive approach.

The Point Where Choice Blossoms

You can also choose to ask yourself provocative questions, of a kind that might help you arrive at something fresh and useful. You might try this self-query: "If I didn’t think I already knew the solution to this problem, what else might be possible in this moment?" You thereby invite into your awareness glimpses of new possibilities, free from the automatic grasping for standard solutions. It could make a huge difference in how you work with colleagues, serve clients and care for yourself and your loved ones. The sine qua non, again, is awareness of the present moment, since it’s the only place at which conscious choice can blossom.

Look, we all want to connect the deepest part of our humanity to our daily lives. To do that, you cannot operate on autopilot. Mindlessly running a problem through a default analysis, "fixing" it and sending the bill just doesn’t cut it if you want to enjoy what you do. When we behave mindlessly, rather than mindfully, we are far from bringing our full humanity to our work. And that’s a downright shame. Everyone—ourselves, our clients, our families, our friends—loses something because of it.

Heed Your Wake-up Call

It’s really a matter of waking up. Waking up requires a way of maximizing our innate ability to live mindfully. And it’s crucial that we make this a priority if we’re going to make the connections and find the meaning we all seek. You can practice law in a relatively mindless state, but how satisfying is that? Where’s the engagement, the passion, the connection? The benefits of mindfulness are overwhelming, and a growing body of research bears it out.

For a quick primer on mindfulness and how to begin practicing it, check out a terrific little article by clinical psychologist Joan Borysenko at www .intouchmag.com/joanb3.html. Start waking up today.

 

Steven Keeva (skeeva@ staff.abanet.org) is Assistant Managing Editor of the ABA Journal, author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life and founder of the Web site transformingpractices.com.