Adversity is all around us. It is the nature of the beast of being a lawyer. Problems of all shapes and sizes come up all the time in both our professional and personal lives, and they range from the trivial, to the profound, to the overwhelming. We place many labels (all negative) on adversity: failure, tragedy, difficulty, obstacles, setback, crisis, suffering. Adversity can come from many sources: looming deadlines; adverse decisions; difficult clients, colleagues, or opposing counsel; internal firm or corporate changes and challenges. The challenge is to meet adversity with inquiry, in the spirit of mindfulness, and refocus our attention and thoughts from the negative to the positive, or if not to the positive, at least to the possible.
So often when faced with adversity, we get drawn into our opponent’s drama or bad behavior, and it can put us off our own game. When we get drawn into this drama, our brain tends to “shut off,” and we react (or more likely overreact) to the situation. This is often counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve for our client and can take the fun out of the profession we love so much. This also often results in a downward spiral between us and our opponent. To make matters worse, we can take things personally and quickly move into a “fight-or-flight” mode, which not only can feel threatening but can impair decision making.
With inquiry and mindfulness, you may see the lesson in the adversity, the wisdom and perhaps even an opportunity in the problem that could transform the situation from one that is a negative to one that is productive and valuable. Inquiry does not mean necessarily looking for answers, and certainly not looking for a quick answer or quick fix, or even thinking about an answer. Rather, it is a process of ever-questioning: What is this? What is going on? What is the root of the problem? What are the connections? What is the evidence? As Mark Twain used to say, “I am an old man and have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.” With inquiry, does the evidence support a real problem, or is it a trouble that is really not happening. With inquiry and mindfulness, you may see the adversity as an opportunity.
As noted by Tommy Newberry in his book 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life (Tyndale, 2012), interpreting adversity as a strength builder and an ally takes away much of adversity’s negative energy and can produce benefits in unforeseen ways. Times may be tough now, and these challenges can either defeat you or inspire you. They can either tear you down or build you up. As Alexander Graham Bell once wrote, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us.” Through mindfulness, we can take a breath that allows us to look away from the closed door and move toward the door that has newly opened.
So, when facing adversity, take a moment and breathe. Start with your hands closed softly in a fist by your side, then inhale and open your hands to the count of four. Hold your breath and stretch your fingers to the count of seven. Exhale and close your hands to the count of eight. Do this a few times, then stay with your breath and see what insights may come to you. And when faced with adversity, think of these lines from the poem “The Guest House” by Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Persian theologian and poet:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
(Translation by Coleman Barks)