October 28, 2019 7 minutes to read ∙ 1700 words

Mindfulness 101: Ghost Peppers in Our Lives

By Melanie Bragg

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This month I want to discuss the “ghost peppers” in our lives and how the practice of mindfulness can be used to reduce the hotness and pain they cause, even if we decide we are still addicted to them. Let me explain.

I had never heard of, nor had I ever eaten a “ghost pepper” until 2018. I was in Chicago at an ABA Section Officers Conference meeting, and we were having lunch in a restaurant chosen by our event planner, Sherri Napue. Current GPSolo Division Chair Richard A. DeMichele Jr. and Chair-Elect Alfreda D. Coward were with us. We all shared a sushi roll that, according to the menu, contained a “ghost pepper” in one of the pieces. Everyone but me knew what a ghost pepper was. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a ghost pepper as “a small, extremely hot chili pepper of southern Asia that is a hybrid between two species (Capsicum chinensis and Capsicum frutescens).

We got down to the last bite of that yummy sushi roll, and as I reached for it, Sherri said, “That’s the one with the ghost pepper.” I thought, “Well great, they must have put this in here as a real delicacy” and popped the plump bite of sushi into my mouth. I thought maybe I was getting a gift card or something. Boy, was I wrong.

Have you ever eaten a ghost pepper?

At first, it was just extra soft and squishy. It had a weird texture and not much flavor, very different than the other bites of the roll. Within a few seconds I began to experience the ghost pepper. At first it was searing hot flavor, then it was nausea and coughing, then it was more burning. Like my insides were searing. My nose started running; my ears started burning. I felt like one of those mad bulls in the cartoons we used to watch as children where the black smoke comes out of his ears. I jumped up from the table and started hopping around, asking the waiter for something, anything to take away the pain. As I writhed around and made quite a spectacle of myself, I stuffed chips, bread, anything I could down my throat. No relief. I finally got some milk and it didn’t help. I went downstairs into the bathroom and stayed there in agony for what seemed like ages.

It was the most excruciating experience imaginable. All the while everyone at the table was getting a big laugh. For a few minutes I fantasized about getting an ambulance and going to the hospital. I seriously wondered if I was going to die. It seemed like forever, but it was probably only about ten minutes of agony before it finally started simmering down and I could talk, function, and finally sit back down at the table. An ice cream desert was definitely in order.

It was a real inaugural experience, coming at the start of my year as Chair-Elect. Now I know about ghost peppers.

Recently, I stumbled across a fantastic book, an Audible original, It Burns, with Marc Fennell. It is part book, part podcast, and it introduced me to the world of “chiliheads” across the world, from the United States to Australia to the UK. I learned that there are many YouTube videos of people eating ghost peppers, and now I understand why people love watching people going through the agony I experienced. It is hilarious. The book covers the life stories of Ted Barris, who is a nationally known chilihead, and “Smokin’” Ed Currie, who is the grower of the Carolina Reaper, the pepper that has taken the place of the ghost pepper as the hottest chili of all.

As I listened to the interesting stories of the rivalries in the pepper industry and the quest for the hottest peppers, I pondered the deeper human experience of the pleasure/pain syndrome and why we humans love to watch others suffer after eating a hot pepper.

The ghost peppers of our lives. . . .

I began to think about lawyers and the way we live—the high-pitched stress we get addicted to early on in our careers. I recall my many years being on the rollercoaster of trials and cases that seemed at the time like the most important thing in the world, and how I often pushed myself past my limits. I thought about how our days go: We have plans in place, and then the phone rings or new clients appear with severe problems. All of the sudden the day spins out of control. Before we know it, it is 5:00 pm and we still have our billing for the day and a million other little things to do. Keeping all the balls in the air daily—staffing, client intake, bookkeeping, maintaining all our memberships and CLE—well, it can be quite daunting. Something has to give, and often it is our self-care that is sacrificed.

How many nights have we stayed until the wee hours to get it all done? How many nights have we woken up at 3:00 am thinking about things we needed to do?

I began to ask myself, “What are the ghost peppers in our lives?” Have we somehow fallen in love with the adrenaline rush of stress and the endorphins that course through our veins? Is the hesitancy towards mindfulness by some lawyers another way of saying “I don’t want to lose the adrenaline rush I have” by quietening down inside? If we practice mindfulness, will we still have the heady feelings when engaging in a hotly contested trial? Part of the joy is the pain. The feeling you have after a job well done. And then the lull when there is nothing there . . . until the next challenge.

The practice of mindfulness can take the rough edges off the ghost peppers of our lives. The times when we think we are sinking our teeth into a nice sushi roll, but it is really a ghost pepper. Just like there are variations in the degrees of hotness of chilis, there are different degrees of stress in our lives. And how we handle the situations as they arise. Some types of stress are good for us and not damaging to us physically, while other kinds of stress can shorten our lives. The practice of mindfulness helps you identify those and focus on the good stress while minimizing the bad.

Once of my recent ghost peppers occurred on a day when I woke up with a weird feeling of dread. A few minutes later, Sharon, my legal assistant, called me. She told me that the court had called to inform her that the hearing set for that day needed to be rescheduled and I had to amend my pleadings to include some more information. I was horrified. The same process had worked in other courts and other jurisdictions in years past, but we have new judges and new staff attorneys in our courts, and they do things differently. I dreaded talking to my client, because after all, aren’t we lawyers supposed to know everything? Aren’t I, after all of these years, supposed to get it right the first time? The metaphorical ghost pepper was burning, and it was just an awful feeling.

In a recent mediation at my office, the defense attorney experienced his own ghost pepper. The plaintiff’s attorney is one the company has significant problems with, and his staff mis-calendared the appointment; he was an hour late for the mediation. The other side walked out. The attorney felt horrible. There wasn’t anything he could do except move on. It all works out, but the practice of mindfulness can help us with the stress we feel when it is happening. Is it something we are going to replay over and over in our heads, or is it just an event that occurred, that we are not attached to in any significant way, and that will not impact our health or our enjoyment of our lives?

I have learned that even though I am diligent in my mindfulness practice by meditating frequently and doing all the things I write about in order to be “happy for no apparent reason,” there are those times when I am going to get a ghost pepper and there is nothing I can do but ride my way through it before I get to the other side. And I have learned that even though I am mindful, I still have emotions and feelings that I need to observe and let pass . . . until the next ghost pepper.

Think about your ghost peppers and what you do to deal with the heat.

Simple forms of mindfulness such meditating ten minutes each day, listening to the talks on apps such Calm or Ten Percent Happier, making sure you have a gratitude practice, and rituals that support your physical and emotional health will help you deal with the ghost peppers of your life. I realized a long time ago that I am addicted to the adrenaline rush of law practice, yet I love how my mindfulness practice has allowed me to experience things on a completely new level where the anguish and health-damaging stress is minimized and the endorphin high is maximized. Mindfulness is simply a new awareness of who you are as a person. You don’t have to change it all—you just need to experience it in a healthy way. Make sense? I hope so.

Until next time . . . namaste. Please let me know if you have any tips, sources, or experiences with mindfulness you want to share at melanie@bragglawpc.com.

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”—Zen proverb

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Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include Crosstown Park, an Alex Stockton legal thriller; HIPAA for the General Practitioner; chapters in How to Capture and Keep Clients, Second Edition; Effortless Marketing: Putting Your Unique Qualities to Work, Second Edition; and The Conscious Lawyer: How the Practice of Mindfulness Will Increase Your Bottom Line; as well as the forthcoming ABA book, Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as Immediate Past Chair of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice (GPSolo) Division and to sharing ideas with fellow authors. She is interested in your feedback and ideas about how solos, small firms, military, and government lawyers can lead richer, happier lives and thereby improve the delivery of legal services to the public. Melanie can be reached at melanie@bragglawpc.com.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 3, October 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.