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Sharpen Your Skills with Mindfulness

Joseph Beckman


  • As a lawyer, your mind is your instrument.
  • We spend much of our day “in our head.”
  • Very little of what we do involves physical exertion, yet you feel mentally and physically exhausted.
Sharpen Your Skills with Mindfulness
Aleksandr Zubkov via Getty Images

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As a lawyer, your mind is your instrument. The question is, can you learn to be its master instead of its slave?

Stephen Covey, creator of the “Seven Habits” series, famously espouses the concept of “sharpening the saw.” The analogy describes how a woodsman who doesn’t stop to “sharpen the saw” quickly finds himself facing a difficult task with an unsuitable tool.

Lincoln may have weighed in here as well: “Give me six hours to cut down a tree, I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Did Lincoln know of meditation? Presage Covey?

This second installment of “Seeking Paths to Lawyer Well-Being” discusses the potential value of meditation as the whetstone on which to keep the mind sharp!

Your Most Important Tool

As lawyers, we spend much of our day “in our head.” We read. We talk. We dictate. We type. We edit. Very little of what we do involves physical exertion.

Nonetheless, you may finish taking a six‑hour deposition, during which the most strenuous physical act may be to push a three-ring binder across the table to a witness, yet you feel mentally and physically exhausted. No question that “just thinking” can tucker you out as much as a five-mile run.

Silence Is a Fence Around Wisdom

Tomes have been written about meditation. It is a lifestyle for some, a religion for others. Talk to someone, including a lawyer, who has integrated a regular meditation practice into his or her daily routine, however, and you will likely hear of its transformative effects on his or her life.

While interest in meditation has grown in Western culture in the past 30 years, it stems from Eastern traditions that emphasize lifelong growth. The translation of these traditions into research studies remains challenging, but a 2014 analysis of 47 studies in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates a growing body of evidence that meditation helps manage anxiety, depression, and pain. With our profession’s predisposition to such maladies, why wouldn’t you invest a few minutes each morning in this type of self‑care to “sharpen the saw”?

So what are the benefits? According to Gabrielle Sulc, Baltimore, MD, a dedicated yoga practitioner for nearly two decades and instructor at the Haven on the Lake retreat, those who practice meditation regularly report the following:

  • improved concentration and memory
  • better social/relationship skills
  • increased empathy and compassion
  • increased productivity

“When we say we are meditating, it implies we are ‘doing something.’ Meditating, however, is not something we do. It is a state at which we arrive through concentration. Meditation is sustained concentration on one point for a period of time,” says Sulc.

“Meditation gives you control over the negative emotions. It reduces defensiveness and anger. In the philosophy of meditation, you step back and observe the reactions. You learn how to intuitively reduce blame. It gives you focus and peace you might otherwise lack,” Sulc concludes.

How Do You Study (or Prove) “Nothing”?

Historically, Western medicine has not viewed meditation as a particularly expedient therapy for health problems. Perhaps this is, in part, because meditation is a skill (or state) one learns or practices over time to increase one’s awareness. Through this awareness the person meditating gains insight and understanding into the various subtleties of his or her existence.

Training the mind in awareness, in nonjudgmental states, or in the ability to become “completely free” of thoughts is a daunting task. It is not different, perhaps, from “learning” how to run a marathon. Think about that for a moment. One does not simply wake up one day and decide to run 26.2 miles, then walk out the door, and do it—or at least the average person does not!

“Meditation doesn't mean you become emotionally detached or dispassionate,” says Christine Garrison, Baltimore, MD, a meditation instructor with the Wise Heart Community. “As you become accomplished at meditation, you become more aware of your emotions and passions, more in control of them, and as a result, more connected with others around you. You see how your thoughts and emotions feed off each other. You develop meta-cognition. Rather than react, you pause.”

Waiting for the Mud to Settle

An ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, asked, “Do you have patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” In fact, the Bhagavad Gita explains that this type of active meditation practice is a “skill in action” where we can overcome our challenges at work, at home, and in relationships.

The quiescence that comes with meditation does not mean you lose your edge, Garrison adds. “You can still give the ‘Atticus Finch closing argument,’ but the difference is that you are aware you are in the ‘Atticus Finch moment’ while you are in it,” she continues, closing with, “I believe that makes you that much better of an Atticus Finch!”