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What Is Mindfulness Meditation, and Can It Help Lawyers?

Sheldon Siporin

What Is Mindfulness Meditation, and Can It Help Lawyers?
Chunyip Wong via iStock

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Mindfulness meditation is trendy as an antidote to stress. Many lawyers are among those jumping on the meditation bandwagon. This trend has accelerated due to the pandemic, an added stressor for many of us. Finding ways to combat stressors that can undermine your health is important. Yet, mindfulness meditation is not necessarily a universal antidote, and not everyone finds it helpful. I have tried several kinds of meditation practices with mixed results.

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation entails focusing attention to encourage relaxation. The practice comes in diverse forms and styles, some more spiritually based than others. For instance, there are Zen Meditation, Loving Kindness Meditation, Vipassana, and Yogic forms of meditation. Still, all generally involve mental discipline and attentional focus.

Origins of Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is not a product of cognitive science; rather, it developed about 2500 years ago from ancient eastern and Buddhist philosophy. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, originally a Ph.D. in molecular biology, has been a major proponent of secular mindfulness. In the 1970s, after studying with celebrated Buddhist monks, he used the practice as a stress reduction program at Massachusetts General Hospital for patients suffering from chronic pain. He called his technique Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MSBR. You can find mindfulness workshops by Kabat-Zinn and others all over the internet.

Mindfulness: Beneficial for Some, Not All?

One beneficial aim of mindfulness is relaxation and stress reduction. However, if you’ve ever tried a mindfulness meditation practice, you may have encountered some obstacles. For example, novices often experience mind wandering as their thoughts drift. Others may begin to daydream or even doze off. I am embarrassed to be one of these folks. Such experiences are not uncommon, although they can be frustrating. Instructors may reassure newbies, advising them to tug their attention gently back into focus. Still, this is not as easy as it sounds, and the result might be increased stress.

Attention vs. Inattention

Relaxation is correlated with brain waves in the alpha state, where neurons are firing at roughly 8-12 Hz synchrony with other neurons. However, according to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, enhanced synchrony between neurons in the alpha range is associated with inattention and distraction rather than focused attention. Effortful attention causes neurons to stop signaling in sync with one another and prompt them to start firing out of sync. This suggests that novice meditation practitioners may paradoxically increase their stress response. Lawyers may be especially prone to this, given their well-known tendency to be perfectionists. And, of course, law practice involves persistent attentional focus. So, can mindfulness backfire on an overly attentive lawyer?

An Alternative View

At times, we may need less focus of attention rather than more. There may be an alternative way to view mind wandering during mindfulness practice. Our brains are complex, subtle, and nuanced mechanisms. If your mind wanders or you venture into daydreaming during meditation, your brain may be doing what it needs to do.

Daydreaming may have negative connotations in our productivity-centered culture, but it can be a positive process. In fact, according to the Harvard Health Blog, daydreaming is a natural and necessary process to keep the brain refreshed. One Harvard study found that we may spend 30 percent of our waking hours daydreaming, whether we realize this or not.

If Your Mind Wanders During Meditation, Maybe That’s What Your Brain Needs

Sleep, as well as daydreaming, is an essential physiological process. Yet, many people don’t get enough rest in our harried society. Even a world-renowned yoga and meditation teacher recently admitted during a lecture that she had insomnia. Often lawyers work more than 40 hours a week. The American Bar Association has reported that attorneys are among the most sleep-deprived professionals.

So, try mindfulness meditation. But if your meditation practice falters and you drift off into a pleasant daydream or doze, maybe you should let it go. Perhaps your brain is doing exactly what it needs to do. In this way, meditation may be helpful even if it doesn’t work as it should. Sometimes a mindless lawyer may be a more relaxed and healthier lawyer than a mindful one.