Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I Am Not a Failure - And Neither Are You

You are not what you do. Got it?

Whether you practice law or drive a cab, you – the you that likes toast with butter and cinnamon sugar or smoking cigars or playing with the grandchildren or taking a good nap – are not a lawyer or a cab driver. You are not what you do, and confusing your work with your self-identity is a surefire route to misery.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with working hard, enjoying our achievements and the recognition of our peers and clients.  But how often do we confuse our self-worth with our title, our work, our billable hours or our rain-making? These are all important things and we can and should take pride in them.  But you are not your work or any other label people apply to you.

I am not a lawyer - I am a person who practices law.  I am a person.  Success or failure on any given day is not me. I may fail, but I am not a failure. And, no, this is not an exercise in semantics.

I do other things and have other interests besides being a good lawyer. For example, I’m a photographer in addition to being a lawyer. I’m a poet in addition to being a photographer. I’m a skier in addition to being a poet. My self-worth resides in none of these things. I can take a huge fall skiing, write a terrible poem, shoot a photograph that is poorly executed and lose a lawsuit. All of these would be very disappointing, and all are failures, but I am not a failure.  
Do I feel upset when I fail at something? Of course I do. But not confusing who I am with what I do allows me to take risks that I might well not take otherwise. Failure is nothing to fear when we don’t mistake our sense of self with our work.

So go out there and fail mightily at whatever it is that is important to you; discover the power of knowing that failing does not mean you are a failure.

By the way, if you’ve read any of my work before, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that practicing mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to realize and keep clear the distinction between who you are and what you do.

As the Tao te Ching says: 

"Do your work and step back, the only way to serenity”

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Does Hipster Coffee Lead to an Extraordinary Life?

This morning, like most, I got up, stretched, got the coffee going, let the dog out, looked out across the mountain valley, poured my “not hipster” coffee and then checked my email.  It’s a routine, a ritual, an ordinary morning.   I’m an early riser. I love my morning rituals. I honor them. They ground me each day. I can shake off the night and enjoy some moments of peace before I rush out into the maelstrom of my usual day of commute, clients, law and OPL (Other People’s Lawyers).  Usually I throw a few minutes of mindfulness meditation into the mix.

Your morning probably has a routine and ritual as well. Rituals are not boring but empowering. Through ritual we create a space for ourselves where we can truly relax without having to think of anything - thinking being wildly overrated in my book.  My morning ritual is ordinary, banal even. No doubt yours is as well, even if, unlike mine, it involves hipster coffee.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says:  “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize.”

What is an ordinary life? What is extraordinary life?  Our ordinary lives are extraordinary even miraculous if we pay attention. That looking out over the mountains I mentioned at the outset? It’s different every morning: fog, rain, blue sky, snow, black crows circling, wind, and darkness before sunrise. Every one of those views is extraordinary – because I am paying attention and paying attention is part of the grounding ritual. Because paying attention turns the ordinary into extraordinary.

Vacations, promotions, perfect romances, big houses, new suits or dresses or diamonds! People seem to think an extraordinary life means all kinds of things except the moment in which they are actually living.  But there is no other place to find your extraordinary life than right here, right now. 

So sip that hipster coffee, whether at home or take-away, smile at the foolishness of chasing the after the extraordinary when the extraordinary is already yours.  

Recognize the miracle.

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Bucket List is Not Mindfulness

It seems a fad to have a Bucket List.  You know. That list of things you want to do, indeed, must do, before you die.

There are books called “100 Things To Do Before You Die”, “1000 Place To See Before You Die” (apparently different from the book “1000 Places to See In the USA and Canada Before You Die”). The most recent one I’ve seen is “1001 Books You Must Read before You Die”. Seriously? I’m 59, if I live to be 99, I would need to read about 25 books a year to get it done. Not that I’m not going to read a thousand books between now and then, just not going to read someone else’s list.

For me, life is not a “to do list.” I don’t have a bucket list. Collecting experiences like trophies does so very little for me. I am not an “experiential materialist.” I cannot measure my life in terms of items checked off.   I do not believe that my life will be better if I have accomplished one hundred things on a list.  A t-shirt I used to own said it best: “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.” Substitute “experiences” for “toys” and you’ve got my viewpoint.

To me, what I understand and learn from the books I’ve read, how I use that learning, is far more important than how many books I’ve read.  Reading War and Peace slowly, and but once, and getting it beats a hundred books any day. I’ve read the Tao te Ching fifty times if I’ve read it once and I’m still working it out. Would I have been better off to read one hundred different books or just that one?

How I see, how deeply, how much I enjoy, how much I understand any one thing is more important to me than the sheer number of things I’ve seen or experienced. I live on one acre of Colorado mountainside. I think I could spend a lifetime seeing this one acre anew each day, discovering something about it each day. To me it is not how much you experience, but how deeply.

Chasing after experiences will ultimately leave you unsatisfied. There is always another experience that you haven’t experienced. Always.  And if you complete your Bucket List, then what? Will you be satisfied or will you start another list? I’m betting on the second list.

Do you really see the sky where you live? Do you really see your children around your feet? Do you really see the suffering/joy in the world?  Do you really taste the food you eat?  The wine you drink? The wind you breathe? Or is it all a blur?  One big "to do" list?  Is that you want you want your life to be – a big “to do” list?

Perhaps the best story of truly seeing is the Flower Story.  The story goes that Buddha had his disciples gather by a pond. Normally he would start to lecture or give what’s called a dharma talk, but he did not. He just stood silently.  For a long time.  Then he either pulled a lotus flower out of the pond or someone gave it to him as a gift but in any case, he held it aloft so that all of his disciples could physically see it. They all looked at it. They all saw the flower and sat passively. "What could the Buddha mean by this," they all, no doubt, thought.

But out of that sea of faces, one face cracked in a little smile and then perhaps a gentle laugh. It was Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa.  Buddha held the flower higher and spoke:  “What can be said I have said, what cannot be said, has been seen by Mahakashyapa.” From then on, Mahakashyapa was known as the Buddha's successor.

So which is it for you?  Do you look at your life or do you see it?

Choose wisely.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Lie of Multitasking

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, 1st century B.C.
Multitasking is merely rapid attention shifting. You are never, ever really doing more than one thing at a time. You’re just doing them in rapidly churning microbursts so that at the end of the day you’ve made incremental progress on a whole bunch of things and not finished anything. In case you haven’t noticed, this is not an effective strategy. 

The research supports this assertion:  Earl Miller, MIT neuroscientist, says “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”  Multitasking by all accounts is counterproductive – you think you are doing more but in actuality you are doing less. It reduces performance, it increases stress, it reduces our ability to focus, it makes us dumber and the list goes on. In other words, multitasking is actually a waste of time.

Many lawyers have seemingly actually lost the ability to focus relentlessly on one task until it is completed. This is terrible news because our brains are basically hardwired to do just one thing at a time. We are very good at one thing at a time, bad at two as the aforementioned links articulate so well. If we lose that “one thing at a time” ability we are really in a bad spot. Screwed basically. And many of us are getting screwed.

Enter mindfulness meditation.

If mindfulness does nothing else (though it does(!)), it teaches you how to focus. Focus better than you ever have or at least get back whatever focus you’ve lost to whatever personal “Facebook, Twitter, work email, Tinder, text message, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Instagram hell” you’ve created for yourself.

Mindfulness is the complete opposite of multitasking. Mindfulness is a calm, deliberate focus on one thing - maintained for ten minutes. Every day. It is simplicity itself.

Ten minutes of mental "non-exercise" that will make you more productive, calmer and focused - ready to knock off those all those projects...one after the other!

Thanks for reading.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Stress? Go for a Run but Meditate Too

Recently, a colleague with whom I was discussing mindfulness mediation made the statement that he thought he could get the same benefits from his exercise program as he might get from a mindfulness practice. 

This is not true. Mindfulness and exercise are not the same.

Exercise is a great thing. It does relieve that physical stress we hold in our bodies. It does improve your health. It’s good for you on a host of levels. It may even be better at alleviating depression than pills according to some studies, although that truism is beginning to be challenged. A recent study by the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry published in the British Medical Journal found that, contrary to the “new” conventional wisdom, “exercise doesn’t help alleviate depression”.  

In any case, exercise does nothing for the true source of your stress – your thinking, your thoughts, your incessant storytelling.  You might get lost in your exercise and even get into the Zone but when you finish, those thoughts that muddle your life will still be there, still nagging at you and still stressing you out. Exercise does not fundamentally change the way we perceive ourselves or the world. Mindfulness meditation does.

We are not our thoughts - a key insight for each of us practicing meditation (whether mindfulness based or otherwise) does not arise in the Zone or after the Zone. Exercise teaches us nothing about ourselves, our mind, does not make it more emotionally resilient, less distractible, improve memory, improve relationship satisfaction or overall life satisfaction. Nor does it help us see ourselves more clearly.

Mindfulness meditation results in four areas of improvement: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of attention and regulation of emotions.  Of those four, only body awareness is arguably helped by exercise.  So, exercise leaves ¾ of the benefits of mindfulness on the table.

Even the U.S. Marines, a bunch of exercisers if ever there was, are trying out mindfulness in a variety of studies to determine if and how it might benefit troops.

No doubt exercise and mindfulness complement each other, but neither can replace the other.

So go for a run but meditate after!

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Ricky Nelson, A Garden Party and the Tao of Law

When you are content to simply be yourself, and don’t compete or compare, everyone will respect you.” So says the Tao te Ching.

And, in my view, if you “are content to simply be yourself," you will be a much better lawyer. Because, if you are content, comfortable in your own skin, you will give advice based on the facts and the law – not tailoring your advice to get someone’s approval. Not telling the client what she wants to hear. Not doing whatever it takes to win even when you know damn well your case stinks and so does your client.

This same section of the Tao te Ching says:

In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous.”

Neither of those is possible if you are trying to please others. And how often are lawyers “fair and generous” for that matter.

One path to becoming “content to simply be yourself” is mindfulness about which I’ve written other blog posts so I won’t belabor it here; it's a quick read though.

Finally, as that great Taoist Ricky Nelson sang so long ago in "Garden Party" (lyrics):

But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
 You see, ya can't please everyone so ya got to please yourself.” 

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mindfulness Meditation Is Too Hard for Lawyers

When I explain mindfulness meditation to legal colleagues, friends, family or strangers, inevitably the first reaction is something along the lines of - "I could never do that! Sit still for five minutes [Note: The proposed number of minutes doesn't actually change this reaction] - I'd go nuts!"

No one expects to run a 5K, do fifty push-ups, read Proust or cook a fabulous meal without some practice, some training, some effort. The same applies to meditation. Meditation is not the goal, it's the means. It's a process. 

Of course the very first time you sit is likely to be somewhat difficult - just like your first effort at running was.

Mindfulness meditation is training the mind in the same way that running sprints or reading cook books is training.  The goal is to use our mindfulness training so as to engage life in a light way with fewer judgements, fewer "stories", and fewer efforts at controlling the uncontrollable.

And how does mindfulness do this? As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Mindfulness for Beginners"...mindfulness is to be present for your experience as it is rather than immediately jumping in to change it or try to force it to be different."

It is said there are two perfect times to plant a tree - thirty years ago and today. In the same way, there is no time like now to start mindfulness. 

How long did you stand in line at Starbucks today? Surely you have five minutes to spare today to start something that will make your other 1,435 minutes more productive, more engaged and less stressful?

Thanks for reading.