Be present, practise better

Be present, practise better
This is a column I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and since the fall is usually my busiest time of year, there’s no time like the present. Which is sort of the point of this article: how mindfulness, meditation, and “being present” has benefited my law practice.

No, I’m not writing this column in brown sandals, holding crystals, or anything of the sort. Just hear me out.

I’ve been interested in yoga and meditation for a number of years, including taking a solo trip to Italy for a week of yoga after my articles. When I had the opportunity to join the board of directors for Toronto’s Centre for Mindfulness Studies two years ago, I jumped at the chance (see my column on joining a not-for-profit board).

Having learned more about meditation through the centre, I now typically meditate once or twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. At its most basic, meditation is simply sitting and noticing — noticing my breathing, my thoughts as they come in and out, and focusing on the present moment rather than my shopping list, that new file, what happened yesterday, etc.

I’ve noticed many benefits of meditation, but I’m particularly fascinated by how it improves my work. An increasing amount of media attention is being paid to how mindfulness can be incorporated into the lives of even the most hard core, ambitious professionals to improve performance. The New Yorker recently ran a piece on “Meditation for Strivers.” Former war correspondent and confessed workaholic ABC anchor Dan Harris wrote an excellent bestselling book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story, which is kind of a terrible title but was a terrific read.

Harris describes the benefits of mindfulness meditation this way:

“Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits — from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm — but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally.”

Responding instead of reacting to stress

I can think of any number of stressful situations on the job that get my heart racing. Take, for instance, a completely unreasonable opposing counsel. He or she is being aggressive, demanding, and maybe even unprofessional. When that over-the-top, American TV-esque “govern yourself accordingly” e-mail pops into my inbox, I can feel my face getting hot. My first reaction might be to fire off an equally aggressive e-mail, which of course only drags me into the dogfight, too. That’s never a good way to respond.

In these types of situations, my meditation training kicks in and I am aware of my physical sensations (heart pounding, hot face) and emotions (anger, frustration). Sounds flaky, I know – but it means that rather than automatically acting on those “fight” instincts, I can take a breath, notice the reaction, but not be dictated by it.

I’m providing better client service by having grace under fire and responding in an intelligent, constructive way. I like to think I’m also building a positive reputation as being level-headed, because I sometimes receive apologies and gratitude from sheepish counsel when I respond to antics with maturity.

Training my brain = increased focus

This is the biggest benefit of mindfulness in my practice. Once I’ve noticed and managed my stress reactions, it really is time to get down to work. But sometimes I feel like a puppy pulled away by each and every shiny distraction in view. An e-mail pops into my inbox — squirrel! My phone rings – pigeon! Oh, that web site I meant to check – Frisbee! You get it.

Mindfulness meditation is like boot camp for your brain. Whenever your mind wanders, you simply bring it back to focusing on your breath and the present moment. I find it so much easier to concentrate on one task at a time and I can hold that concentration for longer periods than before.

There are many other benefits of meditation in my work, including non-attachment to results (or as Harris puts it: “Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.”). I think most lawyers could benefit from recognizing and accepting a certain lack of control in outcomes (I’m looking at you, litigators).

I don’t need to view mindfulness as simply a work efficiency tool for it to be a valuable and worthwhile practice for me. But I do think its impact on work performance is an interesting access point for people who think that meditation is just for hippies or tree-huggers (no offence to either excellent group). If you’re someone that enjoys tweaking your habits to improve performance, this may be the next “life hack” for you.

I encourage you to pick up an issue of Mindful Magazine, a copy of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal book Full Catastrophe Living (he also has apps available on iTunes), the Harris book, or visit the Centre for Mindfulness Studies web site for information about their intro courses.

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