Breathing. You do it without even thinking, so why am I wasting my time writing about it? Because it is one of the most effective ways to deal with stress. I’m sceptical when it comes to things like mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing. Or at least I used to be. Maybe you are too. Maybe you’re completely over all the mindfulness and meditation for lawyers rubbish you hear. Just bear with me for a minute here.
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness at the moment, particularly in the business and entrepreneurial worlds. It seems that ancient techniques are coming back into fashion. So, is this stuff a lot of bluster? Is it a fad? Or, is there something to it? From what I’ve seen, it works differently for different people, and it depends on the specific technique they use.
Reducing stress in your life
For anyone with an intense career, there will come a point where you will have to make a decision about what you want. From your life, and from your career. Trying different stress reduction techniques can help with this process and should be encouraged.
Stress is often viewed as a necessary part of success and it absolutely is. If you think there is a way to remove stress and adverse events from your life then think again. Personally, I like the stoic philosophy of not pushing back against the universe to impose your ideas of how things should be and trying to protect yourself from bad things. Instead, it involves developing a mindset and a suite of tools you can tap into that will allow you deal with any situation in a more patient and accepting way. It means the stress that engulfs us all doesn’t become all-encompassing.
Most things that happen to us are beyond our control. But we can control our reaction and our perspective. It is amazing how much you can improve the quality of your interactions in life when you realise this. It’s a powerful tool, but it takes time to exercise and work this muscle.
Getting started with meditation
For me, mindfulness and meditation was something I tried, sceptically. I soon realised how effective it was to bring your old patterns of thinking under control. There are any number of techniques and exercises you can look into. For me, the easiest and most tolerable was breathing focussed meditation. Vipassana meditation involves taking a seat on a chair or sitting on the floor with your legs crossed. Your posture should be firm, so no slouching. Beginning with a few deep breaths through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathing through the nose, for some reason, brings you back into your body more than breathing in through the mouth does. It may have something do with our natural stress responses. Breathing through the nose is associated with a calmer state, whereas large breaths through the mouth are associated with some sort of exertion.
First, centre yourself. Ensuring you are relaxed in a comfortable position, begin to breathe slowly. In through your nose and out through your mouth.
The key thing is to try and focus your attention on your breathing at a central point. It may be focussing on the air as it moves through your nose and into your lungs. By that, I mean focussing on the specific sensation of air flowing through your nasal passage. It may be focussing on the rise and fall of your abdomen and air flow in and out. I also like to pay attention to the space between the in and out breath, where you are the stillest.
As you begin to do this you will begin to observe thoughts coming into your consciousness. These will be the usual random thoughts and worries that bind us throughout the day. Now, this is the key part: don’t try to not think about these thoughts. Don’t try to push them away. That won’t work. We all know what happens when you ask someone to not think about something. The thing you tell them not to think about becomes even more pronounced in their thinking.
The key is to instead observe the thoughts. Let them be. Then return your attention gently to your centre of breath. Each time a thought stream arises, repeat this step and go back to your focus on breathing. Over and over again.
Over time, you will begin to see that the thoughts become fewer and less intense. You will achieve greater time-frames where you are mindful of your breathing, and nothing else. It takes time and repetition to do this – most people struggle in the early stages with boredom. The initial torrent of thoughts when you sit still, in silence, can be overwhelming. It’s why a lot of people don’t stick it out and leave retreats early. It’s one of the fears that hold people back. Being in a quiet room, alone with their thoughts, is unbearable for some. But, facing this fear is essential if it’s holding you back.
You must persist through this stage to get the real benefits. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make multiple attempts. Over time, as you just let the thoughts be, the thoughts that creep in become fewer and further between. You become able to sit, focussed on your breathing, for longer periods of time without interruption from your usual thoughts.
The other key point is that you don’t have to sit and meditate for hour-long blocks. Vipassana retreats typically last a week or two and involve 12 hours of meditation daily! You don’t need to go this deep when you start. Let’s face it, it’s unlikely you will have the time or inclination to dive in this deeply.
I have found doing the above technique for between 10 and 20 minutes, twice a day, works well. Even once a day in the morning or evening (depending on which is less busy for you) will have benefits. Over time, as you become more comfortable and see more benefits, you can increase the time. I guarantee you will grow to love it.
Try not to focus on the time. Don’t sit there with a stopwatch, waiting for the time to run through. Ultimately, you want to get into a position where you can sit and meditate without giving much thought about how much time you spend on it.
The benefits of meditation on your legal career & life
So, what’s the upside of this sort of meditation? There is a huge amount of evidence out now attesting to the physical and psychological benefits. The great thing about it is you can do it anywhere, anytime, without any equipment.
The other technique I have found to incredibly useful and complementary to the above is deep breathing. This exercise allows you to master your breathing on a far deeper level. It allows you to develop your abdominal muscles so you can control your breathing from a deeper place than your chest. You become more conscious of your breathing patterns. I have found this centres your focus in your body. It takes your focus away from thinking patterns, to a place that’s about feeling and just being.
I have found the physiological results to be remarkable. My immune system has improved and I get sick less. As a father with two kids who pick up all sorts of illnesses from daycare, I cannot stress how helpful is. More importantly, the deep breathing exercises have allowed me to meditate more effectively.
The ability to control your breath via your abdomen also allows you to breath more effectively. This is useful when you are exercising, or even sitting at your desk tapping away at a keyboard. I spend a lot of time swimming and running at the beach employing deep breathing and it has increased my endurance out of sight. It’s also very conducive to getting into a flow state in whatever you have been doing.
I have found that removing myself from my head has brought me to a far calmer state. I’ve become less reactive and far more able to deal with stress as it arises. Where a bad thing would have blown up my day, it now passes smoothly. Don’t get me wrong; all the old patterns still remain, but they don’t have the same grip on me as they did before. It’s freeing. It’s always a work in progress, but progress is happening and that’s the most important thing. For lawyers, meditation can equip you to deal with the everyday stress of your legal career and make better decisions. You’ll also be a happier lawyer.
Imagine being able to approach your work day with a little less stress, a lot more peace and a shield against all the shitty things people might say and do to ruin your day. Humour me and try it.