Don't Just Do Something, Sit There

In the late '90s, I was on the faculty of a land use seminar in Santa Fe, N.M. I had a little time on my hands, so I strolled down to Collected Works Bookstore, a shop located adjacent to the city's main plaza. I was looking for "Light on Yoga," written by B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the school of yoga that I practice. The book I sought was not available. But while nosing around in the Eastern philosophy section, I came across a newly published book called "Stumbling Toward Enlightenment." The author, Geri Larkin, is a scrappy Midwestern progressive, who somehow became a Zen priest.

As I subsequently have learned, there are a lot of scrappy progressive Zen priests who have made Buddhism almost as accessible as a Starbucks coffee. But this article is secular. It's about meditation. Larkin's book was the first that I had read that explained meditation in a way that made sense to me. I have been meditating now for over 10 years. I engage in what is called mindfulness meditation, which consists of sitting quietly in a chair, or on the floor, in a comfortable position, with my back, neck and head in a natural supported alignment. I focus on my breath. I sit every morning before doing anything else. My "sit" is generally 15 minutes. Some days I go longer, a half hour or more.

The discipline I maintain in holding to my sitting practice is probably one of the greatest gifts that I have ever given myself. Meditation has allowed me to see a number of simple but profound truths.

As I sit in meditation, the object of my attention is my breath. I note silently "in" on an inhale and "out" on an exhale. Usually, before I get to my fifth breath, a thought occurs, and I follow it. When I finally come to recognize that I am no longer attending my breath, but following my thought, I consciously return my attention to the breath. At the beginning, most of my meditation period was spent returning to my breath. So the first truth: Thoughts happen. Whether I ask for them or not, I am constantly bombarded by thoughts. They are unbidden. I have no conscious control over their content.

That may not seem extraordinary, but the second truth is: I am not my thoughts. If I follow my thoughts, I cede conscious control to them. I unconsciously accept them and give up my presence and dwell on their content.

The third truth: Just because I have a thought doesn't mean that is true. Let's say, for example, that I have formed a critical self-judgment that recurs randomly. I now am aware of and can examine that thought, in a dispassionate way, at a later time. That little bit of distance between me and that self-judgment provides an opportunity to free myself of its recurrence. I continue to breathe. Can I let that thought go? I pay attention to how my body responds. Over time, recurring thoughts lose their power as I let them go. They come less frequently and, eventually, they go away.

Another example: Suppose an opposing counsel has a way of getting under my skin. I sit in meditation. Lo and behold, his disturbing image comes to mind. Not just the image, but all of the bodily reactions that the image evokes from me. I go back to my breathing. I notice my body releases almost immediately. My shoulders and neck relax. My gut quiets. The image loses its power. I begin to see that it is not my opposing counsel who causes my difficulty, it is my reaction that does so. As I begin to acknowledge and release my reaction, "his" ability to disturb me goes away - first in my meditation, then in life.

A final example: When my mother died a little over two years ago, her image returned to me at every sitting. I knew that I was in mourning. I understood that it was OK to feel this extraordinary loss. I returned to my breath because that was my practice. I didn't banish my mother's image, but I didn't hold it either. So the fourth truth is that just because I have thoughts doesn't mean that I have to dwell on them. In fact, as I became acclimated to the practice, I began to see that by returning to my breath I created space between my thoughts and my reactions to them. At the beginning, the space was almost unnoticeable. As I practiced, I began to see that the space created by returning to my breath offered me the opportunity to make a conscious choice as to how to react. In effect, I was slowing down in the space created by my meditative stillness. I became grounded. I became aware.

This kind of awareness is rather extraordinary. As lawyers, we default to our cognitive abilities. In the 1950s, there were science fiction movies about brains contained in vats that maintained their cognitive ability for purposes of world dominance or some perverted notion of eternal love. But in all of those movies, things did not go well for the "living" brain. Similarly, focused cognitive perception does not fully serve us as lawyers.

In the meditative space, awareness arises as to the state of my body, my emotions, my mood, my spirit and my environment. Over time, that growing awareness manifests as intuition. I find that I am able to respond to circumstances with an "intelligence" that exceeds that which I previously possessed. It is an intelligence born of more than mind. I can walk into a negotiation and, following a moment of stillness, understand where the parties are in that moment. That is powerful insight.

All that I have been describing here happens over time. As I said, I have been meditating for more than a decade. My rewards came incrementally. For me, the true magic of meditation was how my insights, while sitting, began to manifest as I returned to everyday life. So as I sit, for example, in a protracted public hearing and a disturbing new fact emerges of which I had no previous knowledge, my self-critic does not respond quite so loudly, and thus does not interfere with my ability to measure what I am to do with this new information. Or if a judge fails to understand the gravamen of a precedent, I do not default to a reactive judgment of his or her lack of competence, but rather immediately find an artful means of communicating my reply.
Let me give you one final example of how meditative awareness changed me. I once read the story of a battered women's center that had painted over its entrance archway the following slogan: "It begins with the words." Violence first manifests in language. Action follows.

I had come to understand that I swore most frequently when I had lost my center. Use of this violent language did nothing to improve my situation. In fact, it further distracted me from regaining my footing and, frankly, added verbal violence to the environment. I decided to go cold turkey. I stopped swearing. That was a few years ago. Of course, I am not always successful in the endeavor, but I do know that when I begin to swear, there is something wrong. I catch myself and try to identify the source of the discomfort. I also note what effect I have had on those around me through use of this language. And, most often, I apologize. So, for me, meditation has been a source of patience, wisdom, calmness, a place to reflect and a fount of creativity. It all arises from that space created by my attention to breathing.

One more thing: It is easier to meditate with others than on your own. There are meditation groups in most communities. A great majority of them are secular. There is nothing about meditation that requires religion. I also regularly attend an annual lawyers retreat at Spirit Rock in Marin County. It is sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. For four days, we sit in silence, meditating some six hours each day, creating a profound and extraordinarily unique community of lawyers.

I urge you to investigate meditation as a practice. It just may change your life. Several Bay Area law firms have groups that meditate together. Feel free to contact me for further information.

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