Present Yourself with a Present of the Present
Four Building Blocks to Mindfulness
This article first appeared in May-June 2021 edition of the Chicago Bar Association Record
It was a cloudless autumn night; I was running through Lincoln Park near the entrance to the zoo unwinding after a long day in the office. Yet, instead of enjoying the moment, my shoulders were up, my fists tightened into balls, and my breathing was labored. As often the case, I was consumed with thoughts about the pressing issues of the day – the documents that needed revising, the irate client who called as I was trying to get out the door, the lunch that was only half eaten when I turned back to the immediate problems that ‘just had to get done – NOW’!
In other words, it was a typical day and was ending in a way I thought was relaxing, a pleasant evening run when I could sort these problems out and exercise at the same time.
Inexplicably, I glanced over my shoulder. On the horizon was a supermoon, hauntingly orange in color forming a full figure 8 with the bottom of the moon touching the mirrored ink black water of Lake Michigan. I was transfixed. I couldn’t recall a sight as vivid, and I wanted to see more.
I crossed Lake Shore Drive to stand on the beach for a better view, but, in those few minutes the moon had risen a little higher in the sky, the perfect figure 8 was no more, the moon seemed much smaller, the orange hue faded into a greyish haze. The moment was gone. All that remained was the image in my mind’s eye. Yet, by being in the moment just a few minutes before, I was mindful of a calm and serene presence in the middle of a bustling city. And as I returned to my run, I was more relaxed, and the problems of the day diminished.
How many moments like that full moon have passed me unawares when I was self-absorbed in the crises typical of a lawyer’s trade. In that moment on the beach, longing for another few moments of that perfect figure 8 supermoon, I thought about the confluence of events which came together at just the moment I glanced over my shoulder.
It was the evening of a full moon, a supermoon; there was not a cloud in the sky obstructing the moonrise, the lake water was smooth as glass – no waves interfered with the reflection, and my glance was synchronous with the point of the moon touching the horizon. Most fortuitous, I paid attention to what happened, in that moment.
That was but one example of ‘being in the moment’ or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) being mindful: “the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. It sounds so simple that even a child could be mindful. Simple, but not easy.
When asked, most lawyers will tell you they are mindful, meaning they are meticulous and detail-oriented; focused and highly concentrated; perfectionist even. Yet these traits are antithetical to the meaning of Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness.
Yet for most lawyers I’ve dealt with, we take on the problems of our clients and our training, our desire to please, takes away the joy as we are not in the present moment, but trapped in the past or afraid of what the future will bring, and the need to control everything. The result is a great deal of negative stress which, over time, negatively impacts our health and performance.
While seeking to write the perfect brief, prepare for the perfect deposition, draft the perfect agreement, lawyers are constantly judging their efforts and thinking about past experiences or future events. These actions add more stress in their lives, not less.
The need to get something done is like a windup toy – wind it up and let it go, quickly moving in any direction because any movement is better than standing still. Instead, I now try to approach life by setting my internal GPS through mindfulness. I practice taking time out from a whirling dervish existence to set my navigation – taking time to reflect on where I want to go, and to determine where I am at the moment because, just like a GPS, in order to get to the destination, I need to know where I’m starting.
Re-read Kabat-Zinn’s definition. Paying attention on purpose can be thought of as focus and concentration. Concentration is paying attention to something for a period of time. Focus is the something we pay attention to during that time. As lawyers, we are trained to focus on the issues and solve problems, that is not too difficult.
However, staying in the present moment, and being non-judgmental are the keys to mindfulness. It is very easy to look at the object of our attention and immediately think it is good or bad, right or wrong, left or right. Mindfulness, in contrast, is looking at the object and observe it, and notice all there is about it, using all 5 senses for understanding. Not thinking about the past or the future, or how the object was or will be. This also means we are not afraid.
Fear comes about when we observe a person, place or thing and are triggered in memories of what happened in the past in a similar situation, or project what will happen in the future. This judgment clouds our observation and creates stress by distorting the moment. Fear cannot happen when we are in the present moment in a non-judgmental way.
This is where mindfulness comes into play.
There are four building blocks which, if practiced regularly, either collectively or individually, help us stay in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. These four building blocks are: breathing, meditation, exercise and gratitude.
The first building block, and the simplest, is breathing.
Breathing, most of the time, is a regular part of life which we accomplish without thinking. We go about our routines and don’t give a moment’s thought to inhaling or exhaling; we breathe unconsciously, mindlessly, without distraction or judgment. Yet without breathing, we would not exist.
The most marketable commodity of lawyers is an ability to think. We think better when more oxygen gets to the brain. When we are tense, our arteries and capillaries constrict making it more difficult for oxygen to reach the brain (as well as the other muscles in the body). This is compounded by sedentary work habits.
Take a moment and pay attention to how you breathe – slowly, evenly. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. With each breath, feel the lungs fill and empty. For maximum benefit, conduct a concentrated exercise known as ‘box breathing’ – inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 and relax for a count of 4 before the next breath. Four sides to the box. And repeat.
Visualize the oxygen entering the nose, circulating up through the brain, down through the body all the way down to the toes, then back up from the feet, through the lungs and out the mouth as you exhale. Feel the tension release throughout the body with each breath as muscles relax and the flow of oxygen permeates.
The second building block, and often the most misunderstood, is meditation.
I once thought meditation invoked a vision of a guru sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop chanting ‘ohm’; but meditation can be performed anywhere, at any time, with little needed but an open mind. However, studies indicate the most effective way to meditate is when sitting in a dignified position, with the back straightened but relaxed, arms resting on the legs or on a platform like armrests of a chair, head erect and feet flat on the floor.
Close your eyes and sense different body parts and what you feel – how much tension do you feel and where do you feel it – in your jaw, your neck, your arms, your torso, your legs. If you are not comfortable closing your eyes, meditate with eyes open and let your gaze fall unfocused a few feet in front of you. Build on the breathing techniques we just reviewed. While paying attention to breathing, repeat the following four lines slowly:
- May I be safe
- May I be happy
- May I be healthy
- May I live with ease
Pause for 10 – 15 seconds, and repeat the process, with regularity, another 3 – 4 times. This exercise can be done in just a few minutes. If you are unsure of how long this should take, set an alarm for 3 – 4 minutes and continue concentrating until the timer rings.
Once you get into the habit, the meditation time can be expanded to 10, 20 or even 30 minutes. While it is best to meditate shortly after awakening, this practice can be accomplished any time of the day – and several times during the day.
The third building block, as time permits, is exercise. You do not need to train for a marathon, but periodic breaks comprising something as simple as a short walk helps clear the mind and fosters relaxation. Of course, a regular exercise routine brings multiple advantages as well as mindfulness. Regular exercise improves circulation, lowers the risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, among other health benefits.
Whether you enjoy walking, running, cycling, swimming or other forms of movement, exercise has the best benefits when maintained a minimum of 3 – 4 times a week.
Regular exercise helps sharpen mindfulness as well.
When exercising, be sensual. Use each of the five senses to acknowledge what and how you perceive. Paying attention to what you see, hear, taste, smell and touch bring an awareness into the present moment. There is no right or wrong way to sense what is happening around you, and the recognition of the sensual experience, without judgment, enhances the moment and frees the mind.
The guidelines of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that positive results can be gained by 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity per week. This breaks down to 20-45 minutes a day! The activity does not need to be continuous, so we can divide the exercise throughout the day and the week.
Finally, the fourth building block – gratitude. Studies indicate that identifying people, places and things for which to be grateful is relaxing and helps us stay in the present moment. The psychological theory of ‘Reciprocal Inhibition’ tells us that we cannot feel two contradictory states (like stress and gratefulness) simultaneously.
Stress is often brought about by fear, and fear is generated when we judge our present circumstances in light of what has happened in the past, or negative affects of what will happen in the future. Gratitude brings into focus the positive aspects of our lives currently, thereby increasing our happiness, distracting from the misfortunes in our lives, while reducing anxiety, stress and depression.
When preparing a gratitude list, be grateful for specific people, places and things, be grateful for the present (not from long ago), and after each item, take a few moments to feel the physical and emotional response to each item on the gratitude list. This enhances the psychological and physical benefits.
Simple, but not easy, until we try.