Mindfulness: Just the Next Trend?

Mindfulness and meditation are getting so much attention these days that some people are dismissing them as “just the next trend.”

I too am not a fan of the commercialization of mindfulness. I don’t like to see people or organizations latching on to mindfulness and meditation just to market themselves.

But as a lawyer-mediator who practices meditation, I suggest that we not, as the expression goes, throw the baby out with the bathwater. With a little discernment, we can identify that which is valuable about mindfulness and meditation and leave the razzle and hubbub to others.

In this blog, I will give share my thoughts about mindfulness and how it has personally helped me as a mediator-lawyer. In the next blog, I will provide an overview of interesting developments in law and dispute resolution with regard to mindfulness and meditation.

Defining Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese zen master, defines mindfulness as the “practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.”

In Fully Present, Smalley and Winston state: “Mindfulness may be thought of as a state of consciousness, one characterized by attention to present experience with a state of open curiosity.”

And Jon Kabat-Zinn states that mindfulness means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

Are We Present?

Being present. That sounds simple. In fact, many people say: Don’t I already do that? When I talk with people, I am present with them.

As much as we’d like to be present, the reality is that we spend much of our time recycling repetitive thoughts, getting lost in the past or future, forming unnecessary judgments, or reacting in habitual ways.

In our conversations, we tend to form responses before the speaker finishes, defend ourselves against criticism, try to fix people, or fit what they are saying into our preconceived categories. We have great difficulty just being present and listening for the sole purpose of understanding.

Our “monkey minds” (the Buddha’s description) bounce around continuously and have trouble focusing. It’s no wonder we have difficulty with solitude.

Running Away from Ourselves

There are so many ways we stay busy and run away. Our temptation to check email constantly, or our need to exercise with music plugged into our ears, are only the latest and most benign forms of self-distraction. The various forms that addictions and compulsions take – alcohol, drugs, work, sex, gambling, excessive shopping -- are far darker manifestations of this tendency.

In one sense, this is how we are built. Our hyperactive minds evolved to scan the environment for signs of danger. On the other hand, we seem to have mastered a tendency to run away from ourselves, from all the wounds we have suffered along the way.

Not until we attempt to sit still, observe our minds at work, and quietly reflect on our experience, do we notice the nature and habits of our minds. We begin to notice the endless chatter, the harsh judgments of self and other, the repetitiveness of thought, the unwanted emotions that keep returning, and our habitual reactions.

Not until we attempt to do nothing more than notice our breathing can we see how strong is the urge to do anything but that.

Meditation: Cultivating Space for Awareness & Reflection

With an untrained mind that is unable to be truly present with clients, a mediator or lawyer will be more affected by the clients’ conflict, less able to understand deeply the true nature of the knots creating the conflict, less able to detect and handle the mediator’s own biases, and more likely to act in predictable and habitual ways instead of with fresh insight and creativity into whatever presents itself.

With a meditation practice, however, we grow the energy of mindfulness. We begin to locate an inner space of deep calm amidst the storms. We learn that while we will continue to think thoughts and feel deep feelings, we are not simply and only those thoughts and feelings.

When we cultivate space for awareness and reflection, we create the opportunity to move away from our habitual reactions and increase our freedom to choose how to act.

In meditation we also cultivate deep compassion for ourselves and others.

The practice of meditation has helped me become more self-aware, regulate my emotions and behavior, strengthen my motivation and resolve, and increase my empathy and ability to listen respectfully and deeply to myself and others. Less often do I find myself judging or trying to fix others.

I am not alone, and I am not exceptional. My experience is consistent with others who have experienced similar benefits.

Meditation’s Benefits for Mediators & Lawyers

It becomes pretty easy to see how this would benefit a conflict resolution professional. To work at our highest and best level, mediators and lawyers must be completely present with our clients.

We must be fully aware of what is happening, not just in the room with the clients, but within our own minds. We must be able to listen deeply to our clients to understand their deepest needs and fears and recognize the knots that are creating the conflict.

We must be able to recognize and transform normal, inevitable biases and prejudices that arise. Mediators and lawyers must know how to overcome our natural aversions to people who push our buttons. The dispute professional must be able to offer creative freshness that responds to what is happening in the room at that moment rather than relying on tricks we learned at some seminar workshop.

My Experience with Meditation Practice

I began to meditate about 15 years ago. When I began, I did not have a clue about the patterns of my mind. I doubt I would have really understood the words in this blog.

I was so immersed in reactive patterns and various compulsions that I didn’t even know I had them. Among them was a hard resistance to sitting still and reflecting. Instead, I had developed a strong tendency to run away and distract myself.

With clients, I had a tendency to do as lawyers are trained to do – to take charge, to fix, to get results, and to control the agenda. I tried to be kind and caring, but in retrospect there was too much of me and too little of them.

My anxiety ran high and got in the way of being present with clients and opposing attorneys. To mask my insecurities, I tended to present a puffed up version of myself.

None of that is unique.

My profession is full of frightened people wearing masks and armor, hiding their authentic selves.

A few years ago, a distinguished senior lawyer advised me that I had to put on more of a “display” with clients, which included combing my hair in a certain way and driving a certain car. But the surprising truth is that we become far more effective at connecting with people at a deep level, and helping them through their own difficulties, when we are able to remove the false garb and find our authentic core.

Mindfulness through Meditation

Mindfulness presents us with a mirror that enables us to see our falseness. Meditation cultivates mindfulness, and the energy of mindfulness brings us face to face with ourselves.

By learning to accept all parts of myself, especially those parts I find unacceptable, then I have a better chance of accepting without judgment anyone who walks through my door in all their pain and confusion.

I can simply remain present for them. As a mediator and lawyer, the greatest gift I can give is to be present for, and seek to understand, another person.

So while mindfulness may sound trendy, that’s only our current commercial fascination with it. Wise people in the East have been practicing meditation for centuries. We can be grateful that many great teachers have shared this helpful practice with us. In the West we are just beginning to confirm through scientific research the many benefits of a meditation practice.

Before dismissing meditation because it’s commercially popular, please make your own determination. The ultimate, key question is whether a practice is beneficial for you.

As for me, this less-than-always-diligent practitioner of meditation must acknowledge: it really does work.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia, ElizaIO, Matthew G