EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on stress management and the practice of law. This month's self-study package deals with managing stress in our everyday lives as lawyers. Completing this test will earn one hour of MCLE credit in the special category of law practice management. The first part of the series, which appeared in the June California Bar Journal, dealt with types of stress and how to alleviate day-to-day burdens. Completing the July test will earn one hour of MCLE credit in the special category of substance abuse/emotional distress. The CLE test immediately follows this story.
How can we create an inner environment which allows us to effectively deal with the enormous stresses of practice, perform at or near our real capacities and live lives that are meaningful, pleasurable and support what's really important to us?
Over the years I've developed a particular interest in and explored various meditation practices that favorably influence how we handle stress and enhance our ability to engage in high level performance.
These processes relax the body and calm and focus the mind.
This, in turn, allows us to more effectively mobilize our energy and experience insight into our conduct and actions.
Author and meditation teacher Eknath Easwarn explains it this way: "When the mind is excited, we jump into a situation and do whatever comes automatically which often only makes things worse. If the mind is calm, we see clearly and don't get emotionally entangled in the events around us, leaving us free to respond with compassion and help."
All of these techniques start with developing strong and precise concentration in the present moment: the ability to put our attention on a single project or object and keep it there.
We tend to associate "concentration" with trying harder, with using lots of energy, with seriousness and heaviness.
But the type of concentration called for to relax and enhance performance is of a different kind. It is highly focused and stable, yet relaxed.
It is a commitment to maintain attention on one thing at a time and what's happening right now, in this moment, unhindered by projecting out into the future or re-creating the past.
It is about clearly seeing our current state of mind and situation, then making thoughtful choices.
Those who say they don't have time to stop several times a day to listen to themselves and to what's really important miss the whole point -- we can't afford not to do this.
When we don't take this time over weeks, or months, or years of practice, we become disconnected from what we need to do to take care of ourselves and our clients.
Finding and visiting a quiet place deep inside of us, every day, is a necessity, not a luxury.
Transforming stress into enhanced performance is about direct experience. You have to take action, do it -- not just think, plan or talk about it.
And you need to do it now, in this moment, not tomorrow, next week or next year.
By integrating a number of basic practices into our work schedule and using them every day, we can set a process of change in motion that builds on itself.
Inner balance is a dynamic, on-going process, not a static thing that we achieve and put on the shelf.
There follows a description of four practices I've found to be helpful over the years as a starting place on this road. Don't let the simplicity fool you.
If done on a consistent, daily basis, they can help change your perspective, self-awareness, productivity and level of work and life satisfaction. Each emphasizes looking inside, rather than outside ourselves in the quiet of the present moment for inner guidance and direction.
I encourage you to do an experiment. Try these practices. Set up some method to remind you to do them.
If you don't, I assure you the combination of ingrained habits, resistance to change and the press of your practice will guarantee that you forget.
Give the experiment an honest effort. The most recent research tells us that it takes at least 21 consecutive days of new behavior to establish a new habit or overcome an old one. Here are the practices:
1. MAKE A CHOICE. The state of mind we set for dealing with stress and performance is a question of choice. We have the choice to face and deal with stress in our lives or drift unfocused, anxious and off-balance. Dealing with stress can be framed as a problem or as embracing an opportunity.
Making the choice -- over and over again, every day -- is the first and most important step in starting a new relationship with stress and performance.
One way to do this is to create a phrase or sentence which embodies our intention and place it on that day's action list or on a card you can set on your desk as a reminder.
The phrase or sentence should be simple, direct, positive and unequivocal. An example would be: "Today I will make the time to relax my body and quiet my mind. I can make conscious and skillful choices rather than mechanically responding from emotion and habit."
2. TAKE "10 BREATHS BREAKS" Stress hits the breath and posture first. We tend to hold our breath in stressful situations. Almost simultaneously, the posture begins to contract forward and down, causing a rounding of the shoulders and a concave chest. The mind, likewise, becomes tense and restricted.
The single most effective technique for getting in touch with these early warning signs of stress and for changing our attitude is to re-establish a comfortable erect posture to breathe fully.
Try doing this simple, short, but powerful "10 Breaths Practice" on a regular basis during the day.
For example, set an alarm to remind you to practice at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Try the exercise when you begin feeling disconnected from your work, when your mind is constantly wandering, or when you realize that you're becoming stressed out. This exercise allows us to catch our breath, calm our minds and start over again -- refreshed.
3. FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION. Stress robs us of our ability to fully focus and concentrate on what we are doing in the present moment. This particular state of mind -- one of divided attention and concentration -- exhausts both the body and the mind and diminishes our productivity.
Meditation practitioner and author Daizui MacPhillamy recommends a method for helping us maintain our concentration he labels "Working Meditation." Here are the steps:
Do one thing at a time.
Pay attention to what you are doing.
When your mind wanders to something else, gently bring it back.
Repeat step number three a few hundred thousand times.
But, if your mind keeps wandering to the same thing over and over, stop for a minute. Maybe it is trying to tell you something important.
MacPhillamy comments: "That is all there is to it. It is incredibly simple and requires nothing more than the willingness to do it with some persistence . . . bring your mind back gently each time it wanders, but don't be so strict on yourself that you find the practice unpalatable.
Done properly, the exercise is refreshing, liberating and energizing.
4. CONSIDER EXPLORING MEDITATION. Meditation is a more sustained way of replenishing our depleted inner resources, developing insight and reconnecting with our true selves.
A starting place is to do the 10 Breaths Practice for 15 or 20 minutes each morning before work, during the lunch hour or when you arrive home before dinner.
Find a quiet, undisturbed place, set a noiseless timer and just settle in to the exercise.
You might also take a look at "Wherever You Go, There You Are," by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's Stress Reduction Clinic.
One of the most difficult aspects of stress is its ability to make us feel overwhelmed, inadequate and victimized. Once we identify with these states of mind, we become trapped.
We need to remember that we always have a choice of how to relate to any situation. The real problem isn't the external factors that we usually perceive as the causes of our difficulties, it's how we're responding to them.
Making a commitment to explore our reactions to the stressful circumstances of our lives and to enhance our performance is really a commitment to explore a fuller, more complete and rewarding way of practicing law and living.
If we can regularly take time to develop and maintain our inner balance during the day, we begin a process of touching a place deep inside of us that is already calm and whole.
Once we start this process, we begin to work with the potential to quiet our minds, relax our bodies and open our hearts to the possibilities of a more trusting way of living and relating to the world around us.
The 10 Breaths Practice
Sit comfortably erect with your feet flat on the ground. The feet are about 10-12 inches apart.
Fold your hands softly in your lap with the palms up or place them palms down on your knees.
Find a position where your back and neck are aligned and comfortably straight. This position will feel stable and balanced. Slowly close your eyes. Allow your jaws to relax and your mouth to open slightly.
Once you have fully settled into this position, take several deep, comfortable, rhythmic breaths. Inhale and exhale through both the nose and mouth. Bring your attention into this present moment and your body.
Slowly scan your body and feel any areas -- jaws, neck, shoulders, stomach, back -- where tension, stress or stiffness is present. Allow each area to relax and let go of any sense of stress with each breath.
Now focus your attention in a relaxed but concentrated way on your breath. Observe and feel each in-breath. Observe and feel each out-breath. If your attention shifts to sound, bodily sensation or state of mind, notice the shift and how it feels without resistance, struggle or judgment. Then gently return your attention to the breath. Repeat this process 10 times.
When you're done, gently open your eyes. Notice how you're feeling right now, in this moment. Take a few minutes to assess what needs to be attended to, if anything, to maintain or restore your inner balance and engage the rest of your day.
Dennis M. Warren is a health care attorney based in Sacramento, who conducts stress control workshops for lawyers. He may be contacted at 916/447-9999.