I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.
But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?
The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.
In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:
“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson
For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.
But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.
I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.
Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Dalai Lama-esque level. It’s a worthy pursuit, though, because there are many long-term benefits to feeling more compassion, even toward asshole lawyers you are forced, for now, to interact with. One way to start that work is through loving-kindness meditation (LKM).
Get Your Loving-Kindness On
To get a feel for the power of LKM, spend a few minutes on this excellent video of Sylvia Boorstein leading an impromptu LKM during an interview for On Being with Krista Trippett.
Basically, LKM starts with a blessing for yourself. “May I feel safe. May I feel content. May I feel strong. May I live with ease.” You don’t need to use these specific blessings; pick things that perhaps you are longing for in your life, such as calm, peace, love, hope or joy.
After your own blessing, you repeat the same blessing several times. First, pick someone you love dearly, and bless them. Next, pick someone you are neutral about, maybe your hairdresser or a barista at the coffee shop you frequent—a familiar stranger, as Boorstein says. After that, think of the unfamiliar strangers around you; think about the whole world, even. Then, pick a difficult person. This is anyone you have hard feelings toward, or some kind of fraught relationship. After that, you are done. You should feel at least a little better.
How Compassion Helps You
It only takes a few minutes to practice a LKM, but the benefits are many:
Wards off depression and increases life satisfaction. A noted study by Barbara Frederickson showed that the practice of LKM led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement and awe. While changes did not appear immediately, over the course of nine weeks, LKM increased self-acceptance and positive relationships with others, among other changes. People became more satisfied with their lives and experienced fewer symptoms of depression. Might I remind you that lawyers suffer the highest rate of depression of any profession in the United States, 3 times the national average?
Gives an increased sense of purpose. Meditation is proven to increase self-awareness. Meditation can be the pathway to discerning your purpose, since by becoming more aware of your real self, you become more aware of your own, unique purpose in being here on Earth.
Decreases illness. One study found that those who practice loving-kindness meditation daily showed significantly lower levels of inflammation. Chronic, low-level inflammation is linked to a number of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, Crohn’s disease, and several other auto-immune diseases.
Combat loneliness. Lawyers often feel lonely and isolated, especially if they are unhappy practicing law. They feel like they’re the only one who can’t be happy with a job that pays a lot of money. Loving-kindness meditation can combat that feeling, even in a very short amount of time. Stanford researchers found that after 7 minutes of LKM, participants reported increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers. The study concluded that LKM, an exercise of compassion, helps to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation. I probably don’t need to point out how helpful this feeling can be as you look for that new job or career.
Why Compassion Matters Especially for Lawyers
Compassion is the antidote to judgment. If nothing else, lawyers typically operate as master judges of, basically, everything. Think about what you judge every single day:
- The propriety of someone’s attire (flip-flops and camis in the office??),
- Choice in vehicle (not fuel efficient enough, not new enough, too banged up, not appropriate for carting around clients)
- Choice for breakfast (too many carbs, too much fat, not locally sourced)
- Schooling (not prestigious enough, too pretentious, too conformist, not rigorous enough)
- How people spend their time (works too much, doesn’t spend enough time with family, wasteful chit-chatting with staff, isn’t committed to the firm/clients, spends too much time on kids’ school and not on drafting contracts)
- Neatness (files everywhere, how can they find anything?, a clean desk means not enough work, a disorganized desk means a disorganized mind)
All before 10 a.m.! And none of that judging is even about the quality of one’s work, a whole ‘nuther can of worms for attorneys. That’s just exhausting, friends.
Judgment is often what makes our lives unhappy and unsatisfying. We judge ourselves as less than, because we fall short of some standard that we imagine will unlock the key to happiness. (Newsflash: The key to happiness and a satisfying life is connection with others. Ask Brené Brown.) We judge the performance of our spouses and significant others, our families, our friends, and our colleagues, and usually find them lacking. We then get annoyed, or worse, feel that they are falling short and failing us.
LKM nicely counters the strong tendency of lawyers to judge. When we feel connected and compassionate, we don’t feel grasping and lacking and needing to make ourselves feel better by judging others harshly. It’s a much better place to be.
Compassion toward mistakes (and those who make them) doesn’t mean you overlook major problems, but rather that you look for solutions rather than blame. You consider a wider universe in which the problem exists; you get perspective about whether it’s worth the energy to fix.
But don’t take my word for any of this. Try loving-kindness meditation for 7 days, and see what happens. After all, there’s no research that identifies harm from LKM. At worst, you’ll have taken 5 minutes a day to think nice thoughts without any tangible benefit. That sounds better to me than using the same 5 minutes brooding over asshole lawyer behavior, don’t you think?
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who will probably never master transcendental meditation, but is OK with getting by on loving-kindness and mindfulness meditation. If you feel like a little peace and compassion would improve your life and career, contact Jennifer for a discounted sample session at firstname.lastname@example.org.