Something really bizarre happened to me this morning: Meditating actually helped calm me down by several degrees! Weird. But also wonderful.
Like most lawyers, I struggle with meditation. I’ve tried all kinds of meditation tips and techniques over the years. So many! Before today, the most reliable trick I had learned was doing something physical that required a lot of focus.
I learned this inadvertently when I was a whippersnapper lawyer with a serious horse obsession. I was the girl who always wanted a pony, but never got one.
While I was in law school, I rented a room one summer from the firm’s librarian, who happened to live on a farm and have horses. My inner little girl was gleeful about learning to ride, although the insecure adult was worried about her general lack of athleticism and the size of her ass. But I digress.
I kept riding throughout law school and then as a whippersnapper lawyer. But please don’t for a minute think that I was very good at riding. Mostly, I sucked. I wasn’t flexible, wasn’t very aware of my body, and was generally anxious and more than a little afraid.
So I had to really, really concentrate on what I was doing. Also, riding is a whole-body sport; you have to worry about the position of your ankles, lower legs, thighs, seat, shoulders, and hands, simultaneously. Oh, and also pay attention to what your horse was doing. Plus steer.
There just wasn’t any bandwidth left to worry about the research I needed to do, the ugly people I worked with, or the groceries I need to get.
For years, I attributed the relaxed, peaceful state I achieved post-riding to the wonder of horses. There was a lot of truth in that. But eventually I realized that for me, riding was a moving meditation.
Why Should I Do This Crazy Hard Thing?
There are many types of meditation, but to be clear, I’m focusing on mindfulness meditation. One goal of mindfulness meditation is maintaining focus on one thing, such as your breath. By focusing only on one thing, our busy, monkey brains get a break from the incessant background chatter our thoughts generate. Your exhausted brain gets to put its feet up and kick back for a little while, and maybe even get a massage.
Mind you, success at meditation is not freeing your mind of thoughts. It’s noticing that they’re happening, but returning to your meditation focus. Over, and over, and over. Like gently supervising a wayward toddler. Even super-experienced meditators can only go maybe a minute without a thought intruding. The average person? About 18 seconds.
Meditation is easier for some than others. Lawyers usually find it on par with sprouting wings and flying.
So why on earth should you even try something crazy hard like meditating? You’re already overwhelmed with crap you need to get done. The thought of adding one more thing to your day makes you want to curl up in a ball and rock in a corner, right?
Here’s the thing: Anxiety makes you wildly inefficient. Your brain becomes less able to think when marinated in anxiety.
Sure, you’re putting in hours, so of course that means you’re wildly productive, right? Problem is, you are like that guy at the bar who insists, after 3 beers in an hour, that he is FINE to drive. And everyone sober around him takes one look at him and says, “Dude, you are so not fine!”
The ability to make good decisions—as in, what to include in an agreement, or what to say (and not say) in an email—declines precipitously when your brain is anxious.
Your Reasons for Not Meditating Are Horseshit
So I know you’re thinking, “Well meditation sounds like a good idea for reducing anxiety, for other people. I’ve tried it, and I can’t do it.”
Let me translate that for you: “I’ve tried meditation a few times, and my mind was always drifting. So I gave up, because obviously after a few tries it’s clear I can’t do this.”
It’s a good thing you didn’t believe that failing three times meant you could never learn to walk, huh?
Trust me, you’re not a special snowflake here. You’ve just convinced yourself that:
- You have no capacity for learning or expanding your ability at things you are not innately good or talented at doing;
- You’re wasting time trying to just sit and breathe. You have important things to do! Other people are depending on you!
- Everyone will know you’re a fraud if you keep trying to do something you can’t do really well right away, including meditation.
Or maybe you have another silver-plated reason? Whatever it is, I promise you it is 100% horseshit.
Get a Guide
I do find it difficult to keep focused on my own, so I finally decided to act like I live in 2018 and find an app for meditating. I’ve been trying a few, and the one that works pretty well for me is Calm. (And no, they’re not paying me to say this.)
All of these apps are free for a basic version. All of them require a subscription to get much more than paltry basics, which frankly annoys me. Of course, paying $60/year is much cheaper than even one class with someone who teaches meditation. So there’s that.
I encourage you to experiment with meditation, either on your own, with an app, or taking a class. If you need more encouragement than me wagging my virtual finger at you, consider this, which I know can be said about most attorneys:
Many people have lived in an anxious state for so long that they don’t know any other feeling so they are unaware that they are suffering from persistent anxiety. Recognizing anxiety isn’t easy in these types of situations however identifying its red flags is a good way to start. Are you pessimistic about the most innocuous situations to the point where it keeps you from taking risks? Do you find your mind racing to what possible negative outcomes there could be? Do you immediately attribute some external circumstance to a positive outcome that could be seen as the result of your efforts? If your answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then you may suffer from persistent anxiety.
—Roger Gil, MAMFT (emphasis added)
If this description doesn’t fit you, I am impressed. Most attorneys I know are living embodiments of this quote.
What You’re Really After
The goal of meditation isn’t to rid your mind of thoughts. Instead, what you’re really after is a little separation between you and your thoughts. Instead of dancing cheek to cheek, maybe you do a line dance with them instead.
Through meditating, you can observe your thoughts and emotions, before you leap into (re)action. If you let yourself observe, and not overreact, your life gets calmer.
Maybe if you observe that you’re frequently thinking, “I hate my job,” or, “I want to do something so much more creative than this crapola,” you can decide to act on that. Or you can see that anxious thoughts about money, disappointing people, or fear that you’re not enough tend to dominate.
Whatever it is, being able to notice, but not react immediately, is freeing as hell. You become less hostage to your emotions, and instead they inform you, and help you see what you need to do, or not do, next.
Sounds like a good place to be when you want to make a big, possibly scary, change, right?
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys and creatives to unearth their callings in life. She has been known to wag her finger at clients about the need to meditate, so they can tap into their real dreams. Email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a sample session, and get some clarity on what you are longing to do.