Just as case law decided decades earlier still guides the outcome of cases today, our long history as peripatetic hunters and gatherers shapes our experiences today. The sympathetic nervous system, designed to trigger the “fight or flight” actions to help us survive when we become predators or prey, releases adrenaline when we are under stress. Our blood pressure and respiration rise, our muscles contract, our skin temperature drops and higher brain functions are impeded—despite the fact we’re not facing a life-killing predator, but instead remembering an overdue deadline or enduring a phone call with an upset client.
These responses are hardwired into us, deep below the level of conscious thought, an imperceptible seam joining action to reaction. While modern life has not only added to the menagerie of stressors—bad traffic, jammed public transit, financial and health burdens—the coping mechanisms it’s developed to help—alcohol, sweets, social media, shopping—can have deleterious long-term effects. Our culture excels at creating new triggers but provides little help in putting on the safety.
Little wonder then that mindfulness has emerged as the latest miracle cure for modern woes. Although it may seem as if the jokey mindfulness command to “don’t just do something—sit there!” is at odds with conquering law’s constant parade of deadlines, it can in fact be the key. For in practicing mindfulness, by learning to sit still and observe the rise and change in events inside and outside ourselves, we take that tiny seam between stressor and stress and pry it wider bit by bit. As that seam splits, we find within ourselves the space to act instead of just react. When guided by compassion and wisdom, acting mindfully can be crucial to acting ethically, the subject of the Paralegal Section’s upcoming conference.
Mindfulness is called “the practice” in part because the only way to be mindful in your day-to-day life is to take time out of that day to practice being mindful, to instill it as a reflex that will eventually give you peace from the chaotic jumble of all your other reflexes.
People mistakenly think the goal of mindfulness is to stop thinking or to empty your mind. But your mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum and will happily come up with five new thoughts for each one you (try to) banish. Thoughts are in their way like waves on the beach—simultaneously the same, different, and unceasing. You will likely get distracted by your thoughts during your mindfulness practice—you will most likely get distracted dozens and dozens of times, and you will most likely feel frustrated or feel like you are failing and that you have better things to do with your time than fail, such as hit deadline x or call client y.
But what’s important is to realize you are not failing. Every time you practice mindfulness, you are succeeding. Mindfulness teachers nowadays compare it to doing a rep—every time you turn your attention back to the practice, you are building the mindfulness muscle.
The practice of mindfulness may well nourish and enrich your practice of law, but first you must let it nourish you—minute by minute, second by second, breath by breath. If that sounds helpful to you, save the date and please join us on August 15, 2020 for ‘Ethics and Wellness,’ the Paralegal Section’s second annual conference.
About the Author:
Jeff Lester is the Word Processing Manager for Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, and Secretary for BASF’s Paralegal Section Executive Committee.