Bar News - January 21, 2015
Opinion: Mind-full v. Mindful: Reflections for a New Year
By: Leah A. Plunkett
Lawyers and law students are a busy breed, always thinking about – in the words of rock star Bob Seger – “deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out.” Some of this obsession with planning and work is not only necessary but also beneficial for the successful study and practice of law. Whether preparing for a final exam or a hearing, aspiring and practicing lawyers alike need to be vigilant about the timelines and other logistical and substantive requirements imposed on us.
There is a risk, however, in having minds so full of tasks and logistics that we aren’t mindful of the need to be grounded in the present moment. We can lose focus on what is happening in the here and now. We can find ourselves overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious – states of being that can further cloud our awareness of the world around us and make us less effective at the very thing we are trying to accomplish: professional success.
So what’s the solution? Conventional wisdom holds that we should treat the scourge of full minds with its opposite: recreation and vacation. “Take a break and re-charge,” one colleague might say to another. “You’ll come back feeling better.” Implicit in this response are two flawed assumptions: (1) you can take care of yourself or you can work, but you can’t do both; and (2) you can only take care of yourself when you’re cutting loose somehow, like hitting the ski slopes or the beach.
It is crucial that we correct these often unconscious errors in our thought process. For us to remain grounded in daily life, as well as to thrive professionally, self-care has to be an integral part of our routines, not an afterthought for weekends or breaks. And it has to mean something deeper than getting away from it all. It has to mean recognizing that everything we need to nurture ourselves is within our grasp at any given moment, if we just know where to look. It has to mean mindfulness – taking an honest, careful look at the world around us and within us without trying to control or order what we see.
Mindfulness – according to US Congressman Tim Ryan, a UNH Law grad and author of A Mindful Nation – is “about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment.” Professor Leonard Riskin of the University of Florida College of Law notes that “‘mindfulness’ carries many meanings... [but] it generally refers to a deliberate, present-moment non-judgmental awareness of whatever passes through the five senses and the mind – to simplify: emotions, thoughts, and body sensations.”
Indeed, across the country, law schools and bar associations are starting to recognize the value of mindfulness practices to decrease stress, improve focus, and enhance personal wellbeing – as well as professional success. A lawyer who takes a break at lunchtime to meditate isn’t losing billable time – she’s de-cluttering her mind, strengthening her ability to think clearly and better solve her clients’ problems. A law student who braves the freezing air to take a pre-dawn walk isn’t wasting valuable study time – he’s giving his body and mind time to breathe before tackling the lessons of the day with renewed energy and fresh perspective.
As we return from the holidays and face the depths of winter – perhaps already looking ahead to the fresh powder or sparkling sand that awaits us on our next break – it becomes particularly pressing for us to transform our understanding of what it means to take care of ourselves so that we can evolve from being mind-full to mindful.
Leah A. Plunkett
Leah A. Plunkett is an associate professor of legal skills and director of the Academic Success Program at UNH School of Law. She is a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.