Yesterday I finished one of those 500-calorie-a-day diets. Lying in bed this morning I notice that after five weeks of deprivation I still have a belly. It’s smaller but it’s definitely there. It occurs to me that now what I need is Pilates, or more dieting, because my body is still not perfect and I really want to look like Jennifer Lopez when she struts on stage in American Idol. Then I’ll feel great.
This is the tail end of a reverie that began at 5:30 a.m. when I woke up and considered doing a long meditation. Then I considered whether my movie-star-clients will follow my advice with their building, what to pack for Big Sur, my to-do list, whether my boyfriend will ever propose, renovating the basement, the rain, salmon vs. halibut for dinner, how righteously indignant I feel about my ex, the rain (again), a car alarm, a cup of tea, Zen priest Norman Fischer’s meditation instruction to pay attention to the body, my body lying in the bed, my belly and, finally, replacing J-Lo on American Idol. At 6:30 I opened my eyes from my ‘meditation.’
Being a lawyer, my first thought was, is that the best you can do? And then, yes, actually, today, it is. But it’s pretty good. Here’s what I’d done: I had seen for myself that Norman’s instruction only sounds simple. In fact it’s really hard because the way the mind works, it just doesn’t want to pay attention. Instead, when I pay attention to my body all sorts of static comes up (see above). I want to pay attention to my sit-bones in the chair, my posture, my breath. But my untrained mind naturally veers off into thinking (instead), my butt’s still too big, my back’s stiff, that catch in my breath must be cancer. Self-criticism, suffering and fear – that’s my mind all right.
Do you ever have that?
I’m never going to look like Jennifer Lopez. What I am going to do though, for a few minutes now that I know the nature of my mind, is to train my mind just a little bit by taking a breath, seeing the wanting to look like J.Lo part, and letting go of that. No judgment here either: I mean really, what woman’s mind doesn’t go there?
Of course what I’m really doing is much more subtle, and powerful. I’m training myself to: (i) take a breath, (ii) see how my mind wants to grab for that fabulous bod, (iii) notice it’s just my mind desiring something – and how often desire drives me, and (iv) let it go. Like Norman’s instruction, it’s a simple task but not easy. But it’s so very useful. Because once I learn it, when I notice wanting to be done with a memo I’ve barely started, I can breathe, acknowledge desire, and let go. Or when I notice wanting to hang up on a screaming opponent, I can take a breath and let that go, too, and maybe finish the conversation with grace, or at least tolerance.
Try it some time. It frees up all kinds of mental energy that is otherwise devoted to wanting. It makes space to be curious about the cases you’re reading and the rhetoric you’re crafting, the insane tone of voice on the other end of the line and your own clenched gut. It quiets things down. My friend Peter Arcese, a terrific New York City lawyer and meditator, once defined peace as the bird who touches down on a tiny ledge in the middle of a raging waterfall and calmly proceeds to make her nest. Paying attention and letting go create that kind of peace in the middle of practicing law.
Tibetan meditation teacher Pema Chodron says true ferocity means facing the moment-to-moment experiences of our lives – and what are we lawyers if not ferocious? Yet when we peer into the experience of practicing law and see how really hard it is, we want to do anything but pay attention. There’s just too much self-criticism, suffering and fear.
Then again what choice do we have? We can keep calm and carry on, ignoring our experience – and end up having missed out on our lives. Or we can feel our lives like a storm, energizing at times but also frightening as hell. Both are hard but at least behind door number two we’re here for the storm.
And there’s an added benefit: compassion. When we’re paying attention – when the wind is whipping us down the street and the howl is deafening – we get to have the presence of mind to know, wow, it’s great to win but it’s awful to fight so much, and hard to work so much, and twisted to live in perpetual conflict. We get to notice our ragged breath and feel our flabby bellies and at least know they’re ours.
And out of compassion comes wisdom: the wisdom of seeing our minds at work; the wisdom to face into the storm; the wisdom of choosing peace, right in the middle of chaos. The wisdom of knowing what’s smart and what’s kind, in conference, in court and at home. Isn’t that what we really want?