The Anxious Lawyer
An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and
Satisfying Law Practice Through
Mindfulness and Meditation
By Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford
November 2017 Bar Bulletin
By Dainen Penta
“Oh, s/he just makes me want to tear my hair out!” How many times have you said something like this, silently, or even out loud, after hanging up from a particularly harrowing phone call with a client, or after receiving a frustrating email from opposing counsel in a contentious case?
For California bankruptcy attorney Jeena Cho, the stress of practicing law caused her hair to begin falling out in clumps, on top of insomnia, back pain and constant headaches. Later Cho would be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder; all of this just a few short years after achieving her dream of becoming a lawyer. Stress unacknowledged was internalized and took a heavy toll on Cho.
Cho’s quest to find healthy ways to cope with the anxiety and stress combined with a desire to avoid taking prescription antidepressants led Cho to discover the many benefits of a mindfulness and meditation practice. In writing The Anxious Lawyer, Cho and her co-author Karen Gifford have given a gift to those lawyers willing to read this book and accept the gift within — permission to acknowledge that practicing law brings with it a great deal of anxiety and stress, and to recognize that self-care is necessary and vital to our well-being.
Cho and Gifford take their book a step further, though, and The Anxious Lawyer also serves as a nuts-and-bolts practical guide to an 8-week program. This book helped me easily implement and integrate a mindfulness and meditation practice into my life. Throughout The Anxious Lawyer,” Cho and Gifford dispel stereotypes about meditation (it’s not just practiced by hippies at some Southwestern mountain retreat), and discuss the vast body of research showing that meditation offers tangible benefits for everyone.
My own personal journey to meditation began several years ago while I was working for an unsupportive boss at what felt like a dead-end job. The stress and rigors of practice led me to seek relief in numerous unhealthy coping habits, such as turning to alcohol. A friend invited me to an “energy meditation” group. I was skeptical at first, wondering if I was about to hold hands with a circle of people chanting “ohm” and burning patchouli.
Fortunately for my patchouli-averse nose, the group was 100-percent patchouli-free. Most of the group members had mainstream jobs that did not involve selling illegal substances from the back of a VW bus. Each session began with a brief orientation so newcomers wouldn’t feel out of the loop, and then after a short recitation and visualization exercise, the core meditation session began.
In The Anxious Lawyer, Cho and Gifford explain several phenomena I experienced in the meditation group, such as that while meditating you may feel like you are falling asleep. This is not alarming and should not be judged as a negative thing, since while meditating, entering a dream-like state is common.
Science indicates the brain is at this point in a “theta wave” state of activity. More importantly, if we are falling asleep, Cho and Gifford ask the simple question: Are we getting enough sleep? Many of us are not, even though sleep is regenerative and rejuvenating.
Throughout the book, the authors kindly remind us to be gentle with ourselves and not to become fixated on meditating the “right” or “wrong” way, and to not chastise or beat ourselves up over what we think we could be doing better. Be kind with yourself. The authors offer not just their expertise, but also guided exercises for “on the cushion” meditations and “off the cushion” exercises. The focus of meditation, according to the authors, is to become aware of and identify emotions, feelings and thoughts, and to recognize that they are only that — emotions, feelings and thoughts.
Meditation and mindfulness help us learn to be present in the moment. For lawyers, and especially lawyers in today’s technology-laden world, when we are present in the moment, we are better able to focus on the task at hand. Quit checking your email so often. This is one of the ways The Anxious Lawyer teaches us that meditation can be beneficial for lawyers who want to increase their mental clarity and efficiency in the workplace.
Another core theme of the book is that meditation and mindfulness are a form of self-care. Many lawyers entered the legal profession because they wanted to help others. However, compassion fatigue is real and burnout in the legal profession is common. Cho references the emergency instructions given on an airplane: “Secure your own oxygen mask, before assisting others.”
We often forget to “just breathe.” But The Anxious Lawyer wasn’t the first time I had encountered the concept of diaphragmatic breathing in my own life. The first time? High school band, where keeping large volumes of air moving through my clarinet produced a better sound, even if it made me slightly winded.
If you take away nothing else from The Anxious Lawyer, the authors’ writings on “Getting Ready to Meditate” are perhaps the easiest to do even if one has fallen out of the habit of regular meditation (I strive to meditate daily, but at best am up to about two or three times a week). The authors describe the short, shallow breaths we’ve all taken when we are nervous, stressed or anxious. My chest feels so tight. Why? Becoming conscious of our state begins with being aware of our breathing patterns.
Breath, then, can be a bridge to having an awareness of our bodies, another area The Anxious Lawyer covers. The authors ease us in after breath exercises with a “body scanning” exercise. While the name may bring images to mind of what space-invading aliens might want to do to us, in reality the exercise is a first step toward being mindful of one’s body.
The exercise prepares the mind to connect with different parts of the body. For lawyers, this lesson is key: How easy is it to become consumed with work and to lose touch with our bodies? How many times have we remarked on a colleague, especially a law school classmate, who has succumbed to the horror that is “lawyer body?” Cho and Gifford recommend regular movement and exercise to assist in being in touch with our bodies.
Perhaps due to my prior experience with meditation, I read through The Anxious Lawyer in far fewer than eight weeks. The book has guided audio meditations, in case like me you find it difficult to read and turn the page while meditating. Cho has also recorded several guided meditations on a smartphone app called “Insight Timer,” which I use regularly and find to be an invaluable tool and resource.
Cho and Gifford also discuss mantra repetition, because mantras help calm the mind and aid concentration, and can help the mind enter into a meditative state. Mantras give the mind something to do “rather than engage in its usual patterns, which often involve repetitive and unhelpful cycles of thought.” My mantra is “tacos.” Unfortunately this means my meditation is filled with peaceful thoughts of eating.
Perhaps the greatest insight into just how easy it is to try meditation, is that the book comes with a road map. Again, the first exercise of the book, one that every lawyer can start with and that is the base of all meditation, is simply to breathe. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. The Anxious Lawyer reminds us that deep breathing, or “diaphragmatic breathing,” can help relax us and serve a therapeutic purpose.
For any lawyer who is struggling with finding calm in the storm of daily life and for help dealing with the stresses of practicing law, I recommend The Anxious Lawyer to you as an excellent, quick and focused read. It improved my life, and I know it will improve yours.