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A Transformative Mindful Lawyering Retreat

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On one hand I can count my especially unexpected transformative experiences. The first may have been my 1991 chance bumping into my life peace mentor and friend Jun Yasuda. The next was fourteen years later when I met my wife. The most recent was this past long weekend at the Mindful Lawyering retreat at New York’s Garrison Institute.

Repeatedly talking the talk of mindfulness, I immediately signed up for the Mindful Lawyering retreat. I registered mainly to continue my mindfulness practice, to meet great Zen teacher Norman Fischer, and to have a further understanding about the lawyers mindfulness movement. As recently as the third of three and one-half days, I told my wife I was wondering how necessary it was that we were being silent at all times other than talking up to fifteen minutes daily to participate in group discussions, and for me to check in daily with my wife and son.

And then we returned for our post-dinner session that night and for our breaking of silence the final morning on Sunday, and the great benefits of the experience hit me, when Norman Fischer (hear his podcasts, and read his quotes and one of his articles) led a simple but profoundly powerful exercise that he called a practice of love — apparently covered in his book on compassion, which I need to take from my dusty Kindle bookshelf — in compassionate breathing- in the suffering of all people, including ourselves, and compassionately breathing-out the suffering in a breath of similar length. He learned this practice from Pema Chodron, knew the exercise might stir controversy, but nevertheless pursued this exercise that was probably the most important defining moment for me at the retreat, even though I did not realize it at the time. Try it when you are about to yell or blow up at someone or go into an emotional tailspin. It is better than counting to ten. It is better than merely hugging oneself.

Here could be an apt place to conclude my story, but I feel it important to provide more insight;

– Over sixty lawyers from various parts of the country, and also three European countries, joined this conference. The attendees included a judge; law professors; numerous private practice lawyers from corporate law firms, small firms and solo firms; criminal defense lawyers in private practice and public defender practice; family law practitioners; mediators; and a solo practitioner working to protect sacred Native American sites from such degradation as environmental incursions; and many long-practicing private practitioners. Many have been practicing mindfulness or over a decade or two.

– The retreat was led voluntarily on a dana-giving basis by Norman Fischer (here at 2013 mindful lawyering conference, and here at Google in 2008), longtime lawyer mindfulness proponent and pioneer Charlie Halpern, and longtime mediation teacher Nikki Mirghafori doing a guided meditation here, including talking of the power of being on the meditating cushion).

– Unlike the 2012 contemplative lawyers retreat I attended, which involved silence around half the time, in the Theravada Buddhist tradition the Garrison retreat involved the ninety percent silence referenced above, and strong encouragement to limit reading and note-taking, and to unplug cellphones, which from Friday to Sunday I left in my car and only used to call my wife and son daily. The focus was to learn better how to be present with ourselves, to calm our minds, and therefore to create the space we need to tackle any otherwise seemingly extraordinary conflict, time pressure, and other challenge.

– In introducing myself the first night, I said that criminal defense is combat, my taijiquan practice is integral to that combat, and mindfulness is integral to both, so I attended to further my mindfulness practice.

– Two and one half days later, we broke the silence in a large circle, all giving one word to best describe our retreat experience. Many said presence, calm, and other words. Some said love. I recognized that love really did best sum up my experience. Compassion and lovingkindness for oneself and all (we are all connected, so must at once attend to ourselves and others) is essential to mindfulness, and love drives compassion. Most importantly, the love my wife, son and I have for each other is paramount for me, and strengthens me in all ways. Garrison’s communications director offered participants to be photographed with their selected descriptive word, and here I am.

– After we all gave one word to describe our retreat experience and departed the circle, one of the participants approached me and said she heard me talking the first night about being a warrior and on this day focusing on love, and she saw that is who I really was. Ordinarily keeping all my composure during my workday and in court , in the sea of feelings from being silent for the longest time in my talking life and in this trusting cocoon of similarly-minded lawyers, I became very emotional, not only because I knew and know how important it is to keep that power and powerful softness of love, but also because I had finally felt this transformation from the retreat, because I had finally transitioned out of silence, and because she saw this as the true me, not just as my imagination. This fellow lawyer offered me a hug, which harkened back to the 1995 Trial Lawyers College, and was just right at the moment.

– This retreat underlined the essential space, clarity, and wuwei non-action results from applying mindfulness.

– My wife and son supported my being away this many days well into Mothers Day, and my wife told me she immediately experienced and sensed my very positive energy change on my return.

Deeply thanking and bowing to my wife and son (and hugging them) for our mutual support; teachers Norman, Nikki, and Charlie for their great teaching and caring; and all attendees at the Mindful Lawyering retreat, who together have already formed a community of lawyers showing that mindfulness is essential to lawyering and all other human endeavors.