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How to Apply a Mindful Lawyering Retreat to One’s Daily Life?

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From last Friday morning to yesterday lunchtime, I unplugged from email and the phone except for a handful of communications with my family and office, for the apparently first Cultivating Balance law world retreat at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York, where anything but urgent cellphone and email communications were off limits, so that we could focus on being in the present and unhurried moment.

I attended — as did forty others, mostly practicing lawyers, a few law students, and two lawyers and a nurse who have studied with Thich Nhat Hanh as teachers — for the same reason that I turned to taijiquan nearly eighteen years ago for mindfulness and martial arts and calmness practice. I turned to calmness in taijiquan after having been an angry human rights activist in college and law school, and an angry criminal defense lawyer, angry at the governments and people who wrongfully dehumanize and step on people, and angry at the systemic nature of it all. When I started studying and practicing taijiquan, I recognized that all my anger at the forces of injustice was eating me out so badly that it was weakening me in the fight for justice. Similarly, Lama Surya Das became dissatisfied merely engaging in anti-Vietnam war protests when he did not feel sufficient peace within himself. He ultimately went to India and, like Ram Dass, spent substantial time with Neem Karoli Baba, learning to love himself and others and to be in the now.

By now, I have learned that there is no out there for the mind. If I am not at peace, how can I expect others to be at peace? If I do not reduce my own internal suffering over all the injustice and imbalance that I perceived in the world, how can others eliminate their suffering, with suffering often leading to actions that cause others to suffer? If I am not fully committed to and working hard for true justice, how can I expect others to do the same? My positive and negative actions are mirrored in others, affect others, inspire or repel others, and act as a domino effect on others.

Consequently, it is folly at best for me to insist that others clean up their own acts without my working on my own self. My daily calmness and mindfullness practice of taijiquan helps keep me calm in the eye of the storm. My occasional sitting meditation practice, done in groups with such great teachers as Tara Brach (Wednesday evenings in Bethesda, Maryland) and Sharon Salzberg (monthly in Washington, D.C.) helps me in my calmness and mindfulness practice without needing to focus on the many achievements still left to develop in my martial/taijiquan practice, and without the competition that I feel within myself (and must shed, along with my ego) when practicing taijiquan with others and sparring with them.

Through a series of coincidences, whether divine or not, I learned the last few months that many lawyers, judges and others in the law field are practicing mindfulness, whether spiritually-based or not. I learned about the local Contemplative Law Group in Washington, D.C., that meets monthly to meditate and discuss their experiences, which meeting I am assisting in coordinating (my first meeting) for tomorrow, with a great expected turnout already. You are warmly invited. Details are here.

Mindfulness by now is in the mainstream in society, where it always has belonged. Here are some thoughts on what I experienced at the Cultivating Balance retreat, and how I and other attendees can apply it to our daily lives, and how non-attendees can apply it to theirs:

– The retreat schedule needs to be modified during workdays to reasonably fit in with my constantly active criminal defense law practice. At the retreat, I rose at 5:00 a.m. (a good time to rise during the workweek), joined group guided meditation at 5:30 a.m. with all monastics and laypeople staying at the monastery (a good deadline for starting morning taijiquan practice at home), proceeded after one-half hour to slow mindful indoor walking (which can be applied to any walking activity, including walking into a courtroom or to counsel table), and then followed with pre-breakfast free time for guided baton qigong practice, mindful outdoor walking, or any other activity (daily mindful practice for me will need to proceed from taijiquan to showering, eating breakfast and hitting the road).

– Waking through the end of breakfast is followed in noble silence, which is a wonderful meditative practice. People are well-connected with each other throughout the day, and smile, nod and bow to each other in acknowledgment during this silent time, and bow to each other before starting eating and before leaving the meal table. During the week, I can help this silence by not turning on music nor the radio, Internet nor email until later in the day, and by doing the same (together with no television) at least an hour before going to sleep. The radio does not need to stay on when I drive.

– I was on the breakfast cleanup crew — with all retreatants having light physical labor to do — clearing off the food from the breakfast line and scraping out the oatmeal and beans from their respective pots, and bringing the silverware trays to the industrial dishwasher. Everything is done with mindfulness, including rinsing off our own plates and silverware in a series of four water tubs, turning on lights and flushing the toilet (and wiping one’s butt, even). Haste makes waste. Mindfulness makes for clarity, simplification over feeling torn in all directions, and success. Everything I do during my workday needs to be done mindfully. No hurry no worry, says my former taijiquan teacher Len Kennedy, who as a former Sprint/Nextel general counsel after being a corporate law firm partner doubtlessly has had his own full work plate for substantial chunks of time. By uncluttering, the busy day of criminal defense practice becomes simpler and more successful to manage even when faced with tight deadlines, major battles, and people’s liberty and internal ups and downs.

– After breakfast, we proceeded to meditation, small group discussion and larger group discussion at the meditation hall. This is sangha practice, practice in community. In a world filled with plenty of people who do not consider nor practice mindfulness much if at all — and many who might scoff at the notion — the three wonderful leaders of the weekend focused us on the importance of continuing to practice mindfulness with birds of a feather, and to buddy up with at least one other lawyer following the mindfulness path, even if just to check up from time to time. I am fortunate that in the Washington, D.C., area we have sangha practice happening several times weekly at convenient evening hours — with one just five blocks from my office — plus the monthly Contemplative Law Group, and a monthly family sangha.

– We proceeded to a quiet mindful hike in the beautiful woods of the monastery, including passing a beautiful small gorge. Daily time in nature is essential.

– We ate lunch in noble silence. We ate mindfully, appreciating each mouthful, appreciating the people and circumstances that provide us our food, chewing slowly until the food is well chewed. Gone should be the times that I eat while multitasking with reading and walking down the street. I found myself satisfied with only one plate of food by this practice, whereas I often tended to eat significantly more. I felt no hunger pangs, and no desire to snack. As a bonus, all the food is delicious and vegan.

– We returned to the meditation hall, with guided mediation as we lay on our backs with our eyes closed. In the evening, it can be a wonderful practice for all members of the household to sit quietly together for at least five minutes as bedtime approaches. Going to sleep early and waking before sunrise are the recipe, and Ben Franklin knew it.

– We proceeded to discussion in smaller groups, listening deeply, not judging nor interrupting, and listening mindfully and speaking mindfully. People shared during the retreat why they came, what they were looking for there, and what they were achieving; and the leaders shared the same. With our clients and everyone else, speaking and listening mindfully is key. Doing everything mindfully is key. This is about strength, not weakness. If a client speaks a mile a minute with no end in sight, I can mindfully and gently note to him that at some point the meeting will need to end for me to attend to my next visitor on time or that at some point we need to decide a course of action about negotiations, trial planning, and a host of other matters.

– For us to take care of our clients and loved ones, we must also take care of ourselves, with compassion, love, and mindfulness.

– I look forward to judges and opposing lawyers joining mindful lawyer gatherings. I understand that a prosecutor may have been at the retreat, and am trying to find out who that is (with all the silent times, it was hard to do a shoutout for any prosecutor in our midst).

– We proceeded to dinner in noble silence. The nuns and monks integrate fully with the lay attendees at all times of day, including mealtimes, and assisting with the lawyers’ retreat sessions. At some point in the meal, a bell rings to open up quiet discussion if desired.

– Whenever a bell rings, whether by a human hand, a phone, or a clock, everyone stops, takes a mindful breath in and out, and proceeds. That is a wonderful thing to do before I answer the phone.

– We proceeded to the meditation hall for more meditation and then discussion, including getting a chance to ask two of the monastics questions. I asked how they handle disputes among themselves. They exist more than rarely, I learned, and of course they spoke of resolving them mindfully, and with the knowledge that they all live in community together.

– We started noble silence and went to our rooms, where noble silence starts at 9:30 p.m. I stayed in a simple room with two bunk beds and a single bed. I ended up having the room to myself the first night, and sharing it with another visitor the second night. Camping is also a great option. I read a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn for around thirty minutes, and got some shuteye.

– The next day began the same routine, except that I left after breakfast to take the multi-hour drive back, which included some substantial traffic jams, which provided me more opportunity to practice in mindfulness.

– I met up with my wife and son in downtown Washington, D.C., with all our spirits high. I am deeply grateful to them for supporting me being away for this retreat, when usually I am spending substantial time with them over the weekend. All three of us are into mindfulness.

– For me, keys to leading a fulfilling and successful professional life and personal life are mindfulness/being here now, peacefulness, uncluttering, achieving calm in the eye of the storm, non-attachment/non-dualism, and understanding mu/wu/nothingness.