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Non-attachment: An essential practice

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– One day I was speaking with a law school professor, and asked if he knew a particular person from his home town. Know him? The professor exclaimed: "What a pr*ck."

– With difficult judges, trial master Steve Rench applies the basic and effective lesson of the magic mirror. If a judge knows s/he has a poor reputation with lawyers, that presents all the more reason for the lawyer to empty the mind of any such thoughts, and to give the judge a clean slate that day. Oversimplistically, it is like trying to find the thorn in the lion’s sole and to pull it out, rather than trying to slay the lion.

– A person arrives home one evening, looking forward to be greeted by her dog, and instead the dog starts angrily attacking her, and never changes from thereon in. How does the person avoid feeling devastated?

In the foregoing three scenarios, the person being affected by the challenging situation has an opportunity to attach to the image of a reprehensible person, an impossible judge, and a dog turned bad. Similarly, the affected person has the opportunity to empty the mind, the feelings, and the vessel, in order to acknowledge that we are all connected in one way or another, that it is difficult to compartmentalize a single person or non-human animal as awful or great, and that true happiness is not found by searching for it externally. How else can one win in the courtroom, in the battlefield, and in life by doing anything other than working towards such non-attachment?

T’ai chi teaches non-attachment in terms of harmonizing an imbalanced situation rather than about vilifying and trying to decimate the opponent. Buddhism covers non-attachment through non-dualism, including the concepts of no birth/no death, no coming/no going, and no increase/no decrease. The more we give up our desires and the more we give up our expectations of others, the more we can successfully practice non-attachment. And therein lies the rub. How can one deeply love another without feeling attachment? How powerful can people be if they feel no love? How can one immerse himself or herself into years of academic study, years of a work project, and years of investing one’s assets and still feel no attachment when the heart is shattered, the academic study bears no diploma, and the investing collapses? That may be easy for someone content to live in a cave without possessions and ready to do a good deed for parentless lion cubs by donating his or her flesh to them so they may eat another meal. But what does everyone else do?

It is hard to live without attachment to anything. On the other hand, too many people are too attached to their bodies, to the point that many will rush to plastic surgeons to fight aging, let alone fighting against their own ultimate mortality. Too many people are attached to the fear of a roller coaster even when it is clear that the roller coaster at worst might turn the stomach. Too many people are attached to their comfort zone. Too many people are attached to anger. Non-attachment to youth, the illusion of immortality, comfort, fear, fear of death, and anger are very achievable levels of non-attachment, but certainly far from easy to reach.

When I began practicing criminal defense eighteen years ago, I was angry at the criminal justice system that inflicted so much injustice. I was dumbfounded that even a lawyer for animal rights causes had no interest in hearing my deep reservations about prosecuting after he recommended that one could not beat being an assistant United States attorney if I wanted to get on the path of criminal defense. I was jolted to reality when I learned how many criminal defense lawyers do not see themselves as crusaders for any cause rather than as advocating as best they can for each client. All of this was attachment.

Practicing t’ai chi in the courtroom reminds me of a scene from a World War II movie where an American soldier, hidden from view of his opponents, guns down opposing soldier after opposing soldier, calmly chomping on his unlit cigar at every step of the way. As much as we must be sensitive about any violence, had this soldier lost his calm to anger, fear or yelling, he would have been a dead duck. His calmness, together with his shooting skill, gave him strength. So much for anti-tobacco crusades. This fictitious character’s cigar holds deep meaning for me.

I have talked often about the benefit of being calm in the eye of the storm. However, no matter how important is such calmness to being powerful in court, one must also learn and develop mind power, practice peaceful combat, and know the case and applicable law as thoroughly as possible. This idea was underlined yesterday when I followed a Saturday morning of t’ai chi form and push hands practice on Capitol Hill with. for the first time, a Sunday morning of the summer weekly t’ai chi gathering at Carderock park. Around twenty people showed up to practice the t’ai chi form; push hands; and t’ai chi sword, saber, and spear, which I have not yet practiced.

At this Carderock gathering, for push hands/sensing hand, the group splits into two facing horizontal lines. Through rotation, each person on one side of the line gets an opportunity to practice sensing hands with each person on the opposite side of the line.

I said to one of the practitioners who seemed to have particularly excellent skill that I did not want him to go easy with me. When he offered me his arm to push, I had trouble pushing it much. When he offered for me to push against his upper body, I had trouble doing that, and felt his ability to dissipate his gravity. When he took the offensive, so to speak, he repeatedly pushed me off my stance and off any root I had to the ground. This practice showed how far people can achieve by emptying the vessel and trusting in the power of relaxation and correct martial arts practice. As a fellow practitioner recently said, fifteen years of deep t’ai chi practice can yield tremendous results.

As it happened, the next person I pushed hands with also had a similarly high t’ai chi ability. The two of them finally demonstrated to me how the second one could move the first one’s arm. Key here, as I understand, is developing the ability to truly sense the opponent, to fully relax in order to reduce the ability of the opponent to find a center of gravity to push against, to root one’s body into the ground, and to send one’s energy from the ground into the rest of one’s body, to be fearless of any attack, and to be in the moment.

Seeing that I have far still to achieve on the never-ending path of t’ai chi, is it worth pursuing? Absolutely. Through my fourteen years of t’ai chi practice and recent increase and focus on my daily practice, I feel more calmly powerful than ever, to the point that I less often feel anger and tension towards prosecutors who at first blush seem to be urinating on the Constitution, but where — at least with some of whom — do not realize nor intend that they sprung a leak in the first place. With no energy drain from such anger or tension, I can focus my strength on where it counts, and diffuse any efforts by opponents to create sideshows that detract from the focus of my argument and evidentiary presentation.

Where only several years ago I might have flipped the bird in response, a few days ago I calmly hit my brakes hard to avoid an otherwise certain collision in front and back when a car darted in front of me from a side street.

I continue practicing t’ai chi not only to become a better persuading lawyer, but a better person, and not only to become a better and healthier person, but because it is addictive, in a good way. As the late t’ai chi master T.T. Liang proclaimed in his t’ai chi book, the more one practices t’ai chi, the more one wants to keep practicing it.

Non-attachment is the way. Jon Katz.