When I was a child, I remember climbing onto my grandmother’s tallest bar stool so I could watch her bake. Back then, kitchen counters felt as tall as mountains compared to my small stature. I was captivated by how she gently sifted the flour by hand, how the homemade dough took form as her hands kneaded it with care, and how each ingredient would fold into the others to create the cookies that would later bake in the oven and cool on the counter, their sweet smell wafting throughout the house.
My grandmother is no longer with us, but her recipes live on in her own handwriting: “one scoop from my yellow coffee mug,” “one pinch” from my grandmother’s hands, they read. We’ve tried to recreate her famous cookies, yet they never seem to taste quite the same.
Her homemade cookies — much like our families, the offices we work in, our profession, and our social structures — are wholes made up of their individual parts. Just as my grandmother’s cookies are made up of each carefully selected ingredient, our systems are similarly made up of each individual operating within them; they are not self-sustaining, but rather a larger reflection of their concentric parts.
Often in lawyer well-being movements, the focus is on the individual. They tend to ask how we can increase individual productivity or reduce individual stress, anxiety, or burnout. This is how my personal journey toward well-being and my PhD research on the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in the law began: by asking myself how I could continue to do the work I cared about without sacrificing my mental and physical health in the process. As my work and research progressed, my perspective also broadened in a way that was transformative. I began to notice just how many small, but powerful, opportunities there were to redirect my energy or attention. I found hopeful possibilities that had previously been buried in the noise of an unquiet mind and an overstimulating world.
Rather than remaining disempowered and beholden to circumstances beyond my control, I intentionally began to shift my focus to what I could control and how I could effect positive change beyond just myself in doing so. There are so many opportunities all around us to participate in positive change — opportunities for acts of kindness, gratitude, and compassion.
This is what Gandhi, who was a lawyer first and a social justice activist second, was referring to when he asked us to “be the change” we want to see in the world. He was promoting a levels-of-change philosophy that begins first with the individual, then extends to their interpersonal or inter-group units, and lastly informs the structures of which they are a part and actively shapes them through their participation.1 We are all a part of something greater than ourselves, and the larger “wholes” of the world are a reflection of those individual “parts.” As with my grandmother’s cookies, we are each one vital ingredient in what makes up this social recipe. In many ways, this is the substance of hope, not blind idealism. This is a choice that we make within, continuously and intentionally, in the face of adversity. It is a way of being that requires courage and strength.
Often, we comment on the state of the world, our profession, or our society as though they exist outside of us, rather than something we play an integral part in. Seeking to effect positive social change often feels just like staring up at my grandmother’s counters as a child. The challenges loom as tall as mountains and sometimes seem impossible to see over. When we shift our perspective and give ourselves a different view, when we climb toward a new vantage point in our mind’s eye, we can begin to see just how many opportunities for positive change are open to us — even in the midst of great challenges. We then also can see just how much each of us is needed in this effort. Lawyers, in particular, are uniquely situated to shift the structures, institutions, and value orientations of the larger systems of which they are a part. The theory of my dissertation is that it is not only important to heal ourselves as individuals — because we are worthy of that care and because it improves our performance in all of the professional and personal roles that we occupy — but also that when we heal as individuals, our individual healing extends to the inter-groups and systems of which we are a part. Systems, families, offices, and professional cultures are only going to be as healthy as the people operating within them. My grandmother’s cookies are only going to be as I remember them when they are prepared by her, with her ingredients, and in the unique way that she prepared them, because they are also a whole made up of their parts.
There are many pathways toward social healing and reform, but I’d like to offer some of what I’ve learned along my own journey, particularly as it relates to mindfulness-based interventions:
- Mindfulness is not just meditation: It’s a practice in paying attention, without judgment, to the present moment. It can take place anywhere and at any time.
- It’s noticing how you’re breathing throughout the day and noticing when your breath is fast and shallow. It’s choosing to breathe more deeply to calm your nervous system and engage neural receptors in the lower lobes of your lungs, which then communicate to your mind and body that it can rest and relax. This process helps us to engage the cognitive systems of reason in our mind as opposed to allowing ourselves to be hijacked by fight-or-flight responses.2
- It’s noticing when your emotional state starts to feel inadequately regulated and, rather than simply reacting, choosing more intentionally how you want to respond (a measure in emotional intelligence).
- It’s getting curious about what matters most to you and what brings you alive with purpose. It’s being thoughtful about where you direct your time, energy, and resources so they are in alignment with the awareness you uncover.
I often share that there was a time when I viewed mindfulness as a soft skill that I didn’t have the time for. I spent most of my energy trying to will myself into maintaining forward momentum, not acknowledging the toll that engaging with systems and people (that aren’t always kind or just) can take on the mind, body, and spirit. We can do this, to some degree, above the shoulders. Eventually, our bodies will keep the score, as they say. I’ve since learned:
- Simply becoming more mindful of the quality of our breath can dramatically and positively impact our minds and bodies. See my article “Breathing for Wellness” in the July/August 2021 Michigan Bar Journal for practical exercises and more on why how we breathe matters.3
- Mindful deep-breathing practices can help reduce stress and the harm it causes to our relationships and our ability to communicate effectively. It also impacts the state of our nervous systems, which also affects how optimistically or pessimistically we perceive the world around us.4
- Mindfulness practices have been shown to increase emotional intelligence, and more emotionally intelligent lawyers are statistically more likely to be successful, outperform production and revenue expectations, report increased client satisfaction, and have lower healthcare and liability costs.5
- Stress reduces our ability to be present with our friends, families, colleagues, and clients. It also reduces our empathy and our ability to approach situations with the proper perspective — key ingredients in successful mediation, negotiation, and the administration of justice.6
- Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help increase kindness and compassion. It also has been shown to reduce both cognitive and behavioral bias toward ourselves and others.7
Lastly, chronic exposure to systems and human trauma that leave us feeling unable to do what we know is morally right causes a phenomenon referred to as “moral distress.” This can lead to feelings of powerlessness, pessimism, emotional exhaustion, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, and decreased capacity for empathy. Those feelings can lead to burnout, distress, and other mental health-related suffering — which we see so frequently in our field.8
As a legal aid attorney who has represented victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, helped clients facing the loss their homes during the pandemic, and witnessed firsthand the human effects of systemic inequity, I can attest to the toll this practice takes. My personal experience is why I view lawyer well-being as a crucial component of professional responsibility as well as an important influence on the systems of which we are a part.
I leave you with what I’ve learned along the way and offer these final perspective shifts:
- We’re human beings, not just humans doing, and a mindfulness practice helps us to more deeply examine not just how we are doing in the world externally, but how we are being internally. Moreover, my experience was that my doing improved when I chose to pay more attention to how well I was being.
- Like my grandmother’s cookies, there are no wholes that aren’t made up of their individual parts. If, as Gandhi suggested, we start with ourselves and enough individual parts shift, we can create a recipe for positive change together that can shift the greater whole. One example of this in research showed that when we’re happy, it spreads to three degrees of separation beyond ourselves.9 In other words, kindness is contagious and has a cascading effect on social networks.10 I often think of this when it feels hard to imagine how my one, often unseen, ingredient in the recipe can heighten or sink the whole batch of cookies, so to speak.
- Lastly, as Robert F. Kennedy noted, these numberless, diverse acts of courage and beliefs shape human history; they are tiny ripples of hope, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy, that together build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.11
We are all needed to build a movement toward greater well-being and make our profession, our lives, and our experience as “human beings” better. It starts with us, and I’m grateful to be a part of this whole with you.