“Be mindful.” I hear it everywhere.
As a practicing dentist, I have seen it used in toothpaste ads as though “mindful brushing” will get people interested in their oral hygiene. It’s used so much that it can feel like an empty term. The person telling us to do it too often leaves out what it is or how it is accomplished.
I came to practice meditation and mindfulness after a long, hard road of disappointment. Like many of you, I was highly ambitious and exceptionally studious and looked at life as if it were a list of things to accomplish. I truly believed that when I checked all the boxes, I would be fulfilled and content. My list looked something like this: college, professional school, marriage, kids, buying a practice …
It petered out after that last one. After purchasing a dental practice, rather than feeling fulfilled and content, I found myself overwhelmed and burnt out. I must have had the wrong list, I decided. Knowing I couldn’t turn back time, I desperately added more boxes, more accomplishments that I hoped would bring it all together. Happiness was never in the present. It was always out there at some unknown future time that deep down I knew may never come. In moments when I couldn’t mask it by accumulating symbols of achievement, my outlook could be quite bleak.
Dentists and attorneys have a lot in common. We are highly educated, logical perfectionists. We are also among the most publicly vilified and misunderstood professionals.1 Early in my career, hearing “I hate the dentist” in all contexts of my professional and personal life certainly took a toll on my well-being. Likewise, I have several attorney friends who would be quite happy to never hear a tacky lawyer joke again.2 Also, attorneys and dentists, despite the years of education we’ve had, are never taught how to cope with the stresses of the careers we have chosen. Logically, it would seem like someone would have mentioned that these careers are all about taking on the problems of others and offered methods on staying mentally healthy while carrying that heavy weight. We were ushered out of professional school with amazing skills, none of which had anything to do with growing or preserving our own well-being.3
After years of tiptoeing the line between exhaustion and burnout, I went on a retreat that concentrated on stress management through meditation.4 I left that retreat with skills to inhabit my life differently. For the first time in a decade, I had hope that I really could be content and fulfilled — today, not in some distant future. I decided to bring the skills I learned to the professional community, a place that needs them desperately but is stigmatized when seen as anything other than bulletproof.5
Study after study has proven that meditation does wonders for our health by decreasing anxiety, increasing self-awareness and attention span, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, and decreasing pain, to name just a few.6 Some of us have given meditation a try. We sit down, have thoughts running through our heads, and jump to the conclusion that we’ve failed. We are not a group that is good at not being good at something.7 Instead of persisting, we tell ourselves that meditation is not possible, and our minds are too trained, too educated, and too busy to turn off.
Our minds are special, trained to think logically and analytically, but these skills are not needed in every moment. We have no idea how to put them on the shelf for a few hours here and there, like during a family dinner or before falling asleep.8
Meditation is not the absence of thought. Meditation, in practice, is drifting between thought and an object of focus, most commonly the breath.9 It is training your busy brain to come back from thought to the object of focus. It is not passive, nor is it like flipping a switch. It is a deliberate effort to retreat from the maelstrom of distractions and dial into the task at hand, the present moment. Here’s a simple technique for getting started:
1. Set a timer. Start with five minutes.
2. Get comfortable. There is no right position, and you don’t have to close your eyes if you don’t want.
3. Direct your attention on your breath. Feel it come in, feel it go out.
4. As you breathe in, quietly count to 8 in your mind.
5. As you breathe out, quietly count to 8 in your mind.
6. When you notice yourself drifting off to thoughts, sounds, or other distractions, go back to counting your breath.
Much like our chosen professions, this is a practice. There is no end point, and we must make the effort to become better every day. Mindfulness is taking that skill from practicing meditation and incorporating it into everyday life. It is a deliberate effort to return from thoughts and distractions to an undivided focus on the present moment over and over. Singular focus is a quality of attention that many of us have never experienced. Not unlike training for a marathon, our ability builds gradually. When we make meditation a daily practice, the fog of busyness lifts away and reveals the life we’ve been missing.10
Many people say that life flies by. Time is an accepted standard, but we are so distracted that we miss moments as they happen, giving us the impression that they flew by.11 They all go at the same pace. It is our lack of attention to them that makes them invisible.
Being present and aware in each moment is where fulfillment lies. Taking in every moment as it is, being fully present with our family and friends, enjoying our morning coffee or favorite TV show — this is the basis of fulfillment.12 It isn’t found at the end of a list of accomplishments. It’s right here in front of us. Daily meditation practice is how we train, and mindfulness is what brings us back to life.
“Practicing Wellness” is a regular column of the Michigan Bar Journal presented by the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. If you’d like to contribute a guest column, please email email@example.com.