Why I Teach Mindfulness

By Susan Miles

From my bird’s eye view of life from the Bench, stress scenarios are re-enacted every day: testy lawyers dealing with emotional clients in all manner of cases, with family, juvenile, and criminal getting top billing. Add to the mix a judge who may be mentally fatigued, hungry, or exasperated with lengthy calendars and poor courtroom behavior, and all the pieces are in place for someone – lawyers, clients, or judge – to act out. Of course, these scenarios are not limited to courtrooms, but can occur in boardrooms and negotiating sessions of all stripes, as well as in offices occupied by attorneys overwhelmed by the pressures of work . It’s no wonder that members of the legal profession, lawyers and judges alike, are more prone to substance abuse, suicide, or just downright crabbiness than members of most all other professions. Many others simply leave the field. These are but a few variations on the complicated and diverse world of stress, any of which can result in regrettable, unskillful communication, or equally problematic, no communication at all.

There is another alternative, however. The time-tested practice of mindfulness can enable the stressed lawyer to shift gears from auto-pilot to awareness. Mindfulness lays the groundwork for enhanced clarity about the causes of stress and leads to skillful responses in place of angry or emotional reactions. In other words, “Mindful awareness techniques help people move towards well-being by training the mind to focus on moment-to-moment experience. . .[F]ocusing our attention in this way is a biological process that promotes health – a form of brain hygiene – not a religion.” In other words, Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychology at UCLA and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, is referring to the fact that with the advent of functional MRI technology, as well as the use of electroencephalography, neuroscientists have been able to draw a connection between the practice of meditation and changes in cognitive and emotional processes as well as changes in brain composition, i.e., the shrinking of the amygdala, or reptilian portion of the brain, relative to the prefrontal cortex, or executive functioning portion of the brain.

Do you have to be a Buddhist monk to adopt a mindfulness practice? Far from it. Mindfulness has been embraced by Western psychotherapists, medical doctors, social workers, the police and military; in other words by members of countless professions interacting with people in stressful situations. It can be as easy to learn as downloading an app on your iPhone, watching DVD’s, or using a workbook combined with guided meditations on Compact Discs. Or, as practiced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, by simply closing your office door and sitting in silence for fifteen minutes a day.

Many years ago I experienced a maelstrom of meltdown and burnout that was so palpable I wondered out loud (to my husband) whether or not I would have to abandon my plan to stay on the Bench for the rest of my career. By happenstance I found my way to a community education program on Mindfulness Meditation, and using the practices I learned there, began to work myself out of my tailspin. Eventually I learned about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week program created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, to assist chronic long-term pain sufferers. Since its inception over 30 years ago, MBSR has gone viral and is now offered at hospitals and universities throughout the country, including the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. Described by Kabat-Zinn as a way to change one’s state of being, MBSR is a comprehensive approach to mindfulness using measured progression through awareness of body, mind, and feelings. I was so impressed with the accessibility of the secular approach to teaching mindfulness, I plunged into the teacher training program offered by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and in 2016 earned my Qualification to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

Beyond teaching to the community primarily through the University of Minnesota’s Earl Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, I concentrate my efforts in offering workshops and presentations to various sectors of the legal community, and have reached over a thousand lawyers, judges, and court administration and law firm staff. I am grateful that I can share my combined life experiences of 40 years in the courtroom as lawyer and judge and a disciplined mindfulness practice with colleagues who want to make a positive change in how they cope with the considerable stressors of the legal profession.

1Daniel J. Siegel, “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,” 83 (2010), as quoted in Magee, Rhonda, “Making the Case for Mindfulness and the Law,” NWLawyer, April/May 2014, at 18-19.

2Ricard, Matthieu; Lutz, Antoine; and Davidson, Richard J., “Mind of the Meditator,” Scientific American, Nov. 2014, 39, at 45.

3See, e.g., Omvana – Meditation for Everyone (Mindvalley Creations, Inc.); Meditation for Optimum Health – Andrew Weil, M.D. and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. (Sounds True)

4 See, e.g., Mark Muesse, Ph.D., “Practicing Mindfulness: an Introduction to Meditation” (Great Courses)

5 See, e.g., Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, “Insight Meditation” (2001)

6 First I contacted Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and received a confidential referral for four free counseling sessions which helped me identify the source of my problem.

7 To learn more about the creation of Kabat-Zinn’s program and its objectives, see, Bill Moyers’ public television production of Healing and the Mind at http://billmoyers.com/series/healing-and-the-mind/ (Episode 2: Healing From Within)(last visited Aug. 12, 2015).