By Katerina P. Lewinbuk
Just as I finished answering a student’s question, another hand went up. When I gave that person the floor, he asked the exact same question I just answered. Some of his classmates giggled while others rolled their eyes. The student, however, gave me a surprised look, observed the class’s reaction, and then whispered, “What?” I tried to suppress my frustration, but part of me really resented his presence “in body only” and his lack of desire to pay attention.
Or was it a lack of ability to stay focused?
I went on with my day and never thought about the student again until I was in my car driving home. In my head, I engaged in a conversation with him, venting about how I take my teaching seriously and the least he could do was to follow along and pay attention. My internal dialog, which felt so real, escalated as the topic changed to faculty meetings and how our law school should approach new American Bar Association directives. The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of my house trying to open the door with my office key. What route did I take home?
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario. I believe many of us are ruminating about the past or worrying about the future while being present “in body only” as we walk through our daily lives with the mind living a life of its own. Many of us are as disconnected from reality as my student, but we cannot see it in ourselves, just as he could not understand why his classmates were giggling. Maybe if our names were called out in the middle of the day, we would also say, “What?”
One’s mind is the biggest asset of a law student and practitioner. If the mind is not working, there are no legal studies and no lawyering. Yet we don’t seem to address this in law school. We worry about proper training in legal doctrine and skills but seem to be missing the big picture. How will it all come together if the mind is spinning out of control, overstimulated, and exhausted, and if not treated well, can become anxious, depressed, or just plain miserable?
If it refuses to listen, the mind brings pictures from the past, plans for the future, or engages in texting, email, or online shopping—all the while “in” law school class. Is it rational to spend so much time and money on a legal education but spend one’s time in class thinking about other things? Of course not, but the mind chooses to do so and the physical body obeys.
In fact, the mind is like an untamed puppy that runs wherever it chooses to go with the body following along, all without any awareness of what is happening. So we need to wake up (literally) and refocus. We need the mind to coordinate with us, stay on track with what we are asking it to do, or at least let us know when it is unable to do so. Easier said than done, isn’t it?
“Mindfulness,” which is a Westernized version of ancient meditation practices, can help us with that challenge. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness regularly reduces stress and leads to increased attention and focus and improved physical and mental wellbeing. Mindfulness is becoming mainstream in America—the National Institutes of Health has spent around $100 million on research pertaining to its benefits—and is now practiced by Pentagon leaders, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Google and General Mills employees, and a number of law schools and bar associations. With numerous professionals writing on it in different fields, mindfulness has also made its way to legal academic scholarship.
The gist of the practice is attention training, which helps us establish a connection between our intent and action at the moment. The meditative practices center around learning to stay focused on our breathing, and when distracted, acknowledging the distraction and redirecting our attention back to the breathing in a non-judgmental way. If we learn how to do this with breathing, then we can keep our attention on any object, such as a law school lecture. We need to help our students develop the ability to better focus and minimize distraction.
Following the lead of several other law schools, South Texas College of Law in Houston recently offered a two-day pre-orientation mindfulness seminar to incoming first-year law students. It was voluntary but the majority of 1Ls attended, and survey results revealed positive and enthusiastic feedback, with 83.8 percent of participants expressing an interest in learning more about the topic and potentially taking a course in it. As such, the South Texas College of Law has approved a one-credit Mindful Lawyering course as an experimental offering.
“I think a lot of students, not just in law school, would really benefit from mindfulness seminars or classes,” one law student wrote. That view was shared by almost 1,800 university professors, schoolteachers, scientists, and graduate students who gathered in Boston for the 2014 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies. The ISCS featured four days of numerous multidisciplinary sessions addressing the issues of training the mind through meditative practices to understand and enhance cognitive and emotional balance and overall health.
We don’t know where this journey will ultimately take us, but at least we are aware that being present in our daily lives and lawyering tasks should not be taken for granted. Through mindfulness practices, students can learn how to bring their attention back to the present moment. After all, great lawyering is about paying close attention.
Katerina P. Lewinbuk is professor of law at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. She previously taught at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago and practiced law at the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie.