This SXSW panel began with an exercise. Shutoff your phones, plant your feet flat on the floor, loosen up your shoulders, and keep your hands down at your sides, panelist Emily Doskow, a mediator from the San Francisco Bay Area, told the audience. We were about to meditate. For two minutes, the entire room was silent as people kept their attention on breathing in and out. Only occasional sounds would break through the silence—the air conditioning kicking on, a cart with drinks thumping against a wall in a room next door—but not enough to disrupt the calmness of a deep meditation. And perhaps that’s the point—getting to a place where stress and outside noise have little effect if any.
“As attorneys, we are under a lot of stress,” said panelist Judy Tint, a music attorney and college professor at the New York University Music Business program. “We need to focus; we need discipline.”
The panel cited the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs study on well-being, which found that among attorneys, 28 percent experienced depression, 19 percent experienced anxiety, and 23 percent experienced stress. Common causes of high stress in law practice: work volume, negativity and reactivity as the norm in arguments, and conflict being the nature of the job. The win-lose culture of law, they said, puts people in survival mode.
Lyzzette Bullock, associate general counsel to the law department of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, discussed how her own experiences with stress led her to meditation. Early in her career, she had long hours and high pressure from working multimillion-dollar cases that culminated in a health scare.
“My dental hygienist took my blood pressure and it was so high, she was scared I was going to have a heart attack and told me I needed to go to the doctor… after getting my teeth cleaned,” said Bullock, who was just 30 at the time.
She doubled down on the meditation she used to do in college and was able to get her blood pressure under control. It also helped her in other areas, Bullock said. She’d become more relaxed, more able to control emotional reactions—“which is a crucial tool in litigation when you’re being probed in court”—was nicer to herself and others, and was more present in everything she did, including when spending time with family.
Doskow drew attention to the effects mindfulness meditation can have on the brain over time: the amygdala, which kick-starts the body’s flight or fight response to stress, shrinks while the pre-frontal cortex thickens. This is the region of the brain responsible for bigger functions such as focus, self-awareness, and decision-making.
Meditation, the panelists said, doesn’t have to be done rigidly. Even finding a few moments a day—whether upon waking up, waiting on a train or bus to work, or whenever works—can be beneficial.
And even during meditation, thoughts of the past or future may weave in and out. The idea, the panelists said, is not to resist them but rather to acknowledge and accept them as they come.
“It’s not about clearing your mind,” she said. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to have a different relationship with what’s in your mind. It’s being friendly and accepting toward what is happening there.”