By Harold J. Stanton, Family Lawyer
Learn the techniques to apply the insights derived from Zen meditation to your practice of family law.
The Family Law Milieu
As lawyers we are trained to develop and use our intellect to analyze and solve complex problems. Our intellectual capability is an invaluable asset without which we simply could not function as lawyers. However, we have all experienced the consequences, limits, and fallibility of over reliance on the intellect.
Family law is inherently a stressful, competitive and demanding profession. How that impacts your thoughts, perceptions, or performance is something we rarely think about. If we do consider it, we tend to blame our reactions on ourselves believing we are hard wired, conditioned to be that way, or simply not intellectually capable of dealing with the stress. We are left with the feeling that we are unable to do anything about it, short of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
How Many Times Have These Things Happened to You?
- Waking up in the middle of the night worrying about a case and having difficulty falling back to sleep?
- Suddenly panicking at the thought that you’ve made a horrendous mistake, only to find out it wasn’t true?
- Losing self confidence because you cannot intellectually figure out what to do in a difficult situation?
- Getting caught up in your client’s emotional turmoil and losing your objectivity?
- Being thrown off track by overreacting to a hostile comment or tactic of opposing counsel?
- Being worried about your ability to perform in court because you have butterflies in your stomach?
- Failing to recognize what was really going on in a situation because you were so preoccupied with your own thoughts?
- Forgetting to say something in oral argument that you had previously put on your detailed list of important points?
- Becoming anxious and worried that something negative will happen, for no apparent reason?
- Self-medicating for the purpose of calming down after a stressful day?
Most of us have experienced these feelings more than a few times. They are reactions to our own speculative thoughts about what might have happened in the past or what might occur in the future. When we start worrying because of a random thought that enters our mind about the past or future, our emotions as well as our body react. Unfortunately, we too often get caught up in trying to intellectually figure out the answer, but such speculation rarely accomplishes anything useful.
Learning the techniques to apply the insights derived from Zen meditation will help you overcome these types of problems.
On a South Sea Island, the natives catch monkeys by using a coconut strapped to a tree. The coconut has a hole cut in the side through which a monkey can slip it’s hand to reach a fragrant piece of sweet fruit placed inside. When the monkey grabs the fruit and tries to pull it’s clenched fist out, it cannot do so. The monkey is trapped. It’s refusal to let go of the fruit keeps it locked in place. This self-defeating tenacity reflects the obsessive compulsion of the monkey mind to get what it wants! In the Zen tradition, the mind’s propensity to obsess about thoughts tied to concerns about the past or the future is called “Monkey Mind.”
Zen Meditation Instruction
A Japanese Zen master, Nan-in, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. He poured tea for the professor and when the cup was full, he simply kept on pouring. The professor saw this and blurted out “It is overfull. No more will go in!” Nan-in said “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup? Empty yourself of all your opinions, beliefs, fears, hopes, resentments and desires, simply let them go! Then I will teach you about Zen!”
The most effective way to learn how to meditate is by instruction in a group setting. An adept instructor will explain and demonstrate the posture, procedures and skillful techniques to effectively learn how to obtain the benefits of meditation practice.
In Zen meditation, the monkey mind is given a repetitive task to fully occupy it, such as counting your regular breaths in and out. This is a convenient device, as we always have our breath with us. It is important to count the breaths, rather than breathe to the counting. Focus the mind on the task of keeping an accurate count, counting to yourself, one in, two out, three in and so on up to ten, and then start over and just keep repeating that sequence of counting to your natural breathing pattern. By occupying the monkey mind with a meaningless task, the intuitive capacity of the mind will automatically manifest.
You will quickly realize that you have lost count because a thought came up and distracted you. Do not become disillusioned or frustrated, do not dwell on it. Just start over, counting with one on the next natural inhalation. You will keep being distracted, losing count, and having to start over at one. That is OK, just keep doing the same thing. You will soon realize that when a distracting thought arises, you do not have to follow it, you can simply let it go. It is OK for the thought to arise as long as the monkey mind does not grab it and start a distracting line of thought about the past or the future. Simply let the thoughts arise, do not judge them, do not respond to them, just let it dissipate. Treat the stream of images or thoughts that arise as if you simply have no interest in them whatsoever. Treat them as though they were bubbles rising to the surface and floating away.
You will find over time that you will develop the ability to focus on the counting more effectively and for longer periods of time before losing count. Think of the process as a way of developing the skill of focusing your concentration. It is the same way one would train with weights to develop muscle tone. The more repetitions, the stronger and more effective you will become in accomplishing the objective of calming the mind and being present in the moment. The distracting thoughts and images will become fewer, less intense and easier to ignore. They will eventually stop.
When you reach a point of true balance between the intellectual and intuitive processes of the mind, the meditative state of relaxed concentration known as Samadhi or clear perception will be experienced.
If you continue to diligently pursue the practice of meditation, at some point something will precipitate a sudden realization of the true nature of things. This is known as Satori or enlightenment. What that precipitating factor is differs for each person, and cannot be predicted. It may be a bird’s song, a bell, a ray of sunlight or a shadow. It could be some word or sound you hear that takes on a special significance to you. That phenomenon is referred to as “Waking Up!” You will instantly know when it happens.
Accessing the Present Moment
Establishing a meditation routine of 15 to 20 minutes a day is recommended. Doing so will undoubtedly help both you and your clients in your family law practice. However, there will most certainly be times when you realize you are in need of calming your mind without the ability to excuse yourself to go meditate! The way to access the calm at the center of the storm quickly will be by using some of the same techniques that you will learn in order to personally experience the benefits of Zen meditation. For example, placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth, soft-focusing your eyes, and counting your breath will provide an opportunity for you to quickly access a state of consciousness you will come to associate with the meditative state.
Zen and the Martial Arts
Martial artists prepare for competitions by training vigorously. This includes meditating to develop the ability to access and rely upon their intuition. When it comes to martial arts combat, they know that action and intuition arise simultaneously! There is no time to think about the best sequence of moves to attack or counterattack. They must be present in the moment and respond naturally and instantly to whatever occurs.
Do martial artists get butterflies in their stomach before competition? Yes, but their response is different from what you might expect. They embrace it! They think to themselves: Good! There is the energy I need to focus my attention, see what is happening in the moment, and instantly respond!
Attorneys should develop the same attitude when making a court appearance. We have completed our investigation, research and submitted our written briefs. We have already marked our exhibits, planned the sequence of our witnesses, and made notes about direct and cross-examination. In oral argument we will have certainly completed our preparation.
When we enter the courtroom we should not be preoccupied with every detail of the argument or reviewing detailed notes to be sure we cover every point. We already know our arguments. Single words, or in some instances a few words, written on a note pad as a prompt will suffice to remind us of each point we need to make. We are better served by trusting our perception, intuition and judgment in the moment, paying close attention to what is going on in the courtroom, and responding naturally.
You will learn that while waiting for your case to be called, it will help to empty your mind, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, soft focus and simply count your breaths in the same way as when you meditate. You will quickly access a state of mind where you will assess the atmosphere in the courtroom, the attitude and disposition of the judge, and the subtle body language and tone of voice of witnesses. That will inform the argument you make, how you approach a witness, what lines of questioning you pursue or drop.
In that way, you will learn and understand far more than by going over your voluminous notes for the twenty-third time! When your case is called, take a deep breath and exhale, swallow to coordinate your throat muscles, then speak confidently, low and slow, and speak from the heart!
Zen and Family Law Mediation
Although Zen is often thought of as a means to become a more efficient competitor who can outmaneuver one’s adversaries in the litigation process, meditation can also promote and benefit the peaceful resolution of conflicts in family law. The reality is that we all settle the majority of our family law cases. The ability to find ways to compromise and reach resolution is an equally valuable skill that attorneys need to cultivate in order to benefit their clients.
An important part of Zen meditation is the arising of compassion. Insight and wisdom go hand in hand with compassion. This aspect of meditation is experienced even by persons who are just starting to meditate. Meditation will facilitate knowing instinctively how to deal with issues as they arise in each particular case.
A Useful Paradigm in Zen
In Zen this is also referred to as “not knowing.” When we think that we already know something, we tend to disregard information that is inconsistent with our opinions. In terms of accurately perceiving reality, it is helpful to maintain an attitude of “not knowing” so that our preconceptions do not blind us!
See What Is
It is important to simultaneously use both our intellect and our intuition to understand the true nature of reality. When we graduate law school, we are probably at the height of our intellectual power in terms of processing information about the law. The seasoning effect of time spent in the practice makes us realize how little we knew about the practice of law when we began the profession. What we learn after law school is not just more intellectual information. Through our experiences we acquire an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, what works and doesn’t work, and how best to deal with difficult situations. This is reflected when people with a difficult legal problem are seeking an attorney, are told to find an experienced lawyer. It is the intellect balanced by the intuition that distinguishes the experienced lawyer.
Trust your intuition, your judgment, and your perception when you are present in the moment. By maintaining a balance between the intellect and intuition, you will instinctively respond.
The Zen Experience
“I reckon people are going to be about as happy as they want to be.”
– Abraham Lincoln
“There is only one way to achieve lasting happiness. That way is simply: be happy.”
-Zen and the Art of Happiness, By Chris Prentiss
Anything worth doing, it is worth doing right! There is a commitment involved in order to learn Zen meditation. It is not a panacea, but it will be a valuable tool for yourself, as well as a benefit to your clients. Leaning how to meditate will provide you with the means to deal with the pressures and problems we encounter in our family law practice.
Harold J. Stanton has served as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice. Hal has been a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers since 1979, served as President of the Southern California chapter and Dean of its 2005 Trial Advocacy Institute. He is currently on the AAML National Board of Governors. He and his wife and law partner, Marian L. Stanton, practice Family Law in Encino, California.www.stantonlawcorp.com