Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gratitude, the mind, and deeper awareness

Although this blog has been on hiatus again, I love that Thanksgiving falls during my time writing about the koshas, especially the link between the mind and the next two koshas, the meditative and Divine koshas. Today, I want to focus on how Thanksgiving, or better yet, giving thanks and feeling gratitude work within those koshas.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. By no means do I think that way because of the Pilgrims and the eventual European taking-over of the continent. No, I mean that for one day, and really the entire week, people are all in a gratitude mindset. This energy of gratitude permeates the air and our hearts. The words “thank you” leave the mind and permeate the deeper koshas.

So, this is how the koshas work. In the mind, we say thank you. It has the potential to change our body, our breath, and all the way to our deepest awareness and connection to the Divine. As we say it more and more, it permeates deeper and deeper. As we live it, and the air breathes it, we become it. For one week, we get to be grateful together, and that gratitude brings us closer to one another and the Divine essence.

The mind is where we think; it is our logic center. The  vijnamaya kosha is where we perceive. It is where we can just be. Gratitude helps take us to that place. We can worry about the future and dwell on the past in the mind, but the deeper awareness knows that life unfolds exactly as it should. Some days it is easier to accept that than others, but when we start from a place of gratitude and thanks, we can go to that place more often. As Meister Eckhart has said,
“If the only prayer you said in your whole like was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” The prayer of gratitude takes us to our deepest awareness.

So, this week of Thanksgiving, though mired in a history of destruction and despair, allows us to be together, to pray together, in the transition from mind to awareness and perception. We may move to the beat of our internal drummer, and there it never matters if that drummer is “different,” only that we are all in this together. From the 5 koshas in ourselves, we learn that our connection to each other grows as we go deeper through the koshas. And that is what leads us to the Divine because the Divine is that deepest connection we all share. I can think of no greater way to get there than through gratitude.

In that spirit, I know that I put off writing this post until Thanksgiving because this is when it needed to be written. Vijnamaya kosha needed to be about gratitude. Thank you for reading, for sharing in this community, and I hope to continue to share this journey together.

Blessings and Namaste!

© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A mental exercise

The third kosha, or layer/sheath, is the mental body, the Manomaya kosha. It is the kosha where most of us live most of our lives. It is where we determine that we are an “I” that is different than “the other(s).” It is where we live in the future and the past, instead of the present. It also includes our five senses, so deeper than the physical kosha, but still that which literally separates us from the rest of the world, but begins to connect us to it. It is how we interact with the world within our body.

I will probably spend at least two posts covering this kosha, so today, I want to discuss a concept that has been rolling around in my mental body for quite some time.

I loved law school. I know it sounds crazy, but I did. And I mean loved it; I loved the intellectual rigor, the theory, the discussions, and even moot court, where we got to argue pretend cases before pretend judges. I loved being asked to take a side - at times both sides of an issue and turn it into the winning argument. I loved writing and arguing cases in these mock situations. It gave me the sort of joy and motivation to keep going through what was a very rigorous and difficult three years of intellectual training. In short, it was fun and exciting.

It was nothing like doing it for real.

I do not mean that you cannot get that joy and excitement from the practice of law in the real world. Quite the contrary - many people thrive on it. They go into court believing in their client, their client’s story, and they think they cannot lose - no matter what. These are the people like David Boies who take only the big cases, and then take them all the way to the Supreme Court. I used to think I would love to be that kind of lawyer, the intellectual rigor of the profession being my motivation every day.

But then I realized the biggest difference between law school and the legal profession - real people. In law school, I remember reading cases with horrific facts - people being catapulted out of cars, falling down manholes, being questioned by the police without just cause, and the list goes on. I remember arguing that a school district had no duty to protect a homosexual student from tormenting by his peers (the side I was assigned to argue). I also remember stopping and thinking to myself that these were real people. These are not stories made up at a computer late at night but people whose lives were forever shattered.

When representing real people, seeing them in court, and knowing the destruction the legal world can have on them, the mental games stop being so fun and exciting. In family court, especially, where I spend so much of my time, this adversarial process is not only unworkable, it can be downright inhumane.

Like most people in the modern world, I spend a great deal of my life in the mental kosha. I thrive there. But yoga has helped me open up to the other koshas - the physical, the breath, and into the meditative and the divine. The mind is the great in-between. It is in the mental kosha that we go from being individuals to interconnected to the universe. It is here where we can get stuck, where we can ignore the fact that what might be a fun intellectual game is causing distress to the world. It is here where we can stop and realize that as much fun as it is to argue, there are consequences to that choice.

This has been a hard realization for me. As I find myself more and more dedicated to changing the way we do family law in this country - and perhaps law in general - I have had to struggle with the fact that I really enjoy it for all the reasons that practicing attorneys enjoy the current system. Intellectually, it is wonderful. But that cannot be the final reason we do what we do. I have learned, in the past two years of seeing real families day-after-day, that we all eventually have to move past our mental kosha and deeper into our connection to each other.

Interestingly, this is one area where the law and yoga have informed each other back and forth in my life, and I am grateful to each of them for giving me the opportunity to enjoy the mental games while learning that there is so much more. What mental stops do you find in your life? How do you work through them?


© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, November 5, 2010

Breathing through Resistance

After all the blogging about the Mindful Lawyer conference, and then a full week of work, it is time to turn back to the blog and back to the series on koshas.  We started with an overview of the koshas and a look at how BKS Iyengar started his practice in his physical body, and then we moved onto the breath body. I am going to stay here for today because the breath can continue to teach us, and I heard a great quote at the conference that is ultimately relevant to the breath and its connection to the rest of our being.

 At the conference, one of the presenters presented on the connection of mindfulness and psychology. She said that one of her teachers likens suffering to a mathematical equation. Suffering = pain * resistance. Thus, if your pain is 10 units, and you resist it by 10 units, your suffering is 100 units. So, what happens when your pain is 10 units and you do not resist it? A common answer is 10 (especially at the conference), but that is because we did not all pay attention in basic arithmetic; the actual answer is 0. Any number multiplied by 0 is 0. Thus, when we are fully able to stop resisting, our suffering (not our pain) is reduced to nothing.

Yeah, right! That sounds lovely in theory, but how do we get there? Pain hurts, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or some other form. So, how do we let go of our resistance to that pain in order to feel less, and ultimately no, suffering? We breathe!

I was a walking, alright limping, example of this phenomenon over the weekend and as I write this post. On Friday at the conference, I was a little less than mindful, and while carrying a large box down the stairs, I stumbled and sprained my ankle. The presentation about resistance and suffering was Saturday morning, and to be fair, I was in pain, not a lot, but it hurt to walk. Of course, during the presentation, and throughout the weekend, my focus was on my ankle. Each time it stung, I breathed. Did all the pain go away? No, of course not. But a lot of it did, and I noticed that as I got upset about it, the pain got worse. When I laughed about it, breathed through it, and tried not to resist it, the pain decreased.

So, how does this affect us as lawyers and people in this stressed-out world? We always have our breath. We always get to choose how whether we react or respond to events in our lives. In law, as in life, sometimes situations do not go our way. Sometimes, we even take it personally, especially in our life. The breath reminds us that we need not resist those moments.

Pain, in all its forms, is a reminder that something is out of balance. The pain itself is not bad, just a reminder.  Emotionally, pain reminds us that we care, and we truly are all connected to one another. Physically, pain reminds us to slow down.  What we do with that pain is our choice. The yogis have told us that when each of our koshas is in balance, we are in balance. Thus, the breath helps bring us back to that balance in each of our other koshas. It reminds us that nothing is permanent, even pain. So, taking the energy out of the pain by not resisting it is like taking the oxygen away from the fire. Without the fuel, it eventually burns out on its own. The breath helps us let that happen quicker, safer, and with control. From there, we can move forward and come back to a place of balance, in our lives as well as our koshas.


© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What to take away

So, what did I learn over three days at the Mindful Lawyer Conference? I have been writing about it for a few days now, but I want to put it all into perspective. First, it was incredible to be in a space with that many contemplative lawyers - a space where we could discuss meditation and yoga as normal parts of life. Wow!

What did we discuss on the third day? We discussed what a mindful practice looks like for lawyers and how we take this forward. A theme I saw and heard repeated time and time again is that holding the space in your work for a mindful and contemplative practice changes the reactions of co-counsel, opposing counsel, and clients. This is not surprising. Going back to neuroscience for a moment, all the research into mirror neurons is that this is exactly what we should expect to happen. Our actions influence those around us.

The other underlying theme was that mindfulness allows us to see the whole picture. Even as lawyers who must zealously advocate for our clients, we are able to see that the other party has a story, and that story is true for that person. What we do with that story is determined by the circumstances, but holding that the story is true for that other party is more than half of the battle. Personally, my interest in the law has focused on children and divorce. The research from Australia and New Zealand is that children benefit just from being part of the process, even if they do not have the final say in what happens (actually, more often than not, especially if they do not have the final say). A mindful practice allows lawyers to give everyone the opportunity to have their say, to be involved, and then the act of lawyering, in whatever form, may continue. Perhaps it does not always happen, but the possibility is there, and we as a community are moving in that direction.

But there is something more, and it was mentioned in various discussions throughout the conference. Mindfulness puts us in touch with compassion in new ways. Compassion and interconnectedness. The law, especially in the United States, is focused on individual rights. This was absolutely necessary in the 18th century when our constitution was written. And in the sphere of individual rights, the United States has done a really great job. It is far, far from perfect, but this country was the major catalyst for human rights around the world for 200 years.

Today, however, we need to take the next step. We need to move to interconnectedness - to each other, but also to the Earth and the Universe. One of the presenters, Linda Sheehan, put it very cogently when discussing her work as an environmental lawyer - we need to start talking about the Earth’s rights, not just humans’ rights to use the Earth. When we recognize this interconnectedness, we will know we have taken the next step. Personally, I think that if we do not take this step, the legal profession will destroy itself. The world must move toward more connection, and while individual rights remain important, they are merely a step to a greater understanding of our interconnectedness. Being with this group for three days, my hope was sparked that we truly can begin to take that next step in the legal profession.

For my part, I hope to use what I learn in New Zealand next year as a way to bring a more holistic environment to family and juvenile law. Yes, my interest over these past few years has broadened to include the more difficult situation of juvenile law along with family law. What I wish I had gained more of at this conference are practical steps I can take. I know that continuing my practice, and hopefully continuing this blog, will be a huge piece of the puzzle, but what can I do to physically change the legal environment? What structures must we change? How can we do it? So, I leave this weekend more connected and excited about the possibilities, but with few practical ways to make a difference today.

Luckily, our end session was about how to stay in touch, how to grow the community even greater. If you were not at the conference and want to become involved in this community, contact me, and I will put you in touch with those in charge. As the movement grows, we can make change together. Thank you for a wonderful, wonderful weekend, and I look forward to more to come.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2010 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved.