Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Inward Journey to being a leader

In the last post, I mentioned that yoga is a great tool for learning to turn inward, where we can learn to trust ourselves from our need to physically adjust an asana to the need to adjust our lives. By turning inward, we see how minute adjustments can result in enormous shifts.

Just as I posted that piece, I went back to my Google Reader account and saw a link to this article, actually a speech given by William Deresiewicz at West Point. The title is, “Solitude and Leadership.” While it is a long piece, I highly recommend taking the time to read it. First, he explains his students at Yale, “So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, ‘excellent sheep.’” Does that sound like anyone you know?

Deresiewicz concludes that leadership means thinking outside the box; it means knowing yourself well enough that when the time comes to make the difficult decisions, you can rely on your own morality and not on what society and your peers tell you is right. And this requires turning off the distractions of modern life – twitter, facebook, blackberries, RSS feeds (note the irony of my finding this great piece through my RSS feed), and even the newspapers. It means taking the time to ask yourself what you think about the big issues, asking yourself what you think of the posts you use to distract yourself throughout the day. Why? Because more and more research shows that multitasking – no matter how good you think you are at it – actually makes it more difficult to concentrate on any task. The more we flip between tasks, the more difficult such flipping becomes.

As an English teacher, Deresiewicz suggests we take the time to read books, old books that have stood the test of time. I was a Comparative Literature and French major in college, so I would second that recommendation any day (and seeing as I now have a kindle, and classics are free, I have read a lot of them recently; let me just say, there is a reason many of them are classics). But more than just read them, he suggests we take the time to think about them, to discover what we think about them, not just read them because they are there.

But as a yoga teacher, I am going to suggest another tool – yoga and meditation. I often ask myself what the number one benefit of yoga is for lawyers and others living in the modern world. For me, and I think for many others, it is simply the fact that I do it. When I am doing yoga, I am not on facebook, I am not on twitter, and I am not checking my email. I may be thinking about something else, but at least those are my own thoughts. The ability to know yourself, according to Deresiewicz is what it means to be a leader.

Of course, in yoga and meditation, we are hoping to learn to control the mind to stop what Patanjali, who wrote The Yoga Sutras, calls “the monkey mind.” But there is a reason it is called a practice; we do not learn to stop the chatter in one fell swoop. No, it takes time. It takes years. Sometimes it never happens. But the point is that, for however long we give ourselves, we get away from the outside chatter. We learn to be comfortable with ourselves. We learn to watch our thoughts and our bodies. We learn to understand what they are telling us.

So this Inward Journey becomes our path to being ourselves and being leaders. But what does it matter if we are leaders? After all, we are not the plebe class at West Point. Leadership is a skill to be used everywhere, from the law firm to the community, from the government offices, to parenting. Being a leader means being an engaged citizen, and lawyers especially need to embody the qualities of leadership when helping clients.

Thus, the inward journey provides us the space to shut out the world, and from within we can learn to take control of our own lives and our own thoughts. As lawyers, people come to us when they are in disaster mode, and we have to able to respond appropriately. As Deresiewicz says, “Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon.” We need to know how to understand our instincts, and we need to know what we think before disaster strikes. They are two sides of the same coin.

As I said in the last post, this inward journey is about learning to trust yourself. But the first step of that is being comfortable with yourself, being comfortable away from the outside chatter. It is sometimes scary and often, especially at the beginning, lonely. But the journey helps us become leaders, the people who can help make this world a better place because we are not confined by what other people think and feel. Instead, we have the control and the knowledge and the faith to do what we know is right.

But we must take the first step. What keeps you from turning off the computer? What keeps you attached to the facebook feed? Are you ready to be alone with yourself? Are you ready to give yourself the gift of solitude? Are you ready to trust yourself and share your leadership with the world?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, May 27, 2011

Turning inward

In the modern world, we spend a lot of time focusing on our external presence. How do we interact with others? How do we engage in the world? We live in a very outward-focused society. In that outward-focus, big issues seem to matter more than the small ones. We just have to respond to the email, but it does not matter exactly what words we use. We just have to eat, but it does not matter exactly what we put in our bodies. We just have to exercise, but it does not matter what kind we choose. The outward focus is about looking like you are doing it “right,” whatever that means in the situation.

Yoga, on the other hand, is about an inward experience. Whether you are doing bikram or restorative, meditation or asana, in a class or on your own, yoga is about turning inward. At the beginning of a practice, we tend to be consumed with whether we are doing “it” right. Is this how Tree Pose is supposed to look? Is my mind wandering too much during savasana? What is the right way to sit in meditation? These questions tend to consume the minds of beginners, and they all-too-often keep people from ever starting a practice.

But if we take that first step, be it onto a yoga mat or a meditation cushion, we begin to slowly go down the path of turning inward. With this inward journey we learn to notice the big results from little changes. We begin to notice the feeling of calm that can arise from breathing into the low abdomen as opposed to into the shoulders. We begin to notice the difference in steadiness when we make subtle adjustments in our asanas. We begin to be able to ask ourselves what we need in any given moment.

Let me say that again, we begin to be able to ask ourselves what we need in any given moment. The time we spend engaged in our practice is time spent learning. Our bodies learn to move subtly, our breath learns to calm, and our mind learns to focus. Looking outside for what we need becomes less important as we begin to trust our internal awareness.

So what, you ask? Why does it matter to my life if I know that I can be steadier in tree pose if I keep the lifted foot pushing into the standing leg? How will it affect my life to know that I put more weight on my right foot generally than my left foot? Because as we learn to notice, we learn to adjust. We learn to play with subtleties until we find what works best in a situation. Perhaps most importantly, we learn to trust ourselves and our instincts.

Off the mat, we learn to notice the subtleties in our lives and our interactions with others. Instead of sending off the email that continues the downward spiral, we might instead choose our words more carefully. We can learn to trust ourselves in the outside world, learn to trust our instincts when we interact with others, and learn to make the slight adjustments in our lives that lead to big change.

What are these slight adjustments? Perhaps we will recognize when we need a bit more sleep, when we need to get away from the computer for five minutes, or when we need to stop and have a chat with a friend. This inward journey starts when we consciously choose to take time to look inside and recognize that our lives are not completely external. The paradox, of course, is that the more we focus on the inward journey, the more we can take its teachings into our external lives.

Yoga is that opportunity to go inside. It is the opportunity to stop and reflect, to learn to understand our instincts, and the opportunity to make small adjustments to our lives that have the greatest impact on who we are. It is the opportunity to do what is right for us on the inside, not what society tells us is "right."

What small change have you made that has had the greatest effect on your life?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Deep Sigh

Breath! The breath is the foundation of our lives. It is the foundation of yoga. It is our greatest teacher. When we learn to understand our breath, it can tell us that we are stressed or that we are calm. It can tell us whether the air is thick or thin or whether it is cold and dry or humid and warm. Ask any person who has had an asthma attack, and they will tell you that the breath is a scary thing to lose.

And yet, with its abundant importance, how many of us actually pay attention to the breath? How many of us stop and recognize that we breath in and out thousands of times per day? How many of us recognize when we are holding our breaths? 

Were you holding it while reading those sentences?

Yes, the breath happens automatically (at least when all systems in the body are functioning, it happens automatically). You cannot die simply by holding your breath because as soon as you pass out, the breath will come automatically. This is because the body simply cannot survive without oxygen. My non-scientific search of the internet reveals that the brain starts to lose brain cells after 3 minutes without oxygen, and brain death occurs somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes without oxygen. 

For something so important to our being, you would think we would spend more time thinking about it, right? Certainly, we have covered this territory on this blog before – once about just stopping to take a breath, once as a lesson on the koshas, and once about overcoming pain (and a few more less-specific times). Today, however, let us focus on the exhale. Let us focus on a specific type of exhale – the sigh, the deep sigh.

Have you ever heard someone sigh? Have they done it in the middle of a conversation? What is your reaction? Do you think you have bored the person? I have noticed this many times, but one person used to do it more than anyone I know – my grandfather. I used to think I was boring him, but then I started doing yoga. He lived almost completely healthily until he was 89 years old. Maybe he knew something the rest of us were missing.

Yoga classes often start with the breath. Sometimes teachers instruct everyone to sigh together - a collective exhale. The result is almost humorous. The teacher will say, “inhale deeply, then audibly sigh and exhale.” I know my hearing is not great, but the result is sometimes almost eery silence. I notice it even more when I am teaching (because as a student, I am usually sighing too loudly to hear the others not sigh). Sometimes by the third repetition, after hearing the teacher’s sigh 2 times, the students join in, and sighs permeate the room. It is quite a sound, and energy, to behold.

Why are we so afraid to make our breath heard? Are we afraid to let go? Are we afraid that a sigh is a sign that we are overwhelmed? Are we afraid to share that with others?

Yes, the breath can teach us a lot. When it is constricted and short, we are often stressed and overwhelmed. Thus, we need to release that constriction and make space for the breath to flow more fully. What better way than a deep, audible sigh? Although it has a bad connotation to many of us, deep sighing is one of the easiest, quickest, and healthiest ways to overcome moments of exasperation. That is why people do it in those moments. The breath is reminding us that we are stressed and need to let go.

So why not do it purposefully? Take a moment – right now – and take a deep inhale. Then exhale deeply and let out a big sigh. If you are worried about the people around you, you can close the door or invite them along. I think it is time for us to stop fearing the sigh and embrace it. We can use it to our advantage, and as we open up to the possibility of the sigh, we can open up our lungs to breathe more deeply and fully and find ways to let go of some of the tension that has been building in our systems for years.

Do you enjoy sighing? Are you willing to do it in public? Do you feel better once you can let that tension release?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, May 15, 2011

“But I like my job”

There are a lot of blog posts around that focus on ex-lawyers turned . . . whatever; there are even many blogs (e.g., here, here, and here) dedicated to the theme. This is not one of those blogs. While I personally believe that anyone who hates a job should leave that job, regardless of debt, etc., this blog is not about doing something instead of law. I think those people are awesome, and incredibly inspirational, but here I have tried to focus on bringing sanity to the legal profession and to life in general. If I have learned one thing in the last 11 years - during which I moved from California to Michigan to France (twice) to Arizona and then to New Zealand - it is that we cannot run away from ourselves. We can only learn to live each day in a way that works for us.

Although I have clerked for two judges and now I am getting my LLM, and have, therefore, never practiced law except in a law school clinic or as a contract attorney, I actually consider myself a lawyer – more and more every day. Like many lawyers, I have felt the need to apologize for my profession, sheepishly look at the floor when I tell people I am a lawyer, and it just gets worse when I tell people I do family law. It is usually at that moment I want to crawl into a cave. I am always quick to say, “I really want to work with children, and I also teach yoga.” So, on top of living to expect and prepare for disasters, we must often defend our choice of profession. I can understand why so many people want to leave, and for them it is probably the correct decision. But what do you do if you want to stay?

We have many options, but I want to discuss two. First, we can get angry and defensive. This is, after all, what our legal training would expect of us. We are trained to be adversarial . . . at least to an extent. We can continue to do our work because it is what we have chosen to do and apologize for ourselves and our profession when we interact with non-lawyers. How many times have you heard, “you are the only lawyer I have ever met that I liked?” Yes, it is easy to get defensive and angry with how people see the profession. Yes, it is easy to react.

But what if we, instead, chose to respond? What if we took a step back and prepared an answer to this situation? What if we answered it intentionally? Just yesterday I was talking to a friend about what makes yoga different, what I have learned more than anything from it; I have learned to act intentionally. Thus, if we intentionally choose to remain lawyers amidst the loud and growing anti-lawyer discussion from both inside and outside the profession, we can intentionally decide how to explain that decision.

Instead of looking sheepish, we can say, “I am a lawyer.” What I have found is that some people will actually think it is wonderful. But the others will remain, the ones who cannot believe that you, a seemingly kind person, are a lawyer. To them, we can intentionally explain what it is we do. We help people in their disasters. We navigate systems that they cannot navigate alone. My thesis research had me looking at what it is lawyers do, how we define law, and what sort of roles lawyers should have. What I have found is that when we really start examining our work, people are proud of this profession.

As with yoga, when we get intentional, we can be in control. We need not be controlled by the reaction people have to the legal profession. We need not feel that we have to explain to those who have left the profession why we choose to stay. All we need to do is be intentional and honest. And yes, it is even okay if you enjoy your work as a lawyer and want to tell the world why that it.

If you have chosen to leave law, why did you choose to leave? If you have chosen to stay, what keeps you in? There is no shame in either approach. And if you are not a lawyer, and never were, the choice to be intentional about what we do is important. As Confucius said, "If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life." 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beyond Disaster: Opening to Gratitude

As I mentioned before, lawyers live in a world of disaster. Either our clients come to us in the middle of their disasters asking us to save them, or we spend our time imagining disasters and finding ways to avert them before they occur. Living in this state cannot be good for the psyche. In fact, research is beginning to show that it is actually very bad for the psyche, but we will leave the doom and gloom for another day.

Living in this place of disaster is another word for living in a place of fear, living in a world where we expect something, perhaps everything, to go wrong. Luckily, there is a simple antidote – gratitude. We have explored gratitude before on this blog – unsurprisingly the week of Thanksgiving, but I think it deserves more attention, perhaps a lot more attention.

On the Is Yoga Legal facebook page, there is a weekly intention, and this week’s intention is gratitude. There were more than the usual number of comments, and I realized that people want a reason to think about gratitude. For just a moment it pulls us out of our disaster-prone lives and allows us to focus on the good that surrounds us.

There are many studies highlighting the advantages of being grateful, including being happier, less stressed, more satisfied with life, less likely to turn to substance abuse, and better able to sleep. (May I just say that I love that this is a blog and I can cite to Wikipedia? To be honest, I have read these studies elsewhere, but Wikipedia has done a wonderful job of putting them all in one place, so I am using it.) What these studies and findings tell us is that gratitude helps lift us from our downward spirals.

I can hear some of you now saying, “it is really hard to find aspects of my life for which I am grateful.” That is understandable. We have not been taught to find gratitude. We have been taught to find disaster. Even if you are not a lawyer, we live in a world where we are constantly barraged with images of how to make our lives better – cuter clothes, sexier cars, bigger houses, and hi-definition televisions that will show us these images of our terrible lives in better quality. Media and advertisement agencies want us to be ungrateful; we spend more money because we are depressed and think that buying something new will cure that depression.

How about taking another approach? How about intentionally choosing to be grateful? Yoga teaches us that we can be intentional about any aspect of our lives. There is a difference between savasana and just lying on your back. One has the intent to truly relax and to rise up a new person, the other is just lying on your back. As with savasana, so with gratitude. We can say thank you, or we can intend gratitude.

A great book on this subject (ironically written by a lawyer) is called 365 Thank Yous, and no, I do not know the author, but he has become an inspiration to me. The author chose to write one thank-you card per day, and the book details his life transformation as a result.

Have no fear. I am not suggesting you write a thank-you card per day as wonderful as it would be. Instead, if intentionally being grateful is new to you, start small. Start your day by sharing one thing for which you are grateful. Share it with yourself, with facebook, with your dog, or find a friend to share your gratitude together. It can be anything, from waking up healthy to having a roof over your head. Then, before bed each night share again one thing from your day about which you are grateful.

I will start, and let us see if we can start the gratitude train moving.

I wrote this post at night, so I am going to share one thing from my day about which I am grateful. I have been struggling with what to do next on my thesis, and I knew I needed some information about statutes in the United States regarding lawyers who represent children. I was reading an article by a dear friend and past professor in which all those statutes were listed. Not only will this make my work much easier, but it gave me back the motivation and excitement for my project.

What about you? Let us get beyond disaster and move into a world where we find thanks instead of fear. I would love to hear about your gratitude for anything in the comments.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tension, Tension, Tension and Release

This blog began as a result of an epiphany I had during savasana – lawyers need this. By this, I meant the feeling of calm and centeredness that I was experiencing at that moment. Sure, that feeling often dissipates the moment the mat is rolled up, but that is the point of this blog – to see if there are ways we can learn to find that sense of calm in everyday life.

Although I knew it at the time, I have since come to realize how much of the lawyer experience is just the experience of the 21st century . . . to an extreme. There is no better example than tension and stress. Today, the word lawyer is almost synonymous with stress. I have conversations with people, see facebook posts, read comments on other blogs, all that say, “next week/month, things will calm down, and I will be able to relax.” We all know this is not what happens. Instead, new tasks come to our desk, and new problems arrive in our lives.

The tension mounts. We keep hoping and expecting to have a release, a day of calm, a vacation, and we allow the tension to permeate our lives until the moment we can finally let go.

The world saw this in action on Sunday night. For nearly ten years, the tension of a nation built. It was underlying everything, and for most of us we did not feel it explicitly, but it defined our actions. It also turned us against each other. People were “hard” or “soft” on their views, “with us or against us.” It sounded like lawyer speak, the adversarial model on a grand scheme. And the tension just mounted and mounted.

And then the "release" – Osama Bin Laden had been killed. In a moment, the entire country exhaled. Some would say the world did as well, but my experience of New Zealand is that it was important but not as important as for Americans. The tension that had defined the United States did not permeate the entire world (though it certainly existed outside US borders). I saw a poster that said, "9 years, 232 days since 9-11, where is Osama bin Laden," but the bin was covered by dead. There was no doubt that he defined a significant part of the narrative for the past decade to Americans.

And with that release of tension, we saw jubilation in the streets. Upon reflection, people realized that those dancing in the streets were mostly college students – the only people awake enough on a Sunday night to be partying, and the people most excited about a party, for any reason really. That night, and certainly the next day, people began to question whether such jubilation was a proper response. People were so quick to retract the jubilation that Martin Luther King, Jr. was attributed a new quote. But that dancing showed us what happens when we hold onto our tension, when we let it define us, when we ignore it hoping upon hope that a moment will come when “things will get better.” We act in ways we might not act if we had the time to reflect rather than react.

The problem is that the moment of exhale and release passes, and we go back to where we were. Another tension comes into our lives. Within minutes, before President Obama’s announcement in fact, people were already asking whether this would mean an increase in terrorism in the short term. Even when we go on vacation, we dread the extra work we will have when we return because we have not addressed it while “relaxing.” When we live to release tension at some future venture, it never really leaves us. 

This constant tension and waiting to exhale leads us to do things we would rather not do. For lawyers, it leads to the downward spiral of email, but it can lead to fights with our families and friends, missed opportunities of happiness, and a sense that we hate our jobs and even our lives.

Lawyers are great at that. This year has seen a few BigLaw partners committing suicide, and we know that lawyers lead professions in substance abuse. So what do we do about it?

Tension is always going to exist. The work is going to keep coming, and the world is going to keep throwing us lemons (or terrorists). If we hold out for a time when we expect that tension to release, we are going to act crazy along the way and probably the moment the bubble bursts. We need to find tools in our daily lives to release that tension. Breathing and savasana are two great tools, but there are others.

The first step, however, is to recognize when you are putting all your tension-releasing eggs in one vacation basket and ask yourself if there is a way to release your tension before then. 

What do you do when you find the tension mounting? Do you expect it to get better next week? Do you take a break? Do you take a breath? Do you ignore it?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved