Friday, January 28, 2011

All the difference . . .

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost

Growing up, this was one of my favorite quotes from any poem. It meant I could live my life the way I wanted to live it, not the path that had been previously laid out for me. Here was one of the most beloved American poets giving me permission to venture forth on an unbeaten path.

I did not understand then how much it relates to our brains, to being a good lawyer, to being a good person, and to yoga. On one level, Frost is talking about our samskaras, our habitual patterns that drive our lives and cause us to drive to a location without even thinking about it.

In the last post, we talked about how we get so involved in our patterns, our samskaras, that we believe it is the only way to see the world, our way is the “right” way. But learning to “look right” before crossing the street is a great reminder that there is no right or wrong in so many of our patterns, only adaptations to the environment in which we live. Learning to diverge from this path of habituation can make “all the difference” in our lives, and the lives of those we encounter, especially our clients and other lawyers.

First, what is a habitual pattern in the brain? As a lay person, I know very little about science and the brain, but I do understand very, very basically how patterns are formed, and Frost’s poem is the perfect metaphor. Every movement, every thought, creates an electrical impulse in the brain, which fires from the synapses. The more often we fire the same synapse, the stronger the connection gets. It becomes a strong path, easy to find again because like the path in Frost’s poem, it has been differentiated from the other paths through use. Thus, altering this pattern, these synaptic links, requires forging a new path.

Forging a new path is not easy, but it is simple. It is simple because the individual steps required are not difficult to do. It is not easy, however, because it takes time and commitment to stick to the steps. The good news is that no machetes and axes are required as we might imagine they would be in Frost’s poem. Instead, some simple techniques can help us forge new pathways in the brain, and as the brain becomes more adept at forging particular new pathways, it becomes more adept at forging all new pathways, just like flexibility in one area leads to flexibility in others.

So what are the steps? Try to start walking with the opposite foot. I was in marching band for seven years, and now, seven years later, I still automatically start walking with my left foot. Making a conscientious effort to start walking with my right foot is difficult, but over time, it becomes easier as a new pathway is formed. Another easy technique is to clasp your fingers so the opposite index finger is on top. Clasp your fingers together – everyone has their “preferred” way – and notice the order of the fingers. Now switch the order, so the other index finger is on top and the opposite pinky finger is on the bottom (all the fingers change position). Notice how weird it feels. That is a new pathway being formed. Try taking a different route to work in the morning, even changing one road.

The best way is to notice your habits, notice what you do unconsciously, and then try to do that same action differently, but consciously. I have a new one coming up for me on Monday – driving on the left side of the road. I will report back soon. ;)

What are some of your favorite ways to change habits? Have you noticed it making “all the difference” in your life?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Looking "Right"

Everything here is backwards. I am in the Southern Hemisphere, people drive on the "wrong" side of the road, and the sun rises over the Pacific. So, what does this have to do with yoga and the law?

Patterns! In Sanskrit, the word is Samskara. One site defines samskara as “the deep impressions of habit.”

Patterns, or deep impressions of habit, define our actions every day without our realizing that it is happening. The first day I was here in New Zealand, a very kind woman was driving me around the city to introduce me to it and help me run a few errands. I kept trying to get into the driver’s seat because the cars are backwards. As much as I tried to think “Look right” before crossing the street, at least once, she had to pull me back before a car came. (Luckily the car was far enough away that even if I had stepped in the street, I would not have been hit, but she noticed I looked the wrong direction.)

Yesterday, I took a walking tour of Dunedin, and before we crossed each street, I said, “look right,” and the guide told me that being a pedestrian is the hardest part. She said that when she was in the States, driving was okay, she learned, but she never quite got the hang of being a pedestrian and having to look the other way or walk on the other side of the sidewalk (that one, by the way, is the hardest for me right now).

How many of you have driven somewhere and not known how you got there? What about those times when you know you have to go a different route and just miss it because you follow your more common path? These patterns run deep, and we do not even realize it. Do you even realize that you always walk on one side of the street?

As lawyers, getting stuck in these patterns can harm not only ourselves, but our clients as well. The law is constantly changing, and there are always new arguments to make, new ways of viewing facts that all-too-often seem to be similar between cases. As a family law attorney, I see the “same” facts over and over again, but to the parties involved, their facts are unique. Legally, they may not be - there may be only a finite number of family law issues - but personally, the facts in a particular family are facts unique to that particular family. If a lawyer ignores this fact, he or she can miss that which might help his or her client.

Noticing our patterns is the first step, and Yoga is an ideal tool for noticing. We may notice that our right side is always tighter or that we always raise our left shoulder higher to our ear in postures. Through meditation, we notice the same thoughts coming up and running through the screen in our mind.

From noticing in yoga, we can recognize how our perceptions of the world are based on our deep patterns and habits. We begin to believe that our way is right, but it is simply our way. It is just the way we have always done it. Another person’s way of seeing a situation is equally valid to our own. Truth is based on perception, and perception is based upon the filter of our past.

This is difficult to acknowledge. It is much easier to think that our way is right - always. After all, unless we train ourselves, it is difficult to see from a different perspective. It is difficult to understand what it means to see the world upside down. We like to think we are “right,” but in reality, learning to look right before crossing the street changes all that. We start to see that there is less right and wrong and more perception.

In the next post, I will comment on how yoga can literally help us overcome these samskaras and the tiny steps you can take that might help you begin to understand a different perspective and possibly even save your life when you remember to look right instead of left when you cross the street.

Until then, ponder this - the sun rising over the Pacific. Does it look “right?”

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Following A Dream

I wanted to write this post yesterday, to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but as this post will explain, my life has been a bit hectic, and posting has been put on the side a bit. We all know about MLK’s dream, and yesterday on facebook, I saw this (more than once): A fitting tribute to Dr. King: "Last week we saw a white Catholic male Republican judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean American combat surgeon, and this all was eulogized by our African American President." We are nowhere near perfect (lest we not forget that this included the death of 6 people, and many others shot), but it is a fitting example that dreams can come true.

When I was 16, I was a camp counselor, and my father was a child custody evaluator (he still is). He used to tell me about children of divorce in court; they have no voice, and the judge need not consider their wishes at all (though even then, there were many who did). Working with children, I knew that they were a lot more together than we adults often give them credit for being. At 16, I also thought that children should have a lot of say in their lives. As years went on, this became my defining mantra, and I went to law school to give children a voice in the legal process. Interestingly, I never wanted to be a lawyer in the traditional sense of the word; in fact, I was not even sure what lawyers do, other than in the family law realm. While that has since changed, my initial dream has not been diminished.

As I have mentioned before, this year I am heading to New Zealand (actually tomorrow) to study their family courts. In New Zealand, every child whose parents are divorcing gets a lawyer, every child in a child welfare case gets a lawyer, and every child in the criminal justice system gets a lawyer. Their courts are committed to listening to children. When I heard that, I knew I had to go. The pieces started to fall into place, and when I get on that plane tomorrow, I know it will be to fulfill a dream more than a decade old.

People keep asking me what I will do when I get back. This is a very lawyer question. We need to have a plan. We need to know what is coming not just tomorrow, but next year, in five years, in ten years. We do not do well with insecurity. Although my yoga practice has been thrown for a loop since I moved out of my apartment on December 30, yoga still guides my actions when I stop and reflect, and yoga has taught me that I need not know exactly where I will be when I get back. I trust the universe. It has never failed me yet.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not know what physical manifestation his dream would encourage. He was probably not thinking about gay Mexican-Americans, but the spirit of his dream lives on when we ignore all that makes us “different” and understand all that makes us human. I cannot, in any way, compare myself to Martin Luther King Jr., but I can say that, like him, I have no idea how my dream will manifest. I do not know what will happen upon my return in a year, but I know that children will be better represented the more information that gets out there, and I know that I have to write a long thesis.

This blog will not go away. Yoga and the law follow me everywhere now, and I will be getting my LLM (Master’s of Law) while I am over there. I have already found the yoga studios where I will be. I am positive that New Zealand will be full of wonderful fodder for this blog. But here is my pledge and intention because if I make it public, I must follow it:

I pledge to live up to the expectations of my 16-year-old self, to learn all I can about how best to provide for children in the legal system, and to come back here ready to use that knowledge to help. I further pledge to utilize what yoga has taught me because if I have learned anything since entering law school over 5 years ago, it is that the current model is not sustainable and until we start to treat each other, and all participants in the legal system, better, the system will continue to fail.

See you “down under!”

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A New Hope

No, the title is not another shameless Star Wars reference - it is a shameless reference to President Barak Obama and the hope that he helped inspire from the tragedy that rocked Tucson (my adopted home).

He said, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” He implored us to tune into and find our true empathy.

I have never brought politics into this blog, nor do I hope to ever do it, but yesterday, before the speech, as I was walking along the streets of San Francisco, I was thinking how best to write about all that has happened in the media, in our lives, in politics, since Saturday, without being political. Well, the President answered that question, and it goes right back to where I was in the blog before Saturday - The Downward Spiral of Email.

This downward email spiral is the non-political version of the vitriol we have experienced these past few days. It can only occur when we allow ourselves to believe that the person to whom we are writing the email is divided from us, in whatever way. In order to speak ill of another, we must see him as “the other.” This is becoming all too easy, especially when we have the screen between us and them.

So, what can we do to counteract this? We can take the President’s advice - empathy. According to the Free Online Dictionary (hey, don’t hate, it was the most comprehensive definition in my Google results), empathy is “Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.” For a brief moment, if we place ourselves into someone else’s situation and ask about their motivation, but more importantly, their circumstances.

We have a few options when we receive those emails, or see the civil discourse getting out of hand around us. We can respond in kind, and carry the conversation down that path. We can ignore it and just respond with “facts,” bottling up the tension, hurt, and anger until the next email sends us overboard. We can also respond to the person and ask about the circumstances.

If we start from the point of view that President Obama provides - that we are all full of decency - it becomes easier to respond to these situations with more openness. A simple, “I did not realize that I offended you with my words, here is what I meant,” or “Did you mean for me to interpret this email in X manner, you are usually not like that” can immediately shift the conversation.

There is enough non-civil discourse in this world. There is enough caustic speech. Yoga gives us the tools to stop and reflect, to see that how we affect others greatly influences how they affect us and how we interact with ourselves. Yoga teaches us to respond and not react. If every person made the choice to treat others with love and compassion and empathy, we would not only begin to understand each other, we would begin to change the downward spiral into an upward one. How would your day look different if instead of sending a nasty response, or thinking a nasty thought, you reached out and tried to bridge the divide?

Tucson, Arizona, and the entire country have come together in the wake of this disaster, but let us not only find this community when disaster strikes. Building this everyday, in every moment, is how we change the world. Let us choose to treat one another with the love and compassion that creates community everyday.

Namaste and Blessings.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Sad Goodbye

I know that this post is supposed to be Part 2 of the Downward Email Spiral post, but I find myself needing to “respond,” or at least acknowledge the Tucson shooting on this blog - for so many reasons.

First, I called Tucson home for 4 years. I attended law school there, externed at the Court of Appeals, and worked for the Pima County Superior Court (which was Judge Roll’s first job as well). Some of my dearest friends are in Tucson, and dear family members almost attended the Giffords events. In other words, this shooting hit close to home, a home I thought was safe from the vitriol that permeates so much of Arizona. Tucson is a small community; what happens to one person happens to all. Reputations spread quickly, and this has always helped keep down the vitriol, especially among the legal community (as much as I often dislike what lawyers do, I have nothing but love for the Tucson legal community as a community). In such a small community, you have to keep some sense of respect for each other, because if you treat one person badly, everyone knows.

Second, a federal judge was killed. Although there had been death threats against him, and according to an article in The Atlantic, some people believe it is good that he has died, his death was nothing more than “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But what is being ignored in all of this is that a conservative judge just wanted to say hello to his friend, a liberal democrat. These were people who may have disagreed politically (though Judge Roll probably did not express his politics), but they recognized that humanity was more important than their political beliefs. Judge Roll was the only judge at the Tucson Federal Court with whom I did did not have a personal connection, either knew or have a friend working for him currently. That does not mean that his presence as one of the most respected jurists in the country did not affect me as a lawyer in Arizona, but especially in Tucson. In other words, this shooting hit close to home. But his tragic death was after he was on 24/7 protection by the Federal Marshals because of death threats resulting from his ruling on an immigration case. He could have just as easily been a target as an innocent bystander supporting a friend.

Finally, this was a shooting, something that can only happen when we choose to see people as “the other,” instead of as fellow human beings. On that note, I am not sure this is so much different than the Second Part of the email post. This is the final stage of vitriol and hate. I do not blame Sarah Palin, and others, who spread this hate, and I do not blame the tea party. This permeates deeper. The alleged shooter had mental health issues that were not addressed, and we live in a time where we cover issues with band-aids of various sorts, whether they be medications, prison, or ignorance. We do not reach out to those least fortunate among us. I am as “guilty” as anyone in this regard.

Yoga has helped me connect to people on a deeper level, to find community, to see everyone in their best light when I take the time to pay attention - to not see people as “the other.” But that has made these two days that much harder. Had I been disconnected, would I care as much? Would this hurt as much? Perhaps not. But what I have found is that even though I am no longer in Tucson, the community I have there is strong, and we are holding each other, if not physically, then certainly emotionally and spiritually. It was in Tucson that I tuned into my yoga practice, found a yoga community, and grew to hold that space as sacred in my life. Yesterday, the moment I heard Gabby was shot, my heart told me that Tucson is home. Once again, it all comes back to community. That community has made this easier, on some level. So yoga has been both sides of the sword - the deeper pain, but also the deeper appreciation for what I have, especially as so much of my Tucson community remains the legal community.

I am grateful that this happened while I am still in the country. I could not imagine this happening while I am halfway around the world. But as I write it, I know that we are in a time where nothing is out of the realm of possibility. I am heading to New Zealand to see how best to represent children in court, but also as a “citizen diplomat.” I find this phrase sort of silly, but on a deeper level, it is vital to our survival. What if we all acted as citizen diplomats? What if we all worried that each of our actions could one day wind up on wikileaks? Would we show more love? Would we spread less anger?

No one is perfect. If anything, yoga has taught me this on a daily basis, though as a lawyer, I am your typical Type-A perfectionist. But I can think of no greater gift we can give to one another and the world, than caring about everyone, at all times, whether we agree or disagree with them, and when we falter, to return as quickly as we can, even when we falter by getting angry at the person who cuts us off on the highway (which happens PLENTY in Phoenix). Let us not get caught up in blame and hate as a result of the Tucson shootings, but instead take Judge Roll and Gabby Giffords as examples - they were friends, conservative and liberal, yet friends. In all my time in Tucson, I never heard a person speak poorly of either one; they may be two of the most respected people I have ever indirectly, but closely indirectly, encountered.

Therefore, I offer this post as a prayer to all those injured and killed on January 8 in Tucson. I offer this post as a prayer that their pain, and ours, not be in vain. May we all learn to hold each other, across time and space, in our hearts, regardless of what we think of gay marriage, health care, the gold standard, and immigration. Most importantly, may we use this opportunity to see people as human beings and not as “others.” I offer this post as a prayer that as we interact in new ways, including by email, we remember that there are people receiving our words and thoughts, and we must be careful in how we act and hold each other.

As I say goodbye to Arizona, and the United States, I am saddened by the note upon which I am leaving, but I hope that we continue to hold each other, from our dearest friends, to random people, to those with whom we would rather not interact on a daily basis. We are all in this together. We only get one shot at it.

Blessings and Namaste.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Friday, January 7, 2011

The downward spiral of email - Part 1

Today, the American Bar Association’s email had a link to an article entitled, “Lawyers Sanctioned for E-Mail Insults, Including ‘Scum Sucking Loser’ Comment.” There is a lot about being a lawyer that I like. This is not on that list. Interestingly, it is this very situation that yoga can help.

How do we get to “Scum Sucking Loser” and “Retard” (in the article)? There are two common culprits - lack of attention and misinterpretation. Of course, they are two sides of the same coin.

People today are busy. Somehow, we live in an age where work can get done faster and more efficiently, and yet, we are busier than ever. There are a lot of reasons for this, but that is not the point of today’s post. When we are this busy, many of us do not take the time to respond; we merely react, and we react based upon our immediate interpretation of an event. In this case, the event is an email. On top of a lack of time, it is all too easy to misinterpret what people say when all we have is a “cold record,” or typed words.

Over the past year, as I have spent more and more time having “conversations” by email and facebook, and other forms of written communication, this issue has arisen for me. It is also something I noticed a lot at the court of appeals. I have heard that as much as 90% of communication is non-verbal. Thus, when we read an email, we put in our own emphasis, our own tone, our own interpretation. This happens even more when we are too busy to consider the other person’s point of view and what they could have meant to say.

Not too long ago, I was emailing with someone I know well, a family member, and we communicate by email, phone, and in person when we are in the same state. In other words, I know her communication style. She wrote something that I interpreted as a jab, but really, it was her own excitement about something. Luckily, I asked. If I had not, I would probably still be upset about the email. And just a few weeks ago, another family member misinterpreted a joke I had posted on facebook, and she responded to it very upset. Luckily, I was able to explain myself, and we worked it out. But these are family members; these are people with whom I choose to work out these misinterpretations.

What about the “opposing” attorney? Do we take the time to reflect then? Or do we just allow the email chain to spiral out of control assuming we can ask for sanctions later? This is where the bigger culprit than time and misinterpretation comes in - anonymity. No matter how well you know the person on the receiving end of the email, you are “anonymous” behind the screen. You can be sure that you are “right,” and the other person is “wrong” because there is no actual interaction.

Yoga gives us the tools to step out of this cycle, not only with tools to help us stop and reflect, but also to stop getting stuck seeing people as “the other” instead of another human being. We can ask, “hey, what did you mean?” If the other person really was trying to be rude and obnoxious, we can stop the chain, respond by ignoring the jab and just replying to the actual issues at stake, and allow the spiral to start going back up.

In the next post, we will look at some different approaches yoga provides to allow us to step away from the downward spiral. In what ways have you found yourself in the email spiral? What tools do you use to stop it? Has it ever ended up before a judge?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Pulling Community Together

A year ago, I posted about community and how we cannot do life alone. My year, therefore, was full of finding and building community, especially in the legal profession. From fellow family law professionals (lawyers, mediators, judges, mental health people, etc.) to other mindful lawyers, to professional women across the spectrum of professions, this year has been about growing and building a network of people with whom I connect on various levels. Professionally and personally, I feel more fulfilled as a result. As I said in the post a year ago, lawyers are really good at going it alone - I preferred law school to business school because there were no group projects (and less math, but whatever), but we learn that it takes a community to really do the work we need to do.

So after a year of community building and engaging with a wide variety of people, I am about to leave to go to the other side of the world where I have almost no community. Although it seems that everyone I know seems to know someone in New Zealand, and I know a few people down there, and Fulbright has an amazing alumni association, it is going to be different. Once again, I will be alone, at least at the beginning, starting from scratch, trying to create a new network of people in my life both personally and professionally.

This is actually the third time I have had the opportunity to live abroad. The other two times I lived in France, once as a student, and the second time as an English teaching assistant. Without going into the details and making this the longest post ever, both periods abroad helped me create new communities. It is even harder to “go it alone” when you barely speak the language where you are.

It used to be easier to never grow your community. Barely 100 years ago, even cars were barely used. Today, our community can grow instantaneously, through social networking, and we can see anyone in the world face-to-face through video chat or video conferencing. But we can still do it all from the comfort of our own offices. We can still go to networking events with at least one friend. It is human nature to want to feel safe and part of the community you already know. We would not have survived as a species had we been too open to meeting others; they could have killed our clan.

But today, the opposite is true. We are going to kill ourselves if we do not expand our communities, see “the other” as “the friend.” As I head into the great unknown, with the intention of being open to possibilities, I have asked myself what lessons I have learned from the law and yoga that will help.

As a yogi, I have learned to embrace community, to understand that my body is a teacher, and I can ask it what I need on the outside as well as on the inside. I have learned new ways of acting internally and externally from the yamas and niyamas, and I have learned to be comfortable (sometimes) with “just” sitting.

As a lawyer, I have learned that this phenomenal realm, “reality” or “the real world,” as some would call it, requires action of a different sense. While the legal system is flawed, and the catalyst for my going abroad to learn about a better system, it can only be changed by rolling up the shirt sleeves on the inside - as a lawyer. Lawyering is one type of community; the law is a community, a social contract, shall we say. And it follows its rules, but the people we are on the inside determine how we interact in the outside communities.

So this coming year is about combining all of that together, bringing together the understanding that there is no way we can do this alone, that we must interact with each other, learn from one another, and support one another, and then bringing back what is learned to create a better system here, through the grunt work of being a lawyer. But my first boss said it best, “of course yoga and the law are similar - they both strive for truth.” This year is all about finding that truth, from community to children’s representation in court. What I have learned over the year (slightly more, but not much) of writing this blog, is that we need the tools from both to make the biggest changes in our own lives and in the systems in which we interact. Our internal reflections give us the strength and insight to make the external changes, on any level.

Thank you for being part of this community with me. Here’s to a year full of possibilities!

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved