Friday, January 27, 2012

When we Dehumanize the Dehumanizer

I think there is one thing upon which most people with whom I interact, and probably you as well, can agree: child abuse is bad. We may not always agree on what point discipline becomes abuse, but I am willing to bet that when a child arrives at a hospital with retinal hemorrhages and brain hemorrhages, the line has definitely been crossed. The conference I attended this week focused on such injuries, and it forced me to confront an issue that has been boiling below the surface for me for years. 

Where I tend to disagree with most people with whom I work is what we think of the person who caused the abuse.

Working in child welfare again has reminded me how quick we are to judge, how quick we are to throw people under the bus when we think they are monsters who can dehumanize innocent children.

But why does that give us the right to dehumanize them? Dehumanizing others, while convenient, takes its toll on your own humanity. That, however, is a topic for the next post.  Here I want to focus on what we do to others.

I am the last person who is going to say that it is okay for someone to harm a child. I am the last person who is going to defend actions that lead to hospital trips and very often the morgue. The actions, yes, are abhorrent. But my first response to that is, what happened to the person who did it such that he or she got to the point where abuse occurred? What was his or her life like? Someone like that needs our compassion, not our judgment.

I know there are people in the world who believe that someone who can abuse a child cannot be rehabilitated. I know there are people who believe they are monsters who should be locked away forever. But how is there any chance of someone changing if the rest of us believe it is absolutely impossible? I refuse to give up hope. Many people have told me that more time working in this field will knock that idealism out of me. They think that with enough time seeing the horrifying nature of some people, that I will go to their side.

But they do not understand the power of the yoga and all it has taught me over the years.

Just like the last post, I am not sure I have an answer to this dilemma, but I do know that I refuse to dehumanize anyone. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” None of us are perfect, and if we attack each other, we destroy life and go blind. We are all connected, and destroying anyone in that connection destroys a piece of us. I want to ensure we can all see clearly.

Law school tried to beat the humanity out of many of us. We are asked to be “rational” and think about how evidence is relevant to the law, ignoring how it is relevant to people. We live in a world where corporations are considered people. Our concept of humanity is skewed. I have little doubt of that anymore.

But yoga gives us the space to come back to that sense of humanity. Perhaps you are not ready to see someone who abuses a child as a fellow human being, albeit one who needs some serious help (and to stay away from children until receiving that help), but are you willing to see opposing counsel as a fellow human being? What about the client on the other side of the case? What about your political rival? What about someone who disagrees with you about gay marriage or taxing the rich?

I know these ideas are controversial, but I strongly believe that if we do not have these discussions, we are going to continue down the road to destruction of all of us. And I think it is one of the most important lessons yoga can teach us, especially those of us being asked through our jobs to dehumanize, whether that dehumanization is of a child abuser or just the lawyer across the street. 

And what if your act of humanizing someone else allows them to pay it forward? What if we all treated each other with humanity? Could that eventually stop the abuse? Could that eventually allow us all to see clearly? I believe it can.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When the Truth gets Lost

I am currently at a conference unlike any I have ever attended. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions before, I love conferences. Not only are they a plethora of information, but they are a way to meet the experts, network, and see what people around the world are doing in the work I do. I also love interdisciplinary conferences to learn about other fields. But they also can provide so much information and bring up issues we have in our practice that we did not even know existed. This conference took that issue to a completely new level for me. 

Lawyers are expected to find the “right” answer, the “truth.” I have struggled with these issues on this blog before, but this conference is throwing them in my face like never before. The conference is called the “San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment.” The participants include lawyers, law enforcement, doctors, forensic interviewers, social workers, etc. My first day consisted of presentations on differentiating birth trauma from abuse, the importance of acknowledging bruises, and learning about methamphetamine’s effects on the brain. I never thought learning about meth would be the easy part of my day.

This morning started with suggestibility and recantation during forensic interviews about sexual abuse. Good morning to you, too! What are we expected to do with this information when there is no physical evidence? How are we supposed to make sense of it? How do we hear everyone's story and find "the truth?"

The lawyer in me wants to know “the truth.” The yogi in me knows we all see the world through our own truths. The lawyer in me knows that child sexual abuse happens, and it must be taken seriously. So, what do we do in this situation? How do we hold the entire story and follow the law?

For the past decade, my yoga path has encouraged me to see and hold the entire picture and to understand people from their points of views. At the plenary session today, the speaker said she has discovered over her career that when we truly listen, we find there are truthS, not one single truth. That can be very liberating, but it can also be paralyzing to the person listening.

What do we do with that? What does the law do with that?

I try to always have some sort of answer in these posts, some lesson I have learned from yoga or law that concludes. Today, I simply do not have that. I refuse to let go of the years of yoga that have opened my eyes to trusting people, humanizing people, and seeing the entire picture from everyone’s point of view. I cannot do this perfectly; I doubt anyone can, but the yoga makes it easier each and every day.

But we (the system) have to make decisions. We have to determine what is in the best interests of children. And this is not just true of child welfare lawyers. All lawyers, and anyone who sees trauma, disaster, etc. on a daily basis, must find a way to hear it, make some sense of it, and find a way to move forward.

At the beginning of law school, we were told that there may never be an answer in certain law school scenarios. We were asked to “embrace the ambiguity.” When discussing abstract situations involving constitutional law principles, I not only can accept that, I enjoy it. But when we are talking about real life and real decisions, especially those that involve families and children, that ambiguity becomes painful.

But the good news is that people are talking about these issues. People are trying to find some answers, even if we cannot always have the “right” answers. That gives me hope. And the yoga, most days, keeps me grounded. Right now, that is where I am. I look around this conference and see people who have been doing this work for years, and I wonder whether they think they know the answer every time. My guess is not, or they would not be here. That also gives me hope. Knowing we do not have all the answers is the first step. We just keep moving along and hope each day we are doing our best. 

How do you notice these ambiguities in your life? What do you do to respond to them? Do you ever feel like you can know the truth?


© Rebecca Stahl, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crisis Management: A Changing Perspective

While many of the recent posts have focused on the similarities between yoga and the law, today’s is about one of the biggest opposites. As I have mentioned before, lawyers live in a world defined by disaster. Whether in litigation and responding to the disaster at hand or in transactional work preparing for or trying to avoid disasters, the legal world moves among disasters.

Yoga, by contrast, is about simply preparing ourselves. While disasters are about the external world, or our definition of the external world, yoga is about preparing our internal selves for anything that happens in the external world. This is, of course, much easier to do when the external world in which we find ourselves is fairly simple and not one disaster after another.

So what do we do when we find ourselves surviving in crisis management? What do we do when we feel as though we are barely staying afloat, and if one more event occurs that requires our attention, our entire being is going to explode? That is when the yoga bucket is so vital. That is when the five minutes per day of internal practice help give us the strength to respond with our full awareness to these external forces rather than react with our immediate reactions, unsure of whether we are actually doing what is necessary.

Living in crisis management is dangerous on many levels. We harm ourselves because we live in a state of constant stress. The physiological effects of long term stress are well documented and include the inability to sleep, inability to digest, decreased immunity, etc. In addition to our own physical health, we harm our relationships because we are less capable of interacting with people from a place of heart. How often have you snapped at someone you love simply because you were too tired and stressed to speak to them differently?

Finally, living in that state of crisis management means we can never be in control of our professional lives. The irony, of course, is that we become less effective lawyers (or whatever) because our jobs require us to live in that constant state of managing the crisis du jour rather than preparing ourselves internally sufficiently to respond from a place of compassion and understanding each time an issue arises.

I think there is more to doing this than just having the de-stress bucket filled by doing a practice. I think it also requires a shift in perspective. The reason so many of us believe we live in crisis management is because we view so many parts of our lives as crises. What if we changed that perspective? What if we saw these moments as just another step along the path? What if we saw them as opportunities?

In my personal life, I have seen crises become the greatest moments in peoples’ lives. In my cases, I have seen what I thought were crises become non-issues simply by getting all the facts. And when I change my initial perspective, I find that I have a lot more to give to the situations that truly are crises because I have no used all my energy on the parts of my life that do not require such an intense response.

Unlike finding five minutes a day for a practice, which is simple but not easy, this change in perspective is not very simple either. At some level it requires a complete reprogramming of our responses to what we see as our external world. That takes time. But if I found one thing in New Zealand, it is also possible. I have been back in the United States now for just over a month, and I still find myself “looking right” half the time before I cross the street.

We do not have to choose to be in crisis management mode at all times. Sometimes it feels as though the world has not given us the choice to step back and step out of it, but with each new “crisis,” stop and take a breath. What would happen if you chose to stop and evaluate before going into crisis management immediately? How would that look different?

Do you find yourself living in crisis management? What tools have helped you?


© Rebecca Stahl, 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Future for Others

Today is my 30th birthday.

Generally speaking, I give no thought to birthdays. I have nothing against them, nor do I particularly care about having a special day. They are, however, a good time to stop and reflect about where we are in life, a time we have to reflect personally rather than big changes we share with others, e.g., graduations, new jobs, etc. Additionally, there are several reasons why this birthday stands out for me. 

First, I am one of the few people I know who is excited to turn 30. I think I was ready to be 30 when I was about 10, so I finally feel my age. It is also happening as I begin a new job and the first one that could be a career if I wanted it to be. It is also a decade birthday, in which we tend to think back on the past decade and reflect. 

My first thought upon reflection was, “what happened to a decade?!?!?!” After getting over the initial shock of realizing that it was ten years ago, not ten weeks ago, that I was living in a dorm at the University of Michigan, I have had some time to really think about what I have done this past decade and what I hope to do over the next one.

Briefly, my twenties went as follows: college, during which I studied abroad in France; teaching English in France; law school; learning to do yoga; working at the Pima County Superior Court; working at the Arizona Court of Appeals; becoming a yoga teacher; and getting an LLM in New Zealand. Of course there are other things, but those are the big highlights. I am struck by two things based upon that list: 1) I have been incredibly blessed, and 2) I have been fairly focused on myself.

Our society has a negative view of focusing too much on yourself. People who focus only on themselves can be seen as selfish and egotistical. One of the most difficult lessons, therefore, for me to learn from yoga was that we must take care of ourselves before we can be of service to others. We must feel secure in our own skins before trying to exist in this world, and we need to fill our own reserves, or we will have nothing left to offer others. As someone once said to me, "the heart pumps blood to itself first."

It was a difficult lesson to learn, but there is no question that I have spent a decade doing just that. All my travels, combined with the yoga, have taught me so much about who I am, what I value, and how I want to move forward. At times I felt too selfish, but deep down I knew I was preparing for something bigger and better. Interestingly, I ended up just where everyone seemed to think I would end up, but now I know I have done it on purpose rather than because someone said I should.

But what does this mean for the next ten years? It means that it is time to turn my focus to the external. This does not mean I plan to stop meditating, practicing, or even traveling; in fact those remain necessary for this next step. But it also means that it is time to use those reserves and all that information for the world. To be totally honest, I am a bit embarrassed by the list of my twenties. I feel like I could have done so much more for other people. But I also know that I can sit with people who have had to call the police on their own children or with drug addicts who have neglected their own children and feel sympathy and compassion without feeling like I have to run for my life. Some days are, of course, easier than others, but hopefully my ten years of selfish can lead to a decade of paying it forward.

And so I make this pledge in public. We all know that the best way to fulfill a promise is to ensure you are held accountable, and the best way to do that is to make it public.

Thirty seems so young and so quick, but also like a turning point. I have been incredibly blessed and have learned many lessons along the way. I know that going forward there will be days I choose myself over others, but I pledge to do it consciously and do it in order to ensure that I can be at my best when others need me. Perhaps this is one of the best ways yoga and the law intersect. It is through yoga that we strengthen our reserves to be of service to our clients and the world. 

Thank you all for sharing this journey with me, for supporting me, and for holding me accountable. I hope this blog can be a piece of my living for others. I hope it provides you with some insights and ideas about yourselves and the world in which we live, and most especially about how to take the time for yourself to be at your best at all times. Many thanks, and hopefully many more celebrations together.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Five a Day

The last post was all about the need to keep the yoga bucket full, so when we feel like we are losing our sanity, we have some reserves upon which we can fall back. But how do we do that? What sorts of tricks can we utilize when our lives feel like they are falling apart?

The answer is simple – five a day. With just five minutes per day, we can begin to refill our reserves, to refill our buckets.

One of the main culprits for feeling so overwhelmed is the constant barrage of information into our lives, whether new cases, emails, phone calls, texts, facebook, or even the radio, there is always noise around us. Interestingly, people in New Zealand speak very quietly. A common complaint among Americans is that the Kiwis are difficult to hear. I joked that it was because they live in a quieter place, so they do not have to scream to be heard. Then I came back to the United States, and I realized it was no joke. This place is LOUD.

But this barrage of noise and information is not unique to Americans. Even the Kiwis are plagued by it; their voice decibel level has simply not caught up. The New York Times had two great articles about the need for silence recently (here and here), and both of them point out how we are paradoxically more productive when we take the time to turn off and unplug.

The easiest way to do this is to take five minutes per day to be in silence. Personally, I prefer the morning, in order to start my day in the serenity and clearing that silence allows. Others prefer right in the middle of the day, an opportunity to take a break from the insanity and let it all disappear into the silence. Still others prefer the evening, just before bed, as a chance to end their day in the silence and sleep more profoundly. Ideally, we would all utilize moments throughout the day to be in silence, but starting small helps ensure we continue the practice.

There are no rules. There is no way to do this wrong. There is nothing in particular about which you must think or about which you are forbidden from thinking. I am purposefully not using the word meditation here. While I often use this time for my meditation practice, it need not be a defined type of meditation. 

Just silence. Just stillness. Just allow yourself five minutes per day, every single day.

I find that five minutes sounds like nothing until I try to do it, and then I find that some days I cannot even make five minutes for stillness. I know it is a choice I am making, but still, the thought of “wasting” that time in stillness creeps up into my ego. But I know (and so do you, dear reader) that this time is exactly what we need to ensure we are not wasting the rest of our time.

As an added bonus, though not in place of the five minutes of complete silence, I have found another place to find silence – the car. My first couple of weeks at my new job put me into a state of stress I do not think I have experienced since the end of college when I was working 35 hours per week, writing a thesis, and caring for my sick grandfather who lived 30 miles away. The end of the second week at my new job was better for three reasons: 1) my wonderful boss came back from vacation and was a huge help, 2) I restarted my (at least) five minutes per day, and 3) I turned off the radio in my car. The job requires a lot, and I mean a lot, of driving, and I have begun to use the car as an opportunity to sit in silence even amongst the horrific driving conditions that are Tucson, Arizona.

But the car is just a bonus. The true benefit, the true need, is complete, intentional silence when we can turn off completely. As much as I would like to turn off completely in the car, I think others on the road may disapprove. So, the mornings are mine. Silent and calm. Start small, start with five minutes, and see if you can begin to refill your reserves.

Where can you find five minutes?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Filling the Yoga Bucket

I have talked about the yoga bucket before (here, here, and here), so I thought it might be a good idea to actually explain what I mean, and there is no better time than the beginning of the year to think about refilling the yoga bucket.

I like to think of my yoga practice as a way to create a nice reserve of sanity when things get too difficult. It serves other purposes, for sure, but when the insanity of the outside world hits, it is nice to have had a solid yoga practice. When the outside world is not too hectic, it is easier to find time to do a practice, whatever your practice is. Thus, you can enter the world that a practice makes easier, a calmer, less stressful world. When the stress hits, you have some reserves on which to fall back before the stress overtakes your life.

Of course, the bucket is only so big, and eventually, if you are not refilling it, the bucket empties out, and the stress can overtake your once peaceful existence. Many of us live in this state constantly. Instead of our bodies and minds entering the world of stress and then coming out of it, the cortisone keeps pumping, and we stay in the stress response. Once the bucket is empty and the stress response keeps coming, we enter a state of dis-ease. Sure enough, that state eventually leads to disease.

So what can we do about this before the disease hits and while we still have one or two little drops of sanity left in the bucket? The signs are usually there. Does your body hurt more than usual? Are you yelling at loved ones more than usual? Are you getting emotional more than usual? Do you feel like you are just trying to live moment to moment and day to day seems like too much? Those are just some of the warning signs.

You probably know them, so what do we do about them? How can we refill the bucket when there is no time for retreats and vacations? How can we refill the bucket when there is no time to breathe let alone think?

Take five minutes and sit. Seriously!

Five minutes seems like a lot of time and not a lot of time. When we have a deadline, five minutes feels like an instant. When we sit to do nothing, it feels like an eternity. It seems like a lot of time you could be doing work, stressing about the family issues, or reorganizing the to-do list. But those five minutes might just gain you twenty later on. Five minutes per day begins to refill the bucket. Even one minute at the moment when the stress feels the heaviest can be the minute that brings us twenty later on.

But we have to listen.

I could be the poster child for the empty bucket this week. Although I was essentially on vacation for 4 weeks at the end of my time in New Zealand, I was living in dorm rooms and not doing my practice as much as I would have liked. My daily meditation practice had become a sporadic, and often spastic, affair. Upon my return to the United States on December 11, I had little time to acclimate before driving from Northern California to Phoenix and then heading to Tucson to start work.

And work has been stress central. The job is great, but the learning curve is not just steep, it feels like Baldwin Street in Dunedin (where I was living in New Zealand), the steepest street in the world. I have been running in all directions, attempting to meet dozens of new clients, attend hearings, prepare for trials, and still acclimate to being back in Tucson, a place I have not lived for 2.5 years. On top of all that, I have not been living in my own place. I am incredibly lucky to be living with wonderful family, but the lack of “me”-time is taking its toll. I even started to feel a wee bit sick, and I cannot remember the last time I got sick.

Luckily, I recognized this a few days ago and made “refilling the yoga bucket” the theme on the Is Yoga Legal Facebook page. This week, I have restarted, very slowly, my home asana practice, restarted my meditation practice, and tried to use the hours of driving between home visits as an opportunity for pranayama and reflection. I feel like I’m back to bottom, and now it is time to start refilling the reserves. One very slow step at a time.

I guess this post is partially to say that it is easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. My reserves dried out. There is no question about that. But even writing this gives me hope and faith that they will slowly start to refill.

The next post will talk about how to start a daily meditation practice as a way to refill your yoga bucket, but in the meantime, what is your favorite way to refill your bucket and stay sane?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.