Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Using All the Tools in our Toolbox

Life has a funny way of forcing us to learn lessons even when we ignore them over and over again. When I was in Yoga Teacher Training, one of our teachers analogized yoga to a toolbox, a toolbox for all sorts of various aspects of life, from the physical to the spiritual. We can choose to access them at various times and places. When confronted with others and their circumstances, we have a toolbox full of ways to help or simply support them.

For those of us who practice yoga, this makes a lot of sense. Asana and meditation and breathing techniques can bring us to new and deeper understandings of a variety of life experiences, if not all of them. But even for devout yogis living at an ashram, there are other tools in the toolbox. For example, when we are meeting up with a friend, we have cell phones. When we have work to accomplish across the Pacific Ocean, we have email. Some of us use hiking or running or boxing to relieve our pent up stress.

The point is that we are not only lawyers or yogis, but we have a diverse set of life experience that can be tools in a variety of new experiences. Whether we are trained as paramedics or Olympic athletes or lawyers, our everyday experiences are understood through whatever experiences we have had until that point in life. When we encounter issues for which we have been specifically trained, our toolbox is there to help us navigate through it.

But we have to use the tools.

That is the lesson the universe seems to be trying to teach me. Over and over again. This past weekend, I finally understood. And it was a moment when so many of the tools in my toolbox could have been utilized and were not.

The short story is that I met a friend, who had no cell phone, in San Francisco. We were having an amazing time, but then we saw a boat coming into the bay, and she got up on a wall to see it, but with my sprained ankle, I could not climb, so I told her I would walk down to the end of the pier to see it. It was on Pier 39, one of the busiest places in San Francisco, over Memorial Day Weekend. What could possibly go wrong? 

Yep, we got separated. I stayed calm for a few minutes, but as the minutes ticked by, the panic sunk in, and I was sure I had lost my friend in San Francisco. I knew we would eventually find each other, but the panic grew and grew. After about 20 minutes of frantically searching (and calling my mommy), I went to the security booth, and as I was describing my missing friend, she walked by.

Of course, the story has a happy ending (and San Francisco showed off its utter beauty the entire time), but the lesson finally hit home. We have our toolboxes for a reason, and we cannot leave out any part of it. As I felt myself getting more and more freaked out, I felt the yoga bucket emptying faster and faster. I felt the downward spiral, but I saw no way around it. That could have been the toolbox lesson enough, but with my current job, I get that lesson on a daily basis. No, this lesson came from a job I had almost 12 years ago.

I have posted before about the divergent course my life has taken, from basketball player, to musician, to lawyer, to yogi. But one piece I left out, which ironically is the reason I wanted to go into lawyering for children, is that I used to be a camp counselor, actually a director of a summer camp with over 150 children in my care each day.

I used to take 150 children to San Francisco in the age before cell phones. And these were children, easily lost, and easily distracted. Yet we managed. We had contingency plan after contingency plan. We knew what to do when something did not go as planned, and the one time we needed it that I can remember vividly, it worked perfectly. So where was my contingency plan with my friend?

The universe has wanted me to check into my toolbox a lot recently. But it seems to be coming so often in the yoga realm. It is so easy to be focused on only one set of tools when our lives are full of so many. The wonderful thing about yoga is that it can help us clear our minds enough to remember all the tools we have, whether they be asana or meeting points. The overwhelm of life can blind us to so much, but we all contain such diverse and bountiful experiences that can guide is in so many aspects of our lives.

We live in a world in which we like to put each other, and ourselves, into boxes. I am a lawyer. I am a yogi. I am a ________. But we are so much more. We are all unique individuals, full of experiences that can guide each and every moment of our lives. The important thing is to remember the tools are there when we need them, and that, for me, is where the yoga comes in. What are your tools? How do you use them in new ways?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why the Honeymoon Ends

The last post examined the difference between the honeymoon phase of yoga and the learning curve phase of a new job. But it only examined one reason the honeymoon phase ends for yoga – the magic disappears. I definitely think that happens for some people, but I think there is something more, and something yoga teachers need to make more explicit.

The relationship analogy with yoga is interesting. It is also perfect. Yoga is a way to begin a relationship with ourselves. That is something we are not trained to do in most modern cultures. It is probably the most difficult relationship we will ever have, and it will define our relationships with others.

The honeymoon starts for a few reasons. First, yoga can feel really great! It is an incredible stress reducer. It can help alleviate pain and tension, including pain and tension we did not know we had. It is a great break from the craziness of the modern world. It is a moment of silence in our otherwise loud and intense lives. Of course there is a honeymoon phase! It is the only break some of us ever get.

But why would it then end?

First, the excitement goes away. When something stops being new, it stops being as interesting. Thus, while the wonderful effects of yoga remain, the excitement about those effects diminish. Second, it can be difficult to continue to get on the mat every day, or even a few times per week. Busy takes over again, and we forget how great yoga can make us feel on so many levels.

But there is something deeper, and it goes back to why the relationship analogy is so great. Yoga deepens our relationship with who we are. That can be wonderful, but it can also be frightening. Many, if not most, of us do a wonderful job blocking out parts of ourselves we do not like. We push them away, so we never have to deal with them. Instead of facing these parts of ourselves, we often just get annoyed with others who manifest them instead.

On the mat, or on the meditation cushion, we stop being able to run away from ourselves. Our physical blocks become apparent, but so do our emotional and spiritual blocks. For many people, that is the moment where the honeymoon phase ends. It stops feeling like paradise when we have to see ourselves in all our being-ness.

But just like any relationship, that is the moment where it is most important to keep going. That is the moment where we decide whether it is worth it to remain. We know there may be some hardships, but the payoffs are so, so much better. Knowing ourselves on our deepest level gives us the strength and courage to face all of life’s difficulties. When we know who we are, and when we have faced our own personal angels and demons, we know that what the external world sends our way, we can handle. We can handle it because of the tools we learn on the mat. First, thought, we have to learn those tools.

Thus, the honeymoon phase will end for most people. I know of no one who has practiced for more than a few months that has not had that day they just do not want to get on the mat. I know of very few people who have not laughed or cried on the mat. And I know of very few people who, after continuing to show up for the practice, do not thank themselves for doing it.

Yoga may not cure every ill we have. Some days it may feel as though it is doing nothing more than bringing them to the surface. But when they come to the surface, we can look them squarely in the face and deal with them. The island paradise feeling may disappear, but over the long haul, yoga helps us build our relationship with ourselves solidly enough to build our relationships with each other and the world.

That sounds better than a 2-week honeymoon to me. How about to you?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Honeymoon vs. The Learning Curve

Yoga starts with a honeymoon phase. It seems that people who really start yoga (as opposed to those who go for one class and decide it is not for them) simply fall in love with the practice. It begins to define their being. There was a great article about that honeymoon phase, and the end of the honeymoon phase, over on Yoga Dork last week.

The author notes, quite correctly in my experience, that there will be days we just do not feel like doing the practice. There will be times we need to take a break, sometimes because the practice has lost something and sometimes because we ignore the practice so much we hurt ourselves. But her point is that like any relationship, there comes a point when the magic feels like it is gone. But it is the initial bliss that sets the stage for the continuing relationship in the future.

The legal profession, from the day we set foot in law school, is sort of the opposite of the honeymoon phase of a yoga practice. From that very first day, we talk about the steep learning curve, about learning to “think like a lawyer” (which, as someone pointed out to me recently, is grammatically incorrect). But those first few weeks and months in law school are nothing compared to the first few weeks and months in practice.

I have now been practicing for almost five months. I have been studying how to be a lawyer for children for the past 5-7 years. I taught kids English in France, and I was a camp counselor for years. My dad is a child custody evaluator, and discussions about family law and juvenile law issues were the topic of many a dinner-table conversations. In other words, I had quite a solid foundation for this work. And yet . . . The learning curve is steeper than anything I have ever before experienced.

And at times, it feels overwhelming . . . overwhelming on the grandest scale.

Interestingly, the cure for both the end of the honeymoon phase and the overwhelming nature of a steep learning curve can be the same – returning to the passion of what brought you there in the first place. This can be extremely difficult when we are stuck in a rut. It can seem pointless when the honeymoon phase has ended. The greatness that was the beginning of the practice might be nothing but a distant memory, a memory you can barely rely on as truth anymore. The exhilaration that brought you to a legal practice (or any profession) that now seems so maddeningly overwhelming can feel like nothing more than pipe dreams of a distant age.

But the good news is that neither of those is the truth. Those belief structures are the rut and the overwhelm speaking for our true understanding. The joy and exhilaration of a practice are always there. They are sometimes more difficult to find than at other times, but they always exist.

Sometimes we just have to look from a new perspective. And what I have learned this weekend is that the new perspective can be that place of rut / overwhelm. The difficulty of the path, wherever that path began, is what deepens the passion that brought us there in the first place. The honeymoon phase, while perhaps exciting, is not the fullest and most complete part of a relationship. The overwhelm of the steep learning curve eventually goes away and first year law students and associates eventually become mentors.

In the moment of the rut and overwhelm, hearing that is difficult. Deep down, we all know it, but stepping on the mat, or into a courtroom, can be difficult in those moments. But the new perspective on the passion and inspiration that began the path and the practice can be our strength to step back in the game.

What I find most interesting about this dynamic is that regardless of how the practice begins – either a honeymoon or a steep and difficult learning curve, the bump in the road is the same. But the bump is just a bump. It is not a brick wall. And that is a lesson both yoga and the law have taught me, and continue to teach me when I’m willing to listen.

How have you seen this play out in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Mindfulness Reminder

Ever hear someone being described as someone who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time? It’s often used as a punch line or to describe someone who simply cannot do two things at once. For some reason, this is considered problematic to many. After all, multitasking is not just useful; these days, it is necessary, right?

Perhaps not!

There are more and more studies coming out telling us that multitasking just means we are doing multiple tasks less well than if we paid attention to any one of them fully. We like to think we can seamlessly jump from one task to another, from facebook to email to twitter and back again. The truth, however, is that no matter how adept we think we are at it, our brains simply do not function that way.

Ironically, the more we multitask, the more difficult it actually becomes to jump between tasks. It is only when we learn to truly quiet the mind that our brains learn to use the quiet between tasks to stop and refocus. The more practiced we are at quiet, the quicker we can jump back and forth. But then, the more we jump back and forth, the more difficult it becomes to quiet the mind.

See a cycle? It’s a perfect example of the yoga bucket -- the ability to use practice from the past for a little while before it becomes depleted and we need to refill. But no matter how full or empty the yoga bucket, attempting to do too many tasks at once eventually catches up with us. 

Friday I got that wake-up call.

Last Monday, my office moved. We moved from the 19th story in a downtown building to the 3rd floor of a building closer to the court where we usually work. This meant two things: 1) less time wasted driving back and forth to court, and 2) I could take the stairs instead of an elevator. I was ecstatic about both.

These past few weeks have been incredibly busy, and last week was no exception especially with the added stressors of the move. By the time Friday rolled around, I was tired. I was slightly overwhelmed. I was running to court, down the stairs I could now use, and I was checking my email on my cell phone. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

And it did.

In all my rushing and attempting to do so many things at once, I tripped on the last stair, and I rolled my ankle badly enough to sprain it. Luckily, I work with some amazing people who took immaculate care of me, and I work with other lawyers who shared their sympathies (and then told me to come up with a better story).

People were supportive, but the lesson was there: Slow down, pay attentions, be mindful!

We all get our wake-up calls different ways. Generally speaking, they come as physical injuries doing routine activities (like mine), dis-eases, hopefully something like a cold or the flu, but sometimes much worse, and even life events that shake us to our core. But the message is always the same – we need to be more mindful of our daily lives and our personal wellbeing.

As I sit here (ok, lie here with my foot elevated) with my second sprained ankle in less than two years (the other one ironically happening during the Mindful Lawyer Conference), I’m wondering what it will take for all of us to get this message. I know I am not the only person trying to walk and check my email. Some people add eating and talking on the phone to that list as well. We live in a world where being "able" to multitask is a resume booster. We live in a world where time walking is wasted, so we better use it to do some work.

I feel that this post is my public service message. So often on this blog, I have suggested just stopping and taking a conscious breath. But this time, I am going to suggest you do that at the least opportune moment you think you have. At that moment when you are doing 4 different things at once, stop and ask yourself which one is the most important and focus on that. And yes, the most important thing at that moment might be walking or driving.

And if you cannot decide which is the most important, stop and take another breath. When all of the external world seems so overwhelming that choosing between options feels impossible, that is the sign that the breath is vital. It will slow us down, bring us back to the present, and remind us that if we are going to have any hope of actually finishing what we want to finish, sometimes stopping for a moment is the only way to get there. Maybe these reminders will be an opportunity to be grateful for the people who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. Rather than a punch line, they should be our teachers.

What do you notice yourself trying to do all at the same time? Has it landed you with any disasters?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Are You Listening?

I revealed in the previous post that one of the reasons I went to law school is because everyone seemed to think I would be a good lawyer because I liked to argue. The truth, however, is the real reason I went to law school was to give children a voice. It is a long story, and not really relevant to this post, but the short explanation is simple. Children have little to no voice in the legal process, and lawyers are one way to give them that voice. I wanted to ensure the courts were listening to children. Of course, the lack of job upon graduating from undergrad helped push me along as well, but I digress.

Yoga and law both teach us, nay require us, to listen. Yoga teaches us to listen on the deepest levels. As we learn to listen to our body’s cues, we can learn to heal the pain we associate with daily living, from movements we can do “at the desk” to asanas that take us into our deepest being. We learn to listen to the mind without judgment through meditation, and we learn to listen to the breath to learn what it has to teach us. In many ways, all of yoga is training for how to listen to ourselves and all we can learn about ourselves, and therefore, the world. Listening, with more than just our ears, is fundamental to the practice of yoga. 

Listening with more than our ears is also fundamental to our lives as lawyers. As lawyers, we tell stories. In order to tell those stories, we have to listen to our clients’ stories. We have to understand our clients better than they understand themselves, at least understand how their stories relate to legal ramifications. This means listening between the details and listening to the minutest detail to ensure that no stone is left unturned in order to provide them the best representation possible. Sometimes, when our clients do not have the words, we have to listen to their lack of words, to their body language and reaction to our questions.

Listening, in both yoga and law, therefore, is a deep exercise. It means understanding. It means stepping out of our own perspectives and stepping into the perspective of the other person. It means suspending our own biases and viewpoints in order to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It is the first step to moving beyond the concept of "my way or the highway." From there, we may step back into our own world and understanding, but the first step is to deeply listen. And this is where the tension starts.

We live in the modern world, a world that moves quickly and loudly. All the extra noise and distraction make it very difficult to tune into those deepest bits of information. Instead, the ding of the smartphone, the radio, the television, the other cars on the road, the planes flying overhead, and the kids screaming around us distract our attention and rip us away from what we may otherwise want to notice. 

In addition, we live in an action society, one in which action is rewarded while listening deeply is often considered idle. Lawyers, in particular, are action oriented. We have a bigger function than listening and telling stories. The lawyer’s job is to resolve crises, either before or after they happen. Thus, lawyers have a tendency to see the world through “fix-it” eyes. We hear a problem, and instead of listening to the entire story, we stop and think, “what can I do to fix it?” We get so used to fixing crises that, over time, we jump to conclusions without all the facts and expect to solve the crisis. The desire to make things right, therefore, can sometimes supersede the need to listen to ensure we solve the appropriate problems.

Yogis do not necessarily always listen better. People push through pain in order to get to the fullest expression of a pose when their bodies are not ready. We often fall into muscle memory to flow through postures not noticing how they are affecting us on that particular day. We ignore the breath as it becomes strained.

But then we can remember that each moment is an opportunity to come back to the state of listening. Each moment is the perfect moment to recognize what it means to listen deeply. From there, we can find the appropriate solutions for the appropriate situations. Listening requires us to step outside ourselves and tune in to whatever is happening, whether it is what we expect or not. That can be a scary prospect. It means letting go of preconceived notions and simply being present in whatever is happening.

But when we hold that space options and opportunities arise that we never dreamed possible. We settle cases and learn to stand on our heads, or simply learn to stand on our own two feet with full awareness of all that is happening around us.

Are you listening?

© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.