Monday, April 30, 2012

My Way or the Highway

Law, especially litigation, is a world determined by sides and “facts.” I have mentioned these issues before (here and here), but today I want to focus on something that has come up repeatedly in my life recently, both in my office and on my yoga mat.

Lawyers like to be right. It seems that anyone who likes to argue “will make a good lawyer” to their parents. I guess this is a time for a little self-disclosure – that is what people said about me. So, arguing and holding onto positions is in our blood. In law school, lawyers are taught to see all sides of a situation, but out in the real world, we have to take positions . . . and we have to stick to them. We have to stick to them even when we disagree with them.

In addition to the courtroom, lawyers take positions by writing. We write emails to other lawyers, motions to the court, closing arguments when we have run out of time, and even sometimes articles and books. In all these written communications, we must take a position. The good news is that your thoughts and ideas can be disseminated more widely, but the less than good news is that those thoughts are in ink . . . forever.

At a conference several years ago, I was speaking to a psychologist, and I had made a point of disagreeing with something he had written in my law school note. We were discussing that particular area of disagreement, and he said something that has stuck with me forever. He said, “That is the problem with writing; it is there forever.” In other words, he had begun to disagree with himself. This is a man who is well known throughout the world for his work, and people love him or love to hate him. And here he was saying that he has evolved and changed over the years. For the record, in discussion, we understood one another and agreed on most aspects discussed. I have the utmost respect for him . . . even when we do sometimes continue to disagree.

Constantly being expected to take a particular position and stick to it creates patterns, or samskaras, in the brain. We learn to do nothing but stick to our guns and tell people, “it’s my way or the highway.” It makes it easier, sometimes inevitable, that we become less compromising. It is not necessarily a choice, but over time, it just becomes the way we see the world.

And lawyers are not alone in this. One of my yoga teachers (actually one of my first teachers), on Sunday, asked us all to tune back into that essence of trying to always be “right.” She, too, had such an encounter during the week. She asked us to look at how it impacts our relationships with ourselves and each other. Timing could not have been better in my life. That was a theme of my week this week. Longtime readers will know that I just returned from New Zealand where I wrote a thesis on a new model for representing children. Now I represent children. Anyone else see a potential butting of the proverbial heads?

And this week it happened. The discussion about the proper model came to me front and centre (I take myself back to NZ when I can through spelling). Not surprisingly, someone disagreed with me. My model for representing children is definitely controversial, so this was not entirely unexpected.

And an amazing thing happened for me. I was okay with the disagreement. I was a bit upset. Of course I would like people to agree. But I stepped back, and I learned a lot from the conversation. I felt a little downtrodden – all that work on a thesis for naught? Really? But then I read a blog post that brought me back to my purpose by none other than my cousin writing about her 3-year-old son’s first imaginary friend. And then I went to the yoga class where this ebb and flow of relationships through being “right” was the theme du jour. I still think my model will work, but I do not see it as the only model.

There is no question that I like to be right, and I like when people agree with me. Not only am I a lawyer, but it is ingrained in us in society. But over time, through yoga, it has become easier for me to accept other points of view, to hold them, and to listen to them. Am I perfect at it? Absolutely not! There was some intensity in my discussion earlier in the week. But each encounter where we hold the entire story begins to create a new brain pattern, a new samskara, and we can begin to explore the world from all points of view.

Of course, it can also lead to caving on your position all the time, but that is a post for another day.

Where do you notice your “my way or the highway” approach to life? How do you respond when people disagree with a position you hold and believe is fundamental? Does it matter how much you care about your position?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Power of a Smile

How often do we talk about smiling? Phrases such as “Turn that frown upside down” are cute ways of telling us that smiling is better than frowning. There is controversy over whether it takes more muscles to smile than frown, but everyone has their version, and many like to share it. And of course, there is the old adage that we can “fake it til we make it.” In other words, we can make ourselves happier just by smiling. We talk about it a lot, but do we ever actually think about the power that a simple smile holds?

When I was in band in high school, my parents (and other band parents) would always come up to me after concerts to tell me how serious I looked. As some people got to know me better over the years, they even went so far as to tell me that I looked downright dangerous. I always just laughed. How serious could I really look? Once in a yoga class, I was in reclining virasana, one of my favorite poses, and I was happy as a clam. The teacher came over to ask me if I was ok. Apparently I did not look happy as a clam. It continues, and one of my current teachers now just walks over and places her hands on my head and says, “relax your brow.”

My response to these situations has changed over the years. As a high school musician, I was confused. Did I really look that bad? The first time in yoga, I tried to be serious about not being so serious. Now I just laugh.

When I teach, I tend to teach hard poses in a similar way. I start at the beginning, move through the pose step-by-step, and then just as everyone looks like they are struggling as much as they can, my instruction is nearly always the same, “now smile.” I have never really thought much about why I do that, but as I am being reminded more and more by the same teacher how serious I am, I have started to ponder the power of the smile.

First, there is some, actually a lot, of truth to the “fake it til you make it” mentality. Simply smiling really does release endorphins, which help us feel happier. Over time, we really can become happier. That is a powerful benefit, but it is not the only one. Smiling, especially in the midst of being tense, releases that tension. A smile can snap us out of a different state simply by being different. Finally, and this might be the best lesson for me, it reminds us to take ourselves less seriously.

I deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I work with kids who have been removed by Child Protective Services. But even if your day job does not involve CPS, we all feel the seriousness of the world. There are wars raging, people starving, homeless people on the street, and whatever else the media wants to bombard us with. One of the only ways to remove ourselves from that onslaught of seriousness and unhappiness, is to break the cycle. Breaking the cycle starts with a smile. It is the antidote, the way to snap ourselves out of the collective serious world.

This is not to say that those issues should not be addressed in a serious way. In many ways, I find it difficult to smile in the face of so much distress, but then I remember that it might be the key to actually bringing light to those situations. We can start to break their cycle with a wee smile.

Smiles help us relax. Those endorphins do more than just make us happier. They actually help put us back on the path to overcome the fight or flight response. A smile breaks the stress cycle. Once we are able to break that stress cycle, we can begin to see the world from a more holistic vision. Stress gives us a very narrow focus – either run away from danger or freeze in its face. But once we break that cycle, other options open. A smile is the first step.

When I look back at my confused reaction in high school I wonder if I could have had more fun and been less singularly focused, would I have been a better musician? Maybe I would have actually gotten into music school? But then I would not be on this path, and that definitely is not something to smile about. I am happy to use it as a reference, and now those memories simply bring a smile to my face.

Who knew that such a simple act could be so powerful?

How have smiles helped you break cycles in your life? When is your favorite time to remind yourself to smile?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Theory and Practice

I’m a practicing lawyer. Somehow, this statement still sometimes takes me by surprise. Until yesterday, however, I could not really put into words why it has felt so strange. And then it hit me . . . while doing yoga, of course. For years, I have been preparing to be a lawyer. For all those years, I have been studying the work I do now. And now, all of a sudden, I am actually doing it.

Interestingly, I have stopped doing as much yoga. It is easy to blame that on a lack of time. I work a lot. And when I am not working, I am catching up on reading, or I am making dinner, or I am sleeping. But lack of time is not really the answer. I get up early enough every day to do at least a short practice, and very often I just do not do it. 

But why? What is it about doing that is, all of a sudden, so difficult?

It is no secret that I am an academic at heart. I loved law school, went to NZ to learn more, and eventually want to work in policy or teach. Even in yoga, I greatly miss teaching. All of my mentors, however, have told me that I cannot do the policy and teaching until I actually practice law. I agree. So here I am. I enjoy the work. After all, it is what I went to law school to do. But it is definitely outside of my comfort zone. I was a student, a teacher, or doing academic-like research and writing for 25 years (preschool excluded). Being in my head, away from the practice itself, is my comfort zone.

But what does any of this have to do with yoga?

The times I have had the most solid yoga practice were the times I was studying for the bar exam, working at the Court of Appeals, and while writing a thesis. Those were the times in my life I was most living in my head as part of my day job. Yoga was the counterbalance to that world. It was my “doing” in a life of “theory” and learning. Yoga Teacher Training was a time where yoga was both. I studied the doing and the theory of yoga together. I read everything I could find about yoga, and I had a daily practice as well. It was during those 9 months that my yoga practice felt the most complete. It is also when I started writing this blog. Yoga, like law, has both sides. You can study all day long, but there is a practical side, what we usually see in studios and yoga classes.

In yoga classes, from asana to meditation, yoga is about being present, watching the monkey mind, but not getting caught up in it. Being a practicing lawyer, by contrast, is all about getting caught in that monkey mind. On that level, therefore, yoga and law balance one another. At a different level, however, they are both a balance between theory and practice. They are both a practice, and it is the doing of the practice that makes the theory worthwhile. They both require doing in order to test the theory we all espouse. 

There is a major tension (call it a chasm) between those who practice law and those who write about how to practice law from the comforts of their academic offices. Law schools are being pushed to change their teaching methods to become more practical. They are being ridiculed for failing to teach students how to actually be a lawyer rather than just think like a lawyer. I get that argument, but I still get excited about presentations on being a lawyer and books on how to practice yoga.

And this is where the yoga lesson hit me. Yoga teaches us about balance. That means a lot more than learning to stand on one foot. For the legal profession, and I am pretty sure most professions, that also means finding a balance between theory and practice. I think we all have a lot to learn from one another. In that time of balance between theory and practice in my yoga life, I thought the chasm I would have to overcome would be the one between yoga and law. Funny how now, I find myself out of my comfort zone in both for the exact same reason. Perhaps it is time to turn back to that lesson of balance -- the balance between theory and practice and finally bridge the chasm that has defined so much of the world for years.

Where do you find yourself on this spectrum of theory and practice? Do you see it in your profession? Do you see it in your yoga? What do you do about it? Honestly, I am looking for ideas, so thoughts and comments are greatly welcome.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Back to basics . . . Again

"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Suzuki Roshi from, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I found the above quote in an article about Steve Jobs’s connection to Buddhism. The point of that quote in the article was to illuminate how Steve Job's genius manifested. He never let what was already in existence deter him from finding something better. The article, of course, also discusses how a student of Buddhism treated his employees as Steve Jobs did, but that is not the point of this post.

As I have mentioned before, there is something special about the beginner’s mind. When we let go of the need to know everything and open our eyes to all the possibilities, what previously seemed impossible becomes possible. If we think we know everything, then there is no opportunity to learn more, and our world-view becomes limiting.

The last post discussed what the Easter/Passover season means, and along with those themes, it is spring -- the perfect opportunity to start anew. It is a time to let go of any of our preconceived notions about the world and see the possibilities that exist. To me, this is the interesting piece about where the Passover story ends. It ends with the escape from Egypt. It does not go on to talk about the 40 years wandering the desert.

But those 40 years are where the learning takes place. Those 40 years are the beginner’s mind and an absolute expanse of possibility. The Middle East desert is nothing if not an expanse of possibility. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been . . . and I lived in New Zealand for 10 months.

A view of the desert from the top of Masada at Sunrise.
 It is very easy for all of us to think we have the answers. It is easy for us to think we are experts, especially about our own lives. Being sure is safer than questioning and being open to possibilities. Choice can be paralyzing (link to a TED talk on the paradox of choice). But it also holds the key to that which we may never have deemed possible.

Yoga helps us remember that each moment is a chance to learn something new. There is always a new muscle to discover, a new technique to learn, or a new posture to practice. And it is called a practice for a reason. People have a meditation practice; they do not master meditation. Similarly, doctors and lawyers have practices. On some level, they understand that if they believe too strongly in their “expertise,” they will miss the full story.

I find that the most exciting part of being a lawyer. Every day is different, even if from the outside it looks like I am doing the same thing. It is easy to generalize and lump cases together, but the truth is that every individual client is just that . . . an individual. Their story is a clean slate, and I know nothing about it before walking through the door to meet them. Sometimes that is literally true, and while frustrating at times, in many ways it allows me to be completely open to possibilities. How can I be an expert on a person I know nothing about?

Thus, there is a story beyond the excitement and freedom of breaking free of slavery. To me, the story suggests something bigger. We are slaves to our “expertise.” It is when we let our minds be blank slates like the sun rising over the expansive desert that the greatest possibilities for our lives emerge. It is easy to lose track of that sense of emptiness in the modern world, and yoga provides the tools to bring us back. Meditation and asana are about calming the mind and coming back to the present moment, the moment when anything is possible.

Are you ready to break free and be open to the possibilities that await?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Slavery, Freedom, Death, and Rebirth

This is an intense weekend. Good Friday, the Friday before Easter, marks the day Jesus died on the cross. Friday night is the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday during which we remember the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Sunday is Easter, that when divorced from bunnies and chocolates, is a celebration of Jesus rising from death.

When a large number of people think about the same ideas, those ideas permeate the world in which we live. I discussed this before in regards to the Christmas spirit.  Passover has always been one of my favorite holidays. In part, it was because it was our “family” holiday, the time we all got together. But it also symbolizes an escape from slavery and the jubilation that comes with freedom. 

Exodus is a big word. It is not just an escape. It is a grand departure. Death and rebirth are not small topics. They are, perhaps, the deepest conversations we can have. It is not chronologically a coincidence that Passover and Easter are usually close together; Jesus’ last supper was a Passover Seder. It is also not a coincidence these events happen in spring, the season of renewal, the reminder that there will be sun and warmth ahead (even with a little wind and imbalance) after the cold, dark winter (unless you live in Arizona in which case it was a mild, sunny winter).

But more importantly, it is not a coincidence with their themes. In order to break free from slavery, we have to let our old selves die, and wake up to a new world and to new possibilities. We have to be willing to see the world through beginner’s eyes. But that is a scary prospect. Letting go of who we are today, even if we know that tomorrow will be better, can paralyze us with fear. And yet, at this time of year, we hold these themes in our collective consciousness, and we ask ourselves how we can make them part of our daily lives.

Today, we hear the slavery metaphor a lot. We talk about being enslaved by work, addicted to our electronic devices (crackberry, anyone?), and torn between time for ourselves and time for other people. But we only have to see it as enslavement if we choose. What if we were able to see our freedom of choice in every single moment? What if we decided to start today?

Yoga gives us the perfect opportunity to teach ourselves how to wake up as new people. At the end of a yoga practice, we do savasana, corpse pose (apparently this Easter/Passover theme about savasana has appeared before on this blog). That prior post does not, however, get into what savasana really is. It is meant to be a death. It is called corpse pose for a reason. It is where our old self dies, and we can be reborn. We can come out of savasana a new person, open to possibilities. We can have an empty mind.

Savasana is the reminder that we will wake back up after the fear of letting our old selves go. We can let go of beliefs about ourselves and others. We can let go of our fears and hindrances. We can let our old selves disapear knowing that we will emerge. Passover, of course, ends with the jubilation of the escape. It leaves out the next 40 years wandering in the desert. It is a brief moment in time to be thankful for the freedom, but it leaves out the fear that comes next, sometimes immediately. Each moment we overcome a particular individual enslavement, we feel a moment of jubilation . . . and then the fear sets in, and we remember we have to wander the desert, whatever that is in our life.

Yoga is the foundation to remind us that we can continuously come back to our practice and make our choice each and every day. We can let it got, we can wake back up, and we can find our own freedom in each moment. While Passover and Easter teach us the big themes and bring them into our collective consciousness, yoga gives us the day-to-day tools to remember that each moment is a choice, and we can carry these themes with us throughout our days, weeks, and months. I hope you all have a happy and healthy holiday weekend, whether you celebrate or not. 

How do you carry these themes with you throughout your daily lives?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Knowing and Finding Balance

“The only way we can know balance is by knowing imbalance.”

I heard that quote in a yoga class this weekend, and it got me thinking (luckily after the class was over – mostly). When I was a child, I was complaining about winter, and a friend of mine reminded me that winter makes spring all the more beautiful. Thus, from a fairly young age, I have known that we can really ever know something fully by embracing its opposite. This concept works energetically too, of course. Fear and excitement are really the same energy; it is our mind that places a different meaning on them, or it, really.

Finally, law is certainly no different. The best lawyers know their opponents’ arguments better than their opponents know them. It is the only way to be sure to be able to counter them. I did not listen to the entire Supreme Court argument on the Affordable Care Act, but I think I heard that either Justice Kennedy or Justice Scalia said to Paul Clement, “this is not a surprise question, I hope.” Of course, I could be totally wrong, but the sentiment is there. Paul Clement, the highest-ranking legal advocate in the country, is expected to be prepared when he faces those nine justices. And part of being prepared is knowing how other people are going to attack your argument.

I say this to point out that these thoughts and understandings about knowing opposites have permeated my life, my yoga journey, and the legal practice. Yet I had never put any thought into imbalance and its keys to understanding balance. What an opportunity for lawyers and any modern people. I would be willing to bet we are, as a society, at our least balanced in history, and I was not even thinking of the political realm when I wrote that. I was thinking about all of the various aspects of our lives pulling us in so many directions at once. We talk about work-life balance as if learning to balance between the two is going to make it all better, forgetting that we have to learn to balance within each of them as well.

But as of April 1, 2012, April Fool’s Day, imbalance took on a new meaning for me, an opportunity really.  Prior to this, my favorite quote about balance came from another yoga class, one with Frank Jude Boccio, who teaches Mindfulness Yoga. He said to the class as we stood in Tree Pose, “There is no such thing as balance, only balancing.” What a beautiful ability to let go of the struggle to find perfect balance. I embraced it and ran.

But it still focuses on balance from balance’s point of view. To truly know and understand what we mean by balance, whether we seek perfect balance (perhaps unattainable) or a sense of balancing, we can only fully understand and acknowledge it by understanding imbalance.

A new month is upon us. A new week is upon us. I do not know about you, but my week is going to be very, very busy through Wednesday, and then I am going out of town for the holiday. Instead of dreading the first three days of the week and their unbalancing effects, I am going to embrace them. To truly understand balance, we must understand imbalance.

I have been noticing the Earth understanding this concept all weekend. It has, once again, been incredibly windy here in Tucson. Of course, the Spring Equinox was only last week. For the briefest of moments, the Earth was in perfect balance, and this happens twice a year. Not surprisingly, these are the two times per year when the wind is at its most extreme – Autumn (Fall for us Americans) and Spring.

What if we learned to do the same? What if we learned how to find balance internally by witnessing and feeling the imbalance all around us? Are you ready to embrace the imbalance?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.