Keeva on Life and Practice

A Meditative Perspective

  • Print.

“In this age of unprecedented distraction and information density, every professional needs tools to clear the mind, calm the body and reveal what matters most. It is both a practical and a personal necessity.”

I wrote that a couple of years ago, and I think it’s even truer now.

It’s certainly not difficult these days to find lawyers who are ambivalent about their work. In fact, I hear from them all the time. Many tell me they would like what they do a great deal more if only so much didn’t get in the way of enjoying what substantial pleasures there are. But working in a culture of anger, distrust and soaring stress levels tends to take a toll.

I think it’s particularly daunting to surmount such challenges without some version of the tools I mentioned above. It may be characteristic for lawyers to try to think themselves out of personal problems, but attempting to do so is rarely successful. Something else is needed.

For what is clearly an increasing number of lawyers, a contemplative practice of some sort seems to make sense.

I recently attended a meditation retreat for lawyers at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco.

About 70 people attended the four day gathering amid lovely, deer dappled hills and glorious quiet. Large, medium and small firms were well represented, as were an extraordinary number of practice areas. Everyone, I think it’s safe to say, came with a longing for something better than law practice as they typically experience it. They came to the right place, a place for reflection and an opportunity to delve into their inner lives. Here they could experience a sense of calm rarely felt in the life of a busy lawyer.

Norman Fischer, a Zen priest, spiritual teacher, author and poet, began the retreat with this description of what meditation is: “It is sitting with the actual feeling of being alive. It is always there, but we get busy and don’t feel it.”

What followed were long periods of meditation, but also time for deep discussions. Participants shared their experiences with an honesty that is rare when lawyers come together. Some fessed up that they came as a last ditch attempt to find a reason to stay in the profession.

For me, what made this retreat particularly meaningful–and I’ve been to several other retreats for lawyers–was the way in which it integrated some of the noteworthy work that preceded it. Over the last two and a half years, a group of distinguished and diverse lawyers and judges, along with some law students, began meeting monthly as the Bay Area Working Group on Law and Med­itation.

Their purpose was dual: First, they wanted to share with one another their experience of meditation and law, while supporting and strengthening one another in whatever way they could. And second, they wanted to discuss how to spread their interest in meditation into other areas, particularly the legal profession, legal institutions and even legal doctrine.

Calm in the Storm

What seems to me to be a signal achievement is the group’s articulation of a new concept: the meditative perspective on life and law. It’s a way of viewing the world and acting in it that is both inspired and fostered by med­itation. Among its benefits are:

• Enhancing lawyer listening skills and promoting self reflection.

• Helping lawyers see things as they are, not as they hope or expect them to be.

• Helping lawyers stay grounded and cen­tered in situations that are agitating, stressful and polarizing.

• Helping lawyers or judges respond with wisdom to claims that are forcefully presented, but not always grounded in wisdom.

• Promoting clarity and calmness.

• Promoting a heightened sense of ethics.

One veteran lawyer and member of the Bay Area Working Group–Sacramento, Calif., health care lawyer Dennis Warren–gave a talk that went a long way toward showing how this perspective can inform an actual law practice. Having come a good part of the way toward making his law and meditation practices seamless, he has overseen dozens of retreats and given numerous talks on the relationship between law and contemplative practice.

He described a recent case in which he felt that a longtime client was being treated unfairly by a government employee. Recalling a time earlier in his career, he acknowledged previous difficulties he had when dealing with anger.

“In this particular case, although I was upset,” Warren said, “I was really able to be present with it, and quite quickly develop a game plan, globalize resources, bring in oth­er groups and set up a very effective attack. That type of thing … is what meditation practice does for me.”

Warren describes the way meditation calms and stabilizes the mind, creating a sense of spaciousness that makes it easier to investigate one’s own inner and outer realities. Being in his presence, it’s easy to see why people are often surprised to find out what he does for a living.

The next retreat for lawyers at Spirit Rock is scheduled for April 14 17. For more information, visit the Web site:

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.