A Valuable Tool for Freelance Lawyers
Mindfulness is increasingly recognised as a powerful technique for looking after our minds and bringing greater focus, calm and clarity. However, Mindfulness is more than a mere mind training technique – when practised as a way of life, Mindfulness can connect us more deeply with the present moment and powerfully enrich our experiences.
Mindfulness may be described as a particular way of paying attention. More specifically, it means paying attention to our present moment experience on purpose and with curiosity. Mindfulness can be incorporated into our lives in various ways — by bringing it to bear on everyday activities such as eating a meal or walking down the street, or through “Mindfulness Meditation”, a dedicated seated practice which involves bringing sustained attention to an aspect of our present experience (for instance, the breath).
While practising Mindfulness, we try to become more deeply attuned to our experience by noticing its qualities on a granular level. For instance, if you were to eat an apple mindfully, you would notice the details of its appearance, the waxy texture of the apple skin in your hands, the crunching sound it produces as you bite into it, and the nuanced range of flavours in every bite. Thus, Mindfulness is the opposite of how we normally tend to approach our lives — being on our devices while eating, thinking about work while talking to friends, and barely noticing the spring flowers while walking home from the station, constantly preoccupied by the future or distracted by the past.
Why is Mindfulness important for freelance lawyers?
Mindfulness can serve as an antidote to some of the psychological and wellbeing challenges presented by legal work. Freelance lawyers tend to have a better work-life balance compared to lawyers in private practice. However, they are not entirely immune to the pressures inherent in legal roles at large companies and law firms, routinely needing to respond to emails after working hours and juggling a seemingly endless list of tasks. In the course of a typical working day, we’re often unable to attend to a single task for very long before we need to check our inbox, respond to emails and join calls. And while on calls, we draft responses to emails and review documents. There is little scope to devote attention to one thing at a time, and multi-tasking is pervasive, and indeed, essential. Compelling research has demonstrated that the idea of “multi-tasking” is a myth. The brain does not actually “multi-task”, but rapidly switches from one task to another. And following every switch, when our attention returns to the original task, the strength of our attention is diminished and it can take time to ramp up again to full concentration, thus impacting our productivity.
The volume of our work, our tendency to be preoccupied with our devices and constant multi-tasking can impact not only our concentration levels and output, but can also result in a continuous hum of anxiety almost as a background to our lives. If work-related stress is chronic and constant, it can adversely affect one’s mental and physical health.
Numerous research studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging benefits of Mindfulness Meditation — a regular Mindfulness Meditation practice can increase immune functioning, reduce inflammation and lead to better sleep. Mindfulness training has been shown to strengthen the brain’s ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions. Research indicates that Meditation leads to improved emotional regulation.
Studies have also demonstrated that Mindfulness practice can dampen the brain’s “threat response” system. When experiencing chronic stress, our threat response circuits can become over-sensitive — the brain can initiate “fight, flight or freeze” reactions on a hair trigger. Relative routine stressors such as a receiving a heavily marked up version of a draft contract from the counterparty the day before signing, or delivering a presentation prepared at short notice, can flood the body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Such physiological responses, if unabated, take a mental and physical toll. Research studies have revealed that the threat perception centres of the brain show dampened activity from a mere 30 hours or so of Mindfulness-based Meditation practice.
In addition to such benefits, when practiced regularly, Mindfulness has a rather unexpected reward — it can help make our familiar and habitual experiences seem fresh and novel. Evolution has shaped our brain so that normally we notice something just long enough to make sure that it poses no threat, or else to categorise it, through a process called “habituation”. Habituation conserves brain energy by paying minimal attention to things once we know they are safe or familiar. One downside of this dynamic is that we habituate to anything familiar — the art on our walls, familiar food, even our loved ones. Habituation makes life manageable, but a bit dull. Regular mindfulness practice can help reverse habituation and sensitise us to sights, sounds, tastes and sensations which we would otherwise hardly notice. The attention training involved in Mindfulness can thus enrich our lives, enabling us to generate delight, wonder and connection during everyday experiences.
For me, one of the most eye-opening results of Mindfulness practice was a realisation of the sheer volume and repetitive nature of my thoughts, almost as a running commentary in the background of my experience, resulting in a sort of “auto-pilot” mode of functioning. Mindfulness has helped me become more self-aware, enabling me to make more conscious choices about how I respond to situations.
So how can we practice Mindfulness in the midst of our busy lives? The most well-researched format for Mindfulness Meditation which has been shown to produce positive results is a widely accessible standard 8-week Mindfulness programme called the “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course”. This programme involves half an hour or so of Mindfulness Meditation every day, and incorporating Mindfulness into certain day-to-day activities. If half an hour a day seems like an impossible endeavour, then one can make a beginning by practising in bite-sized chunks of 5-10 minutes a day, through guided meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm and Waking Up. In addition, we can attempt to be more mindful during one routine daily activity of our choice, for instance, while taking our lunch break at work.
While I would caution against viewing Mindfulness as a panacea for all the ills of modern life, I can personally attest to its benefits, and I would urge you to explore its potential.
Vrinda will be delivering a Mindfulness session exclusively for our Varios on 16 October 2019. The session will discuss the latest research in the area and some mindfulness ‘hacks’ to improve your day-to-day working life. Get in touch with your Account Management Team to find out more details.
Vrinda is a lawyer and a psychotherapist, and also conducts workshops on various aspects of mental and emotional wellbeing. She trained at Slaughter and May and has worked as an in-house commercial counsel through Vario for the past several years, most recently at Fujitsu. During her time in private legal practice, Vrinda gained first-hand experience of the stress levels that can result in a high-pressured corporate environment. This prompted her to research psychology and neuroscience principles to support her own wellbeing, and she subsequently undertook formal psychotherapy training. She has a regular meditation practice and has attended a number of residential meditation retreats. More information about her work and background can be found at https://www.vrindasharma.com/