Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., penned the phrase “Stop Look and Listen” as a life saving instruction for the driver and passengers of a car approaching a railroad track. Holmes’ memorable phrase is sage advice across a range of circumstances and matters of consequence. It is an important mindfulness reminder that members of the legal profession – and law students in particular – can turn to, again and again, to help navigate and perhaps even, in times of great turmoil, survive the challenging terrain of law school and the practice of law.
When was the last time you stopped, looked, and listened? Or do the minutes, hours, days and weeks often seem a blur, one running into the other without pause – a continual hurtling into the next moment, leaving you feeling depleted, stressed, and scattered?
Justice Holmes is also famous for saying that “the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience.” And because the practice of mindfulness is a matter of experience, before I touch on the logic of mindfulness, I’ll share with you a mindfulness practice – one you can learn in a few moments, practice for a lifetime, and which you may well find meaningfully influences fundamental aspects of your life and well being.
- Bring yourself into a posture that is upright and stable.
- Lower your eyes, (or close them if you prefer).
- Bring your attention to your breathing, following the in-breath, following the outbreath.
- Rest your attention on the flow of the breath through your body, with the intention of keeping it there.
- When you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention back to the breath.
- Do this for a few moments then lift your gaze or open your eyes.
If you have read through the above instruction and not yet tried it, I encourage you to do so – now. So much so, that were you to have to choose between finishing this blog post, or practicing this exercise, I would strongly recommend the latter.
In all likelihood you found this short practice to be a mix of calm and busy. You noticed thoughts arising in your mind and you may have felt a restlessness. And, you may have experienced a few moments of calm. Importantly, mindfulness is not about feeling any particular way, or about changing what you think or feel. Mindfulness is about being present for whatever arises, and finding an “okayness” in the midst of it all.
The impressive and growing body of medical and scientific research on mindfulness reports that the regular practice of mindfulness – even after a relatively short period of time – can lead to very meaningful changes in the ability to focus and concentrate, to regulate emotions and to tone down anxiety and depression. One of the keys to these benefits is that mindfulness practice develops the ability to notice when the mind wanders.
A recent Harvard study found that people’s minds wandered about 47 percent of the time. Imagine the consequences of a mind that is frequently darting away from reading material, class lectures, and even one’s own good intentions. The researchers also found that when the mind was off task, mood dropped.
Of relevance to high stress professions, such as the law, whose members grapple with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, there are a series of well-regarded and researched programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), which specifically address depression relapse and addiction by exploring ways of developing attention and more skillfully working with a wandering attention and impulse.
Many regard Justice Holmes as a solid and brilliant jurist, reflective and at ease, courageous in his dissents and patient in his demeanor, and I imagine he embodied all of these attributes. At the same time, imagine what a challenging life he had – the child of a famous father of extreme intellect and personality, a soldier who almost lost his life (and lost friends and classmates) in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, living at a time when the truest expression of oneself was not an easy endeavor, and ultimately a human being who may, at times, have felt a keen sense of vulnerability in a rapidly changing world. In this regard, a colleague and constitutional scholar once shared that Holmes’ admonition to “stop, look and listen” was less about trains than with the horseless carriages rolling off assembly lines. Apparently, to Holmes, they represented a terrifying new technology.
Whatever may be the specifics, I find it helpful to reflect on the fact that even one with a storied career in the law was beset by life’s ups and downs, and he did his best to make the best of it. I’m confident his keen ability to focus his attention served him well.
Today, the world is moving faster than ever, and the technologies that can enrich our productivity and learning are also sources of great distraction and emotional agitation. Recall the connection between a wandering mind and distractibility, anxiety, and depression and how a relatively straightforward mindfulness exercise can play a meaningful role in skillfully working with these challenging states of mind and body.
“Stop, Look & Listen” is a short mindfulness exercise that you can practice just about any time. You can practice it in the middle of a busy day or during quieter moments, when it may be a little less challenging to do so.
- Stop: Pause what you are doing, close or lower your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths.
- Look: Turn attention inward and notice the thoughts arising in your mind and the sensations arising in your body.
- Listen: As you breathe, expand your awareness outward and listen to sound. Pay attention with ears that are open to the mystery of the sound that is—noticing what arises, changes, and passes away.
After a few minutes, return your attention to the breath and open your eyes.
There are many resources available for learning more about mindfulness and bringing it into your day, including books, websites, recordings, and apps. The most recent Florida Bar Journal focused on mindfulness – with articles written by a federal judge, law faculty, and the head of Florida’s Lawyer Assistance Program on the importance of mindfulness to our mental and emotional health and well-being. The issue is notable because it also contains numerous stories and practice tips by attorneys and judges who practice mindfulness.
In additional to Florida, other state bar associations have published informative articles on mindfulness and devoted issues to attorney health and wellness. Importantly, your mindfulness practice – and the opportunity to realize its benefits – can begin right now. As you transition from this reading to whatever is next on your to-do list, consider taking a moment and . . . stop, look & listen.