Zen under fire: Using mindfulness in your practice
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Posted by: Joe Menden
By Tyson E. Logan
Spence Law Firm
tanding atop a steep, deep, and dark backcountry ski run in Jackson Hole, I am dizzy with excitement. It is a cold, stormy morning — the deepest powder day of the year. The snow is coming down so thick you can hardly see. I am surrounded by my best friends, euphoric with winter storm joy. I watch with a gluttonous grin as the first two pairs of skiers descend into the dark abyss. Cheers of joy. My ski partner drops away, so I am alone. Heart racing with adrenaline, I drop in and peel a hard left turn into the untracked wall of snow. And . . . CRACK!
With a heavy buckling, the slope explodes. A slab avalanche 2 ½ feet deep and hundreds of feet wide breaks above me. I’m absorbed into a sea of snow and then spit out as the wall of snow accelerates. Suddenly I am airborne, thrown over a cliff, 50 feet into the air. I look down at trees on the slope – and fall out of the sky – but the avalanche carries me, rocketing down the slope at 80 miles per hour. I have no control. My life flashes before my eyes. As I hurtle into the canyon, a thousand feet below, I reach desperately and wrap myself around a huge fir tree. The tree knocks the wind out of me but holds me. The snow goes by. I am bloody. Disoriented. Alone. But I am alive.
I have learned a lot about fear, and about life, since my avalanche. The crazy thing is, that rush of panic, that loss of control, that stress, and anxiety — that is-this-going-to-kill-me feeling — I can still feel it. I feel it as a trial lawyer, too. I feel it when I stand up in front of a jury to do an opening statement, and in all kinds of other pressure-filled moments, in and out of the courtroom. Some days I could drown from the stress. Learning mindfulness has helped me survive.
Mindfulness is “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” It is being present here and now, plugging in to this moment, and engaging in the world. After years of studying mindfulness, I carry three key principles with me: find some quiet; find some joy; and get to work!
1. Find Some Quiet
There is an old Zen saying: “Everyone should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
Meditation has been studied extensively in recent years and is proven to have significant health benefits. Giving meditation a try does not require moving to Bhutan or becoming a monk — in even a few minutes of simple breathing exercises at home, you can begin to realize some of the benefits. If you are new to meditation, try this for starters: get up in the morning when the house is quiet, and give yourself five minutes to count your breath. That’s it! This is called breathing meditation (also called “mindful breathing”). The exercise is like counting sheep. I like to do “ladders” where I will count my breath up to 10, and then go backwards, and start over again. This takes the pressure off of getting to some particular yet arbitrary number of breaths, getting distracted by a thought, and then being frustrated that I can’t reach that arbitrary number of breaths! Getting distracted is totally normal and part of the process — the key is to acknowledge thoughts that come, and then let them be there. The goal is to make an intentional choice of what you are focusing on.
In breathing meditation, the focus is on the breath, but the exercise easily translates to focusing on whatever present moment we are in, whether it is dealing with a difficult opponent, or standing up in a crucial moment in trial. Mindful breathing helps calm the mind and body, lower stress, and set a more centered and focused tone for my day. It makes me a calmer, happier, and more effective person – and lawyer.
2. Find Some Joy
It’s hard to be happy if you aren’t starting from a place of peace. That is why meditation is so important to me first thing in the morning — it allows me to start my day from a more centered, quieter, and intentional place. Building off that beginning, I strive to find — or create — joy in every day. For me there are two things I know I need to find joy: aerobic exercise and helping people.
Aerobic exercise has been studied extensively and has surprisingly significant effects on the brain and happiness. Research shows that aerobic exercise will boost not just physical fitness, but will make the brain function at its best, including making our brains more resistant to stress, anxiety, and depression, which allows us to focus and think at our peak. For me, the physiological benefits of exercise go way beyond looking or feeling better — exercise helps me clear my mind, let the past go, and carry a more positive and energized attitude into the rest of my life. I’m not saying that everyone needs to run marathons to live a good life, but some regular exercise really can be a wonder drug.
I have also found over the years that letting go of my ego and spending my time and energy giving to others makes life far more rewarding and brings me great joy. It is not all about me — it is about the world we are in together. Days when I focus (and sometimes even meditate on) other people, how I can help, what I can do to make someone else’s life better, are good days.
3. Get to Work!
Life is not perfect, and those of us who care about the world will always have challenges to deal with. To me, learning to thrive in the challenge — bringing some Zen to the fire we live in — is the way to a happy life. As Ryan Holiday says, “the obstacle is the way.”
That avalanche could have killed me, and I have been close to enough tragedy over the years to learn that life is short. Coming close to mortality is a good reminder to live life today — don’t wait for things to change. The reality is that life as a trial lawyer is hard work, and although it might not kill us, the stress slowly will if we don’t dive in and do something about it. Many of us spend too much time thinking about being stressed or worried about the outcome, and not enough time just doing, and being. So I remind myself over and over again: there is no shortcut, this is hard, but it is awesome. Start today. What can I do today that will help me find some quiet? What can I do today that will bring me some joy? Each time I get wound up with stress or caught up in the pandemonium of life, I try to remember to go back to the basics: find some quiet, find some joy, and get to work. I hope these ideas will help some of my friends out there to do the same.
Tyson Logan is a partner at the Spence Law Firm in Jackson, Wyoming. He is a passionate trial lawyer and a people person. As a teacher on the staff of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, he has been fortunate to work with some of the best and brightest lawyers across the country.