Awaken to a Stress Free Life
”Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy
Lawyers have earned the dubious label as unhappy professionals. Why is that, and can this be rectified? I’ve been practicing law for some thirty years and have had my share of troubles—difficult clients, treacherous colleagues, abusive judges, and nasty opponents. I’ve also had some wonderful clients, interesting work, and helpful colleagues. I’ve appeared before very competent judges and vied with professional and courteous opponents. I’ve found that the negative experiences have a far more significant impact than the positive ones. The one client who has been difficult and hasn’t paid their bill consumes far more of my mental energy than the 99 percent who are reliable. What I’ve come to realise is that I am not alone in this predicament. We are all affected by and dwell more on the negative than the positive. What’s more, we believe that we’re alone in our plight, as if it doesn’t happen to others. But as Tolstoy said of unhappy families, we experience negative experiences and people in our own way and more intensely, and I consider that as the root of our unhappiness.
As a junior litigation associate at a large firm, I once made the mistake of faxing documents intended for our client to the opposing counsel [This was before email]. Once I became aware of the error, I became paralysed. I figured that when the partner on the case found out, I’d be fired and that my fledgling legal career would be over. I was fearful of telling anyone, and I felt that the other associates—some of them my friends—would be unsympathetic. On the contrary, I pictured them as thrilled that my blunder and dismissal would mean one less person to compete with.
Nothing of the sort happened. To be sure, the partner wasn’t happy with me, but I wasn’t fired. The lawsuit eventually got settled, my mistake long forgotten. Yet, for a time, I suffered a great deal. My initial panic turned into generalised anxiety concerning my future—what will happen to me? Will I get a negative review? Did this kill any shot I had at partnership? Will they fire me at the end of the year? Will the firm even give me a reference? These thoughts circled in my mind, endlessly affecting my well-being, sleep, productivity, and relationships. In short, the negative thoughts crushed me.
In the cold light of time, I wonder why did I let this gaffe affect me so much? I’ve come to realise that I don’t have control over my thoughts and feelings. I can’t just switch them off. But the one thing that I can do, is to gain a broader perspective. At the time, I didn’t know about such adjustments; I didn’t have the perspective that I have today. How do you gain that?
First, let me clarify what I mean by perspective. The best way to understand that is to recall a difficult situation, such as the one I faced as a junior litigator. At the time, this situation was very distressful, bombarded by thoughts of all the terrible things that would happen due to my error. The thoughts were all negative—one hallmark of a lack of perspective. I didn’t think along the lines of “I’m sure it’ll be okay. It’s a small mistake and will soon be forgotten.” This would have been far closer to the probable outcome that my mind was incapable of grasping—I had no perspective. Today, as I look back on that crisis, my thinking is very different. I ask myself why I worried so much about it, why did I torment myself before any of the presumed reactions had actually happened? Today I have a better perspective on it; I can look at it without being overwhelmed by negative thoughts.
The question then is, how do you gain that perspective? Once enough time passed and the negative results I had feared did not happen, I could look back on the situation with calm rationality. Today I can laugh about my overreaction. I can also see it from the perspective of the senior lawyer—I would never fire an otherwise competent lawyer for such a mistake. I would remind them to be more careful, but that’s probably it. However, while most people can gain perspective about difficult situations in the past, the vast majority of us suffer greatly over current difficulties and challenges. The challenges may be different, but not our mental reactions to them. Our mental states often do not change; we do not learn from past mistakes.
A friend, a law firm partner, was furious to learn that a fellow partner whom she considered far less competent received a higher compensation. My colleague makes seven figures, while the other partner didn’t make that much more, but still this inequality gnawed away at my friend. She silently speculated as to the reasons behind this injustice, ruminated continuously, and would fantasise about various remedies. This delusion included elaborate schemes on how to ruin her colleague’s career.
My friend is neither evil nor insane; she comes across as a very normal and affable person when you meet her. Her reaction to this situation appeared to be totally out of character. She hadn’t discussed it with anyone, and she only told me about it one evening after drinks, and six months into her mental ordeal.
So how do you gain perspective? The first step is to become aware of your thoughts and realise that they are just that—thoughts. They are not real. I was not fired, nor did I receive a negative review. I left the law firm of my own volition several years later. None of my fears and anxieties came to pass. They were not real; they were simply thoughts. They were not dissimilar to a bad dream from which you wake up, only to realise that you’re in bed! Except with a dream, you become aware that it was just a dream once you wake up. Awareness is similar to waking up from a dream. Aha, you say—that’s another thought! The first step in gaining perspective is the awareness of your thoughts as just thoughts. I’ll talk much more about awareness in other postings on this site.
Another way to gain perspective is to realise that you’re not the only one who has had this type of experience. In my case, surely I’m not the only associate to have ever mistakenly sent a document to the wrong place. Perhaps many of you have made a similar mistake at some point in your career. Yet, at the time, I suffered alone, as if I were the only one that had made such a mistake. I had no perspective whatsoever on the situation. I suffered much and needlessly as a result.
A well-known Buddhist story, the parable of the mustard seed, perfectly illustrates this point. A mother, distraught at the loss of her only child, seeks solace from her neighbours, who then refer her to the Buddha. The Buddha tells her that he can bring back her child, but he can only do so with mustard seeds gathered from homes that have not known death. The woman goes from house to house looking for the mustard seeds. She is offered mustard seeds at all the houses, but she does not find a single home that has not been touched by death. At that moment, she awakens to the reality that such a house does not exist because death is a universal and inescapable reality. She recognises that she is not alone in her suffering, that her experience of loss is shared and known by others. This realisation, that she is not alone in her suffering, calms and eventually heals her.
Stress and anxiety are mental events. Once we develop an awareness of our thoughts and emotions, we see that our sense of aloneness in our suffering is a misperception. Like the woman who loses her child or the associate who sends correspondence to the wrong place, our experiences are shared by others. Only when we wake up to the reality that we are not alone but are connected to others, that our stress and anxiety are caused by our minds mistaking thoughts for reality, will we begin the healing journey.
This insight is why I started this site—a community created by lawyers for lawyers. However, this is not a community network for those looking for jobs. On the contrary, a community where lawyers come to share experiences and awaken to a life free of stress and anxiety.
My hope for these pages is to be a modern-day Academy, much like Plato’s Academy, in order to reduce stress and anxiety in our individual lives and perhaps even help mankind reverse course from its current ego-driven and lethal trajectory.
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