The Parable Of The Cave – Sharing Experience

In the Symposium, Plato has Socretes posit an allegory in a dialogue with Glaucon:

Imagine a cave, in which men from birth are tied to rocks, separated from each other by large partitians, in a manner that they can only see the walls in front of them.  Behind them burns a fire and between them and the fire is a parapet along which other men walk carrying objects such as statutes, carvings, books etc.  The men and the objects cast shadows on the walls in front of the prisoners.  The prisoners mistake the shadows for the real people and the real objects.

If one of the prisoners is set free, he is confused and finds it difficult to believe that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows.   Others can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but he clings to his shadow life which he assumes was the reality.

Eventually, when he leaves the cave he is at first blinded by the sunlight  but then amazed by the moon and the stars. Once his eyes begin to adjust to the brightness, he realizes that his life in the cave had been an illusion; he feels pity for those in the cave and chooses to stay out of the cave.  

This is the human mind, or rather the ego.   Our thoughts and judgements are the shadows cast by the real objects.  When we see someone we dislike, we may immediately look at them and see a “dreadful person”.  We are perceiving a shadow, an image of the person created by the mind.  That image may or may not be an accurate reflection of the person, but it certainly is not the real person, it is the projection of the ego.

Much like Plato’s cave, our egos create a shadow world that we mistake for reality.  The ego creates the shadow identity through objects we own and experiences we have that make a statement about who we think we are:  sports cars, designer clothes, being seen in the right places, grand homes, jets, yachts etc.  Much of what we purchase is designed to enhance our shadow identity.  Think back to how many purchases you made because you thought that the item would raise you in the eyes of others.

The ego also creates shadow identities through its judgements of self and others.  “I’m smart or athletic”; “she’s short and ugly”; “I’m friends with Madonna”; “I’m on the board of General Electric”; “She’s that famous opera singer”.

Ego creates a shadow identity consisting of forms, ideas, judgements, status and experiences. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we live trapped in the shadow identities that our egos create and mistake for reality. Because this shadow world gives us our identity, we cling to and defend this fake identity as if our life depended on it.  Having seen only shadows from birth, we are unaware of reality. Our clinging to this shadow identity causes great suffering because it is not real and it will change and fade away.  Beautiful actresses cannot bear the loss of their beauty and become recluses as they age.  Powerful CEOs lose their positions or are forced to retire. Shrewed politicians lose their elections or fall to a scandal.  Top athletes eventually succumb to younger ones.  

True freedom is to become aware of the shadows that we mistake for reality and to which we cling because they will inevitably change and fade away.  We must step out of the ego’s cave and into the sunlight so that we are not doomed to suffer the trappings of an illusion—however brilliant it may seem—which will inevitably dissolve one day and disappoint you.

Intentions and Motivation Fuel Our Journey

Your intentions and motivations tell you who you are.  For most of us, we don’t have sufficient awareness to know what our intentions and motivations are.  We are like automatons, moving through our day and through life, mindlessly repeating daily habits.  Ask yourself, what motivates me?  Is it money and financial success?  Sexual adventures and conquests?  Is it drink and drugs?  Junk food or TV and social media?  Or is it compassion, giving and sharing, generosity, helping others, looking after others, gratitude, exercise, mindfulness?  

Whatever your motivations, the point is not to pass judgement on yourself but to become aware, as a first step, of your motivations.    Awareness of your motivations is a key to mental and physical health.  Once you become aware of your motivations, you can begin the process of determining whether or not they serve you well.  For example, if you are motivated by financial success, becoming aware of your motivation will allow to see whether the pursuit of money is brining you the happiness you seek.

Therefore, start becoming aware of what motivates you.  This can be very specific.  When you wake up in the morning ask yourself, “what motivates me”?  When you go to work ask yourself “what motivates me?”  When you have lunch ask yourself what motivates me?”

It may be helpful to write down some of your observations.

Once you have identified what motivates you, the next step would be to ask if the motivation has brought you the happiness you have been seeking.  For example, if you’re motivated by fast food, see how you feel after you have eaten a Big Mac and a large bowl of fries.   It may taste good at the time but how do you feel afterwards?  How does the extra weight that you carry from eating all that fast food make you feel?  Does it affect your sleep?  Does it affect your productivity at work?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  The key is to become aware of how you feel.

Becoming aware of your motivations and how they make you feel gives you a powerful choice.  You can then choose to continue with the motivation or you can choose to change it.  Of course, changing your motivations and the ingrained habits that they have carved is not easy.  But awareness is the key that empowers you to choose.   


A Mistake, the Torment, the Recovery – A Very Personal Experience

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy

The legal profession has earned the dubious title as the unhappiest one.  Why is that and is there a solution to it?  I’ve been practicing law for some thirty years now and have had my share of troubles—difficult clients, treacherous colleagus, abusive judges, nasty opponents.  I’ve also had some great clients, interesting work, helpful colleagues and I’ve appeared before very competent judges and professional and courteous opponents.    What’s been interesting is that the negative experiences have a far more significant impact than the positive experiences.  The one client who has been difficult and hasn’t paid its bill consumes far more mential energy than the 99 percent who pay their bills.  What I’ve come to realize is that I am not alone in this.  We are all affected by and dwell more on  the negative than the positive.  What’s more we believe that we’re alone in this as if it doesn’t happen to others.  But as Tolstory said of unhappy families, we experience negative experiences and people more intensely and in our own way and this I consider to be at the root of our unhappiness.   

A simple mistake and its following devastation

As a junior litigation associate at a large firm, I once made the mistake of faxing documents intended for our client to opposing counsel  [This was before we had email].  Once I became aware of the error I was paralysed.  I thought that when the partner on the case found out, I’d be fired and my fledgling legal career would be over.  I was fearful of telling anyone—I felt that the other associates—some of them my friends—would have no sympathy.  On the contrary, I pictured them as being thrilled that my humiliation and firing would mean one less person to compete with.  

I created a psychological monster for myself

In the event, nothing of the sort happened.  To be sure, the partner wasn’t happy with me.  But it blew over.  I wasn’t fired.  The lawsuit eventually settled and my mistake was long forgotten.  Yet for a long while I suffered a great deal.  The initial panic turned into a generalized anxiety concerning my future—what will happen?  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 they even give me a reference?  These thoughts circled in my mind endlessly, affected my well being, my sleep, my productivity and my relationships.  In short, the thoughts crushed me.    

Then the realization

Now, in the cool light of time, I wonder why did I let this 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 it off.  But one thing that I can do is to gain perspective.  At the time I didn’t know this; I didn’t have the perspective that I do today.  How do you gain perspective?  

First let me clarify what I mean by perspective.  The best way to understand it is by looking back at a difficult situation, such as the one I faced as a junior litigator faxing documents intended for the client to opposing counsel.  At the time, the situation was very distressful;  I was bombarded by thoughts of all the terrible things that would happen as a result of my error.  The thoughts were all negative.  That is one hallmark of a lack of perspective.  I didn’t have any thoughts along the lines of “I’m sure it’ll be OK.  In fact, it’s a small mistake and will soon be forgotten.”  This would have been far closer to the reality but my mind was incapable of grasping it—I had no perspective.   Today, as I look back on the event, my thoughts about it are very different.  I ask myself why I worried so much, why did I torment myself for so long before any of the events I feared had actually happened?  Today I have perspective on that event; I can look at it without being overwhelmed by negative thoughts.  

The question then is how do you gain that perspective.  Obviously, once enough time passed and  the negative events I had feared did not come to pass, I could look back on the situation with calm and rationality.  Today I can laugh about  my overreaction.  I can also see it from the perspective of the more 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 gain perspective over difficult situations in the past, the vast majority of us do not gain perspective on current difficulties and challenges which continue to inflict a great deal of suffering on us.    The challenges may be different, not our mental reactions to them.  Our mental states do not change; we do not learn.  

I was not alone in my profession

A friend who is a partner is a law firm was furious to learn that a fellow partner whom she considered far less competent had a higher compensation.  My colleague makes seven figures and the other partner didn’t make that much more, but still, this gnawed away at my friend.  She silently speculated as to the reasons behind this injustice, ruminated continuously and would fantacisze about various remedies, including elaborate schemes on how to ruin her colleague’s career.  

My friend is neither evil or insane; when you meet her she comes across as a very normal and affable person.  Her reaction to this difficulty appeared to be totally out of character.  She hadn’t discuss it with anyone and only told me one evening after many drinks, six months into her mental ordeal.   

I avoid my self made trap now

So how do you gain perspective.  The first step is to become aware of your thoughts and to 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 your bed!  Except with a dream, once you wake up, you become aware that you were having a dream.  Awareness is similar to waking up from a dream.  Aha you say—that’s another thought!  The first step in gaining perspective is awareness of your thoughts as thoughts.  I’ll talk much more about awareness in other postings on this site.  

Another way to gain perspective is to see that you’re not the only one who has has had this experience.  In my case, surely I’m not the only associate to have mistakenly sent a document to the wrong place.  Perhaps many of you reading this made a similar mistake at some point in your career.  Yet for me at the time, I suffered alone as if I were the only one that this had ever happened to.  I had no perspective whatsoever on the situation.  I suffered greatly and needlessly as a result.

This is why I started this site—a community created by lawyers for lawyers.  But not a community where you come to network and look for a job.  On the contrary, a community where you come to share experiences and to improve your mental (and physical health) wellbeing.


Understand Stress & Taking Control

Stress and the Nutshell

Stress is a mental event. It is caused by thoughts  that arise in response to an external event.  For example, if you hear that there are massive layoffs at your company, you may feel stress—nothing has actually happened but the thought of being laid off is what causes the stress.  

Survival & Stress

Stress is an evolutionary response that perhaps saved our ancestors.  For most of our existence, we humans were in the middle of the food chain—as much prey as predator.   In prey—think of deer for example— stress triggers the flight response that is crucial to their survival.   For thousands of years the flight response served us very well; it allowed us to survive and pass on our genes.  Even today, short term stressors cause no problems; in fact can be healthy.  If you see your child about to be run over by a car and you dash and save him or her, you are stressed, but the stress serves a great purpose, dissipates quickly and causes no long term damage.   The feelings of relief and accomplishment after such an event actually are good for your mental health!  

The modern day stress trap

The problem is that in our complicated civilization the stress response can become chronic.  Where it once served us to flee dangerous predators, today it takes on a very different form and can cause severe long term damage.   If one of our ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, stress would cause her immediately to flee; if she stopped to think what could cause the rustling, she could be dinner for a tiger.   Once out of range, the stress response would dissipate [In fact, some research shows that deer that have escaped an attack shake to release the stress; this has led to tremouring exercises for stress release[ see here].   The trouble is that in today’s world that same stress response is triggered by very different types of events.  Consider the rumours of layoffs at a company—a very common occurrence in the current economic climate.  This rumor triggers the same stress response as the rustling in the bushes.  Except that you can’t flee a layoff!   But your body doesn’t know that.  Your body’s reaction to the threat of the layoff is the same; it produces cortisol and adrenaline—chemicals that if produced in short bursts do no harm and in fact help by getting you in fight or flight mode.  But if produced over long periods of time these chemicals can cause significant damage.  

Legal Professionals, the unwanted warriors?

In the legal profession there are many triggers that can cause stress.   For example, in our adversarial system,  mistakes are never forgiven but are instead highlighted by the opposition and used by clients to file malpractice lawsuits and made even worse by the fact that lawyers, unlike other businesses, cannot limit their liability.   We are faced with prolix and complicated rules that we have to interpret, apply and explain often within unreasonable deadlines.  Many clients can’t or don’t want to pay for our services, even after incurring them in full.   Increasing concentration of money at the top shrinks the market for our services and creates brutal competition which in turn exacerbates the daily stresses of our profession.    All of these events create chronic stress.

Success lies within ourselves and throughout periods of history!

What is to be done about this?  An evolutionary response that once served us well is no longer working; in fact it is counter-productive and perhaps the ultimate source of our unhappiness.  But evolution works very slowly and will not resolve this in our lifetimes.   The good news is that there are practical tools and methods to solve the chronic stress problem.    

These tools have been around for a long time.  Plato taught them at the ancient Academy which was a free school of philosophy aimed at spreading these tools.  Unlike today’s theoretical and aesoteric approach to philosophy ,Plato’s school was practical and experiential.  Around the same time as Plato, on the other side of the world, the Buddha begain teaching similar tools which he explained in the Four Noble Truths and outlined a vertable  practical toolbox in the form of the Eightfold path.  Five centuries later, Christ, whose teachings regrettably were distorted by the politics of the Christian Church and various rulers, pointed to the same tools and techniques—When asked where is the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ pointed to the sky and explained that it is within you.  He was pointing to the formless universe of which we are all a part, even though our egos perceive us as separate and apart.   As we will explore elsewhere on this site, these teachings provide the practical tools to overcome the handicap of chronic stress in today’s world.     

Even though these tools have been around for a long time, they have not been accessed or used by the vast majority of us.  The reason perhaps is that is that it goes against the conditioning of the human mind.  Imagine that you are in a vast field of snow.  There is nothing in sight other than open space and  snow.  There are some footprints in the snow.  You follow them.  That is the human mind—it follows its conditioned pathways.  However, you can re-train the mind to create new pathways—new footprints in the snow.  But this is not easy or fast.  It will require work.   

Small thoughts pull you under, but smart thoughts bring you to the surface!   

Remember that stress is a mental event—an external event triggers thoughts that in turn cause a bodily reaction.  Note that you do not choose these thoughts.  You do not control these thoughts.  You do not know where they come from.  Recognizing that you do not control and  are in fact powerless over your thoughts is the first step in the journey of living a truly stress-free life.  The aim of this site is to introduce you to the practical tools that will help alleviate your stress and substantially improve the quality of your life.  


Help A Lawyer Today in Just 5 Minutes!

Despite centuries of well established research, often by the greatest philosophers, psychologists and psychologists, humans only seem to be making things worse in their workplaces. Your own law office is indeed a likely incubator of its fair share of this debilitating process.

There’s hope! You! Read on!

When those impossible deadlines crowd out your positive thoughts, it’s often time to take a pause and some corrective action.
Stand up, breathe deeply and slowly, walk to your favorite spot in the building, talk to the person that has read this blog, and take a few moments to share some positive energy.

Congratulations, you’ve just made some progress!
Knowing when to take action is EVERYTHING!


The Greatest Failing – Silence

One profound observation of the industrial era is the development of stoicism within the workplace and every day life.
Having grown up and been educated in my beloved Britain, the ‘stiff upper lip’ was always expected from every child that ever hit the gravel path from a speeding bicycle.

To cry out in pain is often deemed failure. The healing process requires the precise opposite. We need to let it out, we need to share our thoughts, gain strength and learn to pedal more safely.

Why not the same in our office environment? Surely those same pain, healing and recovery processes are much sought after?

Can you picture your boss coming to your for a chat about his issues? Probably not.

There lies the root of the problem of anxiety within the Legal Profession (and any other!). We need to be there for our fallen colleagues, much as a soldier takes diligent care of his wounded colleague, literally at all costs.

Take a couple of minutes to listen to a colleague each day and offer them genuine unconditional support. Help your workplace be a safe environment that practices confidentiality at all times. The effect on morale can be exceptionally rewarding to all.


Plato – Allegory Of The Cave

In the Symposium, Plato has Socretes posit an allegory in a dialogue with Glaucon:

Imagine a cave, in which men from birth are tied to rocks, separated from each other by large partitians, in a manner that they can only see the walls in front of them.  Behind them burns a fire and between them and the fire is a parapet along which other men walk carrying objects such as statutes, carvings, books etc.  The men and the objects cast shadows on the walls in front of the prisoners.  The prisoners mistake the shadows for the real people and the real objects.

If one of the prisoners is set free, he is confused and finds it difficult to believe that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows.   Others can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but he clings to his shadow life which he assumes was the reality.

Eventually, when he leaves the cave he is at first blinded by the sunlight  but then amazed by the moon and the stars. Once his eyes begin to adjust to the brightness, he realizes that his life in the cave had been an illusion; he feels pity for those in the cave and chooses to stay out of the cave.  

This is the human mind, or rather the ego.   Our thoughts and judgements are the shadows cast by the real objects.  When we see someone we dislike, we may immediately look at them and see a “dreadful person”.  We are perceiving a shadow, an image of the person created by the mind.  That image may or may not be an accurate reflection of the person, but it certainly is not the real person, it is the projection of the ego.

Much like Plato’s cave, our egos create a shadow world that we mistake for reality.  The ego creates the shadow identity through objects we own and experiences we have that make a statement about who we think we are:  sports cars, designer clothes, being seen in the right places, grand homes, jets, yachts etc.  Much of what we purchase is designed to enhance our shadow identity.  Think back to how many purchases you made because you thought that the item would raise you in the eyes of others.

The ego also creates shadow identities through its judgements of self and others.  “I’m smart or athletic”; “she’s short and ugly”; “I’m friends with Madonna”; “I’m on the board of General Electric”; “She’s that famous opera singer”.

Ego creates a shadow identity consisting of forms, ideas, judgements, status and experiences. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we live trapped in the shadow identities that our egos create and mistake for reality. Because this shadow world gives us our identity, we cling to and defend this fake identity as if our life depended on it.  Having seen only shadows from birth, we are unaware of reality. Our clinging to this shadow identity causes great suffering because it is not real and it will change and fade away.  Beautiful actresses cannot bear the loss of their beauty and become recluses as they age.  Powerful CEOs lose their positions or are forced to retire. Shrewed politicians lose their elections or fall to a scandal.  Top athletes eventually succumb to younger ones.  

True freedom is to become aware of the shadows that we mistake for reality and to which we cling because they will inevitably change and fade away.  We must step out of the ego’s cave and into the sunlight so that we are not doomed to suffer the trappings of an illusion—however brilliant it may seem—which will inevitably dissolve one day and disappoint you.