Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stop, Look, and Listen - Regain Your Focus Through Mindfulness

American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division The Young Lawyer Published in The Young Lawyer, Volume 15, Number 4, February 2011. © 2011 by the American Bar Association. By Scott Rogers

If you’ve been practicing law for a while or are job searching, you know how easily your mind can dwell in the past and worry about the future. This natural tendency can interfere with your ability to maintain focus, perform at the top of your game, and experience general well-being.

One way of counteracting this tendency that is receiving a lot of press and making its way into law schools, law firms, and the judiciary is “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is an area of contemplative and scientific exploration that offers insights and tools to reclaim focus in the midst of challenging situations. It involves paying attention to what is actually taking place in the present moment instead of becoming distracted or trying to avoid—well, reality.

William James, the great psychologist and philosopher, wrote that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” Mindfulness is a practice of catching the mind as it begins to wander. Agitated feelings like frustration, worry, doubt, and anger are signs of a wandering mind. Being mindful helps reclaim focus and exercises the muscle of attention, which helps us to become more expert at paying attention.

One of the most common and powerful tools in contemplative practices such as mindfulness is bringing awareness to the breath and holding awareness on it. Research suggests that this concentration exercise offers important benefits to cognitive functioning, health, and well-being.

Mindfulness also involves paying attention to what arises within our field of awareness, including thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. When we experience something unpleasant, we may have an impulse to distract ourselves from it. To be mindful means not avoiding, but rather noticing, what arises such that we experience life more directly and free ourselves to master the next moment. Doing so, we experience the moment as it just “is.” This is one of the insights I teach to lawyers and law students in the mindfulness program Jurisight, where we split the term “Justice” into “Just Is” and practice the “Just Is” Holmes exercise.

This exercise draws on Justice Holmes’ rule for what to do upon approaching railroad tracks: “Stop, Look, and Listen.” While it can be helpful to find a comfortable place to sit as you practice the exercise, it is one that can also be practiced in the midst of challenge.

When you realize that your mind has wandered, pause, close your eyes, and take a few breaths. Bring awareness to your belly, noticing how it rises and falls with each breath.

Turn inward and pay attention to the thoughts arising in your mind and the sensations arising in your body. Notice what Just Is.

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 Just Is—noticing what arises, changes, and passes away.
After a few minutes, open your eyes and return to what you were doing before you become distracted or agitated.

By practicing mindfulness, you will become a more effective attorney able to better cope with stress, listen more deeply to clients, and obtain greater perspective on your work and the challenges presented in daily life.

Scott Rogers is a lecturer in law at the University of Miami School of Law, director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies, and author of The Six Minute Solution: A Mindfulness Primer for Lawyers. He can be reached at Learn more about mindfulness and the law at

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