Scott Greenfield has a visceral reaction to mindfulness for lawyers: being ‘in the moment’ is for idiots.
I find Scott’s reaction more than a bit bizarre: While there are apparently charlatans selling a feel-good philosophy by the name of mindfulness to stressed-out lawyers, there also exists an altered mental state, commonly referred to as mindfulness, that it benefits our clients for us to achieve. That an experienced and established trial lawyer would reject this mental state outright is puzzling.
Like any beneficial mental state (or mindset), though, mindfulness is not universally beneficial. I solve many of my clients’ problems not when I am focused on them but when I am doing other things — driving, for example — as my mind drifts. If I were mindful and wholly present to the drive between Dallas and Houston, rather than in trance and on autopilot, I would lose valuable problem-solving time.
I am keenly aware of the bad things that will happen to people if I don’t do my job perfectly. But when the time comes for action (to spit upon my hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats, so to speak) I set that awareness aside. Picture yourself walking along a two-foot-wide beam four hundred feet above the ground. Feel your heartrate increase. You might even notice a little tremor somewhere in your body. Now lower the beam to four inches above the ground. Whole different feeling, right?
The drifting mind is the flipside of mindfulness. There is some task at hand; when I am mindful almost all of my attention is on that task (trying a case, for example). When my mind is drifting almost none of my attention is on that task (commuting, for example). But even my drifting mind is not unprofitably engaged. I’m not wallowing in anxiety or regret. I’m not borrowing future unhappiness by worrying about things that are beyond my control. I’m not beating myself up over past mistakes that are also beyond my control. I’ve never been susceptible to those sorts of voices, which I find neither entertaining nor educational. And for as long as I can remember I’ve been able easily to shut off all of the voices in my head to get things done.
Too much mindfulness is not a widespread problem in America. To the contrary, Americans are largely crippled by neurosis. Most people have trouble stilling those unprofitable voices of self-criticism, regret, and fear for things beyond their control. A mindfulness practice — whether sitting in the lotus position or washing dishes or playing on the improv stage or whatever — that teaches lawyers how to still those voices cannot help but help their clients when the time comes for action. Mindfulness is a more useful mental state than neurosis.
A Polish chess grandmaster once said, “Tactics is what you do when there is something to do; strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do.”
A drifting mind is strategic. Mindfulness is tactical. Cultivate both.