Where is my Mind?

by Barry Lee

Originally published in the Law Society gazette, May 2020

Barry Lee is founder of Mindfulness for Law and worked as a corporate and commercial lawyer for over ten years

At this moment in time, there is probably more interest in mindfulness than ever before, and it’s easy to understand why. There is a lot of anxiety in the world right now. Many of us are stretched thin: balancing demanding workloads with home-schooling, looking after elders, and worrying about what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. The machine has ground to a halt and, for many of us, this brings the added stress of financial uncertainty.

In spite of cocooning and self-isolating, we are still being bombarded with information. The fragile boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘home’ have dissolved.
Relationships come under pressure when we are living in such close proximity with only a few people all of the time. Our clients are feeling all of this too. Right now, for many of us, it’s hard.

In the midst of all this, it’s easy to lose ourselves in busyness and distraction.

Distraction is a known coping strategy and, occasionally, it can be helpful. However, often compulsive busyness and distraction only make us feel worse, especially if we are staring at our screens all day, mindlessly consuming information.

Sometimes, the wisest action – the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves – is to pause. The practice of mindfulness gives us this chance to pause. We can only feel the solid ground under our feet when we stop rushing to the next moment.

Dazed and Confused

The first time I went to a meditation class in 2007, I had a mild panic attack in the reception area. My face felt hot. My breathing was shallow and rapid. I couldn’t get enough air. I was dizzy, and I felt like I was going to faint. I managed to conceal how I was feeling, and I think I managed to engage in some polite small talk with a few of the other people in the room.

In the six months prior to that day, I had become accustomed to having panic attacks. I knew that they could come on at any moment. I had been in meetings with clients when they struck. When it happens, it feels like you are observing the scene in front of you from behind a pane of glass. The sounds around you echo, and everything seems strange. You sit there trying to look calm, while your heart beats furiously and your mind races out of control. Eventually it passes and you move on, exhausted and embarrassed. After six months, I had become an expert at concealing my anxiety.

When I first had a panic attack, I was 25 and had just qualified as a solicitor. I thought I was having a heart attack and went straight to hospital. The doctors kept me in for a short while for observation
and sent me home, telling me that I was physically fine. I didn’t feel fine and took a week off work. I knew that something serious had happened to me, and I was convinced that the doctors had made a
mistake. I went for a cardiac ultrasound scan, and another doctor told me that he could find no physical abnormalities. He said that I might be suffering from stress and that the symptoms I experienced were
consistent with acute anxiety. Knowing that I was okay physically helped a bit at the start but, after a while, the initial relief wore off.

I tried to manage my anxiety in lots of different ways. I exercised. I was careful about the food I ate. I cut out coffee. I tried to get more sleep, which is very difficult when you are anxious. I soon discovered that alcohol was a temporary balm. If I had a few drinks with my friends, I relaxed, but the next day tended to be much worse. It’s easy for me to understand why many people turn to self-medicating with alcohol.

I had some good days, but the fear of another attack always hung over me. I was less inclined to go to social functions, which could trigger anxiety. I had trouble sleeping. I’m sure that the quality of my work suffered.

I didn’t tell anyone in work what I was going through. I didn’t tell my girlfriend. I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want my colleagues and the people close to me to look at me differently, as if I was more fragile than everyone else and unable to cope with the normal stresses of life.

Luckily, I did confide in a few close friends.
One of them told me about a colleague who used Buddhist meditation as a way of coping with anxiety. In hindsight, I’m very lucky that I had that particular conversation. Another friend could just as easily have suggested Valium (there is obviously a time and a place for medication, but it’s probably not the best way to deal with anxiety in the long run).

So there I was in my first meditation class. I had come straight from work, and was relieved when I wasn’t the only person wearing a suit. I remember praying that no one I knew would see me entering or leaving the building.

Thirteen years ago, meditation wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now. There wasn’t the same abundance of articles in the newspapers. ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘resilience’ weren’t the buzzwords they are
today. There was no talk of neuroscience or neuroplasticity. There were no mindfulness apps. Workplaces didn’t have a ‘wellness week’. There was definitely a stigma around mental health.

I was sceptical. Under normal circumstances, I would never have been
drawn to this sort of thing. If someone had suggested a meditation class to me a year before, I might have rolled my eyes – but when you are suffering, you tend to be a bit more receptive. The teacher was kind
and softly spoken. He explained a little bit about the concept, and we spent most of the evening practising some of the techniques. It takes a lifetime to master meditation, but something in the class resonated with me. I had the sense that this was something that could really help me. I left feeling a little bit lighter.

The teacher told us that, in order for us to benefit, we needed to practice regularly, and so I did. Every morning, I woke an hour earlier than usual and listened to the guided practices on a CD. Sitting quietly, gently resting my attention on the sensations of breathing, the mind naturally started to settle. There was a feeling of space. Tension in the body could release.

I found myself enjoying my walk to work. I was better able to concentrate during the day. I wasn’t consumed with thoughts about the future and the past in the same way I had been. I wasn’t lying awake in bed at 3am
ruminating about potential mistakes I might have made during the day or what my ‘to do’ list was for tomorrow. That course lasted six weeks and, by the end of it, I felt like a different person.

In the 13 years that followed, I came to see my morning meditation practice as a normal part of my daily routine, just the same as brushing my teeth. It was something I did every day in order to be calm and happy. It helped me perform better in work, and it also helped me immensely in my personal life.

Are you experienced?

Mindfulness is best understood as an experience. You can’t read a book and really know what it is, in the same way that you can’t read a recipe and know what the meal tastes like.

In very simple terms, the practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to exactly what is happening in the present moment, in a gentle and non-judgemental way.

As anyone who has practised for any length of time will tell you, although this sounds simple, it is far from easy. The mind is conditioned to be restless and is very easily distracted. We would much rather relive moments from the past or anticipate what may happen in the future, instead of bringing our full attention to the present moment. For many of us, this natural tendency means a lot of time spent ruminating, worrying, and planning – which can be a source of unhappiness and can exacerbate stress and anxiety. Mindfulness trains us to be present. It allows us to respond creatively to what happens, instead of being stuck in habitual and automatic patterns of behaviour that may not serve us.

Over the last 30 years, a significant amount of scientific research has
been carried out in relation to the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions. As with anything, the quality of research varies. Some studies are well designed and stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Others
are more questionable. One thing that is certain is that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of our scientific understanding of how mindfulness and other forms of meditation affect the body and
mind.

That said, there is a significant body of scientific evidence that has been
gathered over the last 30 years by some of the most well-respected academic institutions confirming the many benefits of mindfulness, such as:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety,
  • Improved ability to concentrate and focus,
  • Increased creativity,
  • Enhanced communication and
    interpersonal skills,
  • Increased resilience, and
  • Improved memory.

This year, a meta-analysis of 78 randomised controlled trials conducted between 1989 and 2019, with almost 6,000 participants, showed mindfulness-based interventions significantly improved attention, memory and processing speed.

Start me up

I would recommend finding an experienced and qualified teacher. It’s very different to learning about mindfulness from a book or an app. In Ireland, there is now a professional body for mindfulness teachers
(the Mindfulness Teachers’ Association of Ireland), so you can easily find a teacher who has been properly trained and who receives ongoing regular supervision.

Two courses stand out in terms of having a very extensive and well-documented evidence base:

  • Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course developed by Jon Kabat Zinn in the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and
  • Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), an eight-week course developed by professors Williams, Segal and Teasdale at Oxford University.

For some, a shorter course might serve as an easier introduction. I have found that six-week courses (an hour a week) work well in law firms and, at the moment, online mindfulness courses are a good replacement for face-to-face ones.