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How lawyers can benefit from mindfulness

This is Part 1 of a seven-part series on mindfulness. In this initial instalment, Toronto-area family lawyer Nicolle Kopping-Pavars provides an overview of mindfulness and discusses how lawyers can benefit from it.

The struggle to achieve work-life balance and cope with intense stress can be overcome with mindfulness, a practice that can greatly benefit lawyers, says Toronto-area family lawyer Nicolle Kopping-Pavars.

“The second we hit law school, we are trained to be pessimistic, cynical, skeptical and perfectionists. In other words, we are trained to be miserable, pretty much,” says Kopping-Pavars, principal of NKP Law.

"This is a very stressful profession and very often, the reason that a lawyer may be facing a disciplinary hearing is as a result of a mental health issue or substance abuse problem caused by the stress and anxiety of practice," she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

While the Law Society of Ontario has a Member Assistance Program for those facing such problems, "there’s very little out there to assist lawyers and prevent them from getting to that crisis point,” she says.

To cope with the pressures of work, lawyers “ought to bring mindfulness into their lives and they should also understand what emotional intelligence is,” Kopping-Pavars says.

In her own quest to find work-life balance and gain an understanding of herself, she became a meditation and mindfulness practitioner and when she saw the benefits, not only in her work life but in life in general, she decided to enrol in an intensive nine-month course to learn how to train lawyers in mindfulness. Then last year, she travelled to Thailand to train with Buddhist monks and learn how the technique was taught by Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. She recently received her Mindfulness Certification from this program. 

"People often lump mindfulness and meditation together as one and the same, but meditation is only one part of mindfulness," explains Kopping-Pavars.

There are two types of meditation. The first type, called samatha, involves learning to be calm, with focused attention to relieve stress. She says there are many types of focussed awareness meditations, including breath meditation, repeating a mantra, a prayer, or focusing on a flame. 

“It’s a calming practice on how to rest your mind and how to find clarity and calm but it's temporary,” she says.

The second type of meditation is called vipassana, which is a “wisdom practice and literally means 'insight,'” says Kopping-Pavars.

“If you truly want to be mindful, you need to have a clear awareness of exactly what is happing as it happens. It's about gaining wisdom. And the only way to gain wisdom is by learning about your suffering or discomfort — learning about the causes of why you are the way you are," she explains. 

"You discover what your triggers are and learn to accept them. Vipassana is a form of mental training that will teach you to experience the world in an entirely new way. You will learn for the first time what is truly happening to you, around you and within you. It is a process of self-discovery, a participatory investigation in which you observe your own experiences while participating in them as they occur," says Kopping-Pavars.

"You realize that everything has a cause and that most causes are self-created. We create our own suffering but it is temporary and not really us. We unwittingly choose to attach ourselves to the cause and the end result. We become a slave to our own suffering.

"Only when we learn to accept those, can we gain wisdom. And the only way we can actually gain wisdom is by having awareness of our body and mind at any given time.”

While meditating or taking deep breaths can bring calm and relaxation, for those dealing with stress, “it doesn’t take away the cause of why you become so reactionary,” says Kopping-Pavars. “The world doesn’t stop spinning and the things that cause you to react in a certain way don’t stop just because you’re gaining a sense of calm.”

Mindfulness, she adds, occurs “when we become so familiar with the causes of our anxiety that it no longer affects us in any way. We achieve a state of equanimity.”

Mindfulness brings several benefits for lawyers, Kopping-Pavars says. “You only need one person in a room to be mindful in order for the room to be mindful. Be that one person," she says.

"When lawyers begin to feel frustrated or angry, they should start to recognize what anger feels like and where it presents itself in the body. Feel it and then take a breath. One breath can change everything because it provides you with a little bit of space between your thoughts and what your reaction’s going to be.”

And how lawyers react is very important, she says, because they have their clients’ interests to consider.

"We have to be very careful about how we react because it's our clients' lives that are being affected, not ours. So when you’ve got two lawyers getting angry with each other, our clients are the ones who are going to be at a disadvantage at the end of the day.”

Mindfulness can also improve communication, “because the second you are being mindful while you’re communicating — when speaking, writing or even listening — you are trying all the time to be less reactionary,” Kopping-Pavars says.

It also “opens up the door to compassion and to sympathetic joy,” she adds. “Instead of being jealous of other people and their successes, you actually feel joy for them. So it transforms your whole way of being, thinking, doing and living.”

Kopping-Pavars recommends that lawyers who want to pursue mindfulness should start with meditation for just three minutes and then slowly build from there. It can take several forms, from breathing or mantras to walking or focusing on the body.

“Anybody can start on their own for just three minutes at a time. But if you truly want to learn and reap the benefits, it’s really important to have a teacher who can guide you, answer your questions and find what works for you,” she says.

"Meditation is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. Learning to understand your personality can help you find a meditation that works specifically for you. I used to think that I was successfully doing a breathing meditation, repeating the words 'breathing in and breathing out.' Yet I always felt frustrated and couldn't wait for my 20 minutes to be over. It wasn't until my teacher asked me what I was doing and said, 'That's not a breathing meditation, that's a mantra. Your mind is too busy for a mantra.' For two years, I had been doing a meditation that didn't work well for me because I knew no better. It took a seasoned teacher to help me figure it out." 

Kopping-Pavars also recommends Insight Timer, a free meditation app that includes discussions, mantras, music and timed meditations. It also lets users know how many other people in the world are meditating with them at the same time.

“Lawyers think they don’t have time, but seriously, if they’ve got time to grab a cup of coffee and chat with somebody in the kitchen, they’ve got time to meditate,” she says.

Her office, where she works with nine other lawyers, has a wellness room dedicated to mindfulness and meditation.

“I would recommend that every firm has one,” she says.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the series, where Kopping-Pavars will discuss the four foundations of mindfulness.

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