We hope you enjoy this installment of the LGBT Family Law Institute’s Blog. This piece is written by Emily Doskow, an attorney and mediator in Oakland, California. Emily practices family law with a focus on LGBTQIA families. As the founder of Mindfulness Over Matters, Emily teaches mindfulness to law firms and legal organizations and coaches individuals in mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness is everywhere these days. It’s like going to the gym—everyone is either doing it or feeling guilty that they’re not doing it. But what is mindfulness, and how can it help us navigate these challenging political times?
You can find a lot of different definitions of the word, and here’s mine: Mindfulness is the intentional awareness and acceptance of our present moment experience, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.
Let’s break that down a little bit. “Intentional awareness” means that we are paying attention on purpose, not operating on auto-pilot as we so often do. It means we are noticing what is happening around us and within us in the very moment we are in, rather than thinking about the past or anticipating the future.
This intentional awareness of the present moment alone can be a big change for most of us from our usual way of moving through the world. But it is the pairing of that awareness with acceptance that makes us truly mindful.
Acceptance of our present moment experience means not resisting what we don’t enjoy and not clinging to what we do enjoy. This is exactly the opposite of what we do most of the time, because we are used to seeking out pleasant thoughts and experiences and rejecting or avoiding unpleasant ones. It seems counter-intuitive that accepting even the negative experiences and emotions we encounter can make us calmer and happier, but any meditator will tell you that it works.
For those of us who care deeply about the rights and safety of our communities and the stability of our democracy, it might seem impossible and even undesirable to accept the present moment. It might even seem like a waste of time to sit in meditation and “do nothing.” But that is a misunderstanding of the deep moral and ethical underpinnings of mindfulness practice. The practice does not instruct us to accept the events themselves—in fact I believe it contains a moral imperative not to do so. Instead the goal is to accept the thoughts and emotions that arise in response to those events.
How does the practice of awareness and acceptance of the present moment allow us to cope more effectively with the world around us? One way is by becoming less reactive. Since the advent of functional MRI technology, we know that it is actually possible to change our brains through a process known as neuroplasticity, and mindfulness meditation supports changes in the brain that decrease our reactive tendencies.
To greatly simplify the neuroscience, the part of our brain that is mostly in control when we are functioning “normally” is called the pre-frontal cortex. It governs rational thinking, or what’s sometimes called “executive function.”
The part of our brain that reacts to unpleasant stimuli is the amygdala. The amygdala is an evolutionary response to the need to avoid or kill predators: fight or flight. Of course, the fight or flight response isn’t necessary in most everyday situations we face now, like in court or when we are reading the newspaper or our social media feeds—but it is still there, tricking us into experiencing everyday stressors as existential threats.
The pre-frontal cortex (along with the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory) exerts restraint over the amygdala, but the amygdala is fast and strong, and the pre-frontal cortex is slower and not as strong, so it gets swamped until we are in what is sometimes called amygdala hijack—that feeling when the stress hormone cortisol is released and your heart rate rises, your breathing is shallow, and you might feel nauseated or have other physical responses.
Does this sound familiar? This happens to me almost daily when I focus on what is going on in the world—especially of late with the shocking cruelty of the immigration policies that are playing out in our communities.
Mindfulness meditation helps to build a strong executive function that downregulates or disrupts this cycle of amygdala hijack. It calms the nervous system by calming and stabilizing the mind and resting the body. Over time, meditation has been shown to make the amygdala (the threat responder) less reactive, and the prefrontal cortex (the emotion regulator) more active, leading to reduced stress and healthier reactions overall. In other words, reframing our relationship to thoughts and emotions, taking perspective, and accepting, offers us perspective and greater calm.
To sum up, suppressing thoughts and feelings or “clearing the mind” isn’t the point of meditating. It is not a matter of trying to avoid or deny our disappointment, anger, frustration, or fear, but of noticing and learning to accept the emotions as they arise. We redirect the mind not for the purpose of avoiding the feelings but in order to acknowledge their presence without judgment.
Together, awareness and acceptance teach us what is important to us and allow us to take skillful and compassionate action to alleviate suffering—action that arises not from a hijacked nervous system but from the wisdom of acceptance and appropriate response.
At least among the LGBTQIA attorneys I know, there is a widespread desire to work to alleviate the suffering of others and create a more just and humane world. Many of us spend a great deal of our vital energy trying to do just this, often at great cost to our nervous systems. Mindfulness—and specific practices like self-compassion and lovingkindness—allow us to mitigate those costs and supports us in our work, never more critical than now.
I invite you to come and learn more about mindfulness for lawyers at our Lavender Law panel, “Priorities, Productivity, and Peace: Diverse Perspectives on Mindfulness and Well-Being for Lawyers,” at 3:45 p.m. on Thursday, August 9th. If you are interested in mindfulness training or coaching, please be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Emily Doskow and Mindfulness Over Matters, 2018
Emily Doskow is an attorney and mediator in Oakland, California, practicing family law with a focus on LGBTQIA families. As the founder of Mindfulness Over Matters, Emily teaches mindfulness to law firms and legal organizations and coaches individuals in mindfulness practice.