Meditation For Lawyers (Really)

Rasa Fournier
Wednesday - December 05, 2007
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Hawaii attorneys Lorenn Walker and Roger Epstein
Hawaii attorneys Lorenn Walker and Roger Epstein do a chi kung exercise with Charles Halpern at the Pacific Club

Lawyers meditating. The two words seem to barely belong in the same sentence. But that was the purpose of Charles Halpern’s October visit to Hawaii - to conduct a meditation seminar for lawyers.

If you think of meditating as sitting cross-legged in a secluded area thinking of nothing or trying to concentrate on a religious mantra, Halpern has quite a different approach to the practice.

“In my talks with faculty and students (at the UH Law School) ... I stressed that my intention was not to introduce a religious exercise and that, though meditation is part of many religious practices, it can also be practiced without a religious context.”

Pointing out the usefulness of secular meditation, Halpern cites studies in Los Angeles that show that meditation helps children with attention deficit disorder.

In California, Halpern chairs the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (www.contemplative-mind.org), and his resume teems with prestigious accomplishments - graduation with honors from Yale Law School and Harvard College, professor at Stanford and Georgetown law schools, a pioneer in public interest law. He has been involved in teaching meditation for more than 20 years and heads up meditation workshops for lawyers, judges and law students. His latest California venture was attended by 100 judges.


After three days of presentations for his hosts, the UH Law School and the Hawaii State Bar Association, Halpern conducted a four-hour meditation training program.

The peaceful atmosphere of the Pacific Club served as the perfect meeting grounds. A dozen interested candidates removed their shoes and entered a room where a choice of floor mats, chairs and couches welcomed them.

Halpern guided the group to find a comfortable posture and close their eyes and, chiming a pair of cymbals three times, introduced a period of meditation.

“Too many people think meditation is a process where you sit and push thoughts away,” described Halpern. “What flows from that way of thinking is that you judge yourself forever as a failure, because our minds are in the business of generating thoughts - they never go away.”

He then directed us to be aware of the sounds - from sirens and the roar of jet engines to bird calls and voices - but not, as might be the professional hazard, to judge them. Halpern’s voice invited us to let the chaos of our hectic week ebb and to focus on our breathing - not to control our breath, but just to be aware of it.

Charles Halpern: meditation need not be religious
Charles Halpern: meditation need not be religious

As esoteric as the exercise might sound, the initial distractions of an aching back and a crowding agenda of thoughts gave way to a truly relaxed and, well ... meditative experience.

Halpern explained that getting in the habit of meditating can help during the day’s more stressful moments and that, because there are no rules, restrictions or physical tools for the process, it can be practiced anywhere and anytime.

“There is no right way to breathe,” he said. “Just be present and that in itself is instructive. If you’re driving a car or going through a tense negotiation in the courtroom, you can take a few breaths.”

Surprisingly, the four hours went by quickly. The time allowed for a few guided discussions, some 15-minute sessions of silent meditation and a chi kung exercise. The soft, fluid, energizing movements of chi kung, with Zen-like names such as “archer takes aim” or “marriage of the moon and sun,” offered a welcome interlude.

One primary theme upon which Halpern expounded is that meditation, along with self-reflection and group discussion, guides practitioners on a path of wisdom - they gain a “meditative perspective.”

“Developing a meditative perspective helps us practice law,” he explained. “It helps us be more creative and more open to new solutions.”


Using the context of the Superferry dispute, Halpern said that a meditative perspective “can infuse our activism and make it more effective. Think about an activism that doesn’t come from fear or anger,” he urged, “but from a commitment to values and a desire to see a future which will work for everyone.”

He mentioned studies that highlight the powerful effect of meditation.

“We’re finding that a regular meditation practice actually changes the people we are and the way we think and act and present ourselves. That, in itself, is a very striking thing. It’s now clear, based on functional MRIs and a lot of other very sophisticated neuro-technology, that meditation changes the structure of the brain.”

He went on to explain that meditation helps one focus better and develop a sense of ethics and greater compassion.

Another major benefit is being able to sustain a law career without the corrosive effects of stress.

Steve Dixon, a Hawaii lawyer of more than 20 years, says: “The American Medical Association holds that 10 to 15 percent of the general population suffers from one or more of the impairing diseases of stress disorders, depression, drug/alcoholism. Among attorneys, the American Medical Association and American Bar Association hold that it is 18 percent to 40 percent.”

In light of those morbid statistics, Dixon has been conducting a weekly Mindfulness Meditation group for lawyers for the past two years (www.hawaiiaap.com, 531-2880). The group functions under the Hawaii State Bar Association’s Attorneys Assistance Program.

Yet meditation offers no quick fix.

When he first started meditating, “it wasn’t a miracle and it didn’t make all the stress of the day go away, but it was helpful enough to keep me going,” reflects Halpern, who describes meditation as 80 percent silence. He even attends 10-day meditation retreats.

“When I first heard about the 10-day retreats, I thought, how could I ever do this for 10 days?” chuckles Halpern, but he turns serious as he concludes, “Now I think, how could I not do it?”

Halpern has recently added the title of author to his resume. In his new book, Making Waves and Riding the Currents: Activism and the Practice of Wisdom, due for release January 2008 (available for pre-order at Amazon.com), he offers insight from his experiences as a lawyer, teacher, philanthropist and practitioner of meditation.

 

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