Become a Better Counselor Through MeditationThomas Adcock
New York Law Journal
July 30, 2008
When they come back down from the hills, lawyers undergoing "mindful meditation" during a special gathering in the Catskills of New York this September will have spent four days living like monks in hopes of becoming more skillful counselors.
They will dine together, wordlessly, three times daily. (Conversation is restricted to intensely programmatic moments.) They will examine their respective hearts, souls and consciences. They will consider ancient religious precepts as philosophical tools for modern life.
They will exist without cell phones, BlackBerrys, e-mail, television, radio, iPods, books or newspapers.
And according to two men with past experiences in such retreats -- professor Victor Goode of the City University of New York School of Law and Douglas Chermak, an environmental lawyer in Alameda, Calif. -- they will emerge as better attorneys, more able to control their impulses and choose their words more wisely.
For the first two days of the Sept. 11-14 retreat, co-sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society of Northampton, Mass., and CUNY Law, "we'll be in silence," said Chermak, the coordinator of the event.
"When the chatter and everyday hectic nature of the legal practice fades," he said, "important things begin to reveal themselves." Things such as "pain and dissatisfaction in the legal practice that we don't talk about," Chermak added.
A disciple of Charles Halpern, the founding dean of CUNY Law and a longtime activist lawyer, Chermak runs meditation retreats through the Contemplative Center, established by Halpern in 1991.
This year's national gathering at the Menla Mountain Retreat and Conference Center, near Phonecia, N.Y., is the first East Coast event since 2001. It is open to practitioners, judges, law students and professors. The fee, which includes vegetarian meals, is $500 for shared rooms and $650 for singles. Need-based scholarships are available. (For more details, visit www.contemplativemind.org.)
After the two days of silence, attendees may hear and speak words again in the form of lectures and emotive group discussions, along with instruction in what Chermak and his colleagues call "mindfulness meditation," a method of self-awareness long advocated by psychologists for those in high-pressure professions.
Goode, who attended the Contemplative Center's first assembly 10 years ago in Northern California, said meditation has a practical benefit for lawyers.
"So much of our training and work is to pursue a linear, logical course of thinking that leads to a clearly defined objective," he said.
On the other hand, mindfulness is a process of introspection and impulse control that "leads to a broader perspective," added Goode, opening up "possibilities [not] shaped by our own biases or perceptions of how things ought to be."
In an article for the spring 2002 issue of the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, professor Leonard L. Riskin of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law proposed meditation as an antidote to his two paramount concerns: high levels of debilitating stress among lawyers and law students, and the related tendency of those who suffer stress to give bad legal advice.
"These problems stem in part from certain narrow, adversarial mind-sets that tend to dominate the way most lawyers think and most legal education is structured," wrote Riskin. Such attitudes, he added, "tend to promote egocentric behavior, excessive adversarialism, and a lack of balance between personal and professional aspects of life, which often lead to unhealthy levels of stress, to experiences of isolation, emptiness and absence of meaning, and to the rendering of inadequate or inappropriate services."
The Contemplative Center's Web site pledges that its meditative training can help lawyers "quiet the mind, enhance clarity and professional effectiveness, and restore a more peaceful balance" between personal and professional life.
Chermak -- along with Halpern, as well as Susan B. Jordan, a criminal defense attorney in Ukiah, Calif., and Norman Fischer, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation of Oakland, Calif. -- will help lead discussion groups at Menla Mountain. Chermak said he would counsel "a little space" between lawyers' immediate reactions to given problems and advice they would dispense to clients.
Halpern identifies "space" as that place of wisdom, achievable through meditation. In his December 2007 book "Making Waves and Riding the Currents," he defined wisdom as "a way of being -- grounded, reflective, insightful and compassionate."
When discussing mindful meditation in general social settings, Chermak acknowledged, "Some people say it's all kind of la-di-da, but we're talking about a practice that's thousands of years old," incorporating cultural principles of Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
To meditate, Chermak added, is "radical but not crazy," although it militates against a great dread in the American cultural context: to be alone with one's own thoughts.
"We're scared of that," said Chermak. "We develop all sorts of ways to get away from our thoughts, to be entertained."