Mindfulness and mental chatter

Listen Like a Lawyer is headed into that time of year when it’s going to be difficult to maintain weekly posts. Being too busy has a detrimental effect not only on one’s blogging goals; it can also interfere with communication. And since lawyers fall into from the “busy” trap at least as much as the average person and probably a lot more, this is a good moment to think about what that does to us and how to respond.

Seeking some wisdom on this topic, I started to check out Scott Eblin’s new book Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. This book seems kind of like the “7 Habits” equivalent for the mindfulness movement.

After digging into the book, I was going to start by exploring the concept of “mental chatter.” Mental chatter is also known as “monkey mind” or (less memorably) “discursive thoughts.” Basically it means random disorganized thoughts running through your head. Should we listen to them? Or ignore them? (Is that even possible?) These random thoughts are obstacles to mindfulness—defined as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally” (Eblin quoting mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn). Also from Eblin:

Mindfulness is about “putting yourself in a position to be more aware and intentional about what’s really going on inside and what, if anything, you want to do about it.”

And then I had two back-to-back days that were busier than any in recent memory. They reminded me of the days back in law practice when I had three filings due in three different courts at 5 p.m. on the same day. There was no time to be mindful! Or so it seemed. The day was actually too busy for random mental chatter because there was too much to do requiring full focus. I tip my cap to the legions of practicing lawyers who handle these types of days year in and year out.

What is the solution? It’s not “finding balance.” On this, I like what Eblin has to say:

[I]f you’re an executive, manager, or professional with a demanding job, you’re about as likely to find balance as you are to be a purple unicorn. The reason is that the world and life are both fast moving and ever changing. In that environment, balance, at best, is a temporary and fleeting state. Instead of seeking balance, try to find a rhythm instead. By focusing on rhythm, you acknowledge there are times when your pace is going to be much more oriented to work, home, or community and there are times when the counterpoints of other aspects of your life come to the fore.

It’s also not about using mindfulness as a Band-Aid. Techniques such as deep breathing can help with reducing stress in specific situations, but mindfulness really means something broader. For example, having consistent routines—like sleeping and exercising—provides resilience on days that swing to the painfully hectic side of the pendulum.

And if mindfulness is about awareness, then we need to think about it when we think about listening. Eblin has some interesting thoughts on different styles of listening, and Listen Like a Lawyer will delve into those on another day.


Here are some additional resources on mindfulness:

The Berkeley Institute for Mindfulness in Law

Becky Beaupre Gillespie, Mindfulness in Legal Practice is Going Mainstream, ABA Journal (Feb. 1, 2013)

Susan Moon, Moonlighting: Mindfulness for Lawyers and the Jedi Master, Above the Law (August 12, 2014) (featuring Jeena Cho)

Robert Zeglovitch, The Mindful Lawyer, ABA GP Solo Magazine (October/November 2006)

Scott Rogers, The Mindful Lawyer: Practicing Law with Presence

Chris Bradley, Jeena Cho on Zen Lawyering, Lawyerist (June 24, 2013)

Jeena Cho, The Anxious Lawyer (ABA forthcoming 2015)

Shalini Jandial George, The Cure for the Distracted Mind Why Law Schools Should Teach Mindfulness, 53 Duq. L. Rev. (forthcoming, winter 2015).

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