Mindfulness without meditation

They had me at “hello.”

Actually they had me with the title of the handout:

“Mindfulness without Meditation.”

Last week I attended the 2017 meeting of the Southeastern Association of Law Schools, a.k.a. SEALS, in beautiful Boca Raton. The SEALS meeting lasted all week but included a two-day Conference on Mindfulness in Law co-sponsored by SEALS, the AALS Section on Balance, the Mindfulness in Law Society, and the Fredrick P. Lenz Foundation.

Day two featured a session on “Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness in Law.” That’s where the elusive promise of mindfulness without meditation came in. There were several speakers, and I hope to blog about each of them. This post focuses on remarks by William Blatt of the University of Miami.

Professor Blatt has seven years’ experience teaching a law-school course on emotional intelligence and mindfulness. He acknowledged that mindfulness as a concept can be difficult to effectively communicate. Being mindful helps people to be at peace with themselves, to be more productive, and to have better relationships. But it’s like a neutral gear or a general state. It’s universal, but subtle. Telling someone to gain emotional intelligence by being mindful is like telling a triathlete to get better by exercising.

Professor Blatt uses his mindfulness class to delve into more specifics:

  1. Attention regulation

Students are drawn to techniques that help them concentrate better because they know it will help them academically. To help students see how they must intentionally focus, Professor Blatt draws a parallel to focused intensity in body building. He walks students through a bicep curl exercise. No weights are needed. The first time you just lift your arm. The second time, you imagine a marble in your bicep and you place a finger on your bicep, lifting your arm with focused intensity.

  1. Body awareness

Becoming more aware of your own body can help with mindfulness. The bicep curl exercise above is one way to do it. But Professor Blatt showed some more energetic ways to do this. First, breathe for 30 seconds but forcibly exhale. Let your breath be heard. By breathing out so strongly, you gain more body awareness.

Beyond that, you can get up out of your seat, put your arms over your head, bend your knees, and jump. Like 20 times. Your attention will come back to your body. Yes it looks strange to see a hotel ballroom full of law professors doing this, but it works.

  1. Emotional regulation

One barrier to mindfulness is repetitive thoughts. Professor Blatt shows students how to take a word—maybe “stress”—and repeat it over and over again. The key is to distort it. Repeat it so fast that it sounds like gibberish. Or slow it down and say it in a deep, slow, movie-trailer voice. Or say the word in a mouse voice. These techniques can break the association of such repetitive thoughts.

Professor Blatt also talked about ways to reframe certain feelings. Stress may feel like a threat, but perhaps it can be reframed as an opportunity. This is easy to say and hard to do. Professor Blatt suggested a good technique which is to change a problem into a question beginning “how…” For example “I’m feeling stressed about maintaining this blog” could become “How can I continue to find and post good content on this blog?”

Building on this interrogative technique, Professor Blatt talked about the broader “release technique” which walks through a series of questions about deciding whether to release a current emotional state—or not. The hyper-rational among us who find themselves dealing with an unwanted emotional state may like this pragmatic series of steps.

  1. Perspectives on the self

Does an individual have just one personality—one mood, one approach, one way of being in the world? “I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote. Professor Blatt discussed a technique for mindfulness in which you try to acknowledge these different “sub-personalities.” The examples he gave were the controller, the seeker, the skeptic, the big mind, and the big heart. Allowing yourself to “hear” the voice of these sub-personalities builds compassion for yourself and is connected to mindfulness more broadly.

I enjoyed Professor Blatt’s remarks about mindfulness because they spanned a wide range of mindfulness techniques from active (jumping up and down) to practical (using a checklist for deciding whether to let something go) to linguistic (articulating a difficult word in an exaggerated way) to conversational (practicing “talking and listening” to your own sub-personalities).

As he said, mindfulness is a general state. But there are many paths to reach—or at least to seek—that state.

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