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Rolling With The (Legal) Punches (Equanimity, Part I)

I’ve been thinking lately about equanimity. Is equanimity even possible for lawyers? Every day in the law is a battle, and equanimity can seem pretty illusive. Our practices are full of uncertainties. We never know when we’ll win or lose, be praised or blamed, get an award or get slandered. We never know when we’ll have a moment of pleasure, and when we’ll be devastated.

In the language of mindfulness, these uncertainties are called the “vicissitudes.” But the paradoxical thing is, each of them is completely certain.

We know we’ll win some and lose some. We’ll get a compliment from a client, and then someone at the office will blame us for something we didn’t even know we did. We’ll be honored by the bar, and then we’ll hear about some snide remark someone made about us. We’ll be pleased, then troubled, then pleased – all in one day. Sometimes, all in one hour.

Equanimity is about not clinging for dear life to winning. It’s also about not clinging to praise, or fame, or pleasure. In fact, it’s about not clinging to anything.

It’s also about not running away from loss, blame, disparagement, or pain. It’s about turning towards those difficult moments and facing them, with courage and self-compassion.

But before that, equanimity depends on understanding that winning and losing, praise and blame, fame and ill repute, pleasure and pain: they’re not uncertainties. They’re certainties. And then it depends on learning to rolling with the punches.

So how do we do that?

The Teapot is Already Broken

One way to roll with the punches, and cultivate equanimity, is to remember the Zen koan, or riddle, “This teapot is already broken.”

I know this one well. In fact, I have a favorite teapot. I bought it in Dublin years ago, and I make tea in it every morning.

I love that teapot.

I also know one day it will break. I can’t avoid that. Sometimes I knock it and it rattles and my heart jumps, and I think about how heartbroken I’ll be when it breaks. I once even spent a fruitless hour (or two) online trying to find the company that made the teapot, so I could order a backup. Talk about clinging.

And just like my teapot will someday break, some of your cases will go down in flames. Some of your deals will go south. Some of your clients will end up incarcerated. Some of your students won’t pass the bar.

Your law partner will blame you for something you didn’t realize would upset her. Your partner at home will blame you for not emptying the dishwasher.

You’ll encounter disrepute, because gossip happens. (My old friend used to say, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, sit by me.”) No matter how thoughtful you are, someone will have something rotten to say about you.

And pain is also inevitable. Your bum knee? Your broken heart? It, too, will come.

We can’t avoid loss, blame, gossip, or pain. Sometimes when I’m making tea, I remind myself that my beautiful teapot is already broken. That way I won’t be so crushed when it cracks. That’s the first step towards equanimity.

Practice With Open Hands

The great lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, was a model of equanimity. He used his education in the law and also in the Bhagavad Gita, to overthrow British rule in India. One thing the Bhagavad Gita teaches is that we should act without attachment to the fruits of our actions, which is exactly what Gandhi did. He wasn’t attached to defeating the British. He just did everything he possibly could to achieve that result, and then opened his hands and let go.

In the practice of law, you absolutely have to put one hundred percent into achieving your goals, and your clients’ goals. When you’re teaching, you have to give one hundred percent to every day. But once you’ve done that, if you’re going to survive, you have to let go. You have to open your hands.

You do everything you can, and then you remember: the outcome is out of your control. You’re not going into the jury deliberation room. You’re not invited into the board room during the vote. You can’t take the bar for your students.

You’ve done your best, you’ve given your best. And then you open your hands and let go of any attachment you have to the outcome – any thought that only if you prevail, can you be happy.

And then, whether you defeat the British army or lose the case, equanimity kicks in. You stay calm, stable, and peaceful, no matter the result.

Check Your Motives

It helps if you know what your motives are. And it helps even more when you know that your motives are good.

If your motive is to help someone spend more time with the kids they love, you’re good. If your motive is to help spite a soon-to-be ex, maybe not.

If you’re supporting the mission of a corporation you believe in, great. If your goal is to make tons of money off a huge company that “can afford big legal bills,” not so much.

Maybe checking your motives is the first thing to do. The Dalai Lama says that if we do that, we can abide in equanimity whether we succeed or fail.

In my own experience, when I don’t check my motives, and I realize they were less than good, I don’t feel equanimity even if I win. In fact, I feel worse when I win. What goes around, comes around. The poet Wislawa Szymborska said something similar (and much more elegant): whatever I do will become forever what I have done.

One thing about mindfulness is that it gives us the tools we need to check our motives, practice with great effort and open hands, and remember the teapot is already broken. When we do that, we can enjoy our lives without clinging to winning, praise, fame, and pleasure. We can roll with the certain uncertainties of loss, blame, disrepute, and pain. We can find equanimity even in the craziness of practicing law.

Judi Cohen

Judi Cohen formed Warrior One and created Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers®, nationally recognized for its originality and excellence in integrating traditional mindfulness, groundbreaking neuroscience and the science and psychology of the legal mind. Judi has presented to a wide range of global, U.S. and local firms, in-house legal departments, bench and bar associations, legal conferences, and law schools. Read More

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