I used to think if I sat on my meditation cushion, did some yoga, and generally paid attention, I was doing my part. That still feels important. But now, for me anyway, it also feels like it's not enough.
The ancient texts say we should practice as if our hair is on fire or there's a snake in our lap. And I guess that's what feels important for me these days: to remember my hair is on fire - or at least the planet is on fire, and that there really is a snake in my lap - the snake of hatred and separateness.
It's got me interested in the Eightfold Path of mindfulness from a new, maybe bigger, maybe more urgent perspective. It's got me asking what it could look like to walk that Path like a firefighter doing what I can to quench the flames, or like some kind of fearless human (which I'm not!), willing to tame the snake or, if that's not possible, cut off its head.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 340.
When I was practicing law we used to say, about a claim or an issue, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Last week, looking at Chapter 19 of the Dhammapada, “The Just,” I realized, yes, and. Yes, if it walks and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck if it’s an issue or a claim. But no, just because I walk like a lawyer and talk like a lawyer, doesn’t mean I’ve earned the right to call myself a lawyer; and just because I’ve read about mindfulness and practiced a little, doesn’t mean I’m awake, or very much awake. It’s important to earn those stripes, and also, the humility is important. It’s important to practice diligently, with joyful effort but diligently. As the old texts say, to practice with our hair on fire, or as if there’s a snake in our laps.
Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada, which is almost the end of this treasure, is the beginning of the “how.” How to practice with our hair on fire. How to practice with that snake. Another way to say this is, it’s about The Path, which is in fact what the chapter is called.
The chapter starts out by saying, “the best of paths is the Eightfold Path.”
So what is the Eightfold Path, and how can it help us be better lawyers?
There are three segments to the path, and each has a few elements, with a total of eight altogether (hence the name). The first segment of those three segments is Training the Mind.
Training the Mind includes the elements of mindfulness, effort, and concentration. Walking the path of mindfulness really begins with this formal practice we do together here, and that you’re doing on your cushion. Each morning, or evening, we sit down, stand, or begin walking; and bring our attention to the present moment. We choose our object of awareness, our anchor, classically the breath in the body or the body in the form of a body scan, or this can be the sound in the environment. And then we relax into, and become mindful of, the present moment.
First, maybe we tune into what’s happening in the body. We don’t bring any story into this tuning in, we just attend, simply, to what’s happening. We might notice our posture - “I’m sitting down,” or, “I’m walking.” We might investigate sensations. We might get more granular, scanning the body and seeing what’s tight, what’s loose; seeing if hunger is present, or pain; attending to the body simply as skin, bones, and flesh. We might feel into the temperature of the body, the fluids in the body, the air in the body. As we’re doing this, we can attend to the body not as something we own, not as “my” body, but rather, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to do, as something we inhabit temporarily, that we care for. That’s precious and to be treasured.
Then we can move to mindfulness of our mood, or the Vedana, in the moment: is this moment pleasant? Is it unpleasant? Is it neither? Again without story – it’s not, “unpleasant because she/he/they said/did that thing” – just, “unpleasant.” This might take us to the body again because if our mood is, say, unpleasant, we might then turn to our experience of that, which could be tight, or hot, or sweaty, or distracted, or restless. And then returning to the mood of each moment as being pleasant, or unpleasant, or neither.
After this – or not “after” but “also,” because at least in my experience mindfulness isn’t so much a progression as a spiral – we can notice what’s happening in our mind. Maybe thinking is happening or the mind is quiet and there’s not much thinking. Maybe emotion is happening – anger, sorrow, joy, and everything in between.
There’s also mindfulness of experience: seeing if desire or ill will are running in the moment, or restlessness or fogginess or skepticism. Remembering that everything is skewed by my own perception: that even though I’m seeing or hearing or tasting or sensing or smelling or thinking something, it’s all filtered through my experience and history. And at the same time, noticing when ease is present, when freedom is present and I can breathe, and then bringing those qualities into my relationships; into my home, but also into the conference room and the courtroom – the virtual one and the live one; and into all of the ways I interact with the world.
All of this requires effort, the second element of the Training the Mind segment of the path, and for me, I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m putting in the time, the dedication, to study and practice mindfulness – not as a to-do item but as something I’m inspired by. Asking myself, what is the Goldilocks amount of effort – not too little, and not too much – when my mindfulness is strong, my concentration is good – concentration is the third element of Training the Mind – when I can follow one full breath during a sit, or two, or ten, or my breath for the whole sit – whatever my practice edge is. For me that’s about a half hour of yoga in the morning, and another half hour of sitting, plus all the times I get to sit with folks like you, in the different sanghas or communities I get to be involved in.
But Training the Mind isn’t going to get any of us too far in the law if we’re not also Cultivating Ethics, which is the middle segment of the path. Ethics, which is comprised of Wise Communication, Action, and Work. For me, the exploration of these includes asking myself all day long – all day long – am I speaking, writing, emailing, texting, and posting with kindness? Is what I’m saying helpful? Am I hurting anyone? Is this good for the planet. Not to get too obsessive but I don’t feel, at least for myself, that I can be too vigilant. And the same for my actions – Wise Action – are my actions helpful and kind and non-harming? And same for my work – I ask myself that all the time and when I was practicing law, I really asked myself this a lot because I did corporate work: is my work helpful? Usually a yes. Is it kind? Harder but again, usually – but not always, which was a huge cause of sorrow for me, let alone for the person I was being aggressive with. And is it non-harming? Hopefully! I still have to take a deep breath on these, after all those years of corporate and real estate work. I love what the great writer Annie Dillard says. She says, “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” In this Ethics segment of the Path, we can ask ourselves, “am I spending my days, and my life, in ways that are helpful and kind to myself, to others, to the earth?”
And the third segment of the path: Wisdom. Asking ourselves whether we’re keeping in mind that everything we all say and do has consequences because we’re completely, irrevocably, interconnected, especially in the law, where our words and conduct and the choices we make about where to put our professional effort, impact so many people, and their organizations, and the planet? And also, are we bringing the very best of intentions to everything? The very best of intentions, meaning, the intentions to do no harm; to be kind and compassionate to all the humans, and all the other beings, and the earth; to be of service; to speak truth to power; to undo the deeply embedded, seemingly intractable systems of oppression that cause harm to so many beings and to the planet?
“The best of paths is the Eightfold Path,” according to the beginning of Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada. I used to think the path was about making sure I sat down on my cushion each day, and didn’t do anything terrible once I got up. Now I think I really do need to remember – maybe we all need to remember – that’s no longer enough – if it ever was. Now I try to remember my hair is on fire, just like the world. And I try to remember that there really is a snake in my lap – the snake of hatred, disconnection, devastation – and it’s up to me, and each all of us, especially because of our status and privilege as members of our hallowed and hollowed profession – to tame that snake with an enormous dose of kindness. And failing that, to cut off its head.