The Wake Up Call for Lawyers

Where Quarrels End

June 17, 2021 Judi Cohen Season 5 Episode 305
The Wake Up Call for Lawyers
Where Quarrels End
Show Notes Transcript

“Where Quarrels End” is the topic for today’s episode, which seems odd since in the law, quarrels never really end and I don't even know if they’re supposed to end. And yet.

What if we thought about ending our quarrels? In an adversary system, is that a contradiction in terms, or is there a way to be a fierce advocate and also not quarrel so much with one another? Or with life in general?

Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call #305. Last week I started working with a beloved text called the Dhammapada, looking at the very first chapter of that text, which is called the Dichotomies.

The name, The Dichotomies, is a reflection of the fact that basically, if we point one way, one thing happens, and if we point another, another thing happens. In life, and certainly in a life in the law, if we’re thoughtful and intentional; study and learn and practice well; cultivate wholesome relationships; and take good care of ourselves and those we love; then we’ll have the best chance of living into a professional life that’s joyful and brings wisdom and compassion into the law and the world. If we cut corners, fail to do what’s needed, alienate others, or fail to care for ourselves or those we love, we’ll create suffering for ourselves and for others.

This dichotomy is at the heart of mindfulness, the greatest purpose of mindfulness: to calm the mind and the nervous system, to cultivate our own wellbeing, to wake up, for the purpose of bringing a little more wisdom into each moment, a little more love into the world.  

The Dichotomies are our reminder that there is that possibility, in each moment: to wake up to what’s right in front of us, and to remember that our words and actions have so many consequences, knowable and unknowable. Their ripple effects spread out across the oceans of our own lives and the lives of everyone we come in contact with, and everyone they come in contact with, and all of the beings on our beautiful blue planet – and even our planet herself.

As I mentioned last week, we can look at this choice as illuminating the fact that in each moment, we are ultimately, perhaps frighteningly, free – to choose love and wisdom, or not; to choose love, or not. 

Last week was about the opening Dhammapada verses how suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of an ox when we speak with a “corrupted mind” and how “happiness follows like a never-departing shadow” when we speak with a peaceful mind. Another line in that sequence goes like this, “many do not realize that we here must die. For those who realize this, quarrels end.”

I was afraid to put that in today’s email because talking about death is not something we do particularly well as a society. And it’s been such a long, sad, year and half, with so many deaths from COVID. But actually I don’t see this line as being about death so much as being about life. 

I remember having a kind of “whatever is needed” sense of practicing law, before I started studying mindfulness. The work was interesting, it was plentiful, the money was good. And there wasn’t a conversation that I recall about the consequences of our words or actions. To the extent that I got any real training back in the 1980’s when I was coming up, which is a whole conversation, no one spoke about the adversary system with any understanding or acknowledgement of the harm it caused. In fact, my mentors and a lot of the lawyers I knew practiced with a kind of wild abandon: they really did pound the facts when the had them, pound the law when they had to, and pound the table – loudly, like the warriors they imagined themselves to be – when all else failed. 

And the casualties…fell into the “whatever is needed” category. They were the collateral damage nobody talked about. Hopefully they were the “other side,” a problematic characterization in & of itself, or the associates – I was that associate more a few times, but I was given to understand that falling on my sword came with the territory. Plenty of times the casualties were the staff, which was cringy but what could you do? It was the way things were. It’s still the way things are, a lot. And of course we ourselves are the ultimate casualties: the ones who do battle as much with anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, substance use and the lot, as with our ostensible opponents.

I’m not saying all of law is practiced like this but plenty is. Even academia can be like this, in my experience. Defenders and prosecutors talk a lot about working in a kind of take-no-prisoners environment. Even public interest can be like this.

Remember the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has the superior opportunity of being a good human. There will still be business enough.”?

I hear Lincoln talking about the moment-to-moment perspective, and the bigger picture. As a peacemaker the lawyer has the superior opportunity of being a good human – this is sati, remembering – remembering that in each moment, we can do good, with our knowledge, our wisdom, our good hearts. 

And yet we don’t have all day. Each time we take a breath and choose which way to orient, wisdom or “whatever is needed”, being a peacemaker or taking no prisoners, we can also remember that “we here must die,” and that “for those who realize this, quarrels end.” 

When we remember that we here must die, viewing our lives from the widest possible vantage point, so many of our quarrels look different, unwarranted. That doesn’t mean we’re not going fight until our last breath for what we believe in. In fact it reinforces that commitment. But it means doing that with Manjushri’s great sword of wisdom, cutting through delusions – especially the delusion that our words, our actions, don’t matter. They do! And since we here must die, don’t we want every single word, everything we do, to matter in a positive way? 

And also, our quarrels with the way things are – when we remember how fleeting life is, we can drop those, too. We can stop quarreling with the present moment. We can ground, relax, open, unclench, notice our choices from a wider, less personal perspective, and then decide what to say or do. We can stop wasting time arguing with the way things are and put that energy into creating meaningful change, in a world that needs our superior opportunity of being a good human.

There’s a classical admonition that we should practice mindfulness as if our hair were on fire. What would it be like to stop quarreling with each moment no matter how difficult, and to bring wisdom and kindness and patience and compassion to every adversarial situation, with a commitment that our hair really is on fire, and that it really is true that someday, we here must die.