Should lawyers try to master the world? Yes! Or, in a way.
But not in a "Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities," Master of the Universe, kind of way. In a way that's about becoming aware of the perfectly ordinary, grasping, anxious, need-to-be-right, mind.
And then in a way that's about cultivating counterweights like generosity, kindness, patience, and compassion.
As we do that, maybe we will master the world, in a positive way. Maybe we will become true servant leaders, using our enormous influence to be abundantly kind, generous, and patient. True servant leaders, listening for and responding to the cries of our clients, our colleagues, our friends, our families, and the world.
Explore, on today's podcast.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen, and this is Wake Up Call #310, on July 22nd.
Let’s head back to the Dhammapada, this remarkable little text that encapsulates virtually all of the teachings of mindfulness. We left off at Chapter 4, which in the translation I’m using is called, “Flowers.”
The opening line is this question: Who will master this world? As always, the text, and all of mindfulness, is about training the mind, partly training to support our own wellbeing; but also, equally or even more importantly, training to be a positive influence on others, and the world. So right away we’re challenged: will we be the ones who put in the time, the dedication, the training, to master our own minds? And to cultivate the essential qualities of mind: generosity, kindness, patience, compassion? And then to bring these qualities out into the law, and the world, remembering we’re all connected and that everything we say and do matters. And then with that recollection, using our positions of privilege or influence to do good in the world, and to cause no harm?
The person obsessed with gathering flowers, insatiable for sense pleasures, is under the sway of death, goes another line in the chapter. Death, meaning, destined to repeat our actions over and over because we just don’t see, or don’t care about, their consequences.
I’m certainly guilty of being “obsessed with gathering flowers” and feeling “insatiable for sense pleasures.” I take one cracker & cheese, and it’s tasty so I take another and then another, and the next thing I know I’ve eaten far more than I wanted to. There might be a niggling voice reminding me to stop gathering cheese & crackers, but too often I ignore it. Unless it means someone else is hungry and doesn’t get fed, the consequences in that case are to my waistline, or lack thereof. But I’m sure there are also consequences I can’t see.
The same is true for other sense pleasures – which is the pleasure we feel when we get what we want. Could be something relatively benign like I buy a beautiful, soft, new sweater for myself, my partner, one of the kids, which no one actually needs. Consequences? Who knows, or who knows yet, but there I am, caught in retail therapy.
But it also could be something less benign. Last week I talked about my experience in the probate court with the very stickler-y judge. I wanted to speak but my lawyer didn’t call on me and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to simply unmute myself, especially after the judge had already admonished the Guardian ad Litem in our case for “interrupting.” If I’d unmuted myself and spoken to the intent of the trustor, it would have felt good and I would have been right. And I really wanted that sense pleasure: the pleasure of speaking up, setting the record straight, explaining to the judge what was really going on…and being right! Fortunately, I could see some potential consequences and they did not look good. My being right could have helped, but it also could have thrown the whole case into a bad cycle, and thrown me into that cycle.
In that case it was a relief to let go of my desire to be right. Here’s what the next instruction in Chapter 4 of the Dhammapada says about that:
As a bee gathers nectar and moves on without harming the flower, its color, or its fragrance, just so should a sage walk through a village. Do not consider the faults of others or what they have or haven’t done. Consider rather what you yourself have or haven’t done. Like a beautiful flower, brightly colored but lacking in scent, so are well-spoken words fruitless when not carried out. Like a beautiful flower, brightly colored and with scent, so are well-spoken words fruitful when carried out. Just as from a heap of flowers many garlands can be made, so, you, with your mortal life, should do many skillful things.
I love this image of a sage walking through a village without harming the flowers; without harming others: without considering their faults or what they have or haven’t done, only considering what she has or hasn’t done. I love this image, and I also find it hard to do.
Imagine the next time there’s a lot going on. That might even be the minute this Wake Up Call is over. And maybe you have that sense in your body, in your mind: things better be right. So & so had better have that on my desk – and it better be perfect this time. He’d better not refuse our extension request. We need her today - she’d better not be sick again. They’d better have those citations fixed, or that research done.
Now see if you can switch perspectives entirely. If so & so’s document isn’t on my desk, I’d better…what? Not yell. And also not make so & so feel bad, because remember, do no harm. What had you better do, if the document isn’t on your desk? What had you better do if the extension is refused or someone is still sick or the citations or research aren’t done?
Or, let’s flip the grammar. Rather than, “what had you better do?,” how about, “What is the better thing to do?” or, “What is the best thing to do?” Like a beautiful flower, brightly colored and with scent, so are well-spoken words fruitful when carried out.
This chapter of the Dhammapada is inviting us to ask ourselves what well-spoken words we can think of, for each of those situations. Or for whatever situation we might find ourselves in. It’s reminding us not to consider the faults of others or what they have or haven’t done, even if that’s our inclination. Even if that’s what we think we need to do. First, at least, the invitation is to consider what we have or haven’t done.
Sometimes, though, we might feel we’ve done everything we can. We might find ourselves in the company of someone very difficult, or who lacks understanding, or who can’t see what is true – that we’re all connected, that what we say and do matters very much. We might even feel like sometimes, we’re surrounded by people like that.
When that happens, still, or especially, I’d say, in our fraught but also immensely consequential profession, let’s first not consider the faults of others or what they have or haven’t done and instead consider what we have or haven’t done. But if that consideration leaves the situation unresolved or even worse off than before, then here’s the last few lines of the chapter:
As a sweet-smelling lotus, pleasing to the heart, may grow in a heap of rubbish discarded along the highway, so a [student] of [mindfulness] shines with wisdom amid the rubbish heap of blind, common people.
Meaning, not, “Oh, I’m so great,” but rather, as Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” And in this way, we master our world.