June 25, 2019

Killing Them Softly (Part Seven): The Ethics of Mindfulness And Why it Works

rhodesProf. Austin’s Killing Them Softly article reminds us that not only can we help ourselves to overcome legally-inflicted brain (and heart) damage, we have an ethical duty to do so:

Each law student, law professor, and lawyer has the power to alter brain processes to achieve states more conducive to learning.

Rule 1.1 of the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires lawyers to be competent in completing their duties on behalf of their clients. Law students, law professors, and lawyers can benefit from developing a neuroscience-based understanding of how to optimize their own cognition.

If we’re willing, neuroscience can help us take up the challenge to operate at a higher cognitive and ethical level:

Developments in neuroscience identify areas of cognition in the brain and indicate recommendations that enhance cognitive effectiveness, performance, and productivity. Steps taken to increase cognitive fitness can strengthen lawyer creativity and well-being.

Knowledge of these neuroscience findings will empower law students, law professors, and lawyers to enhance their cognitive wellness.

Law schools and law firms, like many cutting-edge companies, can curate a culture of cognitive wellness.

Promoting cognitive wellness is good health, good ethics, and good business. As for the latter:

In addition to bolstering cognitive competence, cognitive wellness initiatives may also provide a lawyer with a competitive advantage.

Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.

If we’re not doing this already, then where do we start? According to Prof. Austin, with mindfulness training:

The best cognitive approach to dealing with stress is mindfulness. Research on mindfulness indicates that it:

  • strengthens the insula in the thinking brain (the early detection system of well-being);
  • increases gray matter and connections between brain regions;
  • improves immune function;
  • decreases distraction; and
  • equips the brain to notice patterns and events before responses become overly-reactive.

Mindfulness works as an antidote to cognitive impairment because it bypasses our habitual cognitive processes. Mindfulness doesn’t ask us to think, analyze, reason, argue, and high achieve our way into a stress-free mindset. Instead, it shifts our brains to a new state of perception and awareness, where we can make behavioral choices that alter the ethos of stress itself. In fact, mindfulness is not about thinking at all:

{M]indfulness is attention without labels, ideas, thoughts, or opinions. Mindfulness means “being fully aware of something” and paying attention to the moment, with acceptance and without judgment or resistance. It requires “emotion-introspection rather than cognitive self-reflection,” and specifically does not involve the analysis of thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness is a form of self-understanding involving self-awareness rather than thinking.

Practiced with intention and perseverance, mindfulness is just what the brain (and heart) doctor ordered:

Mindfulness improves information processing and decision-making. It provides space between awareness, and judgments and reactions, which may encourage the onset of flow. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of effortless concentration when humans are so engaged in a task they lose track of time.

Being mindful allows you to have control over your attention so that you can place it where you want and shift it to something else when you want to. When attention is steady, it cannot be appropriated by whatever intrudes on awareness, but remains grounded and stable. Developing greater control over attention is a powerful way for law students and lawyers to sculpt their brains.

And, we might add, it’s not just a powerful way to sculpt our brains, but our careers and our profession as well.

More on that next time, and then this series is over.

A collection of Kevin’s blog posts, Enlightenment, Apocalypse, and Other States of Mind, is now available as an ebook. Click the link to sample and download it from the distributor’s webpage. (Soon to be available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.) Includes Forewords from Debra Austin, author of the Killing Them Softly law journal article, and from Ron Sandgrund, author of an article on lawyers exiting the law in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, in which Kevin was interviewed.

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