By Chelsea Channing Portney, Esq., Contracts & Licensing Attorney at SmartBear Software
I always took pride in my motivation. I went straight from a challenging high school to college and then directly to law school. I yearned for perfection in my honor-roll grades, first place ribbons and any other format that would judge me worthy. I clung to that motivation like a badge of honor without fully realizing the stressful impact it would have on my life.
One of my earliest memories is being sent to the principal's office in third grade for jumping off a swing. I was devastated. I had to sign a reflection sheet acknowledging my complicity. Crying, I asked the principal how this would affect me in getting into college. My motivation was already beginning to manifest as stress when I was eight years old. After that experience, I avoided the swings.
Over the years, I became more aware of my stress and tried all of the normal activities that people recommend in an attempt to manage it. I exercised, got eight hours of sleep, read, spent time with friends and still nothing helped. By the time I had been practicing law for a few years, I was exhausted - exhausted by the pressure of failing to achieve perfection and the sheer amount of work that was required of a junior attorney.
I wanted to quit, believing that happiness could be found in a career change or in a slower pace of life. I embraced the idea that I was not the cause of my stress, but rather it was my environment and chosen profession.
After a particularly demanding day at work, I started searching online for tips on relaxation. I stumbled upon a yoga and health center located in Western Massachusetts, only two hours from my house, and I signed up for a retreat. The weekend course was focused on maintaining mindfulness in a messy world. It sounded perfect. Upon my arrival, I was incredibly nervous. I didn't know anyone and was skeptical that I would find anything useful in the class. Luckily, I was wrong.
The three days were focused on discovering joy in the present moment and becoming aware of the mind-body connection. We spoke about the meaning of mindfulness and how it was simply the act of being non-judgmentally aware of one's present experience. In order to incorporate mindfulness into our experiences we practiced breathing techniques, yoga and guided meditation. During those days, I was finally able to focus inward and silence my distractions. For the first time in years, I felt calm. Concentrating on a single task suddenly seemed feasible since my brain wasn't swimming in a soup of to-do lists, and any time my brain would wander to work or stress, I would gently guide it back into focus.
At one point in the course, a woman in the class spoke up about how even though she is a yoga teacher, she has anxiety about teaching her classes and has stress from dealing with the other instructors. She had been considering leaving her career before coming to the retreat. It was then that I realized that lawyers do not have a monopoly on feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. The responsibility of maintaining a personal peace is on the shoulders of every individual.
But I wondered to myself, how can I carry this feeling and sense of serenity into my working life? Is it possible to have a challenging job filled with potential stressors and still maintain a sense of peacefulness? I decided that in order to enjoy my work and sustain my newfound calmness I had to practice mindfulness on a regular basis. This would be no different than any other activity - it would require practice, effort and dedication; however, the benefits of this activity were boundless.
I signed up for an 8 week meditation class near my home. It met once a week for an hour and 15 minutes. The group of people was different but the concepts were strikingly familiar and comforting. We focused on the relaxation response and how it can be achieved through breath, posture, physical activity and single point focus. We discussed the benefits of meditation and routine.
During the days I spent at the office I would revel in tiny joys. The deliciousness of my morning coffee, an afternoon walk with a co-worker, an invigorating discussion with a sales-team member. Focusing on the positive moments of the day enabled me to begin enjoying my career, even if it wasn't perfect.
Each night before bed I would do a 5-minute guided meditation. I began noticing the anger as I sat in traffic and I would breathe through it. I would notice slight changes in tension in conversation and I would steady my voice.
At the beginning of this journey, I was under the belief that mindfulness meant that I would never be stressed again and my day-to-day attitude would be carefree happiness. I was wrong. I am still stressed but rather than feeling out of control and overwhelmed I now have the tools to manage my anxiety.
The greatest gift I have received from a regular mindfulness practice is that of awareness. I am more fully aware of my body and my tension levels and have learned that it is possible to understand the urgency and pressure associated with my profession and still breathe and focus.
I used to believe that life was a sprint where you are rewarded for keeping your head down and making it to the finish line first. I now believe that life is more akin to a meandering road. At times you will run, and other times you will walk. Sometimes it will be bumpy and other times it will be smooth, but the important part is that your head is up and you are fully aware of the scenery along the way.