[Podcast] RL 68: Karen Gifford — Falling In and Out of Meditation Practice

In this episode, I am excited to have Karen Gifford back on to talk about falling in and out of a meditation practice and how to revitalize it. Karen Gifford is COO of Ripple Labs, global leader on distributed financial technology. Previously, she worked in the financial industry, first as an attorney in the private sector and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where she was Counsel and Officer in the Litigation and Enforcement Group. Alongside her legal and consulting career, Karen began meditating in a yoga tradition more than fifteen years ago, initially as a means of coping with the stress of her legal practice. Her executive coaching work incorporates meditation and mindfulness practices, placing a strong focus on the importance of inner skills such as detachment and resilience for effective leadership. She also teaches meditation, with an emphasis on bringing the insights of meditation into everyday life. Karen is active in the start-up world as a founder, investor and advisor. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and an A.B. from Vassar College.

Topics Covered

  • Karen reflects on how even after practicing meditation for 15 years, she has felt the difficulties of falling out of practice and not being fully present/sitting and the tools she has used to re-ignite that fire.
  • The importance of forgiving yourself and never going into a meditation holding inner-resentment or judgment for a lack of practice.
  • How maintaining a regular practice schedule can both help form and keep other good habits, as well as create the spaciousness in your mind to halt bad habits.
  • Good practice leads to confidence in your own mind and abilities.

 

Questions? Comments? Email Jeena! hello@jeenacho.com. You can also connect with Jeena on Twitter: @Jeena_Cho

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Transcript

Karen Gifford: [00:00:04] Having a little space around your impulses is super helpful in creating habits that you want to have.

Intro: [00:00:11] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.

Jeena Cho: [00:00:35] And this is The Resilient Lawyer podcast, meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and agents of change. The Resilient Lawyer is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage. This podcast is about ordinary people making an extraordinary difference. This is episode number 37 and I am your host, Jeena Cho. On today’s episode, I have Karen Gifford on again. For those of you that didn’t listen to episode number 36, you can go back and learn a little bit more about her.

[00:01:06] But in this episode, we thought we would chat about what happens when your meditation practice no longer feels new, or you fall out of the habit of practicing. So I think Karen, what typically happens is you buy the book, you buy The Anxious Lawyer book and you start reading it and you’re all jazzed, and maybe a week, or two, three, four weeks into it all of a sudden you hit that barrier where all of a sudden the practice is no longer new and fun, and it just kind of feels like a chore. Or all of a sudden you can’t find the time, or you know, whatever happens. Does that happen in your meditation practice?

Karen Gifford: [00:01:44] Oh absolutely, absolutely. I’ve been meditating over 15 years and I still go through phases where it is just really hard to get my tush on the meditation cushion and just actually do it.

[00:01:59] And we were talking about this earlier, it’s mysterious why that happens. It’s not like I can point to any particular thing in my life or meditation technique or anything. It’s just sometimes it’s hard to meditate

Jeena Cho: [00:02:14] Yeah, so what happened? Because you have a very consistent meditation practice. I mean, I follow you on the Insight meditation app so I know how much you’re meditating. Which is a little bit creepy, I recognize. So what happens, you’re meditating daily and things are going well and then..and then what happens?

Karen Gifford: [00:02:36] You know, the time when this really came up for me most recently was probably about a year ago, almost exactly a year ago. I remember talking to you about it. And it wasn’t, it kind of crept up on me. And this is one thing, one thing we say in the book is to keep a meditation journal because it keeps you honest. Well, I wasn’t doing that, so I don’t even really know when it started to be hard for me to meditate.

[00:03:07] I do know I started, for the first time in my entire meditation practice, I started having trouble staying awake during meditation. I’d start drifting off and I was like, what is going on? This is so weird! In the past, no matter how tired I was I could stay awake while meditating. And one of my meditation buddies (who’s also my former college roommate) said, “This will finally give you compassion for me!” Because she’s always had trouble with falling asleep. And I was always like, you know just sit down and do it.

[00:03:49] And I couldn’t. So I was having trouble because I was falling asleep, and then I was just having trouble sitting at all. And this went on for a couple of months at least, I don’t even remember how long. I never really understood why I was having so much difficulty getting myself to set; I do know it passed. I would just say, feeling sure that it would pass was probably the most hopeful thing.

Jeena Cho: [00:04:28] Yeah. Well perhaps looking back to when you first started meditating over ten years ago, a long time ago.

Karen Gifford: [00:04:37] Yeah, I started meditating in like 1997 or 1998 probably.

Jeena Cho: [00:04:43] Oh my gosh, so almost 20 years ago.

Karen Gifford: [00:04:48] Oh my goodness, it is. Wow, okay. Yeah.

Jeena Cho: [00:04:54] And I’m sure you’ve had other sorts of cycles where you have difficulties sitting. So when you notice you’ve been meditating every day and you stop sitting, are you conscious that you’re not sitting on those days that you’re not sitting, or do you just sort of skip and you’re not even cognizant of it?

Karen Gifford: [00:05:19] Well like I said, I think if I don’t pay attention to whether I’m sitting or not, it’s easy to miss more than I think. And actually, you were joking with me you see me on Insight Timer, but that’s a great tool that way. Because it does have these little metrics that shows you, you have to always use that timer (which I don’t necessarily always use). But if you’re consistent with using it, then it will show you how much you’ve been skipping. So that’s a super useful thing, or keeping a diary, which I did a lot and you go back and forth on. But I do find it super helpful to keep a super short meditation diary.

Jeena Cho: [00:06:02] Do you keep that journal on Insight Timer?

Karen Gifford: [00:06:05] I don’t, and I know that it’s there and I know a bunch of people that do. It’s just, I think I didn’t realize it had a journal functionality when I started using it. So I always just kept mine in like a word processing document.

Jeena Cho: [00:06:23] Oh, interesting, okay.

Karen Gifford: [00:06:23] Yes, old school. I guess really old school would be pen and paper.

Jeena Cho: [00:06:28] Yeah, I was kind of thinking maybe like a composition book or some type of official notebook or something like that, where you keep all of your entries.

Karen Gifford: [00:06:38] You know what’s nice about having it on an electronic form, is it’s searchable. It’s so silly, but it’s nice to be able to find things when you’re like, didn’t I have some brilliant insight after meditation one day? You can find it that way.

Jeena Cho: [00:06:55] Yeah. So you’re meditating, and at some point you realize you’re not meditating. And then what? Then what do you do?

Karen Gifford: [00:07:05] It’s very situational, right? One thing I think is to not have the tendency that I generally have, which is to try to power through things. Like if I get into a thing where I’m judging myself for not meditating or trying to force myself to sit, neither one of those things really works.

[00:07:32] I think forcing yourself to sit, I think sometimes just sitting down even if you think nothing is going to happen, that it’s going to be horrible, can be good. But if you’re sitting there with a very judgmental attitude about yourself, that is not helpful. For me, if I say like, okay I’m just going to go sit. I don’t care if I sit and think about you know, what I’m going to do at work tomorrow the whole time, that’s fine. That will work for me. But being like, you meditation loser, that is not productive. It’s not helpful.

Jeena Cho: [00:08:15] For me, what I always notice is I’ll have a goal in mind where it’s like, okay I’m going to meditate for a certain amount of time every day. And then all of a sudden I’ll hit these walls where just, you know I could have been sitting for somewhere (along the line, I sort of use that half-hour mark as the benchmark) and doing great for really long stretches of time and I’ll be like, I’ve got this. And then all of a sudden the idea of sitting for half hour just feels torturous. I mean, it just feels awful awful awful! And then so then I just won’t sit. So when you hit these bumps and you say okay, I’m just going to go sit, are you still setting the timer or are you just sort of sitting free-form without the timer?

Karen Gifford: [00:09:03] You know, this is a really good point. Because sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll say, I’m going to sit for 10 minutes, I’m just going to sit for a minute, whatever little thing it is. Just so I hold onto that habit. Because I know now from experience that eventually it’s going to be easy again. But losing the habit has its own sort of momentum, so why have that problem too? Right? So if I can just get myself to sit a little bit, that’s very helpful.

Jeena Cho: [00:09:39] Yeah. And I think that’s a really good tip, is if you notice you’ve fallen out the habit but the idea of sitting for whatever sort of your gold standard is, then sit for (you know, like we talk about in the book) just two minutes, just so that you can keep that habit going. Because it IS a habit, and I think forming any habit is really, really hard; particularly when it’s something like meditation. Do you find that actually having a meditation habit helps you to form other good habits in your life?

Karen Gifford: [00:10:13] Oh, that’s an interesting idea. Maybe. One thing that I do notice is since starting to meditate however many years ago, having a little space around your impulses is super helpful in creating habits that you want to have, right? So, like I used to really have a problem eating chocolate at night. Like, would sit down with a book and just unconsciously eat too much chocolate. And I had this whole thing where I was like, all your teeth are going to fall out of your head, you’re going to become a diabetic.. like I was very worried about this bad habit.

[00:11:00] Something about the spaciousness that you start to develop around your thoughts was super helpful to me in breaking that habit. Now, whether it was that important to stop eating chocolate at night, I don’t know. But what I did see was that I was able to; that I was able to just notice, oh this is just an impulse. I have a choice about whether I give in to this impulse or not, it’s not running me. I doubt I could have done that if I hadn’t had the insight from meditation that there is spaciousness around your thoughts. They’re not real, they’re just phenomena, they’re just something that your mind produces and you can choose whether to buy into them or not. I’m sure there are other examples of habits that have been helpful to me, but that’s the one that really jumps out.

Jeena Cho: [00:11:54] Yeah, yeah. I noticed because there are certain habits that I try to incorporate into my life. I mean just silly things, like eating breakfast every morning. Which for some reason for me has always been a challenge, and it still is. And on those mornings where I either forget to eat breakfast or don’t eat breakfast or don’t want to eat breakfast, it’s like I see sort of the same patterns repeating itself that shows itself in my meditation practice. It’s like, this resistance to eating breakfast feels very similar to the resistance to my sitting practice. Or like the resistance to going to my yoga class.

[00:12:32] You know, it’s a habit that shows itself in my meditation practice and I think that, we were talking about this earlier, how do you break that cycle? Do you try to force yourself, do you try to power through it? Or I don’t know, kind of having a gentleness around that resistance, but also at the same time having some level of firmness and a sense that it’s going to change or pass. But you’re not going to like, you’re such an awful person, go to yoga!!

Karen Gifford: [00:13:12] Right. Well for me, gentleness is key. And it’s almost like, you were talking about this the other day when you were saying it’s like pushing a beach ball into the ocean. If you push against an impulse that you’re having and try to fight it, you take all the energy of your fighting it and put it into that thing, whatever it is. It’s just going to push back. For me, that’s very true.

[00:13:43] So, whatever gentleness means to me in that moment. Whether it’s like with meditation saying, okay I’m just going to sit for a little while. Or I do all kinds of little things to make meditation a pleasant experience for me; I have a chair that I like to sit in that’s comfortable and a particular blanket that I like to have. If I’m traveling, I’ll make a cozy little nest for myself. Gentleness can mean all different kinds of things; it can be a stance you’re taking towards yourself. Like, okay I understand, it’s hard to sit today. Now we’re going to sit. That can be all it takes for me, to feel like I’ve been treated gently by my own mind.

Jeena Cho: [00:14:34] Yeah, yeah, it’s so true. I think it was last year, I don’t know exactly when it was, but there was a period where I just could not get myself to sit. And I was also very aware I wasn’t sitting, but then I would have this whole like guilt trip with myself. Every morning I would get up and be like, okay Jeena it’s time to sit. Then there would be this part of me that was like, no I don’t want to sit. And then it would be like, oh you’re a horrible person because you’re not sitting, you’re not committing to your practice. And you’re writing a book on mindfulness and meditation for lawyers, so now your right to write this book should be taken away from you. Like the whole thing. And this just went on for days and days and days. And finally I was just like, you know what for the next two weeks I’m just not going to sit, and I’m going to just fully give myself permission to not sit. And then I think after two or three days I was like, oh no I really want to sit.

Karen Gifford: [00:15:26] Right, and that could be the gentle thing in that context, for sure. You’re making me think of one of my friends who, she really has some kind of reactivity around committing to a certain amount of time; that gets her very wound up in the same way. And she just stopped setting a timer. And for her, that was perfect. And really, her practice hasn’t changed. It’s just feeling that she’s free in some way to not sit for..I don’t even remember how long she sits, 20 minutes or half an hour or something like that. Just having that feeling that it’s fine for it not to be that long, was all she really needed.

Jeena Cho: [00:16:15] So often I think, especially for lawyers, we get caught up in this, I have to do this correctly or I have to do this perfectly. And sort of the gold standard is that you know, you set a timer and you sit in this particular posture on this particular cushion.

Karen Gifford: [00:16:29] And I have to make an effort, this is actually something that’s been coming up in my practice a whole lot recently, is the realization that this isn’t actually an effortless practice. Or the effort that you make once you’re sitting, that’s it. And there’s part of me that I can see that’s been very resistant to that. That’s like, I must have this sort of peaceful state of mind, you know, whatever it is. And I’m sitting there at this point I guess a few weeks ago going, what am I doing? That’s so silly.

[00:17:14] You know I already get an A. I’m already sitting here, I already get an A. Whatever it is I’m trying to achieve, it’s done. And you know, really it’s been sitting quietly. So there is nothing you have to do in order to sit quietly, you’re just sitting.

Jeena Cho: [00:17:33] Although at a recent retreat (and I shared this with you) the teacher was talking about how you can meditate and sort of get some level of malloy in your meditation practice and you can sort of become dull in your meditation practice. And therefore your mind can sort of become dull. And I was completely paranoid about what this teacher had said. I don’t know, what do you think?

Karen Gifford: [00:18:00] I wish that teacher hadn’t said that, honestly. I think perhaps theoretically that’s possible, but people who are reading The Anxious Lawyer book, people who went to professional school, are not that group that’s just going to space out and get into a fuzzy frame of mind. I think it’s almost the opposite. It’s almost like you have to, there’s so many layers of efforting to just let go of. I feel like I’m still letting go of layers of effort. You know, your mind is really something; there is a natural clarity to it. There is a natural concentration. You can just let that shine through. You can just let that shine through and know that even if you have a foggy day, eventually the clarity is going to come out.

Jeena Cho: [00:19:08] Yeah. Having that sort of faith in your yourself and your practice I think is really hard to have. Especially because we’re so focused on you know, it’s almost like we need a manual, we need a teacher, and we need the teacher to give us an A. We get so caught up in that, which is also why I think it’s so good for lawyers and other professionals to meditate. Because we get so trapped in that, it’s really a lie. That sense of, I’m failing at this and I suck at this. And it’s all that sort of noise that gets filtered into our consciousness when we’re sitting quietly.

Karen Gifford: [00:19:57] As a group, lawyers are very self-critical. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I think it must have to do with being so achievement-oriented. That’s kind of the dark side of being in an achiever, is that you never think you’ve achieved enough. So yeah, it is a really big shift to just let yourself be confident in this process. And that your own mind will take you in the right direction. But I do think that is one of the really great things about starting a meditation practice. Chances are, if you’re open-minded about it, give it a chance and get a practice up and running, relatively early on you’re going to have an experience that gives you confidence in your own mind.

[00:20:48] You’re going to have an experience of quiet. You’re going to see some space spaciousness around your thoughts. You’re going to notice that, oh I was calm in a situation that I certainly would not have been in the past. Just like I was saying about knowing what’s right for you; it will be obvious. And just, the thing that we might have a tendency to do is push that away and go, oh that was a coincidence or you know, not give it it’s full space. But that would be the one thing I would say if you can, is notice those moments and value them; because those are the evidence of how your mind is going to take you in the right direction. And that there is this anchor inside you that’s anchored in a very good place.

Jeena Cho: [00:21:49] Yes, maybe the takeaway message is keep doing it, keep doing it every day.

Karen Gifford: [00:21:55] Try, try to do it every day. And if you can’t do it every day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Every day is new.

Jeena Cho: [00:22:03] Yeah, every day is new, right.

Karen Gifford: [00:22:05] It’s always waiting for you. It’s like riding a bike.

Jeena Cho: [00:22:17] It is like riding a bike, that’s perfect.

[00:22:17] Thank you for tuning into another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed this show, please consider telling a friend. That’s really the only way we have to grow the show. Also, why not leave a review on iTunes? It only takes a minute and really does help with the visibility and promotion of the show. If you have any questions, email me at questions@resilientlawyer.com or you can follow me on Twitter, @jeena_cho or anxiouslawyer.com.

Closing: [00:22:49] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It’s really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at smile@theanxiouslawyer.com. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.