In this episode, I am excited to have Rhonda Magee on to talk about utilizing mindfulness to help combat biases.
Rhonda Magee is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco. She teaches Mindfulness-Based Interventions, and is a student of awareness and compassion practices from a range of traditions. She is a facilitator of mindful and compassionate communication, and a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute. Rhonda’s teachings and writings support compassionate problem-solving and presence-based leadership in a diverse world, and humanizing approaches to education. She sees awareness practices as keys to personal, interpersonal and collective transformation in the face of challenge and opportunity. The author of numerous articles on mindfulness in legal education, Rhonda is a thought and practice leader in the emerging fields of contemplative legal and higher education.
- Rhonda kicks the episode off by diving into her past as a mindful lawyer and why having a mindfulness practice is a must working in such a high-conflict field as law, especially in terms of constant and consistent self-growth.
- How utilizing mindfulness practices help develop and condition our faculties around social justice, social bias, and working with identity-based biases. She talks on practical ways that we can combat the apathy we see and can respond with, such as the STOP practice.
- Tips and tools for maintaining a consistent mindfulness practice and mindfulness in Legal Education and Professional Development
- Concrete examples of using mindfulness to work on our own implicit biases. As socially embodied beings, we are both signaling and sending signals that people are reading and perceiving differently. It is our responsibility to be mindful of this, and reflect on how we can better engage our own identities.
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Rhonda Magee: [00:00:03] Just simply engaging in mindfulness on a regular basis can broaden our capacity to be with these changes with more grace, with more intentionality, with more skillfulness over time.
Intro: [00:00:18] 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: [00:00:41] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I am so happy to have Rhonda McGee. She is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. She teaches mindfulness-based interventions. As a student of awareness and compassion practices from a range of traditions, Rhonda’s teaching and writing support compassion problem solving and presence-based leadership in a diverse world, and humanizing approaches to education. She sees awareness practices as keys to personal, interpersonal and collective transformation in the face of challenge and opportunity.
[00:01:21] Before we get into the interview, if you haven’t listened to the last bonus episode go back and check it out. I shared a very short six-minute guided meditation practice to help you let go of stress and anxiety as a preview for my new course Mindful Pause. You can check it out over at my website JeenaCho.com, or check it out in the show notes. And with that, here’s Rhonda. Rhonda, welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast.
Rhonda Magee: [00:01:49] Thank you so much, Jeena. It’s beautiful to talk with you and to hear a little bit more about the other work that you’re engaged in again.
Jeena Cho: [00:01:58] Yeah. Rhonda, it’d be great to start with just a 30-second introduction to who you are and what you do.
Rhonda Magee: [00:02:05] Sure. So primarily my main job is I’m a law professor, so I teach law at the University of San Francisco. I have been for 20 years, and I love the opportunity that that work gives me to engage with new entrants into our profession, and to be constantly a part of the process by which we have real conversations about what it means to be a lawyer, about particular aspects of law, and its impact in the world today. So that’s my main job, but in addition to that I teach mindfulness.
[00:02:48] My mindfulness teaching grew out of my mindfulness practice, which for me started many, many years ago. I guess kind of more or less formally in the way that I practice it now, I could date the start to around 1993. Which is a year that I graduated law school, came out to San Francisco, and just realized I needed a little bit more than the cognitive and skills-focused set of tools to really get myself grounded in the way that I felt I wanted to be, to begin practicing law. So I started practicing mindfulness then, and the work that I’ve done to integrate that into my work teaching law and then teaching other populations the tools of mindfulness has grown from there.
Jeena Cho: [00:03:44] Why is it important for lawyers to be mindful or to practice mindfulness?
Rhonda Magee: [00:03:52] Well I know this is what your audience reflects on all the time. So just to take it from my own personal perspective, I went to law school at the University of Virginia and practiced law here in San Francisco at a firm that like many firms, had a number of attorneys working on a range of different types of practice areas, in a range of areas. It was a civil litigation practice. I actually did a fair amount of insurance coverage while I was there, but dabbled in other things and I practiced for about four and a half years. And based on that experience, which of course is somewhat dated now, but based on that experience as well as my interactions with people in the practice today, not the least of which is my relationship with my partner (who is a law partner at a law firm today, and we’ve been together for many years), so I’m aware based on my own experience and my own engagement with lawyers in the practice right now, in a variety of settings. That brings me an awareness of the ways that, first of all law practice is as we all know holistically challenging. It is a beautiful profession for many reasons, not the least of which is that it calls upon us to really be as effective as we can in the midst of engaging with people who, in many cases, are at their most distressed and vulnerable, in some ways weakened by circumstances in their own lives or the intersection of their own lives with the legal system in some way.
[00:05:49] So because we are so often called in or called upon to really bring our knowledge, skills, and values from our law practice, our legal education, and our experience in the world as lawyers, to bear on these high-conflict, high-intensity situations. And in such scenarios, having a range of different skills at our capacity is essential to number one: effective lawyering, right? Really accessing well that which we can do to support people. So thinking well about the application of law and policy to a particular problem, but also recognizing that there are values and ethical considerations that might be brought to bear, and sensing into the ways that our own human biases or orientations or limitations might also be getting in the way. Having the ability to do all of those things at once is really highly sophisticated work, and really does call upon us. I think as we all know who’ve done any practice, to really have commitments that involve self-development at progressively more profound levels over the course of our careers. And I myself have not found any more effective set of practices to support that kind of 360 ongoing commitment to personal development than the practices of mindfulness. And in that I know I echo people like Michael Zimmerman, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the state of Utah, who is a colleague of mine in this work. Who has often said as well from his perspective as a lawyer, an appellate court lawyer, a judge, a deep practitioner of mindfulness, the kind of skills and the way of being with reality if you will, that is supported by mindfulness practice are really THE skills; the greatest support we have seen for the development of these kinds of skills for lawyering.
Jeena Cho: [00:08:37] Yeah, I find it really difficult to try to explain to someone that doesn’t have a mindfulness practice, to explain what all the benefits are. They think a lot of us sort of find our way into mindfulness and meditation because we’re really stressed or there is some discontent. But then what it ends up opening up is this whole new way of engaging with the world, and it’s not really easy to explain what that is. Like when you start a yoga practice and you notice all of these ripple benefits that you weren’t anticipating.
Rhonda Magee: [00:09:21] Yeah I agree, and so I do think we can talk about some of the benefits that we have experienced and that research has shown. And of course, at the end of the day I think that when people (as you suggested) take that yoga class or engage in any kind of suggested practice, via exercising or taking time for themselves, engaging in mindfulness and the allied disciplines of mindfulness, we learn from that experience in ways that maybe supplements what we’ve learned through external reports and testimonials. But for me, just starting with the simple practice of developing more comfort with being with the body and whatever state it’s in in any given moment. For many of us, it’s hard to be actually present to what we are feeling and what we’re experiencing.
[00:10:29] And so for that reason, number one mindfulness can seem more difficult and counterproductive, especially if we’ve spent a lot of our lives as many of us have, kind of running away from or finding ways to distract ourselves from those things, and even positive ways to distract ourselves by working hard, by focusing on trying to do good. But at the end of the day, if we each pause and take a look, for many of us we can see that we’ve spent some time in our lives going away from what it feels like to be here now, to being present to what we’re feeling, what we are sensing. We don’t quite maybe have words for sensations in the body that we might not want to give time to, and we’re all differently oriented and conditioned around the capacity to be with what is arising. So for me for example, I grew up in a home where I really didn’t feel a lot of support for just allowing feelings to exist. Even sickness, I grew up in a home where everybody was working and there was a felt sense that we didn’t have a lot of time to even get well when you needed to. So even I realized at a certain point I’d internalized from just that, a way of being critical with myself, even when I wasn’t feeling well. Pushing, pushing myself so hard. Hard, harsh language, internal language for myself, just at the moment when I might need most to just allow myself the time that the body needs to heal.
[00:12:19] So I find that that’s not an uncommon kind of way of having a relationship with ourself, that those of us who are productive in the world and making things happen; we can have these ways of relating with our own self and our own experience which make it hard for us to adjust. First of all, to give ourselves time and to kind of turn away from our habits of pushing away what we’re feeling and move and pushing through it, when mindfulness invites you to engage with those realities and those feelings and sensations differently; to actually allow them in, create some space around them. And so, given the ways many of us are conditioned not to be present, to not give myself time when I needed it, to see that maybe as a little bit of a weakness, this work is kind of counterintuitive or certainly countercultural. If we look at the particular cultures we’ve been raised in or we’ve helped create to be successful for ourselves, so it doesn’t surprise me that many people in law find it difficult to actually practice the kind of opening invitations of mindfulness, like creating space to just sit in silence for a few minutes each day.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:48] Right, and also we as a legal culture really looked down upon that. I remember being a very young attorney and being told things like, leave your emotions at the door; there is actually no room for your feelings in this room. And it wasn’t until much later, once I started really getting into my law practice, it’s like no actually the majority of what brings clients into the office is because they’re experiencing emotional pain. And we’re so driven by emotions, you know that’s what propels the action. So if we can really understand our client’s emotions we’re better able to help and serve them, but we can’t do that if we’re not emotionally intuned with ourselves.
Rhonda Magee: [00:14:38] Exactly, exactly. And I agree with you entirely and have seen that in my own practice life and also in the work that I’ve done in academia. So I’ve been socialized into two different quite formidable professions, law on the one hand and academia on the other. And that is, I know you have experienced as well. You know, in academia there’s a similar set of norms. So I just find that all over our society, wherever we are, when you get into relatively high-status environments and professions, it’s not uncommon for there to be a corresponding set of norms that minimize the importance of being present to emotion, allowing space for emotion.
[00:15:29] Your story reminded me of a story I received as a young law professor, which was very similar in that one of the mid-level professors who had just successfully obtained tenure was giving me some advice and counsel about how to conduct myself in the classroom. And one of the things he said to me was, “I have a practice of not smiling at the students for the first six weeks of class” And he had a whole story for how this was a way of instilling a certain sense of faux intimidation; an environment that he thought was somehow conducive to the kind of order he wanted to be in the class. Then after the six weeks or so you can loosen up and allow a smile. But a smile is an indication as a sort of a signal of a certain kind of emotional experience that most of us experience on a regular basis, if we’re just allowing life to hit us. Humor happens, joy happens, connection happens, and smiles normally will happen. But to have that be a norm that’s being passed on from law professor to law professor in some setting.. And thank goodness I think it’s less so today than it used to be, but certainly 20 years ago when I started it was certainly not considered at all odd for this junior mid-level professor to tell me that this was one of the tactics he had adopted to successfully get him where he was. So yeah, just to sit with that. That is a deep indication of the kind of culture that you’re talking about.
Jeena Cho: [00:17:29] Yeah and speaking of culture, I know you’ve written and done a lot of work around social justice and our implicit bias, and how mindfulness can help us to be more aware and to start to shift, and really use mindfulness as a tool for uncovering our own bias. Tell us about that.
Rhonda Magee: [00:17:57] Well yeah, thank you for asking because I do think all of us can see (if we’re paying attention at all) how we’re struggling as individuals, as institutions, organizations, workplaces, the larger community and society, to just deal more effectively with the challenges of living in diverse and changing times. So living with the changes of our demographics, different populations coming together with different cultures, and a time of other rising anxieties right. Everything from climate change to what seems like endless war. So we as humans are just being challenged on many levels, and our history tells us that one of the ways we are tempted to respond to such challenges has to do with a kind of a reversion to the dynamics of tribalism. We know from neurobiology that our bodies are formed to respond to perceived threats in one of a few deeply ingrained ways; to flee right, the flight response. And we do that as much as we can, we do those things in explicit and implicit, obvious and subtle ways. We flee situations where we’re feeling some sense of threat, so fleeing can look like just sitting in the space but not contributing anymore. Or everything from that to literally leaving and never coming back. So flight is one way we respond to these kinds of threats. Fighting, right? Just figuring out an “us versus them” kind of, who’s on my team, who isn’t on my team.
[00:20:03] Polarizing is another common response. So the flight or fight syndrome much written about by social biologists and other neurobiologists, neuroscientists, really to help us understand what’s happening to us cognitively and holistically when we perceive threats in our environments. And others have helped us understand that there are other options available to us, like tending and befriending. But to choose to tend and befriend, to not flee, to know that there are other options often involves a more sophisticated engagement with our capabilities. So moving from what many people call the early human aspects of the developed brain, the reptilian kind of brain and cortex and into the neocortex; the later evolved part of our brain that assists us in making these more sophisticated decisions, responses to these stimuli in our world. Including the kinds of threats, we perceive when we’re looking at say, demographic change in the midst of all kinds of conflicts that are being presented to us and coming at us at what seems like warp speed in our culture today. And mindfulness can help really, by assisting us in regulating the emotional reactivity that can come with a sense of concern or anxiety. It may or may not be consciously perceived as a sense of threat, but the body might be sensing some anxiety. As we know, research has shown for example that when analysts, demographers report on the changing demographics in our time, the “browning” if you will of America, the fact that we are becoming more comprised of minority or minority populations here in America. The percentage of Americans who are for example identified as and identify themselves as white over time has been lessening, and is predicted to lessen in the next generation or so in a way that will be apparent to us and may call on us to meet each other around difference in different ways, and I think it’s already doing so. Research has shown that just to hear about those changes can create a sense of anxiety for people. And so right then and there then, if the body is physiologically reacting, even if we don’t think cognitively that we feel that to be a bad thing or that we are necessarily biased against these changes or any one individual who might be seen as a reflection of such changes in our environment, our bodies often are signaling something different. So mindfulness is just one of the ways that we can develop greater emotional intelligence, a greater capacity to notice different ways that our bodies might be signaling anxiety or discomfort. And again, through mindfulness and the allied disciplines of mindfulness, the reflections on our values, reflections on the insights that arise from mindfulness, that we are actually profoundly interconnected. So to the degree that we see ourselves as these isolated beings, us against the world. One of the things that mindfulness can do is help us to sense our way into our inherent interconnectedness. The breath alone by itself, for example, reminds us we don’t create the air that we breathe.
[00:24:29] We depend on each other profoundly for that air to be of a quality that we can all survive and thrive in. And those kinds of subtle insights are part of the way the modality, the methodology for how simply engaging in mindfulness on a regular basis can broaden our capacity to be with these changes with more grace, with more intentionality, with more skillfulness overtime.
Jeena Cho: [00:25:07] Yeah, and you and I were chatting before the show started about how mindfulness helps us to.. Especially now, the amount of information and data and news, we’re so inundated yet there is a sense of a lack of intimacy with one another, that sense connection. It’s like we talk at each other in sound bites. On a very practical level, thoughts about how to stay connected and engaged and aware of what’s happening out in the world, but also not so sucked into it where it becomes harmful or toxic?
Rhonda Magee: [00:25:58] Mmm, yeah. There are many practical tools we can use that I’ve discovered through mindfulness. One is I’m sure your listeners are probably quite familiar with, this practice called the S.T.O.P. practice, with the acronym “S-T-O-P.” But it is really aimed at encapsulating how it is that through our mindfulness practice, deepen our commitment to be more proactive about how we move through the world, and to giving ourselves the support we need as we need it. This particular practice is an example of just what I mean by that, so it’s a S.T.O.P. practice, it is again the acronym “S-T-O-P.”
[00:26:54] And with the “S”, it is a suggestion that when we are feeling the first signs that we notice that we are feeling any kind of overwhelm, we literally take the invitation to stop. The “S” in “S-T-O-P” really just means stop. By that we mean pause, and this dovetails well with your current new project around the pause, but really just to pause in the middle of what it is that we’re doing. Even if ever so briefly, right? This can all take place within seconds, if not less. But we just take a moment, if we are scrolling through our email, noticing some level of reactivity and about to respond or react. Send that email off in the state of the reactivity, send that tweet off in the state of the reactivity. We have so many technological ways that can make manifest the way in which in real time we struggle. But mindfulness is about giving us a bit of an assist. But it does require orienting ourselves to say, we will take the time to give ourselves the assist. So it is saying, bring mindfulness to the first signs that we are about to be in a state of some kind of overwhelm, and in that moment to stop; to pause, to then move to the “T”. And I’m doing it instinctively right now. Take a deep breath, take a cautious breath. Within which we can, just by doing that we invite the sort of neurobiological support that comes with the conscious engagement with a simple, intentional breath.
[00:28:56] We know that if we allow ourselves to engage in deep breathing, we naturally engage in deep breathing as a means of calming ourselves. And again, neurobiologists can tell us that we are formed, our parasympathetic and our sympathetic nervous systems, that part of us is profoundly conformed to assist us in calming ourselves when we are distressed. So a deep breath in the face of whatever it is that is causing us anxiety, is a natural and nature-approved way of assisting us and calming down. So take that conscious, intentional breath, that’s the “T”. And then “O”. “O” is simply to observe what’s happening as you breathe. You open up to sensing into the state of the body and the mind, this sort of embodied being that we are in that moment. So you observe the quality of the breath that you just sort of interrupted a bit while taking a deeper breath. Where we’re breathing very high in the chest, shallow breathing we know is associated with a stress response. So just noticing, observing, what’s the quality of my being in this moment? Perhaps starting with the breath, which is where we are already kind of landed as we engage in the “T”, so “T-O”, we are observing what’s the quality of that breath? What’s the quality of the rest of my being at this moment? Am I feeling the ground beneath me?
[00:30:40] So really, you observe from the breath the whole body, perhaps dropping down to the feet. Feeling the support of the ground that is beneath you that we might not have been in touch within the moments prior to engaging in just this brief “S-T-O-P” practice. But the ground is there, we are supported. So allowing an observation of, alright where my feet right now, how is my own being in this moment? Kind of allowing myself in my embodiment to support myself in this moment. So we can sometimes notice if we are hunched over, if we are leaning forward or racing forward in a way that really doesn’t provide necessarily the most grounded way of handling a distressing situation. So to allow an observation of what’s the state of the body; what’s my posture right now? What’s happening my mind, what thoughts are coming to me? So thoughts, what emotions, what other related sensations? So that “O” is a point of allowing a space for observing what it is right, that is characteristic of this moment of distress for us. And from there, really inviting a shift, knowing as we do if we practice mindfulness a little bit, if we study mindfulness a little bit, at what I call the allied disciplines of studying about mindfulness: reading about it, engaging in practice with others, looking at your ethical commitments for doing mindfulness or practicing mindfully. Once we pause enough to observe what’s going on, and then if we have been engaging in mindfulness in this more wholesome way, ideally then some of the benefits of that can arise as we pause, as we observe what’s going on, and are there to support us in consciously shifting into a more skillful way of moving forward.
[00:32:47] So then with the “P”, it’s “S-T-O-P”, we reflect on how it is that we might want to respond rather than react. So if we’re just racing in a way that maybe we can walk with purpose and support ourselves with each step, if we are about to send off that email maybe we can think a little bit about the sender or senders.. If we’re about to send off that tweet, just pause to think about the different audiences that might receive that, and just how they might receive it. We may decide to send it anyway, but we’ve done it then though from a place of deeper ground, of having reflected on it from a variety of sides in a way that can prepare us for whatever might be to come. So the “P” then is about a bit of processing and then proceeding with intentionality, based on having allowed ourselves the support of mindfulness as we go.
Jeena Cho: [00:33:48] Yeah, that’s such a simple and beautiful practice that we can all incorporate into our entire life. So I know you’ve been meditating for a long time, how do you keep your meditation practice going? This is something that I hear a lot of (I guess it also applies to nonlawyers too) us struggle with, is just you keeping a consistent formal practice of meditation going. So tips and tools on maintaining the practice?
Rhonda Magee: [00:34:25] Well it’s a great question, it’s never not timely. For me, it really is about making daily if not moment to moment commitments about staying mindful; writing in and supporting myself to be mindful. So that is about, again asking myself really specifically, what do I want to do to support myself in being mindful and being able to draw on mindfulness as a support throughout my day. How do I make that happen? I make that happen by making time to commit to mindfulness before I need it, in a certain sense. The idea that we can just listen to people talk about mindfulness or read about mindfulness, but not actually practice mindfulness and then have it as a resource for us that is part of our being, is a little bit of a false way of really understanding what mindfulness is about. We really do need to practice. And even though I’ve been at it for years, I know I need daily practice.
[00:35:49] So it starts with again a commitment. One of my teachers says, a way that he counsels students who are struggling with the commitment to practice is to ask at the end of each day. Because we can look at our day and say, wow I could have used a little bit more mindfulness today, I’m feeling depleted. Where was the practice when I needed it today? That recognition that we needed can then be a support for saying, alright what will I do tomorrow to give myself time to deepen my mindfulness practice. Can I commit to getting up tomorrow? Again, each of us may have different ways of doing the practice. For me, starting the day with mindfulness is important. Sometimes that means a long sit.
[00:36:43] And I don’t mean hours, but for me long given the way my work and day often moves, a long sit is 20, 25, 30 minutes. And some nights I begin with a commitment that tomorrow I’m going to do a long sit. One of my teachers says, “It’s not enough to just ask am I going to do it? It’s to really say, am I really going to do it? What time am I going to get up to do it?” Ideally, we may have already identified a space, a place where we engage in our practice. And so this is about, again I talk a lot in the work that I do about this thing, that executive functioning of the brain; the decision maker. The part of the brain that can actually help us with our good intentions. The neocortex, we enlist that when we ask ourselves am I really going to do it, what’s my plan for doing it? We know that when we take those kinds of extra steps, we’re just that much more likely to follow through the next day.
[00:37:47] So that’s one way to sort of allow the sense that we’re maybe not quite making time for it to prompt us, to deepen our commitments. And that may look differently for each of us, it might look different for each of us. But it might look like saying, I’ve said I want to do a regular daily practice that begins with a morning sit. I will do it tomorrow. I will do it for.. If 20 or 30 minutes is too much for you on the day that you have given the state that you’re in; you’re totally exhausted, you’re not sure you can do 20 minutes or 30 or more. But you might be able to really easily say, yes I can do ten minutes. I can do ten minutes, and tomorrow I will do ten minutes. So those kinds of agreements to be mindful, and to kind of plan and mindfulness. It’s the discipline of saying, I have a commitment, I’m going to fulfill it. And knowing that there’s some Momentive benefit; there’s a momentum that can be established if you do that one day and you see some benefit, and then you do it again the next day. And I caution this in these conversations about staying with the practice, that some days it won’t feel like yes I see a benefit. And those are the days when we have to say, but we’re going to stick with it because we made a promise to ourselves; I made a promise to myself. I can stick with it, I can do this regularly. For some of us just starting out, we might say I can do this regularly for a week; I can do it regularly for 28 days, 30 days. And even if I’m feeling like I’m not sure, I can keep at it.
[00:39:36] But at the same time, recognizing that there are ways that we must be our own best friend and counsel as we do this. And it is true that mindfulness is not necessarily for every person, or for all aspects of our distress that we’re feeling. And there are times when actually we know that by just sitting, we know that we’re spiraling into a little bit more distress than we can handle at that moment. And so, of course everything I say, and I’m sure Jeena it’s true for you as well. We’re always reminding everyone who listens, everyone who would engage in the practice to be your own best supporter and guide and counsel. If you need to take a break, if you need to get some other kind of support or a counselor or other, that is what you need at that moment. Do it and then come back perhaps to mindfulness when you’re ready.
Jeena Cho: [00:40:43] Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s a really important point to highlight, that there may be situations and circumstances where mindfulness may not be like the cure-all. I think sometimes it’s sold in that way, but definitely get the help you need for sure.
Rhonda Magee: [00:41:10] And at the same time, there are degrees of struggle. So if your struggle is I’m just feeling bored with this, that’s one where you might say well just notice it and investigate it a little bit. But don’t give up on the promise that you made that you’re going to stick with it long enough to see what might be the benefits, if you can get through the period of almost predictable resistance to it. It is, you’re doing something that’s completely different from what you normally do. Know that there’s going to be a period or periods that may recur of just reaction to the mindfulness, I don’t want to be mindful, I don’t want to sit. But just to let that be; maybe allow a little bit of levity, a little bit of, “Here I am in my reactivity against mindfulness, but I’m going to sit. I’m going to do it.” Just letting yourself go through what we all go through as we develop our relationship with our practice.
Jeena Cho: [00:42:14] It’s so funny that you mention boredom, because that was literally the thing that I sat with for the first two years of my practice. And I remember my teacher being like, well what does boredom actually feel like? And I was like, I don’t know, it’s really unpleasant. I don’t know what it feels like. And he was like, well why don’t you go and explore it. Like actually just sit and explore what boredom feels like. And I was like, ugh fine damn it. I was a resistant student, like most lawyers are. But it was fascinating, because there are lots of interesting things about boredom. And what I found even more interesting was that sensation of boredom would reoccur everywhere in my life, but I never noticed it. So it was really interesting to go, here I am standing in the grocery line and there is boredom, and how do I be with boredom? I reach for my phone. We all walk around with this pacifier now, and it really shifted my relationship with how I relate to digital technology. It’s like, what do I do entertain myself? And do I always need to entertain myself when I’m bored, or can I just be with boredom. All of these interesting things that you’ll learn, especially when you’re resisting against something in your practice.
Rhonda Magee: [00:43:32] That’s true, right? It’s an ongoing revelation, right? That’s what I do when I’m bored, and I do it all the time it seems like, it’s coming up everywhere.
Jeena Cho: [00:43:46] So Rhonda, before we wrap things up I do want to have a more concrete discussion about how do we use mindfulness to work when our implicit bias? And for the folks that are listening to you, they may not know that you’re black. And for the folks that are listening, they may not know that I’m Asian. Sometimes being a woman of color, we have very different experiences going through the world. So I’m wondering if you can give some of the tools on mindfulness, as a way that we can work on ourselves. For the listeners out there that are either people of color or women or in some group of minority in some way. Or if they’re the white guy and they’re wanting to take part in this conversation but aren’t sure how to. And I think that can also be a really uncomfortable place to be as well. And I realize that’s a huge question, so I’ll let you take it any direction that feels good to you.
Rhonda Magee: [00:45:01] Well it is a great, huge, meaty question. And of course, like all great, huge, meaty questions, I will really only be able to invite some reflection that is really just pointing toward what I hope will be ongoing ruminations, thoughts, reflections, ways of continuing the conversation that we do collectively and individually from here. So I would say that mindfulness for me is a way of deepening my experience with reality. And what reality is is always changing, and my reality (as you alluded to in your question Jeena) may be different from yours in a given moment because of the way that our reality, the sense that we have of what is real is based on perceptions that we have as we move through the world. So we are constantly encountering stimuli from the environment, we’re meeting people, we’re seeing people. People are engaging us, we’re reading about incidents in the headlines, comments are being made in a meeting that suddenly trigger some sense that perhaps you’ve experienced or witnessed a micro aggression. One of these sudden, stunning statements that may leave me or some other person feeling disrespected, or rendered an outsider in some space.
[00:46:44] So these are the kinds of things that are the stimuli that we’re experiencing as we move through the world. And each of us experiences these things differently, and partly as a function of the ways that we are differently embodied in different time and space. So, depending on the context that we’re in; if it’s a context in which we all look very much the same, we’ve all been raised to think very similarly, that’s going to be a different kind of space than if we are in a space where it’s that but then now someone’s entered who physically looks different. Maybe of a different race, maybe a different gender, the intersection of those two is very profound. Maybe have a different class background. In other words, as socially embodied beings we are both signaling and sending signals that people are reading about who we are and what we know, what we think. People are perceiving and making assumptions and all of that. We do it, and it’s been done to us all the time. And that comes with being a human being in a social environment. And so bringing mindfulness to the way we engage with our own identities and the way that our perceptions about others in the world may be shaped by the particularities of our own embodied experience, which are very different perhaps than the lived experience of others in that space. Just bringing mindfulness to the fact that our experience is just our experience; it’s just one part of a big, complicated, beautiful story about who we are in this moment together. That we might tell and retell with ever increasing complexity and capacity to hold complexity, if we are given the time and opportunity.
[00:48:55] Generally we’re not given much time and opportunity. So a lot of what can happen at the intersection of identity and some kind of suffering happens in the space of what we do when we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re operating on a little bit of automatic pilot. We meet someone; we prise them before we even consciously do it. Cognitive scientists tell us that we make perceptions about one another that key into race and intersect race with gender, and perceptions we have of class based on the way perhaps someone is dressed or the way they speak. What kinds of accents people have or don’t have. We evaluate these things at a subconscious level before thought even arises around it. So part of what we’re learning, if we look at the cognitive sciences, helps us understand how mindfulness practice can assist us in these areas. We are often operating from the place of that automatic reactivity; that automatic way. I see this person, I put this person in this category, and I respond to this person in that way based on that. Mindfulness can help disrupt that automatic processing. I’ve written, and others have written, about research studies that give us reason to be hopeful; actual, real reason to be hopeful that mindfulness can assist us in just that part of the problem. The problem of automatic application of the preconceptions we have about each other, based on notions of identity, stories about whose identities matter and what types of spaces and places; we all carry these. We can’t not have them, having grown up in a world where narratives about who matters and what groups matter where and why are constantly being consumed and presented to us. So, of course, we have imbibed these biases. We imbibe the culture’s preferences for different types of bodies and people and cultures and different spaces. So that’s always a part of what we ourselves bring to a space.
[00:51:09] I know for myself, growing up in the south in a part of the country which had whites and blacks and African-Americans and Caucasians. And those are terms that we created to label people, and yet we know what they mean when we use them. Because we’ve all been trained to use them. So mindfulness is about deepening our capacity to understand all the different ways we all are brought into a world in which identities are constantly being constructed and reconstructed, and we are acting on each other and with ourselves in ways that reflect these notions. And the problem comes when (well there are many problems that can come from that) what the social psychologists called schema, these ways we have of categorizing the world and moving through the world based on those categories. They’re really effective in enhancing efficiency and moving through quickly. The example I often use is we have a cognitive schema for a chair, such that when we see something that looks like it’s got a flat bottom or a seated area and four legs, we know that if we’re tired we can sit on it and not have to worry about whether or not it’ll support us in that activity. We don’t want to have to every time we encounter a chair be like, wait what is that? Let me do a test on that. So we get that, we can work with a schema for a chair and move through the world in a way that is supported by that. The problem is when we use similarly reductionist schema for people. I mean, to have a schema for an Asian-American woman and then to say every time I meet.. And often we have these and we’ve not consciously interrogated them. We’ve just received them because of stereotypes and film and media, stories we’ve heard from people who went overseas and came back with stories.
[00:53:08] I mean there are all kinds of different ways that we imbibe these stereotypes. We may or may not have made them conscious, interrogated them. And so when we meet a person who we think embodies those characteristics, those stereotypes are operating already; before we have a chance to really be mindful about whether or not they should, or if we would want them to if we have choice. And so mindfulness can get us regularly engaged. Regularly is the key. This is something that for me, I see this as a profound aspect of what it means to be mindful. Because so much of our everyday suffering is mediated through the particular embodiments that we live in. So really, not to see mindfulness and identity and social justice as a side topic, but really to see oh we’re just talking about bringing mindfulness to everyday life and lived experience. And not failing to name that we all have lived experience that’s characterized by race, characterized by gender, people’s notions, our notions of class. These are all already in the mix. So bringing mindfulness more intentionally to bear on those aspects of our own experience, how we began. If you grew up in the south like I did, you may not have met very many Asian, identified Asian, diasporic people before. You might not have heard a lot of language from different Asian countries before, in your everyday life. And you move to a place like California as I did, and suddenly hearing different languages is new. And we all know that again, the human body being what it is, we often don’t react so well to every new environment, every new experience.
[00:55:01] We often are sort of challenged when we meet the new. So mindfulness can help us notice, I am (in a way that I didn’t predict) reacting to having these languages around me; I’m not comfortable. I need to pause and notice what’s happening. I am meeting something new; I am having a kind of reaction to it that would suggest I might need to work on this. This might be an area of work for me. So that’s really just one of the micro ways that mindfulness can help. I talk about the allied disciplines right, which have to do with committing to being mindful in community. I don’t think we would be talking about mindfulness together today if many people before us hadn’t realized the importance of practicing with others. So really, you develop by being engaged in practice with others. So it’s great to have these podcasts and support for individual practice, but it really is also important to try to find ways of practicing in community when we can. Because it’s there that we really do learn on a day-to-day level. How it is that here I am judging this person, because they had this way of responding to this comment that I have now evaluated. And now I’ve maybe made some other assumptions about this person that are impacting my interaction with this person, all of these sorts of ways that we are human and in community.
[00:56:35] I think if we have a commitment to mindfulness that includes practicing with others, we are always being supported then in deepening our ability to make room to include the so-called other; to learn from others, and to constantly work on ourselves as part of our practice of mindfulness
Jeena Cho: [00:56:58] Right. Yeah, and I often think as a society we made it very convenient not to have to interact with others, whatever that other might like. Even just being a lawyer, it means a good bulk of the people that I interact with are lawyers, or they’re at least educated (most of them are highly educated). And they all sort of in this social economic group. So even though I may have friends and people in my life that are different culturally and on other spectrums, but we still have this commonality of being in the legal profession. I think it takes intention to interact with people that are very different from you and come from different life experiences. And also (kind of looping back to what you were saying earlier) there can be this feeling like, well I’ve never had that happen to me, therefore it couldn’t have happened to you. I remember telling someone I like that I walk into a courtroom and the judge looked at me and he just said, “Oh you’re the Asian language interpreter.” Which by the way, the wording of that is so bizarre. But I and shared that with someone, and he was like, “No, I don’t believe it. That didn’t happen to you.”
[00:58:25] And I was like, what do you mean it didn’t happen to me? But because he could never imagine that ever happening to him. Because he’s different than me. And I think it can be this feeling of, well that’s not part of my life experience, therefore, it couldn’t have happened to you. Or, it couldn’t have happened with the frequency in which it’s happening to you.
Rhonda Magee: [00:58:47] Right. Or it couldn’t have done the harm. Because if somebody says something like that to me, again not knowing the frequency, the cumulative effect, the way it links up with other incidents in our lives, that history. Another person can hear that and say, oh well is that really a big deal? You could easily brush that off. So yeah, mindfulness helps us, and can help us. I do think we need to (as you said) be intentional about this. I don’t think this is necessarily an offshoot of mindfulness, because of the ways we’re getting trained not to turn toward this aspect in so many other realms of our lives. So we almost have to actually invite an intentional embrace of looking at how it is that we hold the sense of what the real world looks like and is. And how it is necessarily constrained by our own position, experience, limited by that. It’s one of the reasons why for me, I kind of see being with others and practicing with others and working with others around these issues as just this great gift that we can have and experience.
[01:00:02] Because we need each other; I need to hear your experiences for me to have a better understanding of the full range of experiences that are causing suffering in the world. And I invite and then hope that there will be others who will be open to hearing mine. So developing the desire, not just the capacity (like I can tolerate it) but knowing that you want that, to really work with being a more mindful human being in the world, is something that I think can come with our practice. But it often needs to be invited intentionally in.
Jeena Cho: [01:00:45] I think that’s the perfect note to end on. Rhonda, thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom. Thank you for all the good that you do in the world.
Rhonda Magee: [01:00:57] Thank you, and I reflect that 100% back to you Jeena. It’s good to be in conversation with you, and I thank you so much for what you’re doing and for this chance to be a part of your work today.
Closing: [01:01:14] 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 [email protected] Thanks and look forward to seeing you next week.