How to tame a bad case of MONKEY BRAIN

Over the past year working full time-plus, and running a busy household as a mother to three year old twins, have made it virtually impossible for me to find five minutes for myself. My brain bounces from one thing to the next as I try to keep all the balls I have in the air going. This became particularly worrisome for me when I started to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and the stress of all I had to do the next day was keeping me from going back to sleep. Having been a sound sleeper for most of my life, this was the universe’s way to telling me to find a way to calm my monkey brain and be more “present.”

When I started to pay attention to these signs, amazing things started to happen.

Lawyers deal with conflict on a daily basis. We have heavy workloads, pressing timelines and intense competition from peers. Most of our work is solitary even when we work on teams. The focus on linear thinking and analysis makes us disconnect from our internal compass which regulates our feelings, values and sense of self. This disconnect can lead to substance abuse, depression, and difficulty in our interpersonal relationships.

What can we do to calm our mind? How can we change the impact of stress on our well-being? We can become more mindful of what is happening to us in the moment, and choose how we want to experience it. There are a number of things that come up when we do this and I want to highlight a few. When we are present we learn how to self-regulate how we handle our stress and our emotions. We develop an enhanced capacity for perspective taking. We become self-aware and the knowledge that comes from better knowing ourselves give us the ability to focus. Where does all this good stuff come from? A practice known as mindfulness. I know what you’re thinking because I felt the same way when I heard about mindfulness! It sounded hokey, weird and a little too Oprah meets Deepak Chopra for me. I felt this way until I found myself lying in bed at 2:30 AM unable to get rid of my unproductive thoughts and started to incorporate the few odds and ends of mindfulness practices I had picked up, but more on that later.

Mindfulness covers an amalgam of breathing exercises, meditation and focus techniques which are all the rage in corporate America. However, the legal profession has been a slow adopter of this concept. This is starting to change. Mindfulness practices are starting to pop up in law firms and law schools around the country because the profession is recognizing that our job as an attorney is to produce thoughts and solutions, not get caught up in them. When attorneys start using mindfulness practices they are better able to deal with the unexpected, can focus with more clarity on work issues and deadlines, and are better able tune into the needs of their clients. Focusing on your physical, emotional, and psychological radar keeps you from burning out, and that is worth paying attention to.

A few ways you can start your mindfulness practice:

(1) Develop a gratefulness practice. Each day write down something you are grateful for and keep it somewhere you can see it throughout the day. Allow yourself to reflect on the feeling you have when you think about it. Allow your thoughts, emotions and memory of this to expand your thoughts and awareness. Allow yourself to feel it in your body.

(2) Make time to recharge your batteries. Find five to ten minutes a day to disconnect from what you are doing and calm your mind. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and focus on it going in and out of your lungs. As thoughts come into your mind, allow them to drift away. A popular analogy is to think of your thoughts like clouds floating through the sky. They key is to allow these thoughts to leave your mind, and free yourself to think about nothing. The best times to do this is in the morning before you start your day and also at the midpoint in the day.

(3) Repeat a mantra. The word means “that which protects the mind” in Sanskrit. Focusing your attention on the sound and repetition of a mantra as you chant it out loud or internally allows the mind to pay attention to the sound and breathe as a form of mindfulness. The mantra, as an object of concentration, can help still the mind. This helps you become attentive and present. To find a mantra, start with two syllable word or a two word phrase. Having fewer words to keep track of will keep the practice simple.

Can you guess which one I used to help curb my 2:30 AM monkey brain? I chose a mantra from my spiritual practice. Repeating a short mantra helped me to quiet my mind, clear my thoughts and allow the introduction of one form of mindfulness practice that worked for me. I am still at the beginning of my journey but my skepticism is waning as I become more drawn to the positive effects the practice is having in my work and relationships.