Moving into mindfulness

It’s no secret that law school is challenging, and the stress doesn’t stop with graduation: law is continually ranked among the highest-pressure professions. To help students improve their ability to focus and perform—and form habits for thriving in a fast-paced, demanding field—Loyola University Chicago School of Law is incorporating secular mindfulness concepts and practice into the life of the law school community.

Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's full attention to what’s happening in the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing, or yoga to become aware of and better manage thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

“Growing research shows that when we train ourselves to be mindful, we actually remodel the physical structures of our brains,” says Teresa Frisbie, director of Loyola’s Dispute Resolution Program and a mindfulness advocate. The best-studied mindfulness program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), yields positive results that range from improved equanimity and productivity to better sleep and reduced physical pain. Mindfulness practice generates significant improvement in both focus and memory—which may help with the voluminous reading of law school and the myriad demands facing legal practitioners.

"When I’m thinking about the principles of mindfulness, I’m widening my perspective, looking at things more creatively, and coming up with better arguments."
Just breathe

Choose a short amount of time—one to three minutes—close your eyes, and just focus on breathing. Note how you feel afterward. “Sitting down to meditate for 10 minutes a day can positively change your brain, but even one minute can help—and we can all find a minute,” Callahan says.

Look for other opportunities to be fully present

“When I don’t have time for a full meditation practice, I look for other ways to be present and find the joy that naturally exists in life—whether it’s playing with my kids, taking a long walk, or doing yoga,” Callahan says.

Try a guided meditation

Apps like Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace—all free—help you customize and track meditation sessions.

Loyolans become more mindful

With Frisbie’s encouragement, Loyola recently hosted the first national conference of the Mindfulness in Law Society as part of the ABA Annual Meeting. In Loyola law classes and at popup meditation sessions organized by students, Frisbie and invited outside speakers discuss the specific ways MSBR has improved their own practices and personal lives.

One of Frisbie’s favorite speakers, Shannon Callahan (JD ’04), is a high achiever who was finding less and less fulfillment as she successfully reached one professional goal after another. “I was focused on the doing of each next task, rather than on the being,” Callahan explains, “and not being very mindful about choosing which things I wanted to do.”

A self-guided introduction to meditation followed by formal MBSR training “changed my work and my life,” says Callahan, who is senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Chicago office, a member of the advisory committee to the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program board, and a founding member of the Illinois Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. Now, she’s a sought-after expert on mindfulness, speaking at conferences and training Cook County public defenders, among other activities.

Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn has identified nine attitudes that deepen mindfulness. Some of these, like non-striving, non-judgment, and having a “beginner’s mind,” are principles that seem counterintuitive to an adversarial practice by seasoned professionals. But the regular practice of MBSR has just the opposite effect, Callahan says.

“When I’m thinking about the principles of mindfulness, I’m widening my perspective, looking at things more creatively, and coming up with better arguments,” she says. “It makes me a better lawyer and a better litigator.”

Learn more about Teresa Frisbie’s work as director of Loyola’s Dispute Resolution Program.