More Than Mindfulness: An Interview with Norman Fischer

Last week, during “Mindful Lawyering: A Meditation Retreat for Law Professionals and Students” at the Garrison Institute, we caught up with retreat leader, poet, and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer. Earlier this week, Fischer participated in our event “Mindfulness and the Art of Aging,” as part of the “Garrison Talks at the JCC” series in Manhattan.

We spoke about mindfulness, Zen, and the relationship between personal and systems change.

This week it’s mindfulness for lawyers, next week it’s mindfulness for aging. What is it about mindfulness as a practice or idea that allows it to be useful in so many different contexts?

To be perfectly honest with you, I think the word is overused. For me, it’s not so much the mindfulness of being a lawyer or aging, but rather: Can you look more deeply and clearly at what you’re doing?

Can you do it in a way that is more thoughtful, more inclusive, and more interesting in the end? I do find that when you practice meditation—and when meditation is part of your way of accessing your experience—it gives you a different point of view.

Zen is often described as a goalless practice. Are there meaningful differences between practicing meditation with or without a goal?

Fundamentally, I think it’s the same, but semantic and stylistic differences can matter a lot. In part, I think, it’s more a matter of skillfully asking: Who’s the person who’s practicing this? And if I explain it to them this way, what will happen? If I explain it to them that way, what will happen? Sometimes a difference in semantics can make an enormous difference in the way a person practices or understands their practice.

You’ve been doing these retreats for a few years now. If I had to guess, I’d guess that lawyers are more likely to fall into the “goal” camp. Am I right?

Well, every lawyer is different. But, in general, yes. Legal education does train lawyers to master a set of techniques, skills and ideas. There is a strong element of performance in professional education in general. So, lawyers will be trained to look at something as a problem to be solved, and they’ll apply their analytical capacities to solve that problem.

But I think probably lawyers who are drawn to a retreat like this, see limitations in that perspective. There are advantages in it, clearly, and it’s not something that you need to abandon completely. You need that for your work. But if lawyers reflect on what they’re doing, they realize that there are other, softer skills that are really important. For example, emotional stability subtlety, steadfastness are really important for lawyers, because every legal issue involves interactions with people. Even if it’s one corporation suing another corporation, there are people involved. Your ability to understand where people are coming from and connect with people, is really important.

And then, as a lawyer, you have an emotional life. Sometimes the things that happen in legal matters cause the emotions to go reeling. There could be a great deal of stress or pressure, and it’s important to know how to manage that. I think lawyers recognize that beyond knowing the law, there are other, softer skills that are fundamental to be effective and sustaining a life as a lawyer.

I agree that these soft skills, such as emotional stability, are important. But at what point do you start to ask about the causes of the stress in the first place? Are there aspects of being a lawyer that are stressful because of the way the profession is set up? How does personal work tie into systems change?

We’ve always had aspirations to change the legal education system, to ensure these skills were taught in law schools, which they aren’t now. They barely even exist in law schools. Because of our work and this movement, some law schools are starting to teach these skills. We hope it continues.

But, for me, certainly in our legal work and other kinds of mindfulness work that I do, it’s really a both/and. We have to sustain this work. We have to take care of ourselves. We can’t burn ourselves out and do ourselves in. But, at the same time, you’re right, it’s not just about just taking care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves is not enough. We really have to figure out how to make the world a better place.

And, for lawyers, let’s make the law a better place. Law is important. Let’s make better laws. Let’s make law schools better. Let’s make the profession better. Let’s change the ethos of the profession.

What does a both/and approach to personal and social change look like?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How does change happen? When change happens in a way that isn’t organic—in a violent way, in a forceful way, in a disrespectful way—history shows that there is almost always backlash. So you end up having this euphoria for five minutes, and then whatever it was you opposed or defeated comes back. Except this time, it’s even stronger because of all the residual resentment that has been built up because it was just defeated.

That’s what happened in the ‘60s, in my view. We were very successful in the ‘60s in doing all kinds of things, but we’ve been paying for it ever since.

How so?

Well, because the right-wing movements felt left out in the ‘60s and were disrespected and unseen, when they had their opportunity, they reasserted themselves even more strongly. So the question is: How do you effect social change in such a way that you bring people along sufficiently and you minimize backlash? Or you marginalize backlash; you don’t empower it.

How can you do that—especially if you truly believe that the other perspective, say the right-wing movements, is dangerous?

Well, you include the perspective. You don’t act on it. You don’t set a policy based on that perspective. But you bring the person to the table and you have a conversation that’s large enough to include that point of view.

I’m not suggesting that that’s the answer to everything, but when you bring a contemplative perspective to social change, you might come up with a different road map than one that’s only political. A political perspective only sees power. I think that leaves out a great deal of what’s important. A religious or spiritual perspective is much deeper and more holistic. It includes more and brings a different kind of emotional balance and understanding to social change.

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