Dark Night of the Soul

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Why are you cast down O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”-Psalm 42:5  

Several months ago I went through a rough time and I didn’t know if it qualified as depression. I’d suffered from a massive depression 35 years prior in law school that left me catatonic and treating with a psychiatrist. There had been hard days when the kids were little, a sad time after my divorce, and “the blues” triggered by menopause hormones but nothing that didn’t ultimately pass through. This time seemed different.

My  brother had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a dark and lonely trek walking alongside him. My “rock” bolted in the middle of it, unable to handle my constant sadness and emotional exhaustion. Incidents with a few close friends made me realize that I’d misjudged the depth of our friendship. I felt alone and  my usual comfort from my relationship with God wasn’t coming through.

I started to see a compassionate therapist and brought him up to speed on my circumstances.   He pronounced my “downer” the result of grief and loss of epic proportions. It was helpful talking to him and we agreed to meet once a month to touch in. I’d find myself driving to his office wondering what in the world I would talk about for an hour and then getting there talking so fast I couldn’t stop even as time ran out. Yet therapy still didn’t satisfy my aching heart and soul which only seemed to get worse.

One of my stalwart girlfriends is a spiritual warrior. “Dark night of the soul,” she pronounced, and I wondered if there was such a thing, and how it differed from depression. I took to reading about the subject and hearing from people who had endured one.

Named after the poem by Roman Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a “dark night of the soul” is a period in which you feel overwhelming despair, and during which God is purportedly taking you deeper into new realms of spiritual experience even though it seems like he has disappeared. A big part of the experience is to let go of ego, surrender to the situation, and recognize that through courage and perseverance you are being groomed for greater love and awareness.

I don’t know about you, but my idea of a deepening spiritual experience would be an outstanding dream during which answers automatically fall out of a cloud like mystical raindrops quenching the dryness of a stagnant, sad period of life. Or maybe a walk in nature during which an incredible download of clarity drops on your head and you have a new wealth of inspiration and zest for life. Sitting in an empty abyss of nothingness didn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for getting jazzed with God and his grace. And did I forget to mention that during the dark night there is an increased temptation to engage in destructive behavior?

The Dark Night isn’t a purely spiritual crisis and it’s not a purely psychological one. It’s the best of both meaning it can’t be “therapized” away and can’t be prayed away either.  I had the psychological angle covered with the therapist but I couldn’t find spiritual comfort with God. He’d gone silent.  King David spoke of this in Psalm 13:1,”How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Waiting out the dark night is often all that can be done, but during the process it is helpful to pray for revelation of what God is trying to “burn off” from you. Often it’s a need to let go of control, recognize the impermanence of much of life, and surrender to trust and acceptance of things that cause you fear. The ego loves control and fearfulness; the dark night is in battle with the ego. It’s like there is a spiritual wrestling match between ego and surrender and the dark night had to come to provide a venue for the show down.

The more you resist the process, the longer it lasts and the more likely you are to have to go through it more than once. If the process is fully embraced there are things that “die” (usually things of the flesh, control and the comfortable life) leaving behind a path of love, compassion, understanding and spiritual awakening of the essence of the most important things in life.

Unlike depression which can leave you unable to function, those in a dark night are often able to continue with their work and acts of compassion. The spirit stays strong and belief strengthens even though it seems like there is good reason to abandon faith. Thoughts of self loathing or self harm present in depression don’t appear in the dark night.

Even Mother Theresa suffered from a dark night of the soul as evidenced by the writings she left behind. “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul,” she wrote in 1957. Many were astonished that she would have had these thoughts, but those who know about the dark night aren’t surprised.

I know that all suffering  transforms us. Having moved through my “dark night” I have more clarity and passion for my purpose, a new appreciation for the strong relationships in my life (including a beautiful new one), and a renewed spiritual strength.

 

 

 

Choosing Prayer as a Spiritual Practice

images-2Everywhere I turn I’m hearing about meditation. There are meditation retreats, podcasts, books and people pitching its benefits. I’m noticing a divide beginning: either you meditate or you don’t. Some with other traditional spiritual practices incorrectly dismiss meditation as being affiliated with a specific religion, usually Buddhism.

I studied Transcendental Meditation in the 1970’s with meditators who set up shop in a big musty house near the Drake University campus. I was in high school and my ultra hip boyfriend at the time convinced me to take the training. We were each assigned a mantra, and we started a mediation practice that didn’t endure. I’m not convinced I really understood the premise as a teenager, pursuing the practice mostly to prove to my boyfriend that I was “avant garde.”

I have had a beautiful spiritual practice that has endured for me, and it’s PRAYER, based on my Christian faith.

I learned to pray as a child in the Methodist church Sunday school classroom, praying simple table grace and prayers before bed. At age 12, my family returned to the Greek Orthodox Church and I was exposed to long, poetic prayers in both Greek and English. The prayers of the church were drafted for us by saints and holy people, and we were taught it was safest to pray those specific prayers so that you were sure to approach God with reverence.

For years I’ve loved Orthodox prayer especially because it requires my full attention and the prayers are all encompassing. As a young wife and mother I set up a home altar facing east with incense, a candle (representing the light of Christ) religious icons and my prayer book and would pray as the sun came up knowing that the sunrise offers promise and is a masterpiece of God. Praying first thing in the morning grounds me, keeps my mind clear, makes me have a better day. I’ve even traveled to local monasteries to be among the prayer warriors.

The Greek Orthodox use prostrations during prayer. We may simply bend down and sweep the back of our hand to the floor before doing the sign of the cross across our bodies. During the spiritual boot camp of Lent, we get on the floor on all fours and bend our bodies down, praying a special prayer  asking God to help us make powerful transformative changes in our lives. We are encouraged to pray at sunrise, sunset and “the hours” marking times of events such as the hour the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and the hour Christ was nailed to the cross.

I’ve recently broadened my prayer life with influence from Protestant literature. I read  “Let Prayer Change Your Life,” a book that encourages journaling your prayers; nirvana for someone who loves to write. Once I began the journaling practice my heart opened up immeasurably and my prayers became more personal. In times of distress my prayers seem as powerful as those of the psalmists. I now use my Orthodox prayers along with prayers that I journal.

I love reading in the Bible about  Jesus’ prayer life: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”– Luke 5:16

In the New Testament the action would be heating up and the disciples would basically say, “Hey where did Jesus go?” Low and behold they would figure out he was off praying somewhere. He wasn’t a fan of theatrical public prayer even calling out the “holy people” as hypocrites in Matthew 6:5 because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”

Instead, Jesus instructed us But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6

Prayer is very personal. I choose to believe that God is just grateful that we are trying to make a divine connection, in any way that is authentic to us. Author Anne Lamott defines prayer as “anything you say to God from your heart.” She wrote a book distilling most prayer to the words “Help, Thanks, Wow.”

As a lawyer and mediator (careful, meditate and mediate can get confusing!) I enjoy praying for clients. On rare occasions I do this with them, but most often it is done silently after they leave my office or before we enter into court or mediation. In Praying for Strangers” the author decided to find a person in her path every day and to offer to pray for them. She chronicles the stories of the people she touched through this practice and the conclusion is an obvious one: we can all use prayer.

Prayer and meditation aren’t mutually exclusive. If there were a “mantra”  from the Bible it would come from Philippians 4:8:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about (or in some translations, MEDITATE ON) such things.”  For me that means watching the news less, and meditating on these things more.

The Bible also gives us meditation direction in Joshua 1:8 “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”  Just as many meditators focus on the breath, those who use the Bible focus on specific verses sometimes reading them over a few times, slowly emphasizing different words. Through prayer we add the next step, asking God “What does this say to me?” “How do I apply this to my life?” “What are you equipping me to do through this passage?”

Like meditation, prayer doesn’t come easily and to receive the full benefit it must be a consistent practice. Praying to God in the car or  when you think of it is great but that type of “prayer on the run” might be similar to meditation on on the run. When my prayer life is disciplined and rich I have much more clarity, serenity and focus.

I’m convinced meditation and prayer can live in tandem in my spiritual life and I’m choosing not to get bogged down in semantics. Recently I gathered  a group of lawyer colleagues to meet weekly and study  “The Anxious Lawyer” ,  a book for lawyers that provides instruction on how to meditate.

A solid spiritual practice can bring richness to our lives. Whether it is solitude, nature, prayer, meditation, creativity or something else, we can each choose a method that resonates with us.

Barrister Barista

photo “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”-Philo of Alexandria
In my love affair with perfectly foamed lattes, I’ve spent many happy days at Starbucks. When the children were small, my friend Laura and I would meet there every single day. I would have a latte, usually with nonfat milk, except when I went through my soy phase. Laura would have an Americana with room for cream.

The Phoenix area has a million Starbuck’s, so we would call each other (before texting was available) to coordinate which location was convenient for our meeting, based on our schedules. “I’m picking up the triplets at school early for a dental appointment,” she might say.

“I will be at the church, can we meet half way in between?” I’d respond, and for several years we accommodated each other without the slightest amount of stress.

“I need to go first today,” one of us would say once we sat down with our coffees. We poured out stressors and anxiety becoming each other’s amateur therapists. People are in disbelief that we only missed a handful of days over the course of several years, before I moved back to Iowa.

Our daily meetings grounded me during years where I was lonely because of a traveling husband, unsure  how to raise kids, and yearning for my lawyer world during a period as stay at home mom. Laura could validate my feelings, tell me the kid’s coughs needed Robitussin and being a lawyer herself, explore the injustices of the OJ Simpson case based on an analysis of the evidence.
I supplied similar support to her as she raised triplets with her busy emergency room physician husband. By the time we finished our coffee and dashed to our respective mom mobiles to get back to our duties we were poised to face life with a fresh approach.

At our favorite Starbucks, Carl was the manager. Because we were regulars, it was like meeting another friend when he was working. When he transferred locations we moved our rendezvous to his new store whenever possible.

When I was divorced from my children’s father, I was in between jobs, having given up my status as VP of a California based mediation firm to try to save a failing marriage. Post-divorce I was left having to regroup to get a job in Scottsdale, and doors were not opening.

One day at coffee, I made a spontaneous inquiry of Carl. “Carl, would you ever hire me?”

Carl was puzzled knowing I was a lawyer, but also knowing Starbucks provided medical health benefits, which I needed. The next thing I knew I was handed a green apron and a post at a new Starbucks Carl was managing in a stylish part of Scottsdale.

The people I worked with had no clue I was a lawyer. I tried to keep that fact underground, partly from embarrassment that I was underemployed, and also to avoid getting asked for legal advice. I was just “Kim,” and  I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Secretly I was “Kim, the lawyer who struggles to steam milk.”

My twenty-something coworker Maggie became my guide to the Starbuck’s world. Keeping up with a busy caffeine -seeking crowd, was not easy. Some customers were rude and impatient, some downright hateful, others were pleasant. Those who said hello, asked how I was getting along as the “newbie,” and called me by name were a joy. I was working hard, on my feet, trying to live up to Carl’s rigorous standards for a clean store, going home tired at the end of my shift, particularly on days when it had started at 5 a.m.

If I would gripe to Maggie she never engaged, but instead was always upbeat, expressing gratitude for her job. Maggie would often excuse herself abruptly for a bathroom break. I became curious as to why she would leave her work station so suddenly. Eventually I asked a coworker.

“Maggie has cancer,” he told me. “She is going through chemotherapy and leaves her post to get sick. She has to work to keep the insurance. Poor thing should be home in bed.”

I was shocked. Here I had been a prissy Scottsdale lawyer/mom who had thought I was so noble working at Starbucks. Right beside me was Maggie, struggling to survive. I eventually asked Maggie if there was anything I could do to help her. She seemed disappointed that her secret was out, and basically said “Thanks so much but I am fine. I enjoy working with you.” That was it.

The next morning when it was still dark, as I went in to open the store I saw Maggie getting off the bus. For the first time in my life, I was unable to know what to do to help someone. I decided the best thing I could do to honor her was to watch her humility up close and to learn to do something about my own ego based on her example.

A few mornings later a particularly obnoxious business woman came to the counter enraged, oblivious to the line packed tightly out the door. “You are out of cream!” she squealed. “Perhaps “you people” don’t know what it is like to be a busy executive needing to keep on your schedule! We get delayed by something that you should be taking care of!”

My initial instinct was to lash back saying: “I will have you know I am a lawyer and I doubt YOU are qualified to argue before the Supreme Court!” At the same time, I saw Maggie down the counter from me, smiling and selecting a pastry for a customer.

“I am so sorry ma’am, let me get you that cream right away,” I said instead, grabbing the decanter and filling it up. “I am sorry you were inconvenienced and I hope you have a wonderful day.”

Somehow I was able to channel what I’d learned from Maggie. And strangely, in the turn of a moment, I really did want the woman  to have a wonderful day. For all I  knew she was in a struggle of her own, unable to handle it with Maggie’s grace.

Eventually I left Starbucks and Arizona, resuming my law and mediation practice in Iowa. Leaving Laura’s friendship was devastating. I visit Arizona often and we always “do coffee” daily while I am there.

I ‘ve gone back to the Starbucks where I worked. It’s been totally remodeled. Carl is gone to stores unknown. Maggie is not there. I wonder if she is even alive.

Now, when I walk into a Starbucks  I take a  moment to look the barista in the eye, smile, make small talk and even call them by name. I do the same with the clerk at the grocery store and the cashier at the gas station. I know from my work at Starbucks that a little kindness makes all the difference.

And all of our lives, matter.

This post was originally published in 2013.  My son Clint, age 23, has started working part time as a barista at Starbucks so it reminded me of this post.  Welcome to the barista family son!

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A Divorce Lawyer’s Caution to Stay at Home Parents

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After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”

No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).

I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”

To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:

  1. Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
  1. Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
  1. Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention.  Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
  1. Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
  1. Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
  2. Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay  at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
  3. Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
  4. If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law.  If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner.  Consult with a family lawyer  to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.

Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa with Stamatelos & Tollakson. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.

 

 

Barefoot In The Grass

Let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as work/life balance.

When I hear the phrase “work/life balance” it elicits shame. I berate myself for intense and difficult spurts of work that leave me depleted, and also for vegging on the couch on a Netflix binge.

There’s a phrase that suits me better: “work life integration.” “Integration” seems more possible than “balance,” and produces a mental image of the scale swinging gently back and forth in easy flow, never tipping too far to one side or another. The swaying gives more grace for imperfection and seems more achievable than the tension of a perfectly balanced scale.imagesI’d had a rough week in my work as a lawyer. Clients were stressed, several cases arrived concurrently at court deadlines, and I was a grouchy document drafting, fire-putter-outer. I knew the scale dance was woefully out of sync.

I reached out to one of my special girlfriends, Dr. J  a wise and unconditionally supportive friend, bemoaning my need for re-calibration. Since she is also a physician she gave me a prescription. “Come to the farm and spend the day. It’s crucial for you to connect with nature.”

Her recommendation seemed underwhelming but then I took inventory. I’d been eating clean food, vigilantly engaging in my spiritual practice and getting 7-8 solid hours of sleep (sometimes falling into bed shortly after getting home from the office), but I was still out of whack. Since that usual list of de-railers was in tact, I decided to follow doctor’s orders.

I love it when God endorses a game plan as he so clearly did on the day I traveled to her farm in rural Iowa. The weather was perfect enough to put the top down on the convertible and I cranked classic rock tunes along the back roads through small Iowa towns and green fields eventually arriving at the farm.

convertible

My friend greeted me with a big hug, a glass of iced green tea, and a cozy rocking chair on the front porch with a front row seat to several hummingbird feeders in the nearby trees. We sat rocking, sipping our tea, watching and listening to an assortment of hummingbirds zipping around us. I remembered when I’d been a little girl and my grandfather had sat for hours watching birds and beckoning me, “Look Josie(his pet name for me), watch this one right here.” I’d thought he was boring, and I’d look at the bird mildly entertained never sitting very long.

That day at the farm, we sat in the quiet open spaces feeling the perfect breeze blow by, occasionally sharing things girlfriends share without interruption or distraction. At the suggestion of Dr. J’s partner “Good Dave” who was giving us girlfriend -bonding space, we strolled past the hens and baby chickens roaming in a vast corner of the farm. The rooster crowed and his voice was clear and strong and it thrilled me to experience the familiar cock-a-doodle-do happening live and in color. Dr. J often gifts me eggs these beauties lay and they taste wonderful and fresh and now I’d met the sources of this generous gift of nourishment.

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“Take off your shoes,” Dr. J instructed as we reached another area of the farm, “and run your toes all through the grass being mindful and really feeling it,” she instructed.

“The therapeutic benefit of this is tremendous,” she insisted although the skeptic in me doubted. I’ve since found that “earthing” is real, and research shows the body draws electrons from the earth benefitting heart rate, immunity, blood viscosity, the endocrine and nervous systems.

barefoot in the grass

We rocked and talked more, and eventually Good Dave left and brought us back a surprising lunch: bacon cheeseburgers and onion rings. Having my health guru there gave me permission to divert from my usual clean eating without guilt. The junk food was a reminder to not take myself so seriously that I missed the chance to have self- compassion when other areas of my life missed the mark of perfectionism. I felt my stress melting more rapidly then other go-to remedies.

golf cartAfter lunch we ventured out in what I called a “pimped out golf cart” parking next to the river deep in the woods nearby, where we simply watched the river run and listened to the water. My friend urged me to take a turn at the wheel when we got back to the farm and I did, driving all over with a stop to admire the vegetable garden. Ultimately we parked and walked to the farm pond throwing small pieces of bread into the water while groups of fish scurried to the crumbs in hopes of making a score. A bug eyed, green slimy pond frog pushed his head up out of the water striking a pose while I snapped a picture on my phone.

.frog

My trip to the farm had an incredible healing effect on my weary soul, dislodging it from it’s stuck position such that the gentle swaying back and forth of the scales was reinstated. I felt rested and whole for days after, even while dodging the demands of a high stress job. I was born and raised in Iowa and it took me until now to fully appreciate the healing effects of nature.

If only I’d sat and really watched those birds with my grandpa years ago, I might have figured it out sooner.

Our Lawyer Legacy, What Gets In The Way?

“ All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure-these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”- Steve Jobs

It’s a long day as I take my brother to cancer treatment. I sit with him as he surrenders to chemotherapy dripping into his veins, hoping that he’ll be cured.

Across town in hospice, a fellow lawyer is saying goodbye. He’s practiced law for over 40 years.

Not surprisingly, I begin to reflect on my own mortality and significance. Does my life really matter? Am I doing what I was meant to do? What will I be remembered for?

In Living Forward  the authors define legacy as “the spiritual, intellectual, relational, vocational and social capital we pass on.” As a lawyer, what gets in the way of leaving a lasting legacy ?

  1. Ego. Much of our identity is tied up in our label as “lawyer.” We joke about the reputation of lawyers but deep down we feel our title brings prestige and worthiness. My dad used to say, “People say they hate lawyers but they usually love their own lawyer.”

When we tie up our entire identity in the work we do, it limits our impact and influence in other areas of our lives. Can we let down from the public lawyer persona to be authentic? Do we keep aspects of ourselves “on the down low” because we worry if people really knew us it could be bad for business?

Question: Are you doing things that look good on paper, on the bottom line or at the firm, but that are draining you emotionally? Is there something that your heart yearns to do, but your are too afraid to undertake?

  1. Scarcity Mentality. Lawyers live in the constant shadow of the billable hour. From the moment you hit the door in the morning every minute literally counts. Time spent outside your billable events leaves more time to make up in the office. When we plan vacation we frontload hours so we aren’t so far behind when we get back, and field emails on vacation before our family awakens to go to the beach. A part of us is never far away from a timesheet.

We may believe if we don’t take every client that comes our way now, cases might not come tomorrow. We take cases without discernment and end up doing unpaid work as a result of retainers running out or a judge who won’t let us withdraw. Then we become self deprecating and frustrated for having taken the case in the first place.

Question: Do you leave your dreams at the doorstep because you feel it’s about survival instead of destiny?

  1. Constant immersion in toxicity. Every day we deal with clients with grave wounds, both physical and emotional. We handle the circumstances around life’s most devastating events. We are expected to “rescue” our clients from disasters they have often created themselves, so we think about these negative fact patterns over and over even on our supposed “off” time.

This constant immersion into the darkness of life leaves us little time to dream, reflect or connect with our interior life. A life’s desire can be lost in the fog, recast in our mind as nothing more than a whim, or tucked away as “too risky.” The failure to unplug for even short periods from the office, returning email or calls and churning cases in our heads means we are never fully present for our loved ones and the beauty of life.

Question: When is the last time you unplugged, and spent time totally away from work, for even a short period time? Are you exercising self care?

  1. Personal and financial insecurity. When we have been successful lawyers we risk prestige and prosperity by branching out. What will everyone think? How can we give up the golden handcuffs? A lawyer friend chucked his law practice and opened a gourmet spice store in a trendy part of my hometown. Lawyers flocked to his store because it was extraordinary, but also to study him as an example of uncommon courage and authenticity. Sadly, the lawyer died unexpectedly at age 46, only a short time after the store had opened.

Lawyers are often the caretakers of less productive friends or family members, sometimes even supporting others who have not made good choices with their lives or finances. They look to us as “having it all” and don’t hesitate to ask for handouts or help.

Question: What would it take to set boundaries with your money? Are the things that you acquire from wealth blocking you from taking risks to fulfill your heart’s desire? Are there people you are enabling by “helping” financially?

  1. Lack of transition planning. In my first law firm job over thirty years ago the partners took me by the macabre office of the named senior partner pointing to a dusty wooden desk telling me that is where he had dropped dead. Was that supposed to inspire me?

New lawyers claim the older lawyers aren’t moving over to make room. I recently suggested that a young lawyer ask an older lawyer to coffee, to get hints on how that lawyer had built the type of practice the young lawyer aspired to create. The older lawyer did not offer any advice and the impression was that the older lawyer was “hoarding” the work for himself.

It can be a blow to our ego when clients we introduce to younger lawyers decide to transition their work to that younger lawyer excluding us. Thoughtful transition and passing the baton can play in to insecurities and make us question our relevance.

Question: Are you sharing your wisdom and experience with younger lawyers? Are you encouraging a younger lawyer who is struggling?

As lawyers we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions at all stages of the practice, not just as we move into the final chapters of our professional careers.

Are you on target for your legacy?

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I love to coach lawyers! If you are interested in hiring me as a coach contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

Lawyer Creativity: Have we buried it?

“The legal field doesn’t constrain people’s potential, but it does tend to constrain people’s way of thinking about potential.”- Michael F. Melcher lawyer/author of  The Creative Lawyer 

 One of my most devastating events of law school was my first legal writing grade.  I received it at the hand of a bright teaching assistant. (You know, a law school super star with power and privilege because of his grades and class rank.)  It was the lowest grade I had ever received in my life.

My writing style was judged too “flowy” and “creative” and not befitting of a lawyer. I was admonished to immediately and totally change my writing style or my GPA would be impacted.

 My inner perfectionist heard loud and clear and I rallied to learn legal writing but also took the message as a wound to my heart. I had loved writing my entire life, but minimized and criticized by my fellow law student I labeled my writing, along with many things I felt in law school, “unworthy.”

 Fast forward and in 2012 I launched a blog and in 2014 I self published my book, The Compassionate Lawyer.  Years of personal work had  given me the courage to reclaim lost parts of my life, including my creativity.

 Re-connecting with “creative Kim” gave me a wellspring of life. I went writing crazy, writing both spiritual and personal autobiographies,  numerous articles for professional publications, heartfelt eulogies for friends’ funerals, juicy journal entries, fun poems, and  prayers written from my soul. I have solid drafts started for two new books. The writing is pouring out, having been bottled up inside for over 30 years. By healing my creative wound I found one of the greatest joys of my life and it’s leading to a substantial contribution to my legacy.

 I am not the only one who may have suffered a blow to creativity in law school.

 I frequently train lawyers in various aspects of legal practice, and teach mediation as an adjunct at Drake Law School. I have experimented with  creative exercises in my courses and workshops with lawyers and law students.  Some creative exercises are met with success and others have flopped.  I start trainings by playing music and inviting trainees to make their name tag at an art table I’ve set up in front of the room. The table is laden with glitter glue, pinking shears, bright stickers, markers, construction paper and other assorted supplies from aisles at Michael’s.

 Panic ensues as the lawyers look around to see the quality of the art being created by others.  Self deprecating comments fly. “I’m not good at art,” and some just write their name on an index card and refuse to risk  humiliation. Recently I saw a compassionate lawyer alleviate the anxiety of  a frazzled colleague at the art table by saying, “I will help you make your name tag.”

 My own first nametag was a round circle made of pink construction paper with my name in colored marker, and five paper punch holes with some pieces of yarn woven nametagthrough it to serve as a neck tie. Pathetic.

 Since I made that tag at a wonderful training in the circle process led by Kay Pranis,  (and then borrowed her exercise for my own trainings) my creations have evolved  such that  my favorite Diane Von Furstenberg wrap sweater is now permanently affixed with purple glitter glue.

 After dancing with our eyes closed shaking colored egg maracas at a yoga conference, I purchased the eggs online and incorporated that routine into a closing circle at one of my recent collaborative law trainings.  One brave lawyer and one fun loving therapist embraced the idea and the rest of the intimidated crowd shook a flimsy wristed egg counting the minutes until the exercise was over.

 I was inspired recently to assign specific ethics rules to teams, giving them  free reign to teach the group about the rule in any manner they desired.  This exercise was embraced and teams did skits and creative dances and one group even made a rap about disclosing confidences in mediation.  The sessions resulted in lighthearted feedback and brought up great questions about the rules.

 When lawyers are encouraged to be creative the byproduct is that it spills over to their work as problem solvers for clients. When I have cases with colleagues who have embraced their creativity we end up thinking big about solutions for clients’ problems.

 Writing and designing creative workshops  energizes me and I’m sure makes me a better lawyer.  I regret letting a comment made thirty years ago from a fellow law student (who I thought must surely  be smarter than me,) derail me from finding my joy sooner.  In my work as a personal coach for lawyers,   I find many lawyers have also lost their sense of creativity. One lawyer I coach now has a plan to record some songs he wrote and he also developed a small greenhouse.

 I also look for ways to help wounded clients use creativity to heal themselves. In fact, I  recently encouraged a client to journal about the life she wants to create for herself post divorce. She’s sharing her journal with me today.

Then as her lawyer, I will help her create that life.

 

If you are interested in a no cost consultation to discuss personal coaching, contact kim@compassionlegal.com

 

Navigating Life Transitions

Compass

Compass on vintage map

Growing up in the Greek Orthodox church, the liturgical cycle always brought rhythm to my life. “Feast days” on the calendar brought great joy and celebration.  Days of great piety, increased prayer and restriction of food appeared in “fast days.” When there’s a fast,  you know that a feast day is around the corner. Likewise, as feast days wind down you know fast days are ahead. Knowing what is coming, and that cycles change and resurface, is comforting.

Like the church calendar, life is cyclical. Days seem to cruise along “on a roll” with things going well, even amazingly well. Life is exciting, inspiration is present and things  are “in the flow.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere what worked before doesn’t seem to work anymore. Inspiration dries up. There’s a sense of drifting and there’s no clear picture of where life is going. What happened?

Unfortunately there is no calendar that shows us the date when flow will be reinstated. We may even begin to doubt it’s ever coming back. These times of “in between” are sometimes referred to as “transition.” They usually involve self-doubt, decreased motivation, lack of clarity and a sense of drifting.

Transition typically goes through the following cycle, as described in Stuck by Terry Walling:

     1. Entry. Signs of entering transition include self-doubt, lack of focus and direction, diminished confidence, confusion and restlessness. You may feel like you live on Mars and there’s a heightened conflict with yourself and others. You may feel unable to move, stuck in quicksand with no clear direction on where to go next or even what is causing the feelings of confusion.

Your role: Stay open and awake and realize you are entering transition. Some of the best personal growth will come about through transition if you recognize and welcome it. Write down your questions in a journal or share them with a trusted friend who will help you endure the difficulty without helping you short circuit it. Trust that answers will unfold if you have the courage to ride the wave.

2. Evaluation. During this phase values and life convictions start to sift through. What do you believe? Who is your real self? Evaluate your life; are you living within your value system? What is working in your life? What’s not working? What is causing you conflict and stress, and why? What does your soul tell you it needs?

Your role: This is the proving ground and where the faint of heart turn back. Spend periods of mindfulness or quiet to reflect on what brought you to transition and where you feel you are yearning to go. Spend time developing a personal values statement  and ask yourself if your life reflects alignment with your values. Sit with the discomfort, recognizing it is integral in order for breakthrough. Journaling or processing with a good coach can also help you through this phase.

3. Alignment . After this reflection something that must be given up usually rises to the top. It may be something in your character, a habit, a relationship, a job, a lifestyle, a spiritual paradigm or other things large or small. Acceptance of this need for change can be frightening, but it is critical in order to gain something more authentic and meaningful in the future. Recognition brings up other challenges such as self acceptance, fear of change, shame or guilt from past mistakes, or the ego’s denial of what you’ve uncovered.

Your role: You are at a pivotal juncture. Will you have the courage to face what you’ve uncovered or will you bury it in numbing activities or denial? Instead, can you embrace the beauty of uncovering new insights and self awareness? Can you trust that changing your life in a meaningful way will result in a new freedom and joy? Can you surrender to where life is calling you?

4. Direction. This phase produces breakthrough. It may be an “ah hah moment,” a chance meeting, something you hear in passing that hits you like it was meant for you to hear, a nugget you uncover in an unexpected way or even a dream. For some who are spiritual it may be a “supernatural natural” occurrence such that you believe you have divine direction. The transition doesn’t have an abrupt ending but the fog begins to lift.

Your role: Begin to make a game plan for next steps to apply what you’ve uncovered. Coming out of transition with the new information can be exhilarating, especially because the work in the middle of a transition will often have been painful and grueling. Be sure to make clear headed well thought out decisions and don’t respond spontaneously or emotionally. Enlist a trusted friend or skilled coach to help you think it through.

Transition isn’t a “one and done” process. Like the church calendar, it’s a process that is constantly repeating. Most of our lives will have a series of transitions. The big ones are:

“Awakening” in our 20s and 30s when we are restless and trying to decide “Who/what shall I be?”

The “Deciding Phase” in our 40s and 50s where we wonder if we are doing what we are here to do. “Am I following my purpose?”

In our late 50’s and beyond it’s the “Finishing Stage” where we reflect on our legacy. “Will my life matter when I am gone? With whom can I share my life wisdom and experience in order to enrich their lives and leave a lasting legacy?”

Within the big life transitions there are repeated smaller phases of transitions.

Since I learned about the transition cycle a few years ago, I recognize quickly when I’m entering transition. Instead of dreading it as I did in the past, I appreciate all that the process will bring. It can be difficult to endure at times, but I know that the fruits of the process are monumental, and that they will come every single time without fail. Embracing transition has changed my life.

If you are interested in exploring whether you’d like to hire me as a coach contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

 

 

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Catching the Emotional Virus

depression-is-contagious

“Peace begins with a smile.”-Mother Teresa

I believe that each of us navigates life with an ever-present stream of malaise that runs inside of us. Sometimes it’s a low trickle, and other times it rushes as a result of life’s storms that fill it to capacity.

I’m working hard to navigate internal rushing waters at the Phoenix airport, returning to Iowa after a week long Arizona visit. I’m leaving behind in Scottsdale my three children and best girlfriend and her husband. My children’s father is here as well, and we’ve spent the past week as an emotionally healthy post divorce family having some quality time together, reminiscing about a past that was simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Our time has included the seriousness of my former husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease that is ravaging his body.

My gate to Des Moines is full of sleepy passengers, some eating gross burritos and thick crust pizza from the food stands near our gate, even though it’s only 8AM. Most are tired, flat affects, biding time before being smushed into a small plane with luggage and their souvenir cactus in a box.

I decide to grab a nonfat chai latte but Starbucks is too far of a hike, so I find my place in the reasonably short line at a nondescript coffee kiosk. I let out a deep sigh as the wellspring of emotions continues to bubble up.

I look ahead  in line to see which coffee cashier will serve me, and am immediately drawn energetically to “left cashier.” A 40-something striking African American woman with a big beautiful smile and bright eyes, she beams with light greeting each weary traveler with a vibrant “Good morning!” and pleasant small talk while making direct eye contact. “Right cashier”on the other side of the kiosk has a low grade smile and is not nearly as exuberant.

I try to jockey into position so I can end up with left cashier. I want to suck in her emotional state because I feel immediate internal calming just from studying her from my place in line.

This phenomenon of reacting to another’s emotion has been proven scientifically. It’s “emotional contagion” and studies at Yale and elsewhere confirm that every encounter we have produces an invisible impact of emotions that transmit between us. Our emotions have the power to nourish others or produce toxicity.

It’s thanks to our brain mechanisms including the amygdala and the basal areas of the brain stem that regulate reflex and automatic response. Once the physiology kicks in the path is open for the emotions to flow. My low energy crowd at the gate was bringing me down and left cashier’s glow zapped my brain into receiving a whole different emotional path.

Studies in emotional contagion prove that both good and bad feelings spread, although the research is mixed on which are more contaigous. Objective measures show those impacted by the virus of good emotions register higher in cooperation, fairness, collaboration and overall group performance. I have seen this in my work as a professional mediator, watching upbeat emotion and a positive outlook in the private meeting rooms result in more settlements.

We’ve all experienced the brain circuitry of emotional contagion; think about when someone smiles and we smile back without even thinking about it. When I train mediators, I assign the students to  make eye contact and smile at every person they encounter,  from the grocery clerk to their children and spouse,  after they leave our training day. Debriefing confirms the emotional contagion process is real, and the trainees are exhilarated by the exercise. Past trainees often tell me they still practice the exercise.

A New York study  confirms that emotions are highly contagious in our most emotionally laden relationship: marriage. Humans react most severely to negative emotions including pain, sadness, and fear. Thus, one spouse’s depression is likely to trigger a similar depression in the other spouse. This begs the question of whether a spouse who sets an intention to consistently exude positivity can counteract one who’s consistently sad.

Some of us are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others, and a good indicator is how much your mood changes when you are around strong emotion.  I identify as a happy, optimistic person but also I am an empath. Empaths are people who are hyper-sensitively tuned in to others’ emotions such that we sometimes take them in without even realizing it, often causing strong emotional swings. I’ve learned to be vigilant putting up a mental shield to negative emotions, which can be difficult in my work as a family lawyer and mediator. I also try to consistently emote positive, healthy emotions to supercharge the atmosphere around hurting clients. If I am not rested or I’m “hangry” (that ugly state of being hungry, low blood sugar and grouchy) I easily take in the low energy emotions of those around me.

Despite my attempted maneuvering, I end up in right cashier’s line. I make direct eye contact and smile: “Hi, I’m Kim how are you today?” and she smiles back saying she is doing well. I find out she is Michelle and we have a light hearted smiling exchange as she rings me up, making direct eye contact, and tells me to have a wonderful safe journey. I’m hopeful that the virus now permeates the entire coffee kiosk line and maybe even the whole airport. I sip my warm latte, noticing the malaise river is back within it’s shores. I pull my shoulders back triggering erect posture and walk purposefully to my gate. I board the plane to Iowa, off to do the work I know I am called to do.

If you are interested in coaching or mediation training contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

 

 

 

The Lawyer as Peacemaker

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
― Aristotle

9787f890e1d1f8abc8c09826b868568dInvested in the grievance stories magnified by their lawyers, family law clients often become repeat customers. Whether through initial actions, modifications or contempt proceedings, family law practice can be steady business for the lawyer, but often leaves festering wounds for the families we represent.

Hard fought family cases can also hurt family lawyers. Our suffering clients call us non stop, email us long diatribes, even show up at our office unannounced and agitated. Fueling the fire by delivering scathing interrogatories or through biting cross-examination can wear on an advocate’s mind, body and spirit.

In response, family lawyers are starting to expand their practices to focus on peacemaking. What makes a lawyer a peacemaker?

1. They practice law with connection and authenticity. Peacemakers don’t think it makes them less of a lawyer because they refuse to heap more hurt on hurting people, especially when children are involved. They genuinely care about the well being of their clients, their colleagues and themselves and believe that peaceful problem solving approaches are healthier for everyone.

2. They use proactive early intervention. Peacemakers recognize that the parties will still have to work together even after the legal intervention, so they set a tone of healing instead of aggression from the outset of a case. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or simply meeting with the other lawyer to discuss the case, peacemakers agree to customize a strategy that works for both clients. They look for ways to streamline the legal process instead of letting it be driven only by court deadlines.

3. They use an interdisciplinary approach to conflict. Family lawyers are expected to be lawyer, counselor, financial advisor, parenting coach, communication expert, real estate analyzer and retirement guru. Peacemakers recognize the best use of the lawyers’ time is for legal advice, drafting and interfacing with the judge. They involve specialists including therapists, child development experts, financial advisors, realtors, and social workers to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for the family. Adding these experts mean the family has a highly specialized team often providing lower overall cost for comprehensive decision making. Lawyers focus on what they do best, and minimize the stress of trying to solve all the client’s problems themselves.

4. They encourage clients to “do the right thing.” Peacemakers don’t consider it a “win” to have someone pay as little child support as possible, if it means children aren’t financially supported at the other parent’s house. They don’t automatically fight to minimize a healthy and loving parent’s time with their children, at the request of a heartbroken client. These lawyers use words like “healing” and “forgiveness” and may set up infrastructures to improve trust and teamwork between parents. They help clients write a new forward focused story of life transformation that identifies the client as the hero, not the victim of the story.

5. They model emotional intelligence. Active listening, compassion and empathy are key skills used by peacemaking lawyers. “Patience is the greatest attribute of a peacemaker,” says Dick Calkins, a longtime advocate of peacemaking law. These lawyers don’t thrive on depositions with blistering accusatory questions so their clients can see their lawyer hurt their partner. Instead, they work together respectfully and cooperatively, modeling behavior families will need in order to heal. That may include producing documents voluntarily upon request and using calm reasoned discussion instead of threats.

6. They take the long view and encourage clients to do the same. Author of the ABA bestselling book “Lawyers as Peacemakers” J. Kim Wright puts it this way: “The upheaval of divorce can be very emotional and uncomfortable. It is easy to succumb to the emotions of the moment and strike out, do some damage, hurt you because you hurt me. Reacting provides short-term satisfaction and guarantees long-term conflict.

Peacemaking focuses on the long view, aligning with long-term values and goals. What relationship do these parents want to have in five, ten, twenty years? Who goes to the first day of school? Who will celebrate the team championship with your daughter? Will you dance at your son’s wedding or boycott because your ex will be there? The long view isn’t easy, but it is the path that focuses on the well-being of your child, not the emotions of the moment.”

7. They are creative in their approach to conflict. Each case is viewed as a unique set of circumstances requiring a customized approach of creative problem solving. Lawyers are creative people, but in traditional practice they aren’t encouraged to “think outside the box.” Peacemakers unleash creative thinking without feeling intimidated in putting forth a unique idea that isn’t borrowed from the standard stipulation template.

Often, the biggest impediment for peacemaking lawyers is the other lawyer. If opposing counsel makes aggressive moves or promotes themes of “fight to win,” or “let’s let the judge decide,” it frustrates peacemaking opportunities. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean you sing kum-by-ah and get eaten alive in litigation. It means you see the peacemaking approach as a higher calling because it results in much healthier outcomes and is more satisfying to your clients and your own soul.

A baby lawyer fully trained in peacemaking skills recently told me, “I hope for the day when a client calls asking to destroy the other side in litigation and a lawyer says, “I’m sorry, I don’t engage in that type of law, it’s not healthy for families.”

And then, they call the next person on the list and that lawyer says, “I’m sorry I don’t engage in that type of law it’s not healthy for families.” And then each lawyer down the list says the same thing so that clients understand that peacemaking and healing families is what it means to be a family lawyer.”

I may not see that total shift in the practice of family law during my lifetime. But I truly believe he will.

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