“My biggest rule is no email before meditation.”
Jeena Cho started meditating to relieve the stress from her high-pressure job as a lawyer. Meditation made such a positive impact in her life that she now teaches meditation to other lawyers and is even writing a book on meditation for the American Bar Association.
Cho is also a popular coach on Coach.me. She told us why she thinks meditation is such a powerful tool for lawyers or anyone in a high-stress job, how meditation has boosted her performance and gave out her top tips for people just getting started.
How has meditation improved your performance?
In short, meditation has helped me become more of myself. It has also helped me to let go of my tendency to cling to a certain outcome. I’ve loosened my grip on wanting things my way and demanding perfection. The only thing I can do is show up, do my best, and recognize that the outcome is often not up to me.
As a bankruptcy lawyer, I’m the bearer of my client’s suffering. I’ve worked with clients who ended up in dire financial situations due to unexpected death, illness, divorce, and/or deceit. I used to internalize all my clients’ suffering, and carry it around with me. This led to some detachment from my clients; I’d resist hearing their sad stories. Now, I can be fully present with my clients, and listen to their stories with kindness and compassion. I can also acknowledge my emotions that may come bubbling up to the surface. I can just be with my clients without immediately jumping into “lawyer mode.”
The way I interact with people in general has shifted in a positive direction. When I’m stuck in traffic, instead of getting irritated or angry, I practice loving-kindness meditation and send well wishes to those around me who are also stuck in traffic.
I also find that I am able to focus on the task at hand so that I can get more done. But, I’m not doing more just for the sake of accomplishing more. I’ve become more intentional about why I am doing (or not doing) a task. I now instinctively focus on tasks that are aligned with my mission, values and vision, instead of mindlessly doing more for the sake of checking a to-do item off the list.
Why did you start meditating? What was your goal?
I started meditating because I was losing clumps of hair due to constant stress and anxiety. My options were go on antidepressants or try something new. I decided to try Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) based on the scientific research.
My goal was to reduce stress and anxiety so I’d stop losing hair. Thankfully, it worked! In hindsight, my body was giving me clues along the way that I was completely overwhelmed. I had constant insomnia, backaches, and headaches. I think losing hair was my body’s way of saying “pay attention!”
Do you think meditation gives you a competitive edge? If so, how?
Meditation has helped me become more focused and this certainly gives me a competitive edge. However, I feel it’s misguided to meditate solely to gain a leg up against your competition or peers. Meditation is so much more than a vehicle to increase concentration, focus, or productivity. Yes, meditation can help you do all of that, but that’s like buying a Porsche to drive to your local 7-Eleven.
Can you share a story about how meditation has helped you overcome obstacles?
One experience really stands out when I reflect on my meditation practice. I grew up in New York City and we were poor. I always felt a lot of pain whenever I saw a homeless person so my default reaction for many years was to avoid them. I’d cross the street or look away. It just felt so hopeless.
During one of my meditation classes, I read Rumi’s quote:
“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”
As an experiment, I decided to practice my loving-kindness meditation whenever I saw a homeless person. So, instead of turning away, I’d look at the person, make eye contact, and I’d silently wish that person well. I’d wish that person happiness and freedom from suffering. Then one day, as I was walking into BART, I saw a homeless person. He asked if I had any spare change and I told him that I couldn’t offer him money. He then saw the box of pastries I was carrying and asked if he could have a donut. I gladly obliged. He was delighted, and I felt so much joy that I almost broke into tears.
I was practicing looking at the painful places and I allowed for opportunities for the light to enter. Since I started this practice, I’ve had other similar encounters with homeless people. I once read that one of the most painful experiences of being homeless is the feeling of being invisible. Knowing that when I’m simply witnessing or being there for someone, even if it’s only for a moment can make a difference was a very powerful realization for me.
You’re writing a book about mindfulness for the American Bar Association. What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
I am writing a book called The Anxious Lawyer. It’s an eight week, self-guided course on cultivating a mindfulness practice for lawyers. The practice of law presents amazing opportunities for being mindful. There’s a tendency to demonize the opposing side, which leads to a lack of civility that is rampant in our legal system. My hope is that as more lawyers begin to practice mindfulness, we stop demonizing our opponents and recognize that we’re all playing our role. I have a role as a lawyer to represent my client to the best of my ability, and this needs to include recognizing our common humanity.
In addition, I hope that lawyers can put the “counsel” back into Counselor at Law. Often, clients come to us wanting “justice,” which most often means financial compensation. However, that’s not the end of the story. There’s often deep wounds, pain, and suffering beneath the surface. This may be the reason why even when my clients prevail and obtained a judgment in their favor, the victory feels hollow. I’d like to see lawyers play role of peacemakers, facilitating opportunities for forgiveness and healing.
What is your meditation routine?
I roll out of bed and go straight to my meditation cushion (after a “bio break”). I find that if I don’t meditate immediately after waking up, I can get easily distracted and skip meditation. My biggest rule is no email before meditation.
Depending on the day, I’ll sit for 5 – 45 minutes. I try to do a longer sit at least couple of times a week. I also like meditating on Caltrain on my way to work. Usually, I’ll set a timer using Insight Timer but occasionally, I like to use guided meditations.
Typically, I’ll do some combination of checking in, breath awareness, body scan, following the breath, noticing sensations, sounds, thoughts, loving-kindness and/or mantra meditation.
Recently, I started meditating for five minutes right before I fall asleep. I’ve found that adding the second meditation has helped me deepen my meditation experience and I sleep better.
Do you have tips for making meditation a habit?
Yes! Here are a few:
- Start small. Find a time commitment that you can easily accomplish on a daily basis. This may be 60 seconds or 10 minutes. Choose a goal that’s easy enough to maintain and slowly increase.
- Find a way to link your meditation to another routine so that you develop a habit, such as following your morning bio break or meditating immediately before or after brushing your teeth.
- Set your intention the night before. Before going to sleep, reaffirm your commitment to meditate everyday. You can imagine yourself getting out of bed, walking to your meditation chair or cushion and meditating.
- Begin again. Even if you don’t meditate for days, weeks or even months, you can always begin again. Don’t waste time criticizing yourself or judging yourself for not meditating. If you notice negative chatter, acknowledge it, but don’t get trapped in that negative thought train. Each moment is a brand new opportunity for you to begin or continue your meditation practice.