I began meditating when I was a litigator in the enforcement section of the New York Fed’s legal department. I led investigations into misconduct in the banking industry and brought civil enforcement actions based on what I found. My cases involved activity like embezzlement, loan fraud and misconduct on the trading desks that were new at banks at the time.
I loved my work. It was fascinating and I was lucky to have brilliant colleagues. I also believed — and still do- that what I was doing made the financial system run better and more fairly.
At the same time, my job came with obvious stresses. Cases that can result in significant fines, injunctions and bans from the industry are extremely contentious, to say the least. The bankers I brought cases against thought I was ruining their lives and took my enforcement actions personally. Shouting and swearing were very much part of my day; my opponents were often best lawyers in the country who could outspend me by many multiples.
While I was managing this challenging but rewarding legal practice, I was raising young children with a spouse who traveled four days a week. We were lucky to have a wonderful nanny; still, the demands were intense. Many nights I fell asleep on the floor of my children’s room, so exhausted I didn’t realize what happened until I woke up hours later with creases from the rug on my face.
At first I saw meditation as a way to cope with the demands of my work situation. I could see I needed to do something to make my life function better, and I really didn’t want to give up my job. I’d heard meditation helped with stress, so I began trying to meditate every day.
After my experience, I’m amused when business people tell me they can’t meditate. A good meditation practice just requires some discipline, concentration, and the ability to set goals and work towards them. These traits are the common currency of most professionals, and ones that I used when I began meditating.
The hardest part for me was getting started. I had many reasons to be motivated, but sitting still and watching my thoughts didn’t come naturally to a “do-er” like me. At first I sat for just two minutes a day — and that was hard! Eventually though, I found my way, and meditation became one of the pillars of my day. I learned that no matter how crazy things were at work or at home, I could go inside and find a place of deep calm, sweetness, silence and even joy.
So meditation helped me stay at my job and I was happy. I didn’t realize, though, that the calm I felt was just the beginning. Meditation is a transformational practice, not simply a means of stress reduction. Far from tamping down my nervous system so I could endure the difficult parts of my life, meditating made me more aware, present and open to change — and many changes ensued.
For one thing, meditation changed my home life. I enjoyed the time I had with my kids and spouse more fully, without being so pulled into work problems, or worse, stressing out over how little time we had together. Of course, sometimes I was more aware of things that weren’t working at home, but even that became more productive than upsetting. After a while, everyone at home was happier. This is a beautiful surprise of meditation — the changes it brought seemed so simple, but had a profound impact.
More surprising was what happened at work. As I got to know my mind a little better, I began to realize that my thoughts weren’t me, and I didn’t always have to believe them. I could decide whether the opposing counsel screaming at me over the phone was actually a terrible person out to torment me, or just another human being having a bad day. I began to feel more comfortable questioning my preconceptions than always trying to defend them.
This shift had a radical effect on my experience of work. I started to view work difficulties not as something to push away, but as opportunities to engage with my own mental constructs. And believe me, I had lots of opportunities! If you want to see your own patterns and assumptions, a demanding job will bring them to the fore. My office became a place for deepening self knowledge, not just somewhere I got things done.
Ironically, all this inner work made me more effective at my job. Watching stressful feelings come and go during meditation gave me tools I put to use in many situations: I was less reactive in negotiations, less intimidated by the “big guns” opposing me, worried less about outcomes and therefore was more able to do my best work. I was more myself in court, and I believe that made me more persuasive.
Did meditation turn me into the most invincible lawyer ever? Probably not. But it helped me become the best lawyer I was capable of being. Meditation certainly helped me keep a job I loved for years longer than I would have otherwise. Later, it created the mental space to question the all-work-at-all-costs ethos that dominates the legal profession, and find a way to practice part-time. And eventually, when I decided it was time to move on, meditation helped make the move out of legal practice — a notoriously fraught transition — pass relatively smoothly.
So if you work in the professional world, don’t think that meditation isn’t for you. You have the skills you need to build a strong meditation practice. If you take the plunge and start sitting, I can’t predict all the ways meditation will affect your personal and professional life. What I can promise is that it will, and how it does will surprise you. And I’m happy to say the surprises just keep coming.
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Karen Gifford: Meditation Saved My Job and Changed My Life.