Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Stop and Smell the Coffee

Stop and Smell the Coffee

People who read Assist’s newsletter will know that Assist offers a 15-minute online mindfulness session each Tuesday at noon led by a lawyer who is a certified yoga instructor. After we successfully transitioned our weekly yoga class online, we introduced mindfulness as part of our strategy of providing helpful resources to lawyers working remotely. I join these sessions when I can and I always feel refreshed and centred after.
 
If you are curious about mindfulness, please request the Zoom link and try it. We keep our cameras off so you do not have to feel self-conscious. You do not have to commit, or sign up, or purchase specialized clothing or equipment. Just bring yourself and your internet connection and see whether you feel better after 15 minutes of breathing, guided visualizations, or progressive muscle relaxation. If you like it, please come back and please tell your friends.
 
While I am not an expert at mindfulness, I realized that I have encountered mindfulness practices throughout my life. I remember quiet times in elementary school when the teacher would tell us to all put our heads on our desks and, as she dimmed the lights, would talk softly to us, and I remember that, once, a teacher led us through progressive relaxation, starting with our toes and going to our heads. As an adult who has raised three children, I realize now that many of these sessions were as much for the teacher to regain equilibrium as they were for us.
 
I encountered mindfulness again in pre-natal classes. Our nurse instructor taught us to practice visualizing a favourite scene like a beach on which the ocean waves lap, as well as breathing exercises. I enjoyed these components in pre-natal classes, but I quickly resorted to pain killers and nitrous oxide in the delivery room.
 
My point is that we incorporated mindfulness principles into our lives before they were incorporated into what we now call “mindfulness,” and that “mindfulness” is not a scary thing—we have used core concepts in our lives for relaxation and reduce anxiety for many years.
 
If you want to learn more about mindfulness, check out the resources on Assist’s website (scroll down to the heading “Mindfulness.”)
 
Several years ago, a friend gave me a mindfulness CD set featuring Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of  the modern mindfulness movement (although mindfulness itself is an ancient Buddhist practice.) On the first CD, Dr. Kabat-Zinn speaks about the origins of mindfulness and how mindfulness works. The second CD is designed to engage you in mindfulness activities. Or, at least, that’s what I am led to believe. I love the first CD, with Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s soothing voice and manner, and I use it to reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia. I haven’t felt a need to go to the second CD!
 
Dr. Kabat-Zinn has a PhD in microbiology and was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He developed a mindfulness program as self-care for hospital patients, including cancer patients experiencing pain. His program blossomed into a pain and stress management now followed around the world. One of the key tenets of mindfulness is learning to focus on the present, and to let go of the past and future. It sounds simple, until you try it. Especially for lawyers who are used to multi-tasking to their absolute limits.
 
Being mindful doesn’t mean that you must formally engage in structured mindfulness activities (although structured mindfulness can very helpful). The idea is that you learn to simply be in the present moment. When outside thoughts invariably cross your mind, you acknowledge them non-judgmentally and then try to focus back on the present moment.
 
I have a new mindfulness practice—and it relates to coffee. I drink one cup of coffee each day, around 9:30 or 10 am, and I want that one coffee to be wonderful. Brewing a pot on my old coffee maker just wasn’t giving me the satisfaction that I needed from my single java burst. And my new way of making coffee turned out to be a mindfulness practice.
 
While many law students subsisted on coffee to get though law school, I drank Earl Grey tea, but I succumbed to coffee’s siren song when I was articling. I had the privilege of clerking at the Court of Appeal of Alberta in Calgary in1986, shortly after the beautifully renovated old courthouse reopened  (but before it was closed due to toxic building syndrome). It was like working in a mansion. Coffee was served in white fine bone china cups with saucers. Sugar cubes were accessed from their bowl using tongs, and cream was on tap. We students were allowed to use the same coffee facilities as the appellate justices, and I fell in love with coffee.
 
But after clerking, I began working in law firms. Getting coffee was what you did when you needed to clear your brain for a few minutes or stretch your legs. As a corporate lawyer, I spent long days in meetings where we subsisted on coffee (and hoping not to be the first person to ask for a bathroom break). While I still enjoyed tea, it was much more trouble to make, whereas coffee was just always there.
 
I remember going into the office on a Saturday while I was articling and hearing a plethora of profanity coming from the coffee station. My principal had decided to brew a pot of coffee on while he was working, but he heard his phone ring and dashed away to answer it. In his haste, he forgot to put the carafe into the coffee maker, and coffee had brewed all over the floor.
 
This was the essence of mindless coffee-making—you were so distracted by other things on your mind that you missed important steps. I haven’t missed putting the carafe back under the dispenser (and I think that modern coffee makers don’t work if the carafe isn’t in place) but I have, on more occasions than I would like to recall, walked over to pour myself a cup of golden caffeinated delight and discovered warm, clear water because I forgot to load the coffee in.  Usually, I was multi-tasking and relying on muscle memory to do tasks without engaging my brain, and it was hugely disappointing to be back at square one, starting over.
 
When I became a mom, with its attendant sleep deprivation, I would load my coffee maker before going to bed so all I had to was press the “on” button to start my day (or, rather, the awake part of it.) And then I discovered the automatic coffee maker with a timer—I could smell my fresh-brewed coffee as I got out of bed and walked downstairs, and then I found the automatic coffee maker with a built-in grinder. It was heaven. And for many years, it was what got me out of bed in the morning. I have a cross-stitch sampler in my kitchen that reads “Bring coffee and no one gets hurt!”
 
Two events led to my more mindful approach to coffee. First, my son introduced me to pour-over coffee, where he uses a long-necked kettle, a Chemex carafe, and a scale to weigh coffee rather than measuring volume with a tablespoon. While I applauded his commitment to having his perfect coffee his way, I didn’t see much appeal to this laborious process. All I had to do was get up and pour freshly ground hot coffee into my mug.
 
But I also wanted to cut back my coffee consumption, whittling it down to one cup (except for when I cheated and had a second), and I realized that it was silly to have a big coffee maker taking up valuable real estate on my kitchen counter. When you have a coffee maker, you end up making a pot which didn’t help my resolution to drink less coffee. So, one day when my son was visiting, he taught me to make pour over coffee, one perfect cup at a time. I don’t have a long-necked kettle or a Chemex because you can make pour-over coffee using a regular kettle if you pour carefully, and you can buy porcelain coffee cones that work adequately.
 
Pour-over coffee is not instant coffee--it is anything but instant. You carefully pour a small amount of just-boiled water over to cover the coffee grounds in the filter, and after the water has soaked through, you wait, allowing the coffee to “bloom” so that all of the bubbles of carbon dioxide, which contribute to acidic taste, dissolve. Then you fill the cone with freshly boiled water, stirring it in the cone with a spoon for a moment or two and let it drain into your cup, a very pleasing process.
 
This hasn’t turned me into a coffee snob—my favourite coffee is Hazelnut Cream, and while I try to have non-flavoured coffee on hand for guests, I like what I like.
 
But I am enjoying the fresh taste of my pour-over coffee and the mindfulness of making a single cup after decades of mindless coffee-making and coffee-drinking. I like the sensation of being in the moment watching the bubbles form and dissipate. I like the careful pouring of hot water, and I savour my one cup of coffee, knowing that it is a precious resource which I cultivate carefully.
 
Is this a textbook example of mindfulness, or a perfect way to develop the art of being in the moment? No, and that is okay—those are judgmental thoughts which I acknowledge during my coffee preparation ritual and then I let them go. But it is a way for me to focus on the present, engaging in actions that enhance my morning coffee, and I feel connected--not to my work in my 24/7 office attached to my kitchen-- but to a simple process which brings an incredible reward.
 
When I participate in mindfully making coffee, I drink it mindfully as well, and I feel more refreshed, kind of like how I feel when I can attend Tuesday mindfulness sessions.
 
There is so much chaos in our world and so many demands for our attention. Don’t be afraid to carve out a bit of time to do something mindfully and just be in the present moment—stop and smell the roses, or the coffee, as the case may be. You may find that you are more alert and focused for your next round of deskwork.


 

 

Loraine