Word for the Furious: Breathe
by Steven Keeva
In 1993, Tucson, Ariz., Litigator Leonard Scheff spent some time—quite a bit of time, really—in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Having done some legal work to help bring the great man to town, he was rewarded for his effort in a special way—with a front-row center seat for four days of spiritual teachings.
"I was dying," he recalls. "I didn’t want to offend His Holiness, and if I missed a session or fell asleep I was sure he would notice. Although he might not have cared, I was sure the people who arranged for me to have the best seat in the house would have been offended."
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, then came the clincher. "I started to realize that he was suggesting that we would all be better off without anger," Scheff says. "That made me even more uncomfortable. I thought, ‘He seems like a very nice man, but if he thinks I’m going to give up anger, he’s crazy.’"
In fact, anger meant a great deal to Scheff. "It was the tent poles in my circus tent, my way of being, my moat and my castle walls." And though the metaphors may vary, his do a pretty good job of describing the protective, controlling, distancing role that anger often plays in lawyers’ lives.
But Scheff soon got lucky. The night after the Dalai Lama’s teachings ended, he had an encounter of the very kind that typically caused him to raise his drawbridge. "I was driving along and someone pulled very close to me," he says. "So I honked the horn. The driver then rolled down his window and displayed, high in the air, a certain digital sign of disrespect. I wanted to ram him.
"But then it occurred to me that having spent several miserable days in that room, maybe I should try the teachings. So I asked myself what it was that made me angry, and I realized that I wanted respect from this total stranger," he says. "And I realized that it was me who gave meaning to this insult. I started laughing, and then I realized how much better it felt to laugh instead of being angry. I was hooked."
And it’s a good thing, because, like many lawyers, Scheff had actually been hooked on anger. For years he had sought the buzz that came from letting it rip, and as a trial lawyer he rarely lacked for opportunities. But even though anger can be intoxicating, it’s crucial that we remember that it is also poisonous. And not just to the legal profession or the body politic. It is also harmful to angry people themselves.
THE HIDDEN COSTS
Never mind for the moment that rampant displays of anger hurt people and weaken the human connections that underlie our legal culture. Of more immediate importance is the fact that it can cause serious health problems for people caught in its grip, including depression, chronic anxiety, heart disease and a suppressed immune system.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the slash-and-burn heyday of incivility (the ‘80s and ‘90s) has waned some, at least partly because courts began putting their collective feet down. Still, unlike other factors that undermine lawyers’ health, happiness and even competence—alcohol and drugs come to mind—anger continues to be treated as an accepted fact of life.
"Law schools beget the adversary system and the adversary system begets anger," says Roland Johnson, immediate-past president of the Tarrant County Bar Association in Fort Worth, Texas. "And it only gets talked about if a judge steps in. But so much of law practice isn’t trial work or motion practice, so there are very few checks on it. I think lawyers tend to see anger as part of advocacy, and it needn’t be at all."
Needn’t be and shouldn’t be. Not only because it’s not nice, but because it distorts the way we think, making us more reactive and less able to discern our options (like taking a less combative approach). So much of what underlies anger has to do with our attachment to the way we think things should be. If we didn’t think life should be fair, for example, we probably wouldn’t get angry when things don’t go our way. If we let go of the notion that we deserve to be treated a certain way, we are less likely to react angrily to what we otherwise might have taken as slights.
And when we stop merely reacting and instead choose our responses purposefully, more skillful choices become possible. As Scheff says, referring to the driver’s provocative gesture, it was Scheff’s own interpretation of the gesture that angered him. The lesson there was that other interpretations were possible: Could it have had nothing to do with respect and everything to do with the fact that the driver had just been insulted himself? Scheff came to see that he had more control over the situation than he’d realized.
The bottom line is that by changing our relationship to our thoughts we can significantly reduce how much anger we experience. And to the extent that we can become aware of those thoughts, we can choose how to relate to them and thereby free ourselves from anger-fueled, automatic reactions.
DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH
One helpful way to short-circuit the psychobiological phenomenon that is anger is to take a moment to direct your attention to your breath. Simply feel your abdomen rising and falling, making no attempt to control it. You may find that it isn’t so easy to do. Your attention may wander, or you might find it difficult to simply let the breath be, and instead try to do it "right."
If so, does that tell you anything about your need for control? In any case, try not to judge yourself, as judgment fuels anger. Instead, simply watch, pay attention, observe as closely as possible. When you take a break, even a very short one, to focus your attention inward, you cut off the source of energy that fuels your fury, so that a sense of calm can take its place.
These days, Scheff puts on Transforming Anger workshops (www.transforminganger.com), based primarily on Buddhist principles, which he admires for their no-nonsense practicality. As far as his law practice goes, he now looks at his career in before-and-after terms, the incident on the road that night being the pivot point.
"I’ve learned that it’s the anger that burns lawyers out," he says. "The practical benefit of learning to let go of anger is that it increases your effectiveness. I guarantee it. And it enhances your satisfaction with the practice of law. The truth is that anger pushes people away, and the reality is that people have a generous nature, and when you don’t push them away, they want to help you."
He offers an anecdote. "Not long ago I was taking a deposition, and I asked a witness—the other side’s witness—a question with a factual premise to it. I said, ‘What about that?’ Well, the other attorney got up, stuck his finger at me and said, ‘You’re a goddamn liar. You know that isn’t true, and I’m going to report you to the board!’"
"I said, ‘I’m sorry I made you angry.’ Well, he deflated like a balloon."
Steven Keeva, an ABA Journal assistant managing editor, is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary, 2002).