Creating Peace and Presence of Mind in Every Season
By Robin Oaks, Esq., Denise Robinson, Esq., and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
Robin Oaks has been a licensed attorney for nearly forty years. For the past two decades her legal practice has focused exclusively on conducting independent workplace complaint investigations. As a law professor in California, she designs and teaches courses about lawyer and law student well-being and competence. Drawing from her mediation background and certifications in mind-body and traditional medicine practices, for the past twenty years she has provided consulting and confidential coaching services to individuals and professionals.
Denise A. Robinson is the Founding Principal of The Still Center LLC, a consultancy focused on the intersection of organizational diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) and well-being. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Denise practiced labor & employment law, and later transitioned to promoting DEI in the workplace, including in past roles as Director of Diversity & Inclusion for O’Melveny & Myers LLP, and Diversity Officer for the International Monetary Fund. She also has over a decade of experience teaching yoga.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard trained and published neuroanatomist who is now affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine. In 1996 she experienced a hemorrhage in her left cerebral hemisphere causing her to lose the ability to walk, talk, read, write or recall any of her life. She is the author of My Stroke of Insight, and Whole Brain Living. In 2008 she gave the first TED talk that ever went viral.
With all the good cheer and happy songs associated with the end-of-the-year holiday season, why do so many of us feel alienated, and sing the blues? We race to meet year-end deadlines, stress over weather delays while traveling, and struggle to make traditional customs at home “just perfect” all the while driven to distraction at work, often pushing beyond our limits.
For some, the drain on energy and mood during the winter is temporary and manageable, but for others it goes much deeper. If there are friends, family members, or pets who have passed or are missing from the warmth of the holiday hearth, these losses create strong emotional and physical reactions. In response we often alienate from others – and ourselves.
While intended to be celebratory, the presence of free-flowing alcohol and comforting but sweet and rich food at many legal employers’ holiday parties can worsen the imbalances we feel. Further, the pervasive exclusion in the profession experienced by women of color and other marginalized groups may be compounded by the loneliness that some people experience more acutely during the holidays. Legal professionals know well that the high stakes, low autonomy, and competitive conditions of law practice can create disconnection, even despair. Fortunately, there are evidenced-based mind-body strategies that support physical and mental health through all types of challenges – no matter the season.
Through our specialized backgrounds coaching and training others to foster well-being and wellness, along with learning the hard way what really matters to successfully navigate the setbacks in one’s professional and personal life, we share three powerful interventions to support you: 1) Prioritizing self-compassion, 2) Pausing to widen perspective, and 3) Creating conscious connections with your brain’s “Four Characters.”
As human beings we are wired to need and seek connection. Prosocial behaviors are a physiologically necessary part of our nervous system functioning, creating a sense of safety and resilience to weather the worst life-storms. The key to moving through, not distancing from, feelings of disconnection and distress during the holidays (or anytime!) is to prioritize self-compassion on your gift-giving list.
Dr. Kristin Neff, along with other researchers studying self-compassion, recognizes how it impacts health. When we “soothe our own pain, we are tapping into the mammalian care-giving system,” necessary for survival and maintaining homeostasis. Self-compassion is neither self-absorption nor self-pity, but rather kindness directed inward. Like a comforting friend paying attention and listening deeply, we can tune in and embrace all that we are experiencing.
Further, oxytocin, a neuropeptide, referred to popularly as the “love-connection hormone,” is responsible for regulating positive emotional and pro-social behaviors, including empathy and bonding. Because oxytocin has receptor sites on the amygdala (part of the brain’s limbic system controlling “fight/flight/freeze”), when feelings of kindness and compassion are generated for others – including ourselves – oxytocin is released, causing down-regulation of nervous system overarousal.
Self-imposed high expectations about what we think we should accomplish during the holiday season, or any other time when demands to perform mount, create constriction in the body and fuel negative thinking. We can use kindness and care for ourselves to both mentally and physically relax more – and stress less. As a Chinese proverb says, “Tension is what you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.”
Pausing and Widening Perspective
Instead of managing time, think of managing energy, priorities and planning. Especially during holiday and end-of-year pressures, pause and critically assess from a wider perspective what you can and will reasonably do. People-pleasing as a default mode narrows focus and alienates us from connecting with ourselves – and our real needs. Using your critical thinking skills, listen to what your inner laws of supply and demand are counseling you. Setting limits – and firmly sticking to them – is self-compassion and self-awareness in action.
One simple yet effective mind-body strategy that widens your perspective and creates a sense of peace and presence when feeling overwhelmed is called Hakalau meditation practice. Originating from ancient Hawaiian healer practices (Huna), it taps into the body’s physiology through the eyes’ ability to both focus and utilize peripheral vision. This practice promotes a more expanded awareness that helps dissolve feelings of negativity, rumination, and tension.
1. Sit comfortably in a chair and choose an area on the wall or some object in front of you at about eye level. Allow your head, neck and shoulders to relax.
2. Softly stare at the object or spot and focus all your attention there. Allow yourself to blink and breathe normally.
3. Within a few minutes, you may begin noticing your awareness spreading to include whatever is in the periphery.
4. Now, shift your attention intentionally to what you notice in the periphery, without moving your eyes or head. As your focus expands, allow whatever comes into your awareness, without judgment.
5. As you do this practice for a few minutes, you may feel a sense of peace wash over you as your perspective widens not only your field of vision – but within.
Connecting with Your Brain’s “Four Characters”
Just as inclusive workplaces advance well-being through authentic allyship and mindful communication, we can benefit by examining the internal dialogue going on inside of our own brain. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard trained neuroanatomist, explains how we can optimize our well-being based upon what is known about brain anatomy and the “Four Characters” – the diverse groups of left and right brain cells that create our experiences – we each exhibit.
Dr. Taylor was a brain scientist at Harvard when she experienced a major hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. Over the course of four hours, she watched her own brain functions go completely off-line to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She shares insights learned through her harrowing and enlightening recovery in her new book, “Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters that Drive Our Life.” Getting to know our two “emotional” and “thinking” personalities -– empowers us to self-regulate our body, mind, emotions and ultimately our behavior.
Consider pausing right now. Using the diagram below, identify and befriend your Four Characters. Your left thinking brain, for example, might want to finish drafting a motion before you leave the office, while your left emotional brain might be feeling guilty because you did not have time to buy that special gift. Perhaps your right emotional brain is eager to burn some energy before the office party this evening, or your right thinking brain might prioritize writing that sentimental card to a loved one.
Once you begin to routinely recognize your own Four Characters, then you can apply the BRAIN Huddle technique to help “them” navigate your life consciously rather than mindlessly. First, bring your focus to your Breath, which will bring your mind into the present moment. R stands for – Recognize which of your Four Characters you were embodying when you called the BRAIN Huddle. Then A = Appreciate the fact that regardless of which of your Four Characters called the BRAIN Huddle that you have Four Characters at all times. I = Inquire as a team which character you want to embody in the next moment, and then N = Navigate your life moment by moment. Find the balance – and peace of mind – you are seeking.
You will notice the Four Characters in others and see your relationship behavioral patterns in a new light. Particularly in states of distress, calling your brain team into a conscious “Huddle” – with each character’s motivating factors understood – is a powerful tool for making mindful choices about who and how we want to be.
Character 1 Left Thinking brain: This part of our brain involves linear, logical thinking and objective reasoning, in which the concepts of time and ego live. It functions to create order, analyze and predict, and loves to control people, places and things.
Character 2 Left Emotional brain: This part of our brain feels all possible emotions, including love, grief, and fear. It navigates memories of past and future. It is the master switch of our stress circuitry, including the fight/flight/freeze response. It compels us to protect or connect, based on patterns recognized from prior experiences of pain or pleasure.
Character 3 Right Emotional brain: This part of our brain is creative, awe-inspired, empathetic, and curious. It experiences timelessness and is joyful in the chaotic messiness of arising possibilities. It knows what feels true and creates flow. It is present moment care-free impulsivity, joy, play, and immediate gratification.
Character 4 Right Thinking brain: This part of our brain exists as our most open and “authentic” self in the right-here, right-now experience of the present moment. It recognizes the beauty of all four of our characters, knowing beyond words that we are consciously connected to all life and the universe. It is our deep gratitude and the part of us that unconditionally loves.
1] See, Inagaki, T.K., MacCormack, J.K. & Muscatell, K.A. Prosocial and Positive Health Behaviors During a Period of Chronic Stress Protect Socioemotional Well-Being. Affect Sci 3, 160–167 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42761-021-00095-1. See also, polyvagal theory, S. Porges, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/
 My Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor; TED Talk (over 27 million views) https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight?language=en