Meditation program lightens the weight of the law

Susanna Eayrs // Special to Western NewsWestern Law recently became the first Canadian law school to incorporate a Mindfulness Ambassador Council into the faculty. Facilitated by Western Law professor Thomas Telfer, the group develops daily mindfulness practice to improve attention and well-being.

Last semester, Western Law professor Thomas Telfer set a precedent that had nothing to do with any courtroom decision. He became the first person to lead a mindfulness ambassador council at a Canadian law school.

As he led the entire first-year Law class in a brief meditation exercise – a teaser for the mindfulness council he later would offer to interested students – something stirred Alejandro Gonzalez.

“The power in the silence of 170-plus classmates meditating emboldened me,” Gonzalez said. He was inspired by the conviction and honesty with which Telfer and Assistant Dean (Student Services) Mysty Clapton spoke about issues they’d faced. “I wanted to develop my mental-health strength and it seemed like a great tool to do just that.”

Telfer admitted to being a “bit skeptical” when he initially explored programs offered by Mindfulness Without Borders, a group that teaches the advantages of taking time to pause, to breathe, to be aware, to remain in the moment. It didn’t seem, at first, to have a direct connection with the study and practice of law. But he soon found a link.

“There are a lot of different teaching techniques I never used before in my classroom,” Telfer said. “I did not think Law students would embrace the course. I did not think they would use the teaching techniques, the talking techniques used in the course. I wasn’t sure this was really going to work.”

But after proposing a five-week pilot project to the dean and a brief two- to three-minute meditation session as an introduction to the students, Telfer gauged interest in the optional, non-credit course.

“I went back to my office and sent out the email inviting registration in the course. I really didn’t know how many people would respond, so I was quite concerned about the initial uptake,” he said. “Within 10 minutes I had three replies, and within the day the course filled.”

It became the first Mindfulness Ambassador Council (MAC) at a Canadian law school.

The intention of the group is to develop daily mindfulness practice to strengthen attention and overall well-being. Telfer is facilitator, allowing the students to lead the direction of each session.

“The student are ambassadors. The idea is they would take what they’ve learned in the course and be ambassadors for mindfulness in the community, or for their classmates,” Telfer said.

Mindfulness practice is paying attention to the present moment, without judgment, without being distracted. It has direct relevance both to well-being and education.

“The course is about building social and emotional intelligence. Listening mindfully, resolving conflict, noticing emotional triggers and how to respond to those triggers,” he added.

“It’s very hard, in a busy society, to focus on the present. Our minds always run to what we have to do next, where we have to be, where we have to go or thinking, with some regret, about yesterday and how, ‘I could have done this, I should have done that.’ But how many people are actually focused right now, in the moment? It’s a practice you need to build.”

Student Madison Derraugh chose to be part of the MAC as an extension of her push for better personal health and fitness.

“This was largely influenced by my travels, when I went on an exchange in my undergrad and the people I met while away, but also my new dedication to the practice of yoga, beyond just the physical challenges,” said Derraugh.

“When professor Telfer led us through a mindfulness exercise, I instantly felt a difference. When debating whether I should sign up, I was on the fence. It meant adding another commitment to my already-busy schedule. That hesitation, based on being nervous about, in reality, a short time commitment, was a clear indication for me I needed to sign up.”

For Derraugh, the sessions revealed that, even under the pressure of law school, she is not alone.

“Council became a safe place with a great support group. It provides an opportunity to release my worries and know I will be OK. It provided me with new techniques and support systems – meditations, exercises or people – I can use to help me navigate my way through law school, and beyond.

“I have been able to improve my ability to deal more skilfully with stress and anxiety. It has taught me that sometimes taking even five minutes, or just five breaths, is a more productive use of my time than trying to push through my stress and the demands of the day. I have new ideas and tools about how to address challenges.”

A pre- and post-survey questionnaire from the first-semester offering of the course showed students had improved focus, concentration and feelings of well-being. That’s particularly important in Law, where pressures can be intense, Telfer explained.

“Rates of depression and mental-health issues in the legal profession are higher than the general population. This is a tool that is very helpful. And with their arrival on campus, everything is new and this course is a way to help them ground themselves.”

The Personal Management Practice Guideline recently released by the Law Society of Ontario also highlights mental wellness and notes the advantages of mindfulness and mindfulness training.

Said Gonzalez, “I find myself feeling more present, more grateful, listening better and focusing more. It’s amazing when you start to notice how robotic and machine-like you can become when you’re just going through the motions. For me, MAC, and the lessons we learn, is about growing our learning as human beings and interacting with the world around us. It’s powerful stuff.”