Treat your body right. Exercise and stay at a healthy weight. Eat well, but consciously. Learn to unwind. Get enough sleep to replenish your body and mind. Spend some time each day in meditation and/or disengaging from distractions such as email, phone calls, social media. The stress you release by disengaging will help your body tremendously.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewingGary Powell.
Gary is general counsel at Emery Oleochemicals, and he also spent over 25 years involved in litigation in private practice. After experiencing the life-changing benefits of meditation more than a decade ago, he created a series of meditation exercises for attorneys available under the name, Legally Mindful®in the Apple store or Google Play store.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Asfar back as I can remember, I was always very curious and wanted to soak in as much knowledge as I could. My older brother and I were the first in our family to get a college degree, and I’ve always been tremendously grateful to my parents for the sacrifices they made to ensure I had that opportunity.
I went to law school because of the breadth of opportunities a legal education presented. I got my start with a relatively small boutique litigation firm in Cincinnati that encouraged public service and wanted our lawyers to be well-rounded. I became involved in our local bar association and also started teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Cincinnati, which I did for 26 years. I found teaching to be invigorating as I could share my love of learning with others.
As part of my own development, I attended a week-long meditation workshop shortly after my sister died in 2008. My original intent was to use meditation to help me answer some of the “big questions” concerning life, death and my place in this world. The workshop used sound waves “behind” the guided exercises to get you in a deep meditative state quickly, where I was able to get some of these “answers” for myself. Along the way, I figured out that I could use sound-assisted meditation approaches and tools in practical, work-related ways. In the last few years, I decided to share the lessons and tools I learned with other attorneys and professionals by crafting my own guided meditation exercises with Legally Mindful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In the most recent part of my career as I was establishing Legally Mindful, I attended two week-long meditation workshops where I was connected to an EEG while I meditated. The workshops were part of a research project overseen by a researcher from the University of Virginia. I was able to see for myself how my brain worked while listening to sound-assisted meditation exercises and how the same sound technology (that Legally Mindful offers) assisted even novice meditators to get into a relatively deep meditative state and have impactful experiences.
At the beginning of the workshop, we had a baseline measurement of our brain waves and I was also able to see how my meditation practice had altered my waking brain wave state. Even with my eyes open, I exhibited a brain wave state that is typical of someone in a meditative state. In other words, my use of sound-assisted meditation exercises had evidently helped me carry that relaxed but focused state into my waking life. While I was not surprised by what the EEG showed, it was exciting to see proof of what I thought I was experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
In my first weeks after landing my first real job as an attorney, I was working on a complex litigation matter for our local library system with the senior partner in the firm, Bob Manley. I was assigned to draft an important motion that involved millions of dollars in funding for the library. After spending a good amount of time researching and writing the motion, I gave my “final” draft to Bob for his review. When he returned the motion to me, there were only a couple of changes in the 15-page document.
As a new attorney in the firm, I thought I had to be the best writer the firm had ever seen. In passing, I mentioned my brilliance to another, more senior attorney in the firm, Andy Lipton. Andy asked to see the document so he could review it. I got back a paper that had almost as much red ink from Andy as it had black ink from the original text. Andy then told me that Bob usually didn’t make vast changes to a document unless it was horrible and completely missed the point of the argument, and that while I was a decent writer, I had a lot to learn. That lesson has stayed with me and if I find myself being too confident of something, in law or other parts of my life, it may be that I need to step back and assess whether my confidence is warranted or I need to reassess the situation. That awareness and the ability to step back has saved me many times and helped me be a better attorney.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are too many important influencers in my life to mention them all, as I’ve tried to learn something from everyone with whom I’ve been in contact over the years. The three I’ll briefly mention were all teachers in some meaningful respect who probably influenced me thinking of myself as a teacher. First was Sister Margaret Phillip, my 5th grade teacher and elementary school principal. She saw something in me at a fairly early age and encouraged me to have confidence in myself and my abilities. Father Herr, my high school principal, frequently reminded us how resilient humans are, especially young people. He also led by example by encouraging us to speak up when rules were applied unfairly or that resulted in unintended consequences when applied strictly as written. Those lessons helped me immensely in my legal career to be creative in finding workable solutions that might be outside the traditional box. The third was Judge William McClain, who experienced all sorts of discriminatory treatment entering the legal profession many years before the civil rights movement hit its stride in the 1950s. Yet he persevered and thrived with a positive attitude. His lessons to me centered around staying humble and making the best of whatever circumstance you are presented with in your life. Although you cannot control your circumstances, you have an obligation to do the best you can, often despite those circumstances.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is probably not a surprise from me but based on how I’ve experienced it in my own life, I would recommend that everyone start a meditation practice. Once I got comfortable meditating and was able to quiet the incessant chatter that so often filled my mind, I was able to see issues from a more productive perspective. I was no longer telling myself I couldn’t do something, and I was able to stop catastrophizing. In addition, I learned how to easily release stress and to center myself in stressful situations. The more I practiced meditation, the better my brain remembered that relaxed but focused state, even while I was working. That change has allowed me to listen better, to respond more consciously and to enjoy my work as an attorney more. While my life is not stress free by any means, I have learned how to deal with stress, and it is not a burden to me like it used to be. My experiences with meditation are not isolated to me and everyone should be able to see those same benefits through practice.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I think the simplest thing is to respect, acknowledge, understand and embrace the individual attributes each coworker brings into our work culture. I think many workplaces also have to do a better job at showing appreciation for their employees. It’s not hard to create opportunities for employees to feel that their health and wellbeing are taken seriously by their employer, whether it be education about dealing with stress, the importance of exercise, or the value of eating appropriately. To me, these health and wellbeing initiatives are about helping their employees to become aware that oft times their unconscious actions (habits) can be changed just by becoming aware of them, and consciously choosing to act differently. Many of our detrimental acts are unconscious “decisions” we make out of habit and without conscious thought. By understanding that we can all change these unconscious acts through awareness, we will all be healthier and happier. And that benefits our work environments and businesses.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Be curious. Don’t be afraid to experience/try new things. Stretch your mind and body. Read books.
- Learn to relax. Stop and think before reacting. Don’t take everything personally. Work on your perspective.
- Get outdoors. Go for a walk (preferably a park or somewhere green), and experience nature. The peace and quiet can still your mind, bring clarity. I do some of my best, creative thinking on walks in nature.
- Treat your body right. Exercise and stay at a healthy weight. Eat well, but consciously. Learn to unwind. Get enough sleep to replenish your body and mind. Spend some time each day in meditation and/or disengaging from distractions such as email, phone calls, social media. The stress you release by disengaging will help your body tremendously.
- Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude! Spend time each day being grateful and express that gratitude to yourself and others as often as possible. Expressing gratitude is shown to increase our happiness, as well as give us a better perspective on things.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
I don’t know of a better way to maintain mental wellness as we get older than adopting a meditation practice. There are so many benefits for people of all ages, but several of them stand out for people of retirement age. Meditation has been shown to help slow your brain’s aging process. From my experience and as shown in research, meditation helps with our overall mental functioning and clarity of thought. Meditation has also been shown to help alleviate or reduce inflammation, and so many diseases are associated with inflammation. According to a recent study, exercising or practicing meditation may be effective in reducing acute respiratory infections. Acute respiratory infections, which are caused by influenza and other viruses, are very common illnesses and account for millions of doctor visits and lost school and workdays each year, and they may be more severe in older people. Previous research has suggested that enhancing general physical and mental health may offer protection against these illnesses. There are so many positive benefits from meditation for seniors. I have talked with many people my age and older who have really benefited from listening to guided, sound-assisted meditation exercises.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
1. Learn healthy coping skills for managing negative emotions. For example: breathing exercises, visualization, and/or meditation; creative outlets (e.g., music, drawing, writing); physical outlets (e.g., yoga, dance); being in nature; and challenging your negative thoughts.
2. Take care of your body. Establish a healthy sleep schedule, engage in regular physical activity, consume a balanced diet, and avoid drugs/alcohol.
3. Limit screen time and social media in general.
4. Communicate openly.
5. If needed, seek help. Consult with your doctor about options for therapy and/or medication.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I have so many favorite books, but my favorite is probably The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I tried to read this book a few times. When I had to go out of town to help with my father’s care after he had a debilitating stroke, I took the book with me and thought I’d give it another chance. I had plenty of time in the hospital and in my hotel room to read, and the messages of The Power of Now were very powerful for me at that time. Sometimes, you have to wait to read material when it’s appropriate for you, and that time with my father, the material was very appropriate. Being able to understand some of the concepts of being present in the now were very important for me then and I continue to lean on those concepts to the present day.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I hope I’ve already started on that movement. Meditation practices have been around for thousands of years and many people have gotten great insights and improved health and wellbeing from those practices. Yet, in our fast-paced society, too many people think traditional meditation approaches are too hard to get started with, or that the benefits of meditation take too long to achieve.
My goal with Legally Mindful is to change that view of meditation. While I have initially marketed Legally Mindful to attorneys because that’s where my experience lies and the practice of law is a very stressful profession, the exercises should be effective for anyone who wants to see the benefits from meditation. The sound technology “behind” the Legally Mindful exercises helps people get into, and experience, a relatively deep meditation state quickly. If you get distracted or lose your focus, the sound waves should help get you back to that desired state very quickly. From my experience, in the first sound-assisted meditation exercise I experienced more than ten years ago, I got into a deeper state than I’d experienced before. I’ve seen the same result from other novices in the workshops I’ve attended or helped facilitate. Also, the guidance in the exercises helps reassure you that you’re doing it right.
If I can get more people, attorneys and others, to start and continue a meditation practice whether it’s using Legally Mindful or another method, I think we will see people less burdened by stress and the accompanying negative health consequences of that stress. From my experience, as I’ve learned to deal more constructively with the stress in my life, I have become a better and happier person, as well as a better attorney. When we reduce the stress in our lives, our brains function better, we can be more productive, and that leads to operating from a better and hopefully happier perspective. I know that sounds like a lofty goal, but I’ve seen these benefits in my own life, and I don’t see any reason why others can’t achieve these same benefits.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. That address was after Jobs had been diagnosed with cancer and he faced the ultimate reality. The one I’ll talk about here was about following your own heart and intuition, despite what others may think or say. He said,
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I’ve had to refer back to this quote many times over the past 15 years to help me develop my own inner strength and confidence in what I am now doing through Legally Mindful. When I first started going to meditation workshops in 2008, I was worried what others in the legal profession would think of me, as meditation was not as widely accepted then as it is now. I told people I worked with that I was going to meet some friends and do some hiking in the Virginia mountains, instead of telling them I was going to spend the week meditating. Yes, I would be with friends I had not yet met and there would be some hiking involved during the week.
As I saw and felt the benefits of attending these sound-assisted meditation workshops and started thinking about how I could share these benefits with other attorneys, I started caring less about what some might think. I knew in my heart that I had found some profound answers during some of my meditation exercises to some of my bigger questions about life and my place in it, as well as understanding the value meditation had on my work and life as an attorney. To me, meditation is all about experiencing it and seeing for yourself what benefits you can achieve, whether it’s “merely” stress relief or using it in the broader way I am advocating through Legally Mindful. My exercises should help people understand that meditation can be used in a more active way than is taught by the traditional meditation practices, where you can actually take work-related matters into your meditation and find creative solutions to complex issues while in a deep creative state.
I understand that some meditation purists who have been taught that meditation should be a passive pursuit of finding that inner peace may oppose my method. I can’t care about that any longer as I have experienced the same inner peace that traditional meditation strives for, but I’ve also used sound-assisted meditation exercises in a more active way. I’m 61 years old, so I don’t have a lot of time to worry about what those others might say or think. I want to teach others through Legally Mindful that meditation can be used in ways that are not taught by the traditional methods. If I can do it, there is no reason others can’t as well.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!