At first Professor Luis Chiesa thought he’d limit enrollment in his new course, called Contemplative Practice, Meditation, and Law, to 30 students. When registration filled up within five minutes and dozens more students were eager to get in, he had to rethink the plan.
He ended up with 71 students in the course—a reflection of UB Law students’ ambition to address wellness issues in a high-stress profession characterized by concerning statistics around depression, addiction, anxiety and even suicide.
“That response told me there’s an appetite for this,” Chiesa says. “These students are wondering, what can we do as law students to set ourselves up with tools to counteract the stresses of the profession? These techniques translate well in a professional context, because in order to be a more effective lawyer, you need to be centered, be able to see things in a non-judgmental way, be able to feel compassion for your clients when they’re coming from different backgrounds.”
This is not Chiesa’s first exploration of contemplative techniques in legal education. He previously audited a class called Mindfulness and Professional Identity, taught by now retired Professor Stephanie Philips for many years. He has led meditation groups for the law school and the wider UB community as well. He believes his spring-semester class, though, with the wide range of disciplines and readings it covered, is unique in the United States.
It wasn’t your typical law school class. Students committed to a daily practice of meditation for the duration of the semester; kept a journal for reflecting on their learning; experimented with a variety of “glimpse practices” meant to shift their awareness and invite a sense of peace; and took part in a daylong virtual retreat, conducted in silence.
They also read widely about Eastern wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta; Jungian psychology; and Greek philosophy and considered the value of playfulness in approaching the work.
A particular challenge was exploring the idea of the law as impermanent and sometimes paradoxical, which the students experienced through wrestling with Zen Buddhist koans, meant to jolt the observer out of either/or thinking and imagine broader possibilities.
“A koan is a kind of riddle-like question that the student is then asked to play with for a while,” Chiesa says. He gives this one as an example: “The coin lost in the river is found in the river.” Entering the world of a koan, he says, helps students see the law as a continuing evolution rather than fixed doctrine.
“People have a view of lawyers as wordsmiths who are precise with words,” he says. “But it’s a misimpression that law is always precise. In the really hard cases, there are not always definite answers. Reasonable people are going to disagree. These cases are like the culmination of a conversation; a judge issues a ruling, but the conversation continues.
“This is a realization that makes a lot of students uncomfortable. They have this idea of the law as a definite set of rules, and they think mastery of that set of rules should be enough for success as a lawyer. But it turns out that in hard cases, rules don’t dictate the outcome. So instead of taking this radical uncertainty and getting anxious about it or worrying about it or trying to fix something that’s not fixable, can we actually revel in the paradox?”
The course, Chiesa says, “went surprisingly well. The reaction was uniformly positive, and students were shocked at how much comes out of it. But really we’re just scratching the surface.”
For rising third-year law student Lee Rynski, the course was a way to equip himself for life in the legal profession. “I was interested in the class,” he says, “because I realized that it would be very stressful and taxing to be a lawyer without any support mechanisms. I wanted to build a toolkit to promote resilience moving forward in my career.”
The experience of daily journaling, he says, has stuck with him, and he has continued to write a nightly journal entry during his summer work at a Buffalo law firm. “It was very innocuous at first, but it seemed to build on itself, and I got more relief out of it as we went on,” Rynski says. “Day-to-day life is so fast-paced that I know I don’t give myself enough time to reflect. The journaling helps me to decompress a little bit.”