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Mindfulness Program Enhances Student Well-Being

Charles Halpern
Charles Halpern

By Leslie A. Gordon

When lecturer Charles Halpern first offered a meditation class at Berkeley Law six years ago, he hoped 10 students would sign up. Four times that many enrolled. Since then, student interest in meditation has grown—and so has Berkeley Law’s offerings related to the ancient practice of cultivating moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness.

In 2011, Halpern founded the law school’s Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law to expand mindfulness training and explore its potential for systemic change. In addition to courses, the initiative’s programs now include retreats, a speaker series, lunchtime nature walks, and a dedicated meditation room at the law school. Last summer, Berkeley Law hosted a Workshop on Mindfulness in Legal Education, to which more than 30 law schools sent representatives.

Interest in the program is not surprising given that mindfulness has been shown to build emotional intelligence; increase focus; enhance empathy, self-care and stress management; and strengthen relationships, Halpern said. Ultimately, mindfulness programs for law students will contribute to a more just, compassionate and reflective legal system, he added.

Halpern teaches Effective and Sustainable Law Practice: The Meditative Perspective, and a non-credit course for first-year students called Sustainable Lawyering: An Introduction to Mindfulness.

“In the legal field and law school, it’s not easy to ‘do nothing’ because we’re ambitious, activists, doers,” Halpern said. These programs provide a community and support to students interested in mindfulness.” Decades ago, Halpern discovered that he was a more effective lawyer when he practiced reflection and sought an “empathetic connection” with adversaries, he said.

Because scientists have shown that meditation can rewire the brain to improve wellness, resilience and focus, major corporations like General Mills and Google, as well as business and medical schools, are offering meditation training. In legal education, Berkeley Law is at the forefront of this growing national movement. Several students have told Halpern that they chose Berkeley Law in part because of its mindfulness program.

“My hope is that some of the qualities of mindfulness will start to infuse legal education generally and ultimately have an impact on legal doctrine, legal processes, and how law is practiced,” Halpern said.

Specifically, as law students develop reflectiveness, compassion, empathy and a sense of interconnection of all people through mindfulness, “the edges of the adversarial process should become muted, and the quality of justice in the courts and alternative dispute resolution will have a more responsive quality.” The fields of restorative justice and family law are particularly suitable for such change, Halpern said.

Survey finds mindfulness reduces stress

To measure and document the impact of mindfulness courses on law students, Berkeley Law is collaborating with Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist at the university’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being. Simon-Thomas has conducted pilot studies of law students enrolled in mindfulness courses to measure the effects of the training on emotional and behavioral indicators. Using surveys before and after the course, she observed increases in subjective happiness and compassion and decreases in perceived stress as compared to a control group.

Qi Gong class
Students in Charlie Halpern's class practice Qi Gong outside
the law school.

“Based on survey instruments, the course does what it purports to do: make people more mindful,” Simon-Thomas said about the small but “statistically significant” group. The qualitative responses were also instructive. “There were a few really compelling quotes,” she said. “Students talked about learning to remain calm before reacting and feeling more joyous. One student wrote, ‘I’m finding sympathies in situations when I’d normally be angry.’”

Student JeAnne Reyes ’14 has attended the law school’s meditation retreats       and weekly meditation sessions, and is currently enrolled in Halpern’s course. “I wanted to cultivate a space of inner peace and silence,” she explained. “In this profession, it’s so easy to be carried away by its demands.” Because mindfulness requires “discipline, perseverance, and fortitude, the programs at Boalt provide the support I need to stay on that journey.”

For fellow student Galen Ages ’16, the program has made his law school experience “more meaningful and enjoyable.” After taking the mindfulness course, meeting weekly with a mindfulness group, attending speaker programs and meditating daily, Ages reports feeling reduced stress, a sense of community, and better concentration.

“Meditating has also improved my self-esteem,” Ages said. “I find it easier to engage in the learning process without being distracted or paralyzed by self-doubt. When I’m overwhelmed, I feel comfortable sharing my concerns with my small meditation group because they’re always understanding and supportive.”

As part of the initiative’s speaker series, Simon-Thomas will lecture at the law school on March 17, discussing the effects of meditation on the brain. To RSVP, email BIML@law.berkeley.edu.

3/3/2014