RL 96: Donna Branca — The Journey of Meditation and Mindfulness
Release Date: 08/06/2018
In this episode, I am excited to have Donna Branca on to talk about meditation and mindfulness in the legal profession.
After 13 years spent at Blank Rome as their Director of Talent Management, Donna Branca left to further develop her leadership and coaching skills. Given her extensive experience in coaching and leadership, as well as her institutional knowledge of the firm, Donna returned to Blank Rome four and a half later as the Director of Strategic Leadership. She works to help the firm leadership, partners, and associates be the best they can be.
- Her introduction to mindfulness; how it became an instrumental part of her healing through a turbulent period, and how she utilizes it in her training at the firm.
- Acute stress (fight or flight) vs. chronic stress, and why it can be important to distinguish for mental well-being.
- The practice of meditation and the importance of seeing it as a journey rather than something to be conquered.
- The impact of mindfulness on one's overall success, and mindfulness in the legal profession.
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Donna Branca: [00:00:00] We can either be in the river and getting banged around by the rocks and the currents and the everything, and if we can get to the side and climb out we might be beaten up and wet, but we can look at the river. To me, that's what we're doing when we're practicing. It's all still there, but we're seeing it with some clarity.
Intro: [00:00:25] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:47] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I'm so happy to have Donna Blanca. She has spent 13 years at Blank Rome as their Director of Talent Development. Donna left to further develop her leadership and coaching skills. Given her extensive experience in coaching and leadership, as well as her institutional knowledge of the firm, Donna returned to Blank Rome four and a half years later as the Director of Strategic Leadership. She works to help firm leaders, partners, and associates be the best that they can be.
[00:01:21] Before we get into the interview, if you haven't listened to the last bonus episode please go check it out. I shared a six-minute guided meditation practice to work with loneliness, which I wrote about on the ABA Journal this month. So often even though we can work with others in our firm, we can have that sense of isolation and loneliness. And I found that having a regular meditation and mindfulness practice helps me to be more aware. You can learn more about Mindful Pause and the six-minute program over at JeenaCho.com, or you can also check it out in the show notes. And with that, here's Donna. Donna welcome to the show.
Donna Branca: [00:02:00] Thank you. Thank you Jeena, appreciate it.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:03] So let's just start by having you give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Donna Branca: [00:02:09] Well you gave a nice introduction there. It's my pleasure to be back at the firm, having spent a great part of my career here. But I'm now in a different function and at Blank Rome building a coaching culture. We do that both to help from a leadership perspective as well as a business development perspective. So in my space, it's pretty much on the leadership side. So I work with senior leaders, but I also work with any number of our partners and associates, and I do training and coaching and one-on-one coaching, some group coaching, and then a smattering of some other things that involve leadership. So it's been great to be back, and it just seems like a good fit.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:59] I know that you have a personal mindfulness practice, and I'm curious to hear how you got into practicing mindfulness and what that practice looks like for you now?
Donna Branca: [00:04:19] Yeah, I've been meditating now for about 12 years. And I actually was at the firm, part one at Blank Rome; and I had some things going on, and it's actually also how I was introduced to coaching. I retained a coach for myself and we were working through some career goals, that sort of thing. And one thing led to the other and the coach actually asked me if I knew anything about mindfulness, she had just taken a course at the University of Pennsylvania. So I had zero introduction to mindfulness until then. And I was a little skeptical, but I'm curious by nature so I researched it and ultimately signed up for it, in part because I thought it might help the lawyers that I worked with. So I registered for that course, and somewhat ironically instead of starting that course the same day at the University of Pennsylvania, I woke up at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
[00:05:06] So I didn't actually get there for that course, I remember in my fog at the time saying to my husband I think you better wheel me over to that mindfulness class because I think I'm going to need it. And frankly, it became a big part of my healing and it became a big part of my life since that time. So that's pretty much how I got introduced to it.
[00:05:22] I should add that I did get back to the program about a year later, and it was remarkably powerful. I found myself saying at the end of the program, my teacher Michael Baime went around the room to say what did you get from this eight-week program? And I went first, having no idea what would come out of my mouth. And what I found myself saying was that it was remarkable how I felt like I had shifted my perspective and been able to pull myself away from the thought that were yanking me around, and that frankly if I found that my diagnosis had gotten worse and that I was even looking at dying that I found a tool that would help me do that. And that was a big "aha";
I didn't realize that that was going to come out of my mouth. But it's very true, that's how profound an effect it had on me. And about nine or ten months later I did a program for them with just cancer patients, because the Abramson Cancer Center was thinking of picking up the funding for it. And that's where it really locked in for me, going through a program with people who had not been introduced to mindfulness before and were at.. we talk about ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. There's no time more than when you have a life-threatening diagnosis. And watching what it meant to these people, it really locked it into me, as to how important this can be at any point in your life. But like I said, that locked it in for me; from the standpoint of how important it was to me, and to some extent a passion and to be able to introduce other people to it when they're ready.
Jeena Cho: [00:06:57] Can you say more about how mindfulness practice helped you to recover? Not necessarily recover, but how it helped you through that journey through having cancer? Because obviously there's just so much uncertainty and fear, and all of the other emotions that I would imagine would come along with having that diagnosis and the treatment. But how did it help you in the day-to-day of your illness?
Donna Branca: [00:07:29] So by the time I got to it, I was post-chemo. I really wish I had a mindfulness practice before I got to that point, but where it helped me (since I was post-chemo) was in that limbo stage that you go into; where you're not treating, you're not going through an active regimen of something, and you're just waiting. And where your mind can go with that can be either dark, or you can pull yourself out of it and have it not be so dark. And be grateful for the fact that you did get the medical care that you had and whatnot, and you just vacillate back and forth. And it's as if your mind decides where it's going to go on a given day, and what the mindfulness allowed me to do was really understand how to zoom out and look at the situation and choose my response.
And I try to do, the University of Pennsylvania and this program that I do host two retreats a year, I try to do at least one. And it was at a retreat where I found what I was doing, when I was able to actually look at my thoughts almost as a focus of my meditation. Which I hesitate to say to some people, because it doesn't always resonate. But it was a moment of clarity that has stuck with me. I would say that.. I'm sure you've seen this news of the kids that were in the cave in Thailand, and thinking about that really resonates with me. And to answer your question around how it helped me, I mean when you think about what they were up against and sitting in this horribly dark cave where you can't see your hand in front of your face literally, being together and learning how to get mindful in order to get through that is just astounding.
[00:09:43] But to be honest Jeena, I feel and have always felt that this is not something new that we're trying to learn; it's actually something we're trying to re-learn. You know when we look at babies and we look at children, they're much more mindful than we are.
Jeena Cho: [00:10:04] Right, they're always in the present moment.
Donna Branca: [00:10:06] Right. And at some point, we pull away from that. So it's kind of telling that these young men and children were able to get there somewhat quickly. And I don't know, I haven't talked to them obviously but that's what I'm making up about it; that that we are able to tap into what my experience has been around mindfulness, what I've watched plenty of other people's experience (I'm sure to some extent yours) has been around mindfulness. The diagnosis, the stress, the fear of what it means; I still get emotional seven years later. What it means to your family. Like right now, I cannot just pull myself out of it and get positive about it, but literally look at the thought and make a choice as to what road I'll go down.
[00:11:13] So really, I have such gratitude towards this work. I actually have a lot of gratitude towards the work you do, that's how important I think this is. So I hope I answered your question, about how it helped me get through that. And frankly it's still a journey, once you have a diagnosis like that. I mean I'm very grateful, I have a fairly good bill of health. The doctor says something else is more likely to kill me than my ovarian cancer, but when you face death that way and your own mortality, it shifts thing quite a bit. So I count on my practice to help me in all sorts of things.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:01] I remember when I went through the 8 week mindfulness MBSR class for the first time, I was so struck by the range of human experience that were present in the room. There were first year (I took it at Stanford) undergrad Stanford kids and they're like, oh I don't know what I should do when I grow up and I just feel so anxious all the time. To people that were caregivers to loved ones that were dying, we also had people that had terminal illnesses. It was just the whole range, and I think that class is so impactful because it pulls you out of your own experience and you start to see human suffering happens to everyone. It just gave me such an appreciation and that ability to be a little bit softer. I think as lawyers we're so used to striving and forcing our way through things, and it makes you think no. Sometimes I guess there's a place for it, but oftentimes all it does is just aggravate the situation. To back up a little bit, can you talk a little bit about the difference between acute stress and chronic stress?
Donna Branca: [00:13:27] Absolutely, and I just actually did a program yesterday for our summer associates. So if we think about the predator jumping out in front of us ready to eat us, our stress response is involuntary; it just kicks in. And our essential systems, our non-essential systems shut down. Take it back to high school, the whole stress response, right? We know this, but it serves to remind ourselves in this context. Where if we think of a predator jumping out and we hit fight or flight, and that trigger puts our system into this involuntary. Where our heart beats faster and our lungs beat faster in order for us to either fight this thing or get rid of it. At the same time, our non-essential systems shut down. So we don't need our digestion, we don't need reproduction, we don't need our immune system.
We lose our ability to creatively problem-solve, because we don't have time for that in this situation. So all of that can be, once the predator is either gone or you've killed it, it automatically brings us back to homeostasis. So the relaxation response kicks in, but in chronic stress that's not happening. So if we're keeping ourselves in this constant state of chronic stress, then it does impact those non-essential systems that shut down. It does impacts digestion and reproduction and our immune system and our ability to creatively problem solve. So what we want to do there is to insert a relaxation response, in order to bring us back to homeostasis. And the relaxation response is both voluntary and involuntary, so we can actually do that.
And to me, that's what mindfulness practice does. Being able to calm yourself and bring in the relaxation response, to me helps if you actually have a practice. So you are conditioned to do that, as opposed to trying to remember to settle and breathe at a time where you want to insert the relaxation response. Because when we are at chronic stress, it's hard to remember it. So that's why I think a regular practice helps me do that, and I've seen this work with people; it certainly has worked in my life. To insert something that brings me back to recovery, right? So chronic stress is really just that stress with the absence of recovery, and we can actually impact that.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:14] Right. And so often we can keep that chronic stress going by re-remembering some triggering event. So you may have a hearing and the hearing didn't go your way, and rather than let it go and return your body back to homeostasis you just keep repeating the hearing over and over and over again in your head. You keep repeating what the judge said, what the opposing counsel said, and think about how unfair it was. You build up a whole narrative in your own mind, and then that just keeps your body in that elevated stress level.
Donna Branca: [00:16:50] Absolutely. And we talk about how this trigger that might be a predator, this trigger can be a partner standing at your door or a law professor making a demand; it can also be an internal thought. This inner voice that we have can be a real trigger, like you just said. So we're just re-triggering and re-triggering and re-triggering when we are ruminating about that. So I couldn't agree more, I couldn't agree more.
Jeena Cho: [00:17:23] Yeah, and so often our own mind is our worst enemy. I remember when I first started practicing mindfulness, I would sit to meditate (and I'd actually be curious to hear your thoughts on this) because that's what they tell you to do. Like okay, you want to let go of chronic stress and find these and find relaxations. So I would be sitting there and I'd be meditating, and I found it to be anything but relaxing. And I would just sit there the whole time (10 minutes) and I would have to force myself through it. And I was convinced that it was actually making me more anxious, that I couldn't find relaxation and ease.
[00:18:03] So, have you noticed that in your own practice? And what do you say to the beginning meditators that's like no, when I sit down to meditate I actually notice more anxiety and more stress?
Donna Branca: [00:18:21] Oh absolutely. I think it's a bit of a misnomer and it's unfortunate that people come into this believing that they can clear their minds, or that that's the goal. And to some extent, the opposite is true. That might be a lovely byproduct at some point of your practice, but that's not the goal. And what I tell people and what resonates with me, is what you're really doing is you're being completely with what is. And that includes your thoughts. And if you can sit and be with them, without adding more thought and just looking at them, knowing that they exist; the trick is not to add more thought.
[00:19:02] And what I tell people is whatever you've decided the focus of your meditation, whether it's breathing, whether it's parts of the body, whether it's something else, that the practice is in when you've seen your mind go off. And then you say okay, not judgmentally, and you bring it back. It's in the bringing it back that's the bicep curl; it's not trying to clear your mind, it's noticing where it went and being a choice to bring it back. And it's making that choice that is building the muscle that's going to allow us to make that choice when we're really in the midst of something else.
Jeena Cho: [00:19:45] Yeah, that's so true.
Donna Branca: [00:19:46] There was one metaphor that my teacher used that resonated for me, which was: we can either be in the river and getting banged around by the rocks and the currents and the everything, and if we can get to the side and climb out.. we might be beaten up and wet, but we can look at the river. To me that's what we're doing when we're practicing. It's all still there, but we're seeing it with some clarity and we're just not getting re-attached to it. And to me it's just this slight separation. But at the end of the meditation, you can meditate for ten minutes and get up and say oh my gosh, I only remember one breathe. But to me, that's still.. they say (and I believe this) your meditation practice can't suck, if you just set the intention and you sit and you set the intention.
[00:20:54] If you only get three conscious breaths, its still doing the work it needs to do. And not every practice is going to be like that, most aren't going to be like. But you have to be with the ones that are in order to really gain some confidence that that's true.
Jeena Cho: [00:21:15] Yeah I always find it to be so interesting, often I'll have lawyers come up to me after a talk and they'll say, "You know I tried meditation once, and it just didn't work." And I'll say, well what does that mean it didn't work? And they'll literally say something like, well I downloaded one of those apps and I sat down and I did a meditation, and it just wasn't calming; I found it to be very stressful. And it's like, well if you buy a gym membership and you went once and afterward you're sore and you didn't have the perfect body (whatever you were expecting from going to the gym), you wouldn't say well that didn't work. It's a journey, it's a practice; it's a life-long practice.
Donna Branca: [00:21:57] It is. And I think when we got started, we did do the eight-week program and the homework that we were supposed to do; the 45 minutes of meditation every day. And the science is now telling us that that's not necessary, and that it's more important to be consistent every day, rather than long sits now and then. And I don't know if you agree with that, but that's what I understand to be the case. But I do feel like I needed that; I needed that to jumpstart what I saw to be so true by the end of the eight weeks.
I think that had I not done that, I would have been one of those people that I said yeah, I did the Headspace thing once and it didn't work. So that's for me. I also meet people that that's not true for; I meet people who are very self-taught. But again, it's usually someone who can be with how yucky it can be sometimes to sit, and still do it every day and set the intention. Whether it's five minutes, whether its 20 minutes, but I have met plenty of people who are self-taught that way. But it is a bit of a discipline, in my mind.
Jeena Cho: [00:23:30] Yeah, and it's such an interesting practice because it's almost like just showing up and doing the work, showing up and meditating; that's all there is to it. And letting go of how good it was, how bad it was, how often your thoughts drifted off. And I think that's so hard especially for lawyers, because we are such perfectionists and we want to do things perfectly, and we want to do things correctly. And I think it's very distressing when you sit down and you have some expectation about how it should go, and you very quickly learn your mind is like a tornado. It's really distressing, and I think it's just sitting in the midst of that distress and saying, well I'm just going to be with that. And it took me a long time, to get out of that judging mode. And I think having an eight-week class, where I would go back every week and say, you know I'm still sucking at this. And the teacher would smile and say, "Yeah? Keep doing it.”
[00:24:31] And then after a while it wasn't so distressing that I was sucking at it, it was just like okay I'm just going to do it and not worry about whether it's good or bad. And that's such an important life lesson too, because so often we do something and we have no control over the outcome. You go and argue a hearing, and you don't get to control whether you win or lose. So really the only thing that you can put your effort into is showing up and doing the thing, you know? And I think that's what meditation teaches you, to just show up and do the thing and let go of that attachment to having a certain outcome.
Donna Branca: [00:25:12] Absolutely, absolutely. And I do, as far as teaching this to lawyers or working with lawyers or how this might be a tool for lawyers in particular, I feel really, really committed to that, as I know you are. With law students, I'll just give you a quick story.. I was asked by a law school to do a presentation to a group of students and professors. There was a professor who was trying to get a mindfulness curriculum in the school, and she had asked me to come. And she had told me that she was really trying to draw professors to it, because that's the buy-in she really needed.
And so I said I'd be happy to bring my husband (who is a judge) because although not a meditator, he had gone to a meditation retreat for me. Because I had been asked to do lots of work at that point with various firms and whatnot, and I asked him to go to this retreat for lawyers, judges, and law professors. And he was really resistant, but I really wanted to send in a skeptic with zero experience and allow it to inform my work. Because there is such a high level of skepticism among lawyers; it's what makes you so good at what you do. It makes you so valuable to your clients, to get them out of their own way. But when he came back, he was absolutely certain that it would have a huge impact on lawyers.
[00:26:59] And from his literal perspective from the bench, watching lawyers who are so often either thinking about the next thing they're going to say or what just happened and how they can strategize, as opposed to listening to the witness and the nuances, or being really present with the jurors. He went back and it was somewhat of an experimental laboratory for him to watch this happen, and he was absolutely convinced. So he came to this program with me, as well as another judge who was self-taught, who heads up the drug court. And he uses it both for himself as well as to introduce it to the people who are in his drug court. He's a huge advocate of it, but he also believes that law students can often self-medicate and otherwise, to try to get through the stress. And he really asked them to look at this as a potential tool. And it was really powerful, the professors did come. As I thought they might, having a couple judges show up as opposed to just me. And it was really impactful, really impactful.
[00:28:29] And I'm proud and happy to say that the professor did get her curriculum approved. And then subsequently, I was asked to be a guest speaker at one of her classes. And it was remarkable to see the curriculum and how rich it is. My piece was on mindful leadership, which for law students to be hearing this and learning it and experiencing it first-hand, really powerful. And it was so clear that this was such an important class for these students and such growth in it, that I believe every law school should have a curriculum of mindfulness. You know, the resilience that it takes to be a lawyer, the resilience that takes to be in big law or small law.
It's every day you need to be resilient. You practice, you work, and you're at odds with someone all day. And the resilience that a lawyer needs is really critical. And I believe this is such an important tool to allowing them to look at things from a growth perspective; if they can shift and remove themselves from the turmoil of what's going on in a current moment and have a mindful response makes a huge difference.
Jeena Cho: [00:29:59] Yeah. I Had a conversation with a judge, and he has a deep mindfulness practice. And one thing he told me that I thought was so heartwarming was it helps him to remember and to see (he also does criminal law) that every defendant that comes through his court is an individual, and to see that person as a human being with the full scope of human experiences. And that he's more than the sum of the crime that he committed, which led him to be in this courtroom. And I just thought, what if every lawyer can bring that level of thoughtfulness to everything that they do? Because I think we can get into this way in which we try to do things in bulk, because we're so overwhelmed and we lose that humanity.
Donna Branca: [00:30:59] So true. When we talk about criminal law, it makes me think about the mindfulness programs that are going on in prisons and in police departments. And how that ability to learn how to insert a pause before you react, both as a criminal or as a cop.. the world would be a bit different, if we could just insert that pause. It would have a huge impact. So there's a lot of good things.
Jeena Cho: [00:31:40] Sometimes when I talk to lawyers and talk about mindfulness, they'll say well that all sounds good, but I'm afraid that it's going to make me less effective; I'm going to lose my edge, or it's going to make me go soft. And I sort of like this aggression that I have all the time. And I think they're afraid of getting in touch with their own emotions, getting in touch with their own experience. And even just that pausing, I think is really frightening for a lot of people. Even just the idea of sitting quietly with your own mind. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on that.
Donna Branca: [00:32:23] I have, I do. It comes up in coaching, and it also is true of not wanting to come into coaching necessarily. Because they don't want to get in touch with this. I don't know if you'd call me "type A", but I am best when I am working like crazy. And so I'm more of that acute stress person, or maybe used to be chronic and now has learned acute, and it makes me so much sharper. And I have talked to many partners and associates and judges who have heard that, who have a practice but have heard that, and say they know that they are a better lawyer and are less stressed. They know when they are in a conference room with adversaries, that they can just look at how getting worked up is having people not be clear and not be as focused.
So the lawyers that I talk to who have a practice absolutely say it makes them a better lawyer, and there is nothing about it that has made them lose their edge; it has sharpened their edges. And when we talk about the fight or flight, if our ability to creatively problem solve actually shuts down when we're in that state, then we aren't; then we aren't at our best and we are not focused. And we are not as resilient or as mindful or as present. There's not a lawyer that I know that got soft as a result of a mindfulness practice, there just isn't.
[00:34:23] Again, it's tapping into this sixth sense that we forgot we had. Right? Like there's this backpack that is full of tools on our back that we've been carrying around we forgot, that's how I see it. And I really do see it as making people sharper, better lawyers, and better leaders. I do, I do hear that. I think that goes along with the higher level of skepticism. You know Larry Richard's work, where he found that lawyers do have a higher level of skepticism and we've talked about that. So I think there's a resistance, but I would encourage people to try it.
It gives more space, not less space. We also talk about they don't have the time or what I talk about is that concept of managing your energy versus managing your time; that if you learn how to manage your energy, you will get more time. That seems to resonate with people. And a mindfulness practice (or whatever practice is important to you) that is going to help you sharpen your ax is really about managing your energy and refining how you utilize your energy, rather than being a prisoner to time.
Jeena Cho: [00:36:00] And both of those things, time and energy, have their limits. In terms of how much energy and how much time you can exert on any given day.
Donna Branca: [00:36:14] I'd agree but for the fact that energy is renewable, time is not. So what do we need to do to renew our energy? Because you're right, it's limited. If we keep our foot on the gas pedal we'll run out of gas. So what do we need to do to renew it? Sleep helps, mindfulness helps, running helps, exercise helps.
Jeena Cho: [00:36:46] It's all the basics: eating well, getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, having connections with others. All of those things I think we all know to do, but somehow it's not a priority or it ends up on the bottom of our to-do list and then it doesn't get done.
[00:37:11] Donna, one question for you before we wrap things up. The name of this podcast is called The Resilient Lawyer. What does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
Donna Branca: [00:37:24] It means more than just bouncing back and being able to bounce back from adversity, but bouncing back better. It means when these things happen (and they do often happen, on a daily basis), things don't go the way you need them to go, you went into a courtroom and the judge is in a mood or something doesn't go your way, and it's going to happen every day. And how can you grow from that, what have you learned from that, and how does that make you a better lawyer tomorrow? I'd say that’s what being a resilient lawyer means to me. When we look at the lawyers that we admire most, there is resilience there; they have learned a whole lot along the way.
[00:38:27] It reminds me, if I can just throw in this last joke, where someone asks this CEO what made him so successful and he said really good decisions. And when he was asked what enabled him to make really good decisions, he said experience. And then he was asked, how do you get that experience? He said, bad decisions. So to me, that's resilience. Right? Learning from all of the stuff that goes wrong, and figuring out what that might look like and how that might have changed us and shifted things going forward. That's a resilient lawyer.
Jeena Cho: [00:39:14] Thank you so much for being with me today Donna, I really appreciate it.
Donna Branca: [00:39:18] Oh it is such a pleasure, it really is. And thank you for your work.
Closing: [00:39:25] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you've enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It's really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we'd love to hear from you. E-mail us at email@example.com. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.