A Practice Story: Irritation

Submitted by a Zen student who is an attorney

During a trial, before starting a cross examination of a witness, I talk with the attorney assisting me, in order to get his or her thoughts and any background details that I should know. I make it a point to have this discussion prior to the cross examination in order to avoid interruptions. I find interruptions to be very distracting. They cause me to lose my train of thought and I am more likely to miss something important. Interruptions make me irritable; I have been known to snap angrily at associates who interrupt me during a cross examination.

In April of 1999, I was trying a case and had an associate assisting me as the second chair. She was a new, younger attorney who I had not worked with before. When I was in the middle of a rather complex cross examination of a key witness – requiring me to be quite focused – she began to nudge me and pass me notes. Most of the notes contained information that I had already planned to cover later.

As usual, irritation started to arise, but this time, something very interesting happened. It was almost as if I separated from myself and was able to observe this feeling of irritation arise inside me in a very abstract way. I remember thinking, “Isn’t this interesting, I’m getting irritated. I know this feeling. So this is what it looks and feels like.” I had the sensation that I was closely inspecting the feeling from the vantage point of an observer. I wasn’t bothered by it emotionally. I didn’t take it personally, like I usually did. I was then able to let go of the feeling, smile at the associate, and graciously take her notes, all without missing a beat in the cross examination. Though the events occurred in less than a second, it seemed timeless, or at least much longer than the time it actually took for all of it to happen.

I am certain that my capacity to remain poised and unruffled in this situation resulted from sitting in meditation both morning and evening during the period of the trial, as well as from taking a few minutes during each courtroom break to sit quietly and let my mind follow my breath.