Uncorking a memory
Imagine you are sitting in a fine dining restaurant. You made reservations to eat there months ago and today is finally the day! You are greeted at your table by the house sommelier. You immediately feel like you are in good hands because this professional is here to guide you. You both take turns listening and asking questions about each other's history. They listen attentively, not evaluating or judging what you share, but with an open curiosity about what you know. More importantly, they are listening for gaps of knowledge or experience that might exist in your mind with respect to wine so that they can create a novel and rich new experience for you. This quality of communication between the sommelier and you is prerequisite for the quality of experience that happens next.
You too are mindfully listening to what they have to say, innately trusting that their history and experience will benefit your experience this evening. You let go of being expert from the day and make space for this stranger to share who they are and what they know. Your mind is wide open. Curious. Receptive. Both parties expert in their respective fields yet strangers in this moment and yield to connecting with one another over the topic of wine. Without effort or explicit agreement, you both are in alignment and eager to share what it is you know and don't know about the wine this establishment has to offer. This is what we call in mindfulness theory the beginner's mind.
The wine is delivered and you push away every other concern in your minds eye (to do list, what’s waiting for you in your inbox, what the kids have on the go, what time you have to get up in the morning) and you are fully present. You appreciate looking at the colour, the clarity and the bouquet of the wine. The sommelier shares how to read the size of the tears or legs that the wine leaves on the sides of the glass. They explain where the grape came from. A history of the year that creates a deeper connection to you and this wine. It's pedigree matters. The more you know about this grape, it's region and the year it was harvested, the richer the wine and the experience begin to feel. You aren't judging the history, you are simply curious and open to hearing about how all of those things related to the upbringing of this grape lead to this moment and bottle. You are both completely present. Paying attention to this wine, in a particular way in this moment without judgment.
It's very likely that you'll appreciate the wine, even if it's not a wine you'll love. Your exchange with the sommelier has you invested in it regardless of how your taste buds react to the wine in the end. The connection to the wine before even tasting it is satisfying enough. A valuable lesson about appreciating something even if you don't like or agree with it. A foundational principal we need to bring to our work in the area of diversity and inclusion.
It's the result of this small but transformative quality in the exchange between you and this stranger and connecting with each other with a beginner's mind. You both brought to the table the intention and motivation to be open to learning about what each other's history and prior life's experience. Connection matters. So too does the quality of mind that we bring to each experience.
Imagine if we could cultivate our experience with people in our lives with the same care and mindful presence that we know we are capable of bringing to the first sip of an unfamiliar wine. It's possible to do so with a mindfulness practice.
The aftertaste, or finish, is a term that refers to the flavours that stay with the mouth after we swallow the wine. It is as much a part of the judging a wine as the taste of the wine in the mouth before we swallow. From a mindfulness perspective, we can maybe consider the finish here to be the experience we leave with having cultivated this connection with another person and the memories that are created in the connection made possible by the frame of mind we bring to the experience. It would be difficult to prove empirically, but surely the experience of connecting and sharing that occurred between you and the sommelier prepared, influenced and transformed the tasting experience of our tongue.
Thinking and concluding is the final step in wine tasting. It includes a reflective practice of considering your experience with the wine. What was memorable? Did the wine taste balanced? What were some of the predominant and subtle characteristics that you were left with? What was unique and memorable about this wine?
Reflective practice about how we move through moments in our lives is an important part of a mindfulness practice as it affords us time to consider our actions in a way that supports moving towards our best self. It requires being open and curious ~ the same way we approached the wine ~ and a gentleness and friendliness to the self.
As lawyers, your brain has been trained exquisitely to be critical. This can habituate our mind to be that way with ourselves which typically only feeds the self-critic and contributes to mental dis-ease. When we can practice thinking reflectively about how we engage with others in our workplace ~ especially those from marginalized and racialized populations, we stand a better chance of appreciating each other.
The lessons we can learn from the guided imagery above is how important it is to show up and be present with the person in front of you. That bringing and sharing your own history and experience matters in cultivating a culture where everyone feels like their story, their history and lessons matter enough to just be heard. The exchange and mindset of the sommelier and you were simply to be open and curious and kind in the exploring what you know and don't know about the other.
We often confuse hearing with listening. Hearing is a passive process for the brain. Listening is active. It requires far more attentional energy and can be the most important act of compassion in hearing and understanding those in our workplaces who do not share the privilege that you and I have likely been afforded in society. Mindful listening is a skill that requires practice and patience. A great way to start is to just become a witness to yourself in conversations over the next few days.
Reflect on some of the following; how long can you stay focused on what a person is actually saying before your mind begins to wonder in the background? Are you quick to jump in and offer advice or can you give the person space to finish? Are you considering your reply before they have finished what they have to say? Are you physically struggling to remain still and quiet while others speak?
Don't be too hard on yourself. We all could be better listeners.
Our brains are super sophisticated and complex organs. We all share the same structures in our cranial vaults. The prefrontal cortex (executive suites of critical thought), amygdala (primitive structures responsible for fear), limbic systems (emotion & memory), hippocampus (long term memory & learning) are all structures we share. Regardless of your race, creed or colour. How each of these get wired together to produce the working mind is as unique as each one of us despite the common building blocks.