The Mindful Mediatortm

Embracing The Uncertainty of Conflict


The Mindful Impasse 

“Moving Mountains with the Breath”

“Moving Mountains with the Breath” is a metaphor for the ways in which mindfulness practices can enhance your skills at negotiation, mediation, and other forms of dispute resolution – areas where you may find yourself bumping up against seemingly immovable objects.  We all know what it is like when something shifts, the recalcitrant business person, angry partner, or disengaged litigant (or we, ourselves) become engaged, and the process is transformed.  Here we are interested in cultivating the insight and skills to encourage and facilitate those shifts.

Mindfulness and the Mountain -- The Breath and the Breeze

Mindful awareness is awareness of what is taking place in the moment.  The mind very readily moves into past and future and when it does we can experience a range of agitated emotions and challenging thoughts – doubts and regrets of the past and worry and angst about the future.  When the mind is absorbed in past and future, it is difficult to marshal our expertise, instincts, and intuition.  This is because we are caught in mental activity that either has us distracted or is filtering the raw experience before us.

You probably know this state from your own experience and you surely have recognized it in others.  The power of its grip on clarity and well-being is so strong that it turns even nimble and flexible people into rigid, mountains of stone that don’t budge, even when a wise and desirable idea or concept is presented to them.

When a person becomes trapped in past and future their breathing changes.  This happens in mediations and negotiations when, for example, someone can’t get past a personal attack or event that “isn’t fair.”  It can also materialize when one is overly anxious about what they fear the future may hold.  Breathing becomes shallow – caught in the upper chest.  The belly becomes rigid.  It is as if the body is readying for a fight, and indeed the flight or fight response of the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. 

Research suggests also that when one person moves into an agitated state – others will follow.  You know what it’s like to be in a group of people that feels edgy or has a somber mood.  At the same time, when someone rises up out of the reactivity, it can change those in their midst.

Mindfulness is catching the mind and body when it becomes reactive and doing something about it.  That something often involves awareness of the breath and learning to watch the agitated mind, without getting sucked into its drama. 

Spirituality and Mea Culpa

I recently adapted this material for a one-hour teleseminar presentation I gave to the spirituality section of the Association for Conflict Resolution.  It afforded the opportunity to delve a little more deeply into some interesting spiritual material that I include here. 

While Jurisight terms derive from the law, and many legal terms derive from Latin, interestingly “Mea Culpa” is less a legal term than a spiritual one.  As it turns out, the  phase – which means “my fault,” is prominent in Catholic theology and, of course, popular in the mass culture, but Black’s Law Dictionary doesn’t include it.  Perhaps it is because the phrase is rarely uttered in legal contexts.  

The dearth of Mea Culpas is a reminder of the ease with which people point the finger at everyone else and how this blame game interferes with productive movement in a mediation or negotiation.  We want someone else to take responsibility – to announce Mea Culpa – while we are willing to offer very little of it ourselves.  Of course, removing issues of blame from the conversation can go a long way.  And so Jurisight with a spiritual twist transforms Mea Culpa to Maha Kalpa, a Buddhist term that signifies the longest time unit.  Consider the following powerful image where breath meets mountain:

Every one hundred years a breeze blows across a large mountain, slightly diminishing the mountain. The passage of a single Kalpa takes place when that mountain is completely eroded owing to the movement of the wind. This image is also a reminder that everything changes, and that even something as seemingly slight and insignificant as a breeze can transform a mountain.  It is also a reminder of the value of patience.


If you look at the outer bark of the brain – known as the cortex – you will see a series of raised areas (gyri) and depressions (sulci), resembling a vast landscape of mountains and valleys.  In 2005 Harvard researcher Sarah Lazar looked at how the landscape of the brain might be influenced by mindfulness meditation.  Her research and a growing number of studies are pointing to the changes to the structure and function of the brain associated with mindfulness practice – which most commonly takes the form of breath awareness.  So, just as “out there” a breeze sculpts a mountain, so too, “in here” the breath sculpts the brain.  We are learning that this change – termed “neuroplasticity” takes place all the time in response to our experience.  And we find neuroplasticity taking place in the form of change in the synaptic connections between and among neurons, termed synaptogenesis, and even in the growth of new neurons, termed neurogenesis.

If you are familiar with mindfulness practices, remind yourself of the power (and choice) you have to change your brain and rewire it to more optimally respond to life’s challenging moments.  If mindfulness is new to you, explore the website or any of the other websites on the Internet that you may find, and books or audio recordings you may come across to learn more about mindfulness practices.


Listen to this stanza from one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs.  He asks:

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it is washed to the sea?

Yes and how many times can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes and how many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

With the song’s popular refrain, Dylan offers us this remedy:

The answer my friend

Is blowing in the wind

The answer is

Blowing in the wind

Again, with imagery of mountains and the breeze, Dylan reminds us that the answer to much of what we want to bring about in our lives is found “blowing in the wind.”  The mindfulness lesson, the cue, is to “blow in the wind,” that is to bring awareness to your next breath --  inhalation and exhalation.  For when we do, we become free of the trappings of our conditioned mind and we begin to see what is actually taking place in the present moment.

Application of Mindfulness to Mediation and Negotiation

In his important article, “Further Beyond Reason: Emotions, the Core Concerns, and Mindfulness in Negotiation,” law professor Len Riskin applies mindfulness practices to a specific approach to negotiation, pointing out how it can be helpful to negotiators and mediators in doing their work more effectively.  He notes how often we can be expert at our craft but that when things heat up, we so easily jettison our expertise and fall back on old ways.

Riskin applies mindfulness to the “Core Concerns” approach established by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro in their book “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.”  I encourage you to read Riskin’s article because it both provides an excellent overview of mindfulness and demonstrates how to apply it to a specific method of dispute resolution.   

From Worrier to Warrior

A final image we will consider is that of a simple mountain, stretching across a landscape with the arc of a rainbow.  The image appears below.

This image is derived from the famous “Inverted U” graph of the relationship between stress and performance and, as it appears and is described here, forms the heart of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies’ , Worrier to Warrior program.

As you can see, a person’s performance is highest when stress is in a middle zone – not too low and not too high. We call this “Warrior Mind.”  But, as stress falls off, we lose focus, tire, our performance drops and we evidence “Weak and Weary Mind.”  On the other hand, when stress becomes too great, our performance similarly declines and we can become anxious as we move into  “Worrier Mind.”

Throughout the day we continually move along this curve.  When we don’t pay attention, there is not much we can do but be tossed about – feeling tired, feeling great, feeling anxious, all in a curious mix of experience.  But when we pay attention, we can do something about it.  As we catch ourselves sliding down the curve in either direction, we can engage the breath in a variety of ways to bring us back to a more optimal state.

Some Helpful Examples and Tips for Using the Breath to Scale the Mountain

From Weak and Weary to Warrior

When you become aware that you are feeling “Weak and Weary” you can employ the breath in a variety of ways, including: exercise, naps and sleep, visualization and breathing exercises, and yawning.  As a reminder, think “Bear Awareness” as when you are surprised by a bear and you instantly snap to, quickly ascending to the top of the curve – the mountain – better equipped to escape the threat.  Most times, however, there are no (real) bears in our midst and so we must deliberately make this shift. 

You already know the value of exercise, and sleep (and, for that matter, of water and nutrition), but it can be difficult to muster the energy to do something productive during these times by virtue of feeling weak and weary in the first place.  So pay special attention and be inspired by the research, especially as it relates to brain health and activity, which you may, like me, find fascinating and convincing.

We tend to become quite aware of our breath when we exercise, and the research is persuasive that even 10 to15 minutes of exercise will enhance both general health and improve cognitive performance and learning.  As we nap and sleep, our breathing resumes a more natural ebb and flow, as it changes in relation to the different sleep stages.  Sleep has been found to improve not just mood, but to repair the body and play crucial roles in the formation of memories and consolidation of recently learned new material. 

You may recall that I mentioned the “yawn” a few moments ago.  Research on the benefits of yawning offers some interesting insights. Studies indicate that yawning not only will bring you into a heightened state of cognitive awareness and improve mood, but it activates an area of the brain called the precuneus, a tiny structure involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy.  Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that deliberate yawning may enhance effective communication skills.

You may be familiar with the influence of coffee and other stimulants in lifting you up the curve from Weak and Wearier to Warrior.  But there can be negative effects to these beverages and chemicals, where for example, if your intake isn’t quite right, they can push you too far over the curve – as when you begin to feel jittery.  So remember exercise, sleep and yawning the next time you find yourself sliding back to the base of the mountain.

You can also use the breath to climb up the mountain by bringing awareness to your breathing and then imagining working on an upcoming project or participating in a meeting you have scheduled for later in the day or week .  By moving your mind in this direction, you activate portions of your brain not far removed from those that will actually come into play.  You will also activate your amygdala and begin to feel some of the stress connected with those events, releasing a little of the stress hormone cortisol – perhaps the sensation you may want to avoid in the first place –and moving you up the mountain slope.

From Worrier to Warrior

When you find yourself on the other side of the mountain – when you become anxious or worried, it is time to employ Bare Awareness.  This involves cultivating a mindfulness state by expanding awareness to engage the senses.  We are always seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching – but often in an automatic manner.  But we can also, however, deliberately engage these senses, opening to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches in our midst.  Imagine, for example, walking along a mountain trail.  You reach out to touch a branch or a mountain wall.  You smell the fresh air.  You listen to the sound of wind rustling the leaves and of birds chirping.  You observe a beautiful vista in the distance.  Often this real-life experience can do a lot for a worried mind – allowing you to attend to what’s actually needed in the moment and not getting caught up in thoughts of a future that may never happen and need not absorb your attention. Mindfulness reminds you that wherever you are you can open to your senses.  You can do it right now – in your office, at home, at a coffee shop.  Take a few breaths with awareness that you are breathing.  Soften your gaze, relax your shoulders, and explore with your senses the landscape surrounding you.  As you do, especially during times of challenge, you will find that the breath and your awareness lift you off of the downward slope of the curve and move you back toward the top of the mountain.


Mindfulness practices can be helpful as you navigate through life’s many challenges and opportunities.  The more you practice, the more you change.  While you may think you need to sit and meditate for 30 or 40 minutes, consider the rule of short and frequent.  Each moment offers you the opportunity to come to your senses.  Use your breath as the vehicle for doing so and you will find yourself relating more easily to difficult and challenging moments.  Listen to mindfulness tapes, watch videos, and read books and articles to enhance your understanding of mindfulness practices.  But, most important, place those teaching tools in a mountain cave, stand up, take a walk, breathe the air, look out over the vista of your life, and smile.   

The above contains copyrighted excerpts from the IMS Florida CLE program “Moving Mountains with the Breath” from presentations given at the International Alliance of Municipal Lawyer’s annual conference in Miami Florida on October 22, 2010, and via teleconference to the Spirituality Section of the ACR on May 11, 2010.