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Practical and actionable information you can use to be a better lawyer.

The Resilient Lawyer podcast is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage. Each week, we share tools and strategies for finding more balance, joy, and satisfaction in your professional and personal life!

You'll meet lawyers, entrepreneurs, mentors and teachers successfully bridging the gap between their personal and professional lives, connecting the dots between their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves.

This podcast is about ordinary people making an extraordinary difference.

Dec 20, 2017

In this episode, I am excited to have Karen Gifford on to speak on heartfullness; its definition, its application, and its benefit. Karen Gifford is COO of Ripple Labs, global leader on distributed financial technology. Previously, she worked in the financial industry, first as an attorney in the private sector and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where she was Counsel and Officer in the Litigation and Enforcement Group. Alongside her legal and consulting career, Karen began meditating in a yoga tradition more than fifteen years ago, initially as a means of coping with the stress of her legal practice. Her executive coaching work incorporates meditation and mindfulness practices, placing a strong focus on the importance of inner skills such as detachment and resilience for effective leadership. She also teaches meditation, with an emphasis on bringing the insights of meditation into everyday life. Karen is active in the start-up world as a founder, investor and advisor. She holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and an A.B. from Vassar College.

Topics Covered

  • Karen defines the term "heartfullness" and the many ideas and attributes that make up this emotion and act, as well as its role in the legal profession.
  • Breaking down the barriers and stigmas that come with heartfullness and awareness to ones emotional state.
  • How one cultivates this quality of heartfullness and the many ways of reaching a sense of being heart-centered.
  • The similarities and differences of heartfullness and gratitude.


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Karen Gifford: [00:00:02] There is something about the courage it takes to go and you know fight boldly and the courage it takes to be with yourself.

Intro: [00:00:15] 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: [00:00:34] This is The Resilient Lawyer podcast. Meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and agents of change. The Resilient Lawyer is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage. This podcast is about ordinary people making an extraordinary difference. This is episode 39. I am your host, Jeena Cho. On this episode, I have Karen Gifford and we are going to chat about heartfullness and gratitude.

Karen Gifford: [00:01:03] That's great, thanks Jeena. These conversations are really just terrific.

Jeena Cho: [00:01:12] And it's so funny because I've been saying I want to have you on my podcast for, I don't know, the past two years.

Karen Gifford: [00:01:18] Something like that, and I've been saying, oh that's a great idea. I'd love to do that. So at least we're doing it now.

Jeena Cho: [00:01:25] Yeah. So heartfullness, what does that mean?

Karen Gifford: [00:01:29] Heartfullness is a term that I think I made up to capture a whole group of qualities. So I would say courage, boldness, generosity, kindness, compassion; all are qualities that come from the heart. And we don't necessarily think of them as connected, but you know they are. And my own experience in legal practice is that legal practice brings those all out; and legal practice also tends to attract people who are heartful people, who have that constellation of qualities can right up front.

Jeena Cho: [00:02:15] Yeah I think when we talk about the heart, especially as legal professionals, we're like oh no the heart, that's messy. And you know law practice is supposed to be very sort of clinical, and we don't want to involve the heart. So how do those sort of qualities, which all feel very messy and difficult, play into our legal role as lawyers?

Karen Gifford: [00:02:45] Well you know, I think this is one of the un-admitted aspects of the legal profession, right? Is that one of the things that we don't think about is that it's a service profession.

Jeena Cho: [00:02:57] Yeah.

Karen Gifford: [00:02:58] And the people who are drawn to it, whether consciously or not, there's something that really speaks to them about representing a client and helping that person; being of service. Those kinds of people are the people who are heart-forward people.

[00:03:17] Yes we're also we also tend to be brainy. And that feels safe to talk about. We don't necessarily feel safe talking about the fact that we're also a very committed, warm group of people. And yet, get a bunch of lawyers together and it tends to be a pretty warm crowd. People talk a lot, there's a lot of joking. A lot of war stories are told; we're great storytellers. All of that should give you a hint that it's about more than just intellecting our way through our practice.

Jeena Cho: [00:03:55] Yeah. I don't know about you, but I always found that lawyers are in many ways very afraid of their own emotional world. So how is that connected to this idea of heartfullness, and how do we start to make space for it. You know, for our own emotional world and that sort of heartfullness quality?

Karen Gifford: [00:04:26] Well this is where meditation can really be very, very useful, right? One of the nice things about having a meditation practice is after a while you start to know yourself better. And a lot of things that seemed really scary or uncomfortable, you realize they're not actually that big a deal. It's not that big a deal to be a warm-hearted person. It's not that big a deal to admit you have feelings of kindness, that you feel protective towards your client, that you want to do a good job. Right? All of that stuff is less threatening viewed with some spaciousness. So for myself, meditation was really, really key in acknowledging that. And I think it's useful for most lawyers.

Jeena Cho: [00:05:19] Do you think a lot of this comes from sort of you know, these sort of ideas about what lawyers are supposed to act like, the thoughts lawyers should have and feel? And I think the legal profession has been very masculine for forever really. I don't know, because to me it's like a lot of these qualities that we're talking about has feminine traits.

[00:05:46] And I don't mean that in a gender sense, but sort of being more in-tune with your emotions, or even like thinking about the heart. Even though I think the heart can have this fierce quality to it. But it does have this sort of feminine overtone. And I don't know, to me it feels new and I don't know, just being a lawyer and making room. I mean I think it makes us better lawyers when we're sort of bringing our whole selves into the picture and our law practice.

Karen Gifford: [00:06:24] Sure, absolutely. What you're pointing out isn't something that I have thought about a lot but I think it's true. I mean it's obviously true, that women tend to be more comfortable acknowledging their emotional sides than men. And that's you know, nature or nurture. It's the case in our society today. And I agree with you, it's to the good. It's really to the good. It's probably a way in which our profession is changing; that's great.

[00:06:52] When I started practicing law, especially I was doing commercial and financial litigation, it was so masculine. I don't think I even really thought about that so much. I did see the logic and reason versus heart side to legal profession, but I wasn't thinking about masculine versus feminine. But it's an aspect in acknowledging what's there, but I think heartfullness is something I think of as a very balanced energy. You know, I think we talk about this a little bit in the book, but there's a lot of warrior traditions that are also meditation traditions. And it's not necessarily from the intellectual side of meditation, right? So the Zen monks who had this great meditation practice and fearlessness were super inspiring to the samurai warriors who encountered them, and then those traditions kind of melded with each other.

[00:07:50] But the sort of fierceness of the samurai got blended into the discipline of the Zen tradition, and I don't think that's an accident. I think that there is something about the courage it takes to go and you know, fight boldly. And the courage it takes to be with yourself; there is a very clear analogy between the two stances. So that's a very masculine example, but there's plenty of examples of the feminine side of heartfullness. We were talking last time about compassion practice, and that could be seen as a very feminine flavor of heartfullness.

Jeena Cho: [00:08:40] Yeah. Yeah and I guess when I was talking about it in the legal profession, that I feel like we never really had a balance in terms of these two qualities. And I think now we're just trying to figure out at this point what does that even look like, to bring qualities like heartfullness and compassion into the legal practice. And also, I feel like those qualities are needed for me to practice law in a way that feels whole, where I feel like I can bring all of myself into the law practice. I mean if I had to walk into every client meeting very detached and clinical, I feel like I would lose something in the relationship with my client.

Karen Gifford: [00:09:25] Yeah, yeah, I completely agree. I also think, we were talking much earlier about the loss of professionalism in legal practice; I believe that being connected with your heart is a really good grounding strategy, that helps you stay professional even in very contentious situations. Right? There's just a dividing line between when it gets personal and not constructive. And when you are defending something that's worth defending or fighting for something that's right.

[00:10:05] And of course there's edge cases always, right? And different people might come out differently on very specific things. But overall I know when I keep that in mind, I don't practice law anymore but I still get into contentious negotiations or whatever, when I keep that in mind I can be very strong without crossing the line into behavior that I don't want to have.

Jeena Cho: [00:10:35] And I think a lot of that comes down to sort of the intent. Like am I acting in this really aggressive way because I'm feeling spiteful? Why am I acting in this really aggressive way? And I think you can act in a very aggressive way but come from a very heart-centered place. Where it's like, okay I have to act this way because it's in the best interest of my client. And I'm able to sort of see that being aggressive in this circumstance makes sense, but I'm not coming from this place of negativity and hostility.

Karen Gifford: [00:11:13] Right, and being able to see the whole picture, right? Like I think of it sometimes as like the "mama bear perspective." Like a mama bear is very fierce, but if she burned down the whole forest there wouldn't be anything for what she's trying to protect or whatever. Going beyond what the situation calls for or what's right in the larger context is something you can avoid if you have the spaciousness to remember that there is a bigger picture, and that you're part of that picture.

Jeena Cho: [00:11:55] You remember like a long time ago, I was really struggling with how do I stay in litigation and do the work that I'm doing without just completely abandoning myself. And we've had many lengthy conversations about the Bhagavad Gita and that whole story about.. and I think that's a story at its essence about heartfullness, right?

Karen Gifford: [00:12:21] I see it that way, so the Bhagavad Gita is one of the core myths of the yoga tradition and the Hindu religion. And just super briefly, the context for it is there's these two sides of the family and to oversimplify, you could say there were the bad cousins, the mean cousins, and then there were these five brothers who were the good cousins. And that is an oversimplification, but they have all these conflicts and they finally can't work them out and they're going to go to battle and one of the brothers are Arjuna is getting ready. He's like the strongest warrior of the brothers, and he's in his chariot, he's getting ready to go fight.

[00:13:14] And he goes to look across the battlefield, and he looks across the battlefield and he sees his cousins and his uncles and his teachers, and he's just bereft. He thinks I cannot do this; I cannot fight this fight. And Krishna is his charioteer, and he and Krishna have this conversation about how do you have this fight. And that's the Bhagavad Gita, is their conversation about you know, what stance do you take when you think the battle is impossible? And there's many, many different answers that they discuss over the course of this conversation. And it is a parable because no one in the yoga tradition would say you should actually commit violence against your relatives or anyone else. But it's a very dramatic way of framing a situation when you're called to do something that just feels too hard. And how do you face that situation with strength and determination, but also without losing yourself; without becoming the kind of person that would kill your cousins? I've always really drawn a lot of inspiration from that story and you know, there's so many different answers to the question of how do you face that battle. But one of the many is that you can just go, you're in this situation not of your own making. And you need to face it with integrity, right. And if Arjuna in the story, if he had walked away and said like, okay I'm not going to fight my cousins. It's not like there would have been peace in the land.

[00:15:08] There would have been like, you know the wrong people would have triumphed, his relatives would have been killed, nothing good would have come of him walking away, so he had to fight. So it's that feeling of how do I engage with integrity, without getting caught up in the negativity of what the situation is also presenting?

Jeena Cho: [00:15:28] Yeah, yeah, which so often is a situation we're faced with as lawyers. We can recuse ourselves from the case, but that doesn't mean the battle is going to stop.

Karen Gifford: [00:15:40] Right, or our client will be okay.

Jeena Cho: [00:15:46] And we're sort of forced to become these hired warriors or worriers that fight on behalf of our clients. And how do you do that with your integrity intact and not completely lose yourself? In what can you know often be sort of dirty, is that the right word? Not so pleasant, yeah.

Karen Gifford: [00:16:15] And another thing I love about that story is, Arjuna is not dehumanized. He's looking at the situation, he's like it would be better to die here right now today than have to fight the fight that I'm fighting. He's very, very human and he's not asking, how do I win this war? He's asking, how I go into battle? And I just think that's a great framing of the question, that we are part of the picture as lawyers. We are human beings in a situation. We're not tools, we're not inhuman beings. And to your point earlier about logic and reason versus the heart. I think that is where the heart comes in, is recognizing the human sides of ourselves. That we're not just computers fighting these fights. We are human beings, and there will be implications for ourselves and how we think about ourselves, based on how we act when in challenging situations.

Jeena Cho: [00:17:29] And I think to your point or in the story, not going in and saying okay how do I win this battle? And I think the outcome is oftentimes not really up to us, like we only have control over so much. And how do we do the best that we can, given the set of circumstances that are completely beyond our control? And what does that look like?

Karen Gifford: [00:17:54] Yeah, no thank you for raising that. That is another super important aspect of this story, but also aspect of what we deal with when we practice law. I always say, lawyers are so crazy because we're all a bunch of control freaks stuck in situations we can't control at all. And it is very crazy-making, if the only thing that you're focused on is the outcome. Right? Which, just realistically, we all want the best possible outcome for our clients.

[00:18:27] And that's absolutely true, and that's probably the one thing we can't guarantee. Judges get arbitrary, witnesses say things we weren't expecting, clients decide that they want to settle cases on terms that we don't even agree with or they do goofball things that we weren't expecting. So we are just not in control of the outcome. But what we are in control of is our engagement with the situation, and how we are as human beings and how we do our best.

Jeena Cho: [00:19:03] So for lawyers that want to try to cultivate this quality of heartfullness, how do you do it? What's the technique?

Karen Gifford: [00:19:15] There's so many things you can do, that's the good news. One easy thing is, so my own meditation practice is very heart-centered. And a simple heart-centered practice is mantra repetition. There is something about, so mantra repetition is just repeating a word or phrase as the technique that you use to center yourself. And all meditation techniques use one means or another of just kind of centering yourself, helping your mind get quiet.

[00:19:51] But with mantra repetition, there is something about that in and of itself that tends to kind of pull your attention and your focus into your physical heart. And that has repercussions. It also has a tendency, there's something about repeating a word or phrase, I've been told it has to do with the fact that it improves concentration so much; it's called a concentrative practice. It tends to make you feel happy. And that just very naturally pulls you into your heart.

[00:20:37] So your meditation practice can reinforce your heartfullness, doing service. If you're not actively practicing law right now, which you know can be you can just recognize the service component of what you're doing already. You can also do volunteer work, engage with people that way. That can connect you with your heartful side. Things like we were talking about in the last podcast, about doing compassion practice, brings you into your heart. All those things, and there's many more that can just bring out the kind of sweet side of life.

Jeena Cho: [00:21:26] How does heartfullness tie into or connect with the practice of gratitude?

Karen Gifford: [00:21:33] Well, gratitude is a great practice that engages the heart, right.

Jeena Cho: [00:21:42] If you see it as two separate practices, or do you see gratitude as falling sort of under the umbrella of heartfullness?

Karen Gifford: [00:21:50] I see it as falling under the umbrella of heartfullness. I would say that gratitude, to me is one of many ways to connect to the heart. It's one stance towards the heart that is a very powerful one. If you feel grateful, you're immediately in your heart, right there. Like instantaneously. I had a meditation teacher say being grateful is like giving your heart a bath.

Jeena Cho: [00:22:21] I love that analogy. Beautiful.

Karen Gifford: [00:22:24] Very renewing. Yeah, refreshing.

Jeena Cho: [00:22:27] And sometimes you hear these practices, like write down three things you're grateful for every day. You know, whatever these sort of practices are. And there's sometimes a sense like, oh that's such a simple, almost kindergarten practice, and we want the more advanced stuff. Like where are the more advanced practices. Yeah, like doing those simple (I'm using air quotations right now) practices really make such a huge difference. Even just having a daily meditation practice makes a huge difference.

Karen Gifford: [00:23:04] Absolutely, absolutely. One of the things that we have to get past as lawyers who have made a big effort to get where we are, is that a lot of these practices are deceptively transformative. It doesn't seem like it should have such a big effect to remember three things that we're grateful for every day, but if you really do it and you do it consistently, it has an enormous effect.

Jeena Cho: [00:23:35] Yeah. And I always notice it like, once I've sort of fallen out of the practice for some period of time and then I kind of go back into it. It's like, oh right. Like that's why I was doing this practice, because it does have such a big impact. But I think that deceptiveness of its simplicity can make us feel like, oh I don't know. And I often feel that way about meditation, like I'm going to just sit quietly for five minutes, like what's that going to do? But it does. And, yeah. And also I think for the skeptics out there, try it. Try it for 21 days or a month, for some period of time, and see if it makes a difference in your own life.

Karen Gifford: [00:24:24] Right, right. Absolutely, absolutely. Why do it if it's not working for you? But these are practices that generally do work. Not every single thing will resonate with every single person, but there's so many different great ways to engage the heart and engage with meditation, chances are something is going to resonate.

[00:24:49] One of the reasons why we get baffled by these practices, why they seem too easy, is in our society we act as though we don't need to take care of our minds. We just treat them like are the background, and then we fill them up with every kind of garbage in the world, and then we wonder why we feel bad. And I say this as somebody who's as guilty as anyone else, I can spend all kinds of time doing nonsense social media that makes me feel frustrated and angry, and then I wonder why I feel frustrated and angry afterwards.

[00:25:30] So just taking a little time to attend to the state of our minds can have a big payoff. One of the reasons why that seems surprising is no one ever has told us to do that.

Jeena Cho: [00:25:46] Yeah, and I think sort of having those good mental hygiene, just like any other hygienic practices that we do. I often notice whenever I start slipping into long periods of having insomnia, it's because I've fallen out of those sleep-hygiene practices that I put into place. And I think similarly, when I don't meditate and when I'm not getting enough movement, all those things can kind of make your mind feel like, I don't know if lazy is the right word but like less clarity. Where you just feel like there's this fog..

Karen Gifford: [00:26:28] And I'm more reactive, I'm more crabby. There's no real reason for me to be, it's just that very thing is that if you neglect something, that doesn't work as well. Surprise.

Jeena Cho: [00:26:48] Yeah.

Jeena Cho: [00:26:53] Thank you for tuning into another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you've enjoyed the show, please consider telling a friend. It's really the only way we have to grow the show. Also, why not leave us a review on iTunes? It only takes a minute, and really does help with the visibility and promotion of the show. If you have any questions, e-mail me at, or you can find me on Twitter @Jeena_Cho or @AnxiousLawyer.

Closing: [00:27:21] 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 love to hear from you. E-mail us at Thanks and look forward to seeing you next week.