Our Fascinations: Zen and the Legal Mind

Issue Date: 
February 17, 2014

ThomasThomas Ross Ross, professor of law in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law, acknowledges that he is an unlikely candidate to practice Zen Buddhism. Following a challenging law-school education, he thrived in high-intensity, high-stress law firms on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.

But, Ross said, “I was disconnected from people I thought I was connected with.” Though he prided himself on his analytical abilities, he said, “I was so busy in my head with these critical thoughts that I wasn’t living my life the way I wanted to.”

Then, nearly a decade ago, a friend introduced Ross to the Tao Te Ching, a classic work of Eastern thought. “I got a little paperback version of it and started carrying it around and reading it,” Ross said.

Pondering the book’s seemingly simple meditations helped him to relax, he recalls.  For instance, he remembers a stressful afternoon at an airport when memorizing passages of the Tao transported him. “I just became engaged in that and everything fell away and I felt really calm,” he said.

Ross tries to sit quietly and meditate for 10 or 20 minutes each day. Just as important, he said, is trying to be more mindful and present in his daily life. Something as simple as giving his full attention in conversation, Ross said, can be deeply fulfilling.

Along with helping him personally, Ross’s Zen practice has brought insights into the often-stressful and competitive worlds of law and business. “A lot of the qualities you seek through Zen practice translate to this other world,” he said.

Ross has addressed this overlap, and shared reflections on his personal journey, on a blog, Only Here Only Now, http://onlyhereonlynow.com that he’s maintained for the past two years. Though initially a stranger to the world of blogging, Ross has been amazed by the substantial readership the blog has attracted.

Still, he hasn’t forgotten the seed of his flourishing practice. To this day a small, well-worn copy of the Tao Te Ching is tucked into Ross’s bag at all times, always ready at a moment’s notice.

—By Adam Reger