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The spirit and the law

How many lawyers does it take to find enlightenment? There's no punch line; one of the lawyers in the Terri Schiavo case has spent his life seeking the way to "litigate without becoming a combatant.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2001

[Times photos: Scott Keeler]
Lawyer George Felos practices yoga at his Dunedin home to help him cope with the stresses of cases such as that of Terri Schiavo. Felos represents her husband, Michael Schiavo, in his efforts to have her feeding tube removed.
DUNEDIN -- A cluster of reporters wait, notebooks and pens poised. A cameraman counts down the seconds to the start of the press conference, which will be televised live. In walks lawyer George Felos, wearing a navy suit jacket, beige slacks, blue shirt, tie and -- excuse me? -- brown socks and Birkenstocks.

If he had his druthers, Felos and his Birkenstocks would be at a West Virginia monastery, where he'd sit cross-legged and meditate for hours at a time, as he did on vacation last year. Or maybe he'd be doing yoga and centering his chi.

Instead, in a controversial case, he is here to argue that 37-year-old Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die. Felos represents Schiavo's husband Michael Schiavo, who has been waging an intense and public fight to have her taken off life support after 11 years in a vegetative state.

Felos, 49, has taken on about 10 right-to-die cases in the last decade. He balances his quest for spiritual growth with his lawyerly duty to fight.

"Many people find the litigation process to be aggressive, to be combative, to be harsh," he says. "And the question is: How do you work within that type of system and not become hardened . . . and maintain a spiritual center? How do you litigate without becoming a combatant?

"I look at (the profession) as the opportunity to become more centered. To use it as an opportunity for growth, rather than a reason not to be spiritual."

A soul connection

Felos' spiritual and professional lives intersected in a public way 12 years ago, in the case of Estelle Browning. The case gained him a reputation as the person to see when you want to let someone die.

Browning, of Dunedin, had written a living will in 1985, saying she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means if she ever became ill. A year later, she had a stroke. But the nursing home refused to stop feeding her because she was not technically brain dead. Her cousin and former roommate, Doris Herbert, asked Felos to take the case.

He wanted to see Browning for himself. She could not speak, but Felos says his spiritual side picked up on something. He says her soul cried out to his soul and asked, "Why am I still here?"

Browning died in 1989 of natural causes while the case was still unresolved, but the suit has had a lasting effect on the law. In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a living will can allow caregivers to withhold food and water from an incapacitated person, even when death is not imminent.

After the Browning case, Felos became a volunteer for the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, sitting and talking with terminally ill patients. On his living room shelf sits a book for hospice training, Dying Well, by Ira Byock.

In recent years he has been writing a book of his own: Litigation as Spiritual Practice. In 320 pages, to be released this fall by Blue Dolphin Publishing, Felos contends that his belief in God is what drives him, even in the civil courtroom where the object is to win, or at least settle for an adequate sum.

A spiritual being

Who is George Felos?

"Well, what we are in essence can't be described by words," he says. "The mind is finite, and what we are is infinite. We know what we're not. We're not the body. We're not the mind. We're not our thoughts. We're not our emotions.

"In essence," he says, "we're spiritual beings."

Felos was a spiritual being first and a laywer second. He was in law school at Boston University when a friend asked if he wanted to try yoga as a stress-reliever.

Felos learned how to meditate, to "notice" his reactions to his thoughts. He says he learned the events in his life were only as important as he thought they were.

And he learned about other cultures and Eastern religions. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Greek Orthodox worship -- all may have a point, Felos says.

"I believe that Christ was God incarnate and was resurrected. But, by the same token, I believe that there were other incarnations of God as well," he says. "All the great religions in their essence express the same fundamental truths."

Sometimes, Felos says, he gets nervous or anxious before a hearing.

"If I find that I'm getting nervous or keyed up or off-center, what I'll do is -- which is a type of meditation -- just focus on my breathing," he says. "Home in on the sensation of breathing, the sensation of the air entering the nostrils and exiting the nostrils. If you do that for 30 seconds, you'll find that you're more relaxed."

If people are truly spiritual, that will permeate all aspects of their lives, not just during worship, not just at home, but at work too, Felos says.

"You can't separate your work life from your spiritual life," he says. "A spiritual seeker has no spiritual focus."

At least one opposing attorney sees little spirituality in Felos. Pat Anderson, one of the lawyers representing Terri Schiavo's parents, questions Felos' ethics in fighting to remove the woman's feeding tube.

Furthermore, Anderson says, "I find him to be uncommonly persnickety in his diction."

George Felos begins his morning with yoga, which he has been practicing for 25 years. That’s about as long as he has been practicing law: “How do you work within that type of system and not become hardened . . . and maintain a spiritual center?” he says.

Orthodox beginnings

Raised Greek Orthodox in New York, Felos did not aspire to follow his father into law. He spent too much time at his father's office, supposedly on his way to father-son outings but actually waiting for his dad to finish talking to clients.

"I went to law school because I couldn't think of anything else to do at the time," Felos says.

After law school -- and his spiritual awakening -- Felos and his first wife lived on a small Greek island for three months. Each morning, they would wake up and buy a fresh quart of goat's milk for 9 cents and a 10-cent loaf of steaming hot bread. It was one of the best times in his life, Felos says.

Then it was back home and back to reality. His family had moved to the Tampa Bay area, so Felos decided to try for work here. He got an interview with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office.

"This is a tough job," Felos remembers the prosecutor telling him during the interview. "You've got to be hard. You've got to hit! It's a tough job. Can you do it?"

Having just spent three months living on an island and drinking goat's milk, Felos looked at the man and said, "You know, I really don't know."

He didn't get the job and eventually went into civil practice with his father. The two worked together as Felos & Felos until James G. Felos died in 1995.

Every morning these days, Felos is 160 pounds of elastic on his bedroom floor. He does yoga, inspired by a framed portrait of Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of spiritual realization. He does more stretches and takes out a machine that helps with his chi, or body energy.

The purpose of the morning routine is to be "present in the sensation of his body."

He takes out a throw pillow and meditates for a half hour before showering and drinking a concoction of protein powder, banana, orange juice, yogurt and goat's milk.

Each morning he checks to see if something has grown on the mango tree and bamboo he planted in the front yard.

Felos visits different places of worship about twice a month, he says. He has spoken at several, including the Palm Harbor Unity Church, the Center for Conscious Living and a spiritual awareness center in Crystal Beach.

He hangs out with friends -- ministers, yoga teachers, but no lawyers. He bought a Steinway grand piano and plays Beethoven on it. He invites friends over for chanting -- "I am that I am. I am that I am." -- while he plays the harmonium.

"He has a good sense of humor, and he has a gentle and kind soul," says Debi Chapman, a Palm Harbor yoga instructor who met Felos about seven years ago at a retreat. "It's just a heartfelt space, a very spirit-filled connection that George and I have."

Felos' reading material includes Handbook to Higher Consciousness, God Talks With Arjuna, The Experience of Insight, In the Meantime.

His home looks more hippie-ish than lawyerly -- red couch with big pillows, multicolored chair in hot tones, mint green carpeting, spry yellow kitchen and one living room wall painted neon blue.

He spends weekends with his 14-year-old son, Alexander, from his first marriage. They fish for mullet in St. Joseph Sound, the body of water that doubles as Felos' back yard. Caladesi and Honeymoon islands are in the distance.

Felos is in the final stages of a divorce from his second wife.

"If I did relationships as well as I did law," Felos says, "I'd probably be happily married."

The journey continues

Felos does not mention Schiavo in Law as Spiritual Practice, but says he wants to start a second book when the case is over. He may talk about his spiritual journey with Schiavo then. For now, he is preparing for a hearing before the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland on June 25. He thinks the court will agree that her feeding tube should be removed.

That is what is necessary, he says, "to accomplish what I believe are Terri's wishes."

Does Felos believe Terri Schiavo's soul has spoken to his?

Felos declines to answer, showing his lawyerly side. "It's a pending case," he says.

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