MF 48 – Mindful Communications with Gregory Heffron

MF 48 – Mindful Communications with Gregory Heffron

MF 48 – Mindful communications with Gregory Heffron

Gregory Heffron MFA owns and manages Green Zone Conversations Retreats. He is the only certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by author and Buddhist teacher Susan Chapman MA.

He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops with Susan since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Shambhala Lineage since 2005.

In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique. In 2007, Smith and Heffron taught this practice in a workshop for fourth-year students in the Dance Division at The Juilliard School in New York City.

His background is in creative writing, having earned an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 2003. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and lives in Santa Monica, California.

What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

How did your path to meditation start?

When I was in my 20’s and had just broken up with my girlfriend. It hit me in just that way that shook my world. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have any tools to work with that, I was into art and literature, done therapy. I just couldn’t quite hold it all together. I came to meditation like many people through struggle and pain and challenge. Luckily I knew some people in meditation groups. Shambala Buddhist meditation group.

It struck me as being a sensible thing to experiment with. They were kind enough to bring me along. It’s been 17 years since then.

When you got attracted to that particular tradition and practice, was there anything in particular that stood out to you in that tradition that helped you with your breakup?

I found there was something about just resting with my emotional experience, without having to resolve it. Without having to come up with the big solution. I think that was the most powerful part of the practice for me, even though it was quite difficult. Quite challenging. At that time I was going through a tumultuous time.

The more I did it, I gradually gained confidence, that it could be done. That I could sit in chaos and confusion, complexity, and the richness of my emotional experience. And that it was OK to do that. Instead of finding it to be something that violated the rules of reality. It was reality, and it was OK to feel really tumultuous. There is something calming and soothing and sensible about that, that I could handle complexity and chaos and not freak out about it.

And I imagine with most meditation practices, that is a big part, to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, not having the answers and like you said to be OK with chaos. Not something that most of us can just learn in a few periods of meditation sitting. 

Yeah, the length of practice, and repetition of practice is crucial. Otherwise it is sort of like picking up an exercise regiment and doing it for a couple of days, you just feel kind of sore. And you don’t get very far. But if you keep it up, something happens.

How did your practice evolve from there. Did you find it was helping you in other situations, or areas of life?

Sure..I found greater ease entering uncertain situations. Situations that were unclear, where I felt anxious. That was really encouraging.

I can think of particular situations, walking in somewhere, where I thought, “Oh boy, I’m really nervous”, and then feeling that bubbling energy, that anxiety. And then enter anyways, with a certain kind of equanimity. That was ground-braking for me. There was always that sense before that, of trying to stuff down my anxiety. Trying to suppress it, which of course only makes it worse.

Suddenly I had a different way to relate. That actually allowed me to at least feel a little bit calmer. So then I was inspired as I saw those results. So within a year I did a week retreat, and then as time went on, a month retreats, and longer and complex retreats as time went on. Until that whole process became more of a passion project.  I was really interested to see where this would go. And I still feel that way now.

So your continued practice is in part led by curiosity about what else there is to learn about this practice?

Yeah, which is what else there is to learn about myself. To some degree there is more to learn about the practice itself, but really. In a way it is just applying what I’ve learned so far. Relaxing into the practice….and seeing what I can see.

Since you talking about bringing your meditation practice into your daily life. You got into mindfulness and mindful communications. Maybe you can elaborate on how you moved into that direction..

In 2009, I met Susan Gillis Chapman, who’s a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She was teaching mindfulness communications. She conceived that type of teaching from being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher who in the Shambhala tradition was in charge of one of the longest and most sophisticated retreats in our tradition, the 3 year retreat at Gampo Abbey. Pema Chodron put her in charge of that retreat. I met her after that period.

She with her range of experience not only as a therapist, but also, she worked in a  maximum security prison with sex offenders, she worked in domestic violence shelters. From this range of experience, she put together a unique set of materials, that she calls mindful communications. Which eventually ended up in the book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication: Using Deep Listening and Mindful Speech to Strengthen Relationships, Heal Conflicts, and Accomplish Your Goals

I met her when she was starting to teach seminars on this materials. And she invited me in to teach a mind-body meditation that I have a background in, called Mudra Space Awareness that comes out of the Tibetan tradition. I was going to teach the mind-body component, and then she was going to teach mindful communications.

We did that for a few years, and in that process I began to learn what she was teaching. I wasn’t even sure at first. It was startling to me, the material she was teaching. It was based on the one hand on some of the highest Buddhist teachings, but it was also very pragmatic, very useful. You just felt like you had a way to understand very simple interactions and situations, that before had been completely confusion.

Maybe you can give a couple of examples, and elaborate on what you mean with Mudra Space Awareness….

It’s essentially an acute direct practice of experiencing your mind and body together. That comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rooted in Tibetan monastic dance training. That the monks would do in the monasteries in Tibet.

In terms of mindful communications. The easiest way to understand it is, that we’re already born with innate sensitivity to understand what is happening with our communication with others. That is the primary point of view. Not so much that mindful communication is building up a set of skills that you have to try to remember and get better. But actually in some ways it is the opposite process. That we are stripping down the kinds of habits that cover over our innate sensitivity to communication. That actually could allow us to steer very naturally, spontaneously, and accurately in our interactions with others. 

So do you have examples of habits or habit patterns that cover up what we already innately have available to us. 

One of the ones that causes the most trouble for most of us, is not recognizing certain primary states in communication. Like for example, failing to recognize when communication has shut down between ourselves and someone else. For whatever someone has broken off communication. They might still be in the room, or even speaking with us. But we can feel that something has broken down in the communications. Up until that point, there was a kind of natural interchange. We have this natural open kind of communications that we naturally carry out with others. Like over the counter in the post office or grocery line. Very simple, nothing elaborate.

And yet, there comes a moment where that can break down, and we feel it. We feel it almost immediately. We said one thing, someone thought we said something else, and they’re offended.

A miscommunication…

Or we said something, and someone didn’t hear it, so they don’t respond to us. There are a variety of ways that communication breaks down. Maybe they are overwhelmed. And whatever we said makes them even more overwhelmed. So they just tuned us out. That is a good fundamental example to go with.

You’ve spoken and someone is not responding, and there is that gap, where we don’t understand what is going on. Usually in that moment, we feel anxious. There is a subtle, a feeling of being socked in the gut. A vacuum in the room emerges, where that happens…”Now what should I do…not sure what’s going on.. is the sense. ”

What most of us do out of habit that causes trouble, is that we plow forward, as though it wasn’t happening. If what we said overwhelms that person, we might say it again, or saying it louder or elaborating more. Which of course makes this other person feel even more overwhelmed. So communication shuts down even further.

Or could be defense. Or we could cut it off. Because they didn’t respond, we feel like I’m not going to speak to this person again, now they’ve offended me. There is a variety of things, we could try to seduce them into being more friendly, or tune them out, or become angry.

All of this misses the point. The reality is very simple, there was a communication breakdown, and we felt it. No-one is telling us what is going on. We can actually feel it. It doesn’t mean we know what is going on at some deeper level per se. But we’re pretty good at knowing what is going on.

Just being willing to be mindful at such a moment is incredibly powerful. To stop the forward momentum, and just be curious. Just explore…like looking at this person’s face. If they are speaking, listening to the tone of their voice. Paying close attention to our self, to our own emotions that are rising up. Maybe we do start to feel anxious, and then feeling that. Being willing to let those feelings come through, because they are information. They are our own sensitivity.

In many ways, and in our many interactions with others, we have this sensitivity, that could allow us to slow down, and become a little more careful. And steer more accurately. But we have to remember to let go of our patterns, our habits that we build up over time.

I think it’s good you elaborated on the various things that can happen in those few moments. When you pause enough, those things can happen, but if you don’t know how to pause, that can bring problems. The ability to pause is a huge component of that. 

It’s very radical to pause. In our retreats we do a pause practice. Where randomly we ring a chime. When people are in small groups, and talking, and the instruction is to just stop for 3 breaths….nothing. Getting used to being interrupted by something unexpected..and then you resume. It’s just life interrupts us. Instead of that being a bad thing, often the idea of being interrupted in communications is upsetting. Instead, if we can reverse that tendency.

And feel that being interrupted could allow us to restart fresh. And tune in a little bit more. 

And a big part is too that a lot of us forget to breathe deeply. Just that mindfulness bell is a wonderful opportunity to get back to your breath, the here and now, your body, everything….

Absolutely, I think it’s originally adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh. Susan calls that a positive interruption. In communication we could have positive interruptions.

Interestingly enough, when we get really fixated, stuck and trapped in our habits, sometimes the best thing possible is a positive interruption.

Suddenly a hummingbird flies by your head..You’re in the midst of something, like being shut down, angry or whatever, and suddenly something just breaks you out of it. It’s not something you can organize or plan for, but you can go with it when it happens. It could just be the taste of your coffee. While you’re upset or trying to be upset, and you get interrupted. You realize suddenly your coffee just tastes so good! For an instant you forget to be furious. We can take these opportunities and go with them. Start fresh.

In terms of mindful communication. You’ve already mentioned curiosity, listening with full attention, giving full attention. Which is also a good skill to learn. A lot of people have a hard time listening to someone else, without having agendas, maybe preparing a counter argument at the same time while the other person is speaking.

Right..The fundamental material that is in The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, covers this somewhat systematically. But essentially, just being present is one whole set of skills. And then listening is one whole set of skills.

There’s 2 ways of listening. There’s listening at a level of accuracy and information, the content of the conversation. And then there is listening at a heart level, to the emotional truth of the conversation. Which includes things that are maybe not spoken, but that you can feel them as they change.

And then there is skills around speaking, and being able to be truthful, without neither exaggerating, nor suppressing. How can we say true things without being either harsh or coy about them. So there is training around all these different elements.

Is this training that someone would do over the course of a period of time, or.. what does that look like?

We offer courses, from just a talk, or for that matter reading the book on your own, to longer retreats, like weekend retreats, or 5 day retreats. These are all on our web site Green Zone Talk.

But they do need to be worked with, and trained with. It’s easy to think about all this stuff, but much harder to get it down into your bones so to speak. So that when you’re in a challenging situation, you can apply them.

Making it part of a natural response or muscle memory that you’ve trained yourself in..

And I’ll add that one of our fundamental trainings is mindfulness meditation. If we can’t connect with the present moment, and what is arising in our senses, in our emotional faculties, what’s arising in terms of our thoughts. Then there is nothing to work with. We have to connect first and foremost with the present moment.

Anyone of us who’s done mindfulness training knows, we have to train! If you don’t train, you lose the acuity. You lose the richness of that connection, that has tremendous potential if we develop it. And then if we do develop that, then we can aim that awareness in various directions, including towards communication.

Since we’ve had such a contentious election. Maybe you can walk the listener through this example. You’ve got two groups, one on the right, and one on the political left, and they start discussing politics. And within no time at all, people part ways in anger. Walk us through how someone might approach this using your mindfulness communication techniques. 

That’s a great topic right now. So many people are deeply distraught over the level of discord in this election, and it’s historic. I think we’re living through a historic event. A lot of us are really challenged by that.

First and foremost is to just acknowledge that we are living through this unusual historic moment that is pushing these buttons even more than usual. But I would use one of our fundamental metaphors in mindful communication, which is the traffic light. We use the traffic light because it is so simple, very basic, easy, and helpful. You can teach this to children. The traffic light is good, because when we get upset, we get a bit simplistic. The more upset we get, the more childlike we actually are, not necessarily in a positive direction. We lose our intelligence and sophistication. I bring this up because it is so useful and simple.

What happens in say talking about this election, if you run into people who have different views than oneself.  We already carry around with us anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the nation, and our place in that, our future security, our freedom, and sense of connected-ness to the culture in the US say. So there is already a bit of anxiety.

Which in the traffic light metaphor, when we’re open and connected with ourselves, which automatically connects us with others. As soon as we’re really connected with ourselves, we’re already in the room. We already realize that we are interacting with our environment. Even when we’re alone. Not to mention that when we’re with others.

But as our anxiety level rises, it takes us out of the green light state of openness, into the yellow light state. The yellow light state is very much connected to fear, uncertainty and confusion. Like I don’t know what’s happening, what is going on, I don’t understand! That kind of feeling.

And when we enter the yellow light state, we’re suddenly living in a different world, than we were just a minute before. When we were feeling very connected. We’ve entered a situation where we can’t handle as much as we could just a few minutes ago. A different state. We become in some ways weakened. And our sophistication, and all of our big theories about the world, the way we want to be as a human being in the world, they get scaled way back. We get into a kind of fight or flight sensibility.

We need to recognize this when this happens. Politics triggers this in us. Because the stakes are high, and we have these big concerns. There are moral issues, that really touch us at a deep heart level. Maybe they have a different morality that we don’t understand, that we don’t share. So we’re in the yellow light. Usually already, just to find out that someone has a different view from us is already threatening to a lot of us.

Now when we’re in the yellow light, we’re already feeling quite overwhelmed. We don’t want to absorb far more information than we already have. Since we’re already overwhelmed, we don’t want to take on an even bigger task at that moment. Because we already got disconnected a bit from our self, we start to lose touch with our heart, lose touch with our senses. It’s when we go into our head, and stop paying attention to the room and the feeling in our body. Basic truths. We stop seeing what our eyes are actually seeing in the room, because we’re in our minds. We’re starting to worry and go off into the future. What if this political situation happens, that could be tragic, etc…

So because we’re disconnected, due to our anxiety, we have to realize we’re a little limited on that moment. Our top priority at that moment is to reconnect. Our top priority is not at that point to continue the discussion or get an opinion down someone else’s throat. Or to sit through a discussion that for whatever reason we don’t feel like we can tolerate at that moment.

We need to protect our-self a little bit at that point. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not the fault of the other person, or the other political party. We have become disconnected from our own mind and heart a little bit. Not even our fault, it just is.

So the question is what do we do?.. And what we need to do is get a little protective, and perhaps get ourselves to a safer space. Whatever that means. This may mean literally opting out. “Please continue without me!” or it could mean, just saying, “I’m not doing very well with this, and I don’t know if I can continue talking about this at this time.” Whatever it is, we need to reconnect.

Once we can get or are able to get back to the present moment, reconnect to our senses, to our heart, to the intelligence that we carry as human beings…Then we can have any kind of sophisticated political conversation.

We need to recognize that we go in and out of this. Anxiety may bring us to a certain state were we are not going to make a lot of progress..Until we soothe our-self, and calm down, and reconnect. That is the important part. And that others are going through this as well. Driving someone into a state of anxiety, while maybe no-one’s fault. But if they are in a higher and higher state of anxiety, the conversation is not going to be that fruitful.

Yeah, it’s only going to escalate, get more reactive and reactionary…

What we don’t want, is for the situation to progress to what we call the, “red light”. The red light is when we fully shut down. The yellow light we’re sort of in-between, we’re fearful, getting disconnected, but we haven’t really gone for it. But the red light is where we tip into fully shut down. That’s when we lash out, or go silent. Give someone the silent treatment. Or could take different forms. Could be arrogance, or hyper competitiveness. I don’t care what is true anymore, I just want to win, no matter what. That kind of thing.

These are habits, no-one’s fault, but we carry them out because we’re afraid essentially. And we’ve run away from our own fear, into this shut down state. That is where more harm can happen. Both to ourselves and others. And we don’t want to do that. We want to find our way back out. Instead of pushing ourselves so hard to where we shut down, we just need to naturally recognize our limits. And pull back a bit. We might even be able to continue the conversation if we pull back a little bit. Maybe a few minutes break, get some more snacks for example at a holiday party. Allows us to reconnect a little bit, and we can actually say what we really mean, instead of having things come out of our mouth that we don’t mean.

And continuing to see each other’s humanity, seeing a common ground. Some of these conversations, people end up completely alienated from each other. That’s sad!

Absolutely. The worst part about that, from my point of view, is that we then don’t understand what is going on with this other person. If we’d been able to slow down, step back a bit, and allow the conversation to progress on a more human level, instead of trying to win, or trying to prove that this person is morally bankrupt, or something. We could then ask them to, “tell me more about your world, what do you believe.”

That’s how we do break down those barriers. Instead of the world progressing into a kind of red light state, where suddenly there’s whole groups of people who are considered as inhuman. “Those people” on the other side. “I don’t even think of them as human beings anymore. ” Instead we realize that shared humanity, like you were saying.

And then we go, OK, well I don’t really agree with them, but I understand what they’re thinking. I talk to this person, and they told me their view of the world. Even if you think they are wrong. Even if you want your candidate to win, and theirs to lose, That’s fine. But even then you need to understand who you’re up against, and what they’re into. How they see things.

So it’s effective, it’s not just ideological, not just being compassionate in a moral way. If you want to get things done, you need to know the world in which you are trying to get things done in. 

Even in congress, the complete failure of communication across the isles and how it’s turned into a stand still. In a lot of different situations, to learn to be more mindful and communicate better would have a lot of fruit and benefit. 

I saw an article recently on that, that charted it across decades, and how fractured it has become now. That is in terms of the democrats and republicans, no longer being able to work with each other.  You look back 50 years, and it was a different world.

That is where you see that our own troubles and habits around communication breaking down, they turn into world history. It’s exactly the same as what is going on within us, but it is a bunch of people who happen to be in congress, or whatever other government body, or military body for that matter in the world, that they have the same trouble that we do.

And that when they shut down into the red light, suddenly if that is the wrong person shutting down, you’ve got a war, and a 100.000 people die. Because of that one moment of shut-down. It’s that simple in a way. It comes down to one moment where someone said, I’m not going to connect with my experience. I’m going to turn this other person into an object, I’m going to objectify this other country, or another. And now we can attack them. But it’s now different than our own experience.

Yeah it’s an important practice. I imagine you also work with marriages in your practice..

That’s an interesting one, because here’s someone we’re so close to in intimate relationships to. We’re so close is that the irony is that we feel every grain of disagreement. As if there were little bits of sand, that if you weren’t absolutely pressed up against each other, you wouldn’t feel a little grain of sand. But because you are, every little bit can become some huge drama. Some huge disagreement. It’s only because we’re so invested, and we’re so close, that that’s the case. Which is a bit unfair way to judge our relationships. We’re doing our best, they are doing their best. And yet we’re judging it by this very extreme standard.

Do your retreats emphasize couples, or do you have a variety of emphasize different aspects of life, different situations?

Yeah, we have a number of retreats. The one that is focused on relationships is called, “the four seasons of relationship”. This looks at the cycles that relationships go through. In terms of every relationship is like a year. In the sense that, we start out alone, and then we go through a kind of spring time, where a courtship that happens. You meet someone, and you start to assess whether there is a connection. And if there is a connection, you continue into the summer. And summer is this sense of deepening the connection, and committing to the connection. And even to the point of making vows to each other, in whatever sense. Whether literal or coming to understandings, of what the nature of the connection is.

And then at some point, even if it is just over the course of a human life, where of course we’re going to die at the end of our lives. There is a coming apart. Or could be breakup. There is a natural point where the connection has to come apart, and this is true even for ongoing relationships. That we could recognize that even walking into a room with someone in the morning we go through these seasons. We were alone, and we walk in to have breakfast or something, and there is that meeting point where we come together, and begin a conversation, or whatever that is. And then there is the full breakfast time, where we’re really deeply engaging. And then we split of into different directions for the day.

So this 4 season cycle happens in a lot of different ways. Not just in romantic relationships. It could be someone you meet on the bus and have a conversation with.. So that retreat covers that material.

We have a whole retreat about conflict, and the 4 stages of escalation into conflict, and how to undo each of those 4 those stages. We have a whole retreat on the chemistry of emotions. How the emotions manifest in the 3 different traffic lights. Open emotions (green), the yellow light emotions of fear and anxiety, and then finally the shut down emotions of the red light.

And we have a retreat (called the stories of our lives) that is all about looking back at our life story, and re-configuring our life story. Telling it in different ways, in order to cut through the complaint a lot of us have about our lives. “My life should have gone a certain way, instead it went a different way.” And to actually look at our lives, and say, “ah, this is a hero’s journey.” In which there are tragic moments, and disappointments.

It’s a bit like an opera, but it’s a spiritual journey in some sense. We’re going through a lot of experiences, some of which are quite painful. In order to live a heroic life.

So the retreat helps you to learn to appreciate things that you formally didn’t really appreciate about your life.

Yes, that’s it, recognizing that our lives are rich. They’re not necessarily a vacation. They’re not for sissies so to speak! Life can be quite intense, and yet we could really view it as a powerful experience. Including all the troubles that we’ve had. Those could all be crucial parts of the story.

Could you mention the book one more time, so folks who are interested can follow up and learn more about this practice.

Yeah, it’s,The Five Keys to Mindful Communication from Shambhala publications by Susan Gillis Chapman. And there is going to be another book, a workbook, hopefully in the next year.

Great..so people can do some homework, and implement it. 

Exactly, because a lot of people are interested in doing that, and this will make that more explicit and give you more of a path to travel through the material.

That’s great, that’s what we’re all about, applied meditation.

Thanks so much!

Resources

 

MF 47 – Questioning solitary confinement and the Prison Industrial Complex with Johnny Perez

MF 47 – Questioning solitary confinement and the Prison Industrial Complex with Johnny Perez

MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez

Johnny Perez is a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness. At the Urban Justice Center, he is assigned to MHP’s Safe Re-entry Project, where he works with people with mental illness and histories of incarceration, to connect them to the services in the community that will assist them to attain better measures of recovery and gain the stability necessary to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.

Mr. Perez also works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.

Drawing on the wisdom of thirteen years of direct involvement with the criminal justice system, Johnny has testified at the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission about the inhumane treatment of teenagers in solitary confinement in state prisons and city jails. He is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at Cornell Law, Fordham University, Amnesty International, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.

Johnny is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom.

(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

What were some of the events that led up to you spending 3 years in solitary out of a 15 year prison sentence?

The first time I landed in solitary I was 16 years old, and ended detained in Rikers island here in New York City for gun possession. Ended up incarcerated for 8 months for having a gun on me. While I was in Rikers Island, I got into a fight with an individual over the phone. If you don’t belong to a gang, you can’t use simple entitlements that every person that’s detained can use, like using the phone. Johnny got into a fight over the phone and as a result was given 60 days of solitary confinement.

One of the things that made the situation worse, was that the person that brought the food, breakfast and lunch, belonged to the same gang of the person I fought over the phone with. So for the first two weeks, I didn’t eat breakfast and lunch as a result. As a 16 year old it was challenging, lot of psychological and physical adversity as a result.

 

As an adult when I was 21 years old I was sentenced to 15 years of prison for robbery in the first degree in which I served 13 years of that, with a total of 3 years in solitary confinement.

My reaction as an adult was a whole lot different as an adult in solitary then as a teen. Now, years later, I’m a re-entry advocate at a non-profit law-firm at the early justice center. I’ve dedicated my voice, past experiences to creating alternative solutions to solitary confinement.

Can you tell me what that was like to be in solitary confinement?

The cell is very small, very quiet, maybe about the size of a small parking space. I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my arms out horizontally and touch both walls in a lot of the cells I’ve been in. During the summer, the walls start to sweat it’s so hot. During the winter, it gets so cold you have to keep your head under the covers. Except you can’t do that, because every hour an officer walks by your cell, to make sure you’re alive and according to protocol, they have to see your skin. They leave all the lights on during the night and day too for security purposes, so it’s hard to sleep with the light on.

It disrupts your circadian rhythm…

Yes, greatly, to the point where you lose track of time and even the dates. I’d try to keep a calendar to keep track of the days. Because one of my fears was that I would be there in prison for longer than I needed to be.

As a teen, 16 years old, still creating my identity, figuring out who I am. And to be placed in isolation, you begin to absorb some of the oppression in the sense that your self-esteem is damaged, you tell yourself, maybe I am a criminal, maybe I do belong here. You get thoughts of suicide and these kind of things, you think to yourself maybe people won’t miss me if I’m gone.

I felt my self as a teenager very overwhelmed with anger. Anger against authority figures, anger against the circumstances, anger against myself. I punched the wall a lot, I cried a lot, did a lot of push-ups, punched the wall a lot, screamed a lot. I sang.

And at the same time, you could hear everyone around you as well going through something similar?

Yeah, although it is very isolated, everyone in every other cell is doing the same exact thing I just mentioned. So when you put all these sounds together, the sounds itself is enough to to frustrate a person. You hear correctional officers who can’t even stand the noise from even working there, with the people kicking and screaming, and kicking the doors simultaneously.

Other times it gets very quiet also, so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. Your last meal is at 4:30 in the afternoon, next meal at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of times you can get a misbehavior report if your’e caught saving food. If you get this misbehavior report during solitary, you will get more solitary time. So it’s not uncommon to find someone who’s been sentenced to 90 days for testing positive for marijuana, and then end up 5,6,10 years, or decades even from receiving these back to back misbehavior reports.

So for holding a little bit of food, that is somehow a crime, even though in real life outside of prison that would never be considered a crime?

Absolutely, it’s considered contraband..So if I save 4 slices of bread and my milk, and then they come on a cell search, not only are they taking it, but I’ll receive a misbehavior report for holding contraband in my cell. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. But in their rationale is that if this food goes bad, then I’m harming my health. So they’re protecting me and doing something to prevent harm to myself.

As an adult I didn’t internalize a lot of the oppression that I faced. I became more extroverted and outspoken about the injustices, and began to think critically, to question the system. I began to think critically about exactly why we live in a country where it is OK to do this to people.

I remember the only person I’d have contact with was the officer that brought me food everyday. I did a combined 3 years for a number of infractions. Most of them was testing positive for marijuana. I think the most time I did at one time was one year, for testing positive for marijuana.

I asked myself, why we live in a country where it is OK to do this (putting someone in solitary for a year for testing positive for weed). Why are people not more concerned about this. It wasn’t until I was released, and started doing this work, I realized that people just don’t know.

Part of my job is to raise awareness about these issues, using my personal experience, to educate, and to compel people into action. This is an issue that is affecting about 100.000 people across the nation. 5000 alone in New York. We hear about a lot of the successes, but they’re just incremental change. When Obama says, we’re banning solitary for juveniles. Later to find out that there are only 27 juveniles in solitary on the federal level. You start to ask yourself how much change is actually happening on this issue.

So Obama changed the rules for juveniles and solitary confinement on the federal level, not the state level right..

Yes, so I always warn against incrementalism, where we change a small piece of the puzzle, but the entire picture still remains the same. So while no juveniles in the future won’t be placed on solitary on a federal level, that piece of legislation won’t do a whole lot as it relates to solitary reform. I will say that some states have followed suit, and placed their own limits on solitary on the state level. We’re very happy about that of course.

Virginia recently banned juveniles with mental illness from solitary. Here in New York we some progress as it relates to how much time spent in these cells. But the United Nations Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Juan Mendez deems anything above 15 days of solitary confinement amounts to torture (which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions). And here in the US we hold people in solitary a lot of times indefinitely.

The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…

Absolutely. But our prison system is not reflective of that. When you have a person like Albert Woodfox who was recently released after 42 years of solitary confinement. 42 years! I still have personal friends who are in solitary confinement still from when I was with them in these human cages.

At what point is our system going to reflect our human values?

Some of the reactions that people can get when put in solitary confinement that they’ve found from the statement titled “Harmful Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Just seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain. ” Do you see that happening with most people?

Yeah, it happens to a lot of people. A lot of times, people are placed in solitary for completely minor offences. 4 out of 5 offences where people are placed in solitary are for minor offences. It could be testing positive for drug use, having contraband in their cell. Could be tobacco, frying pan, cell phone, cash… And then they are place in solitary. There are people placed in solitary for violent acts. But those instances are far and few in between. While they are there, because we place very vulnerable people in solitary. Such as people with mental illness, or kids (like in New York one of two states). Women who are expecting children. Or elderly people, people who are developmentally disabled.

While they are there they suffer the psychological ramifications of being alone for extended periods of time.

Are they following a protocol for putting someone in solitary, or is this totally up to the discretion of the warden or prison officer?

Both. A lot of the times,  the facility has already outlined infractions or behaviors that would land one in solitary in the first place. We’re also fighting that on that front. People should not go to solitary for testing positive for marijuana. They need drug treatment instead.

So the prisons have these guidelines. But then the hearing officer, or officer that writes this report in the first place, they have unwieldy discretion on who they send, how long they send them for, and even which type of solitary they send them to.

So there’s no third party that reviews the rationale, or decision used to send someone to solitary?

No, except that you can repeal a decision…but in practice an appeal doesn’t work like it works on paper. For example, when you get sentence a year in the box for testing positive for marijuana. Then when you get there, they say OK, here is your year, and you can appeal for 30 days. Except when you get to your cell, there is no writing paper, there’s no pen. The supplies only come by once a week. And you have to have it in within 30 days. A lot of times the men and women going to jail feel so defeated that they don’t just don’t even put in an appeal in the first place.

For those that are fortunate enough to have the stars aligned where they can actually submit an appeal, they find a lot of times are often denied at the facility level, and they have to appeal to the court. And the problem with that is that a lot of people in prison haven’t necessarily taken the bar exam to represent themselves in court. They don’t know how to file these court motions, like article 78, etc.

Additionally here in New York state, for you to access the law library, you have to ask for whatever documents you need 24 hours in advance. Then when you get a book, like the jailhouse lawyers manual, which outlines different court motions in laymen’s terms, you might find the book missing, or a chapter missing, or the officer doesn’t feel like giving out law library materials that day, or that week. So that makes it very difficult to appeal the decision, and to bring that decision in front of outside eyes, outside of prison.

And you have no outside representation that can help out, you basically have to represent yourself?

You definitely have no representation at the hearing stage, and even on the appeal stage. Which is another issue we try to fight as the campaign for alternatives to long-term isolated confinement. Due process is not suspended. You can’t isolate someone without due process. We do it in our court system. Except that in prison due process is really non existent. We have people who can’t speak English being sentenced at hearings that are completely in English! That’s a huge problem. People should be alarmed and concerned about what is going on in these prisons.

And this brings back to what you spoke about earlier, that you are not treated as a citizen in prison. This message of you’re less worthy than a citizen, is not just literal in your face, but also in terms of trying to find representation or recourse…

Yes, unfortunately we send people to prison (it’s supposed to be) as punishment, but nor for punishment.

Except that once people are placed in prison, people are faced with all these different kinds of adversity, injustices. And it’s justified by saying that if you don’t like it, they say, you shouldn’t have come to prison in the first place. But there is a problem with this ideology. I’ll give you a case study to show you what is wrong with this ideology..Mister Kalief Browder, who passed away. This was a young man who was 16 years old, who was literally picked up from the streets of New York, accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation, spends 3 years in prison, two years in solitary.

Later on, footage was revealed that he was routinely pulled out of his cell and beaten by correctional officers, put back. Beaten up by gang members, while officers just stood by watched and laughed. He attempted to commit suicide a number of times, yet never received any mental health treatment or psychological attention as a result of these suicide attempts.

Then one day, they dropped the charges. They said, we’re sorry we got the wrong person, three years later. 6 months after Mr Browder was released, he committed suicide.

He was permanently damaged in there…

Yes, permanently damaged.. So I want to say, that when we say, hey if you don’t like it you shouldn’t have gone to jail. People should know that not everyone who goes to jail, A, goes to jail for something they actually did, or B, for something that warrants the punishment that they received. A lot of time the punishment is not proportionate to what it is that they’re even being accused of.

And in those cases where it is justified to remove this person from society, people need to understand that prison IS the punishment. They’re not sent for additional punishment at the hands of people who have sworn to protect them. Which is what’s happening right now. 

So getting back to when you were in solitary, how did you cope? You mentioned someone who committed suicide. But you came out with a different maybe attitude or resilience that you had…What was it that you had in prison that kept you going?

I want to say hope…I looked around my environment and said, people are dying here…I don’t want to die inside of a cell. My mother didn’t give birth to me to spend my days locked inside of a human cage. And a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. For me, my source of strength was my daughter who was born 2 days before I was arrested and sentenced for 15 years. And my mother, who has loved me unconditionally, even when I behaved in ways that I didn’t deserve to be loved.

While in the cell, not only saying I need to survive for them, but also saying, I’m not going to succumb to this environment. I dreamt a lot, slept a lot, fantasized a lot, thought about winning the power-ball, and how I would fire every single correctional officer in the nation (laughing) and hire new people who really care about people. I exercised a lot, and wrote a lot as well. In the back of my bible, the back of the books from the library, on toilet paper. And then all of these writings, once I got back to the general population, I added them back to my journal.

This hope that I am more than just another person who’s inside of a cell. And have so much potential, and I’m not going to succumb to this. And today I am who I am, not because of solitary but despite solitary..

In solitary the writing is kind of a reflective practice, did you have any other reflective practices, or did you struggle with a lot of thinking…

Yeah, in prison your memory fades. That’s why in prison people like pictures because it reminds us. There were a lot of times where I thought back to an event that happened, but I didn’t’ remember correctly the way it actually happened. And it wasn’t until maybe I wrote to my mother, and she’d say that’s not how it happened. What are you talking about? It happened more times than I care to admit. Part of it was thinking, am I losing my mind here, am I creating these alternate realities and fantasies?

Which later I found out that is exactly what I was doing. For me to survive the environment, I had to get out of the environment, even if it was just psychologically closing my eyes. So the way I survived solitary was by using my imagination. There was an article written on that process, by Nautilus Magazine. How we use our imagination to detach or escape from an environment, so we don’t succumb to the environment. People who’ve gone through war and experiences like that, use similar visual exercises to cope with an environment. I didn’t know that I was doing that at that time.

A lot of us do meditation practices to get beyond the walls of our thinking, the walls of our minds as my teacher puts it. So it sounds like your imagination allowed you to get past these walls that were limiting your thinking. And in many cases people they think very little of themselves. It sounds like you were able to break through that constant messaging that puts you down…or as they might say, “put you in your place”, but really isn’t. 

Yes, and unfortunately, a lot of people that are placed there, don’t have the capacity. They succumb to their environment. I’ve heard correction officers tell a detainee after they say, “I feel like hurting myself”. And the correction officer says, “come back to me when you actually hurt yourself…”.

Another case that happened, mister Bradley Ballard, this individual needed constant insulin shots, and the correction officers completely ignored his pleas to receive his medication. At one point one correction officer was kind enough to go to his commanding officer and say, “Hey, this guy, really might need some attention, we should take a look at that. ” The Sargent tells the correction officer, “is he dead yet?”. The reporting officer said, “No…he’s not dead, this is why I’m coming to you…”. The supervising officer then said, “Come back to me when you have a body, don’t come back here until you have a body.” Two days later, Bradley Ballard was found dead in his cell.

That’s real mean spirited management, is this taught somehow in the culture, is it systemic? 

You’re right, it’s not in the training, how to not have failings. It’s more like, a lot of well-intentioned officers, a lot of whom I’ve met through my incarceration. I’ve met a lot of good officers. Except that, they would rather not rattle the cage. They wouldn’t stand by and watch injustices happen, but because they value their job, or don’t want to get fired, they just don’t get in the way.

Officers are taught that we’re criminals, we shouldn’t be trusted, we are criminals, we shouldn’t be spoken to, shouldn’t be said hi to. So it’s definitely deeply embedded in the culture. Except not every officer subscribes to this culture. At least not proactively, but sometimes by allowing things to happen, I would argue that it’s also just as detrimental and bad.

Yes, Silence is also a choice…

Yeah…I like that..

You mentioned treating people like people earlier.. and this culture of you can put them down, because they’re not people develops in a prison culture..

And it reflects itself in the language a lot. You might hear officers say things like, “how many heads, how many bodies do you have?” Completely dehumanizing language. The problem with this dehumanizing language is that there are things I can do to a “criminal”, that I wouldn’t do to a, “father”. There are things I can do to an inmate, that I couldn’t do to a, “son”. 

Once a person is viewed in such a dehumanizing way, then an officer feels justified and OK with for example, not giving you toilet paper for a few days, or not unclogging your toilet for a week. Or, “Here’s a cold tray of food, so what that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7:30….Oh you want to hurt yourself? Well, you’ll figure it out..Don’t come back until you actually did.”

Then justify it, by saying, “these people committed horrific acts, they should not be given any pity or compassion.” Being compassionate or compassion is not something that you do, it’s something that you are…

I’m not sure if the department of correction can measure that on the way in. (laughing).

Have you seen any prison examples where that is taught or instituted, where there is emphasis on the humanness rather than making people less human?

Yeah, there are prisons that I’ve been exposed to who, “treat people like people”. What that means, is that they make sure that they have contact visits, educational resources, adequate mental treatment if and when they need it. Where they uncuff people during therapy sessions. This goes a long way, to be uncuffed when having therapy.

Really protecting and upholding the person’s dignity and worth…Something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing today…goes a long way. And really acknowledging a person’s humanity and presence. In prison, “how are you doing?” is not a phrase that’s heard often. 

I want to say here in New York we’ve been moving towards that, a lot of restorative justice. A lot of step-down programs from solitary. Giving people the opportunity to get these treatments and educational resources while they’re in solitary. Except that it takes legislation to move towards that goal, and not just the sheer will of the people.

Basically prison used to be just punitive, what do you see happening towards a prison system that is instead of just punitive towards one that is rehabilitative?

Yeah, right now across the nation, criminal justice is very sexy so to speak. States are really taken a look at their systems, and saying, you know what, is our system as humane as possible. And if not, how can we make this better?

I’m just glad and honored to be alive during a period where it feels like people don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

So we’re seeing a lot more progressive changes in states moving towards not only rehabilitating people, but also equipping people with the tools, knowledge and information to make them productive citizens once they return to society. In addition to correcting a lot of the systemic parts that also people face once they’re released. Because it is not just the person, but also the systems that this person has to interact with that determines whether that person will recidivists (becomes a repeat offender) or not.

And so this rate of recidivism…A successful prison would be a model where the rate of recidivism is way lower, and prisoners correctly reintegrate back into society and become productive, there are models worth following right?

I’m not sure how I feel about the term “successful prison”. I even ask myself, do correctional facilities “correct” anything? When speaking to different journalists, they’ll say, “Johnny, prison was good to you…You are educated, eloquent, you work at a law firm, you advocate for people, you all of this, and you did 13 years in prison.”

I always say that we need to find a way to invest in people, not prisons. 

For the people that are impressed with my journey, I’m only an example of what happens when you invest in people, not prisons. I discovered the power of education while incarcerated. I took college courses while incarcerated. Now kudos to Obama for the recent pilot program affecting about 12 thousand people across the country who will be exposed to higher education in the form of Pell Grants.

But a lot of that came despite the adversity, not because the adversity.

When I think of a successful prison and what that would look like, it would be prison in which the prison invests in the people inside the prison. Not in security, cameras, or fancier handcuffs. And more educational programs, drug treatment, mental health treatment. How can we empower this person. How can we make sure this person has housing and employment upon their release. Let’s help this person make more responsible decisions….

Would part of the solution be to take the profit out of the prison industrial complex? That’s a big part of the problem right?

Yeah, definitely. I think about my daughter who is 15 years old, and my future son. Do I want to bring my future son into a country where people profit from incarceration, oppression, profit from injustice. And if I’m up for parole and I come in front of a warden whose receiving money to keep me inside of a cell. What is least likely to happen? What’s most likely to happen? And what is actually going to happen?

What would you do to take profit out of the equation?

I would definitely not allow the privatization of prisons. I don’t think that any person should be able to make prison a business. Even though state run correctional facilities also have a piece of corporate America in them. People who are incarcerated work for pennies on the dollar. I worked for 15 cents an hour for over 10 years. Doing work that had I been doing it out in the world, it would have paid $20 dollars an hour.

And yet, how much does it cost to warehouse people, 170 thousand dollars a year?

Yeah, Rikers Island cost 170 thousand dollars a year to warehouse (chuckles), or hold someone in his/her cell. And these same people work for 15 cents an hour. If you give me a young kid who has made irresponsible decisions, and a 170 thousand dollars. Not only would I give this person Ivy league education, buy him or her a nice home and car, and still give you back a 100 thousand dollars left over.

So in the end, society would be way better off just investing in that person, instead of investing in this prison industrial complex…

Yes, huge, huge. And I ask myself why we’re not already doing that.

You’d think that especially the bean counters, the people who are saying money matters, they’d be saying, why wouldn’t we invest money in these persons, thus save society money, rather than giving prisons more money to keep the person longer in prison, thus costing the tax payers more….

Part of the problem is plain old corruption…Every now and then the veil is lifted. You might hear about a judge who is receiving kickbacks from a private for-profit prison for sending juveniles there. And we’re shocked when we hear these stories. Advocates and people in the prisons would say hey, you’re just now finding out about it. I’m just really glad criminal justice reform is on people’s radar, and people are finally getting tired and don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

When you have the pope and the president saying, we need a better system, we need to reform our criminal justice system. It makes people perk up, and say wow, maybe we are over incarcerating people.

2.1 million people locked up in our nation’s prison. 65 million have a criminal record on file. (80,000-100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US where they spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades.) Most of these people are disproportionately people of color…who come from low-income neighborhoods, who have little to no educational or financial resources. Or opportunities, and ending up finding themselves warehoused in a cell for days, weeks, years, decades at a time.

People of different races are singled out, vs, for example on a college campus where someone does the same thing, and receive no punishment. Whereas someone in a poor neighborhood does the same thing, and can end up in solitary…

Yeah, absolutely, I think about drug possession and drug use. I think about in my neighborhood for example, there are 24 hour porn shops, and 24 hour liquor stores. As if people from my neighborhood have gold laying around to pawn at 3 am in the morning. I think about the countless people who’ve gone to prison for drug possession and have gone to solitary for drug use. I’ve been to plenty of college campuses where drug use is rampant, except that there no one ends up going to jail. But in other places people do end up going to jail. It’s not necessarily that certain people get singled out, it’s that the system favors white people over people of color.

Unfortunately this is what goes on. Think of the recent case of the young man from Stanford who was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. And I think about, if he was a person of color, would he have received 6 months of jail? Of course I would never know, I would argue he’d have received a much different sentence than 6 months.

I believe it…so what challenges do you face as re-entry advocate?

There are challenges that I face right now in the work that I do. And that is that I’m always trying to humanize the people in prison. But the systemic change has to come from these different systems that people have to interact with once they return to society. Specifically parole, or HRA, which we call Human Resources Administration, where people receive food stamps and different benefits and entitlements. Medicaid, social security. These systems really work against the people that return to society.

I have people who have been released who are given addresses to buildings that don’t even exist anymore. I have clients who parole says, I don’t want you to work, to go to school. I want you to only take anger management, and once you are done with that, then we talk about you getting a job. And that’s a huge problem.

The other part of the challenge is changing the culture enough to where the policy changes.

A lot of times these policies are created by people who have no experience with the prison system, have never been in the system, or have even come in contact with the people in this system. And yet they are allowed to create policy for these people. So part of my challenge is making people aware of the value of having the voices of people who are directly impacted in the work that they’re doing, when they’re having these policy discussions.

Because between theory and practice there is a huge space. And in order to close that space you need the voices of the people who are directly affected by the issue, who have lived through it. Who can say, hey, that policy doesn’t look like that in real life, that’s never going to work. But here is how we can make it work. 

And a lot of times we’re excluded from these conversations, because again, we’re not seen as qualified, we’re not seen as believable in a lot of senses. And just not really brought into the conversation. 

So how would you be able to get into the conversations?

Just invite me (laughing)…

Legislators know that there are advocates who are pushing for different reform. We constantly contact legislators, we contact government officials. We contact people in different spaces who are either engaged in new initiatives, or who are exploring ideas about whether alternative incarcerations, sentencing, bail reform, things of that nature. And we say, hey this is what should happen. So instead of saying, thank you for your opinion, why not say, why don’t you come and join us for this meeting that we’re having on how to actually formulate this. 

I will say it has happened in some spaces, specifically Rikers Island. I’m on an adolescent advisory board here in NYC. I’m part of the bar association, on the community and re-entry committee, one of the people who’s not a lawyer. But they see the value in having us (the people who are directly affected) part of the conversation as it relates to reform.

They’ve really come to terms, and see that hey, we’re not going to get this right, until we make sure that the people in this cell also have a say-so into how this is going to turn out. And some spaces this is successful, and other spaces you’re invited, but not listened to.

Its just for lip service, just for show….

Yeah, to say, we had Johnny Perez there, formerly incarcerated, and he was part of the discussion. But every suggestion I made was shut down.

Another thing I wanted to ask, you mentioned if you hand someone a paintbrush, they will paint…expand on that a little bit. 

This is the idea that criminals in prison are incorrigible individuals, criminals are born criminals, not made. And because of that, you have whether correctional services, or legislators, or even government officials, who believe that people can’t change. I would argue that people can change, they can change as long as they’re alive. Regardless of age. But because of this ideology, the idea is that we should educate people in prison. Because if you teach this guy who’s in prison for burglary, if you teach him computer skills, he’ll just become a computer hacker…

Just a better burglar….right..

Yeah..instead we should not teach them…because if you know there’s no change in this person. Where the reality is that if you teach me computer skills, I’m more likely to become a computer engineer, software engineer, or IT specialist. I won’t become a computer hacker. I’m not innately born a criminal.

That is one, then two, a lot of times, we stamp people with one label based on one chapter, or one act in their life. And for a lot of people, the difference between a lot of people in prison, and people in society is that the people in prison where arrested, and a lot of people in society have YET to be arrested.

I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who are either doctors, lawyers, etc. who’ve put their hand in a cookie jar at some point in their childhood, or early teens. except that they had the resources to not succumb to the criminal justice system. And have this lifelong blemish, or scarlet letter behind them.

Or they simply were not found out…

Yeah, exactly… or it never came to the light of day.

Or maybe because they grew up in a higher crime neighborhood where there is a lot of police presence already watching….You’re more likely to be found out with your hands in the cookie jar if you grow up in certain places.

Yeah, we know street crime is prosecuted at a higher degree than corporate crime. I don’t have to remind people about Enron and Mr Madoff. But those are far and few in between.

But the paintbrush is..I was at a board of corrections meeting, and one person proposed an art program, art therapy in prison. Who knew, let people paint! But a official said we can’t have this program, because we can’t have people take paintbrushes and create weapons out of them and kill each other. My eyebrows went up, wait a minute, people don’t automatically see a paintbrush and see a weapon!

Anything can be a weapon when you think about it. The person has to decide to do so. So saying we can’t have paintbrushes, because they will create weapons out of it, is to say these people are incorrigible and can’t be changed and are born criminals. No..criminals are made due to a number of different environmental and psychological factors. A lot of different variables go into that. Not just born…

And we also have a habit of telling someone, “You are a criminal” instead of, “you had criminal behavior” at one time. That alone is coming back to where words can be very powerful if you say, your identity from now on is just that. Because then they might start believing that, which also doesn’t help…

Exactly, and I think that was true for me as a teenager. The environment was sending me messages. Solitary was sending me a message of worthlessness. Of this is who you are, this is how you should be treated. And then after a while, I said well, if I am a criminal, then you know what, then I’m going to be one.

And real quickly when you go into prison, you learn it’s a completely different world, it’s an upside down kingdom.  Where everything that you believed was true, is backwards. People do not value respect, people don’t value diplomacy, people do not value walking away from a conversation. People do not value just being able to talk things out. Violence is really the law of the land. Both for people doing time, as well as the correctional officers. They don’t talk things out, they talk with their batons.

You learn that for me to communicate, you have to communicate with violence. This is the language of the land here. When someone is constantly exposed to that for 10, 15, to 20 years. Then when they return back into society, they still operate by those norms. And that is how this cycle continues, this labeling theory cycle.

In prison, did you also find a lot of people turn towards religion as a way to cope?

Yeah, I found that people turn to religion for a number of reasons. In addition to coping with the environment, and this unbearable reality. The kind of let go, and let God take care of it so to speak of. Part of doing time is to come to terms with hopelessness. I know I mentioned hope before in solitary before. But also hopelessness in the fact that there is nothing I can do about this situation. Like absolutely nothing that I can do about it. All I can do it, is accept the situation.

So your’e not struggling against it the whole time…

Yes, that’s self talk. When I first went to prison, I had to tell myself, “Johnny, you’re not going home for the next 15 years.” This is your home for the next 15 years. Stop thinking that someone is going to open your cell someday, and say we’re going to let you go. It’s not going to happen. And I had to reprogram myself. And a lot of time, it’s saying, hey, God there’s nothing I can do about it, please take care of it. God if you give me another chance, I won’t do it again. That kind of thing.

So people turn to religion to help cope with the environment. And then people also turn to religion for feelings of warmth, to feel inclusive, and feel loved in a lot of senses. To feel they’re not alone, even though they’re in a crowded room.

Do you find that that they still maintain that relationship once they come out of prison into society?

A lot of times yes. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve found faith in prison, and then once released, they stay with their faith and their religion.

In terms of addressing the root problem, why do some turn towards a life of crime..how can we address this?

There are a number of different issues. I think policing is part of the issue. The way that some neighborhoods are policed and others are not. In my neighborhood, I get mobile police towers, other neighborhoods, they get community gardens. Again I have 24 hour porn shops, and these poverty pimps who pray on people needing things.

I definitely think that the resources that are allowed into the communities, except that it is not.  When I was 16 years old, I wasn’t trying to decide to if I should go to band camp or karate school. I was trying to decide which gang to join, how I’m going to run from the cops. How I’m going to walk to school and keep myself from being bullied.

And then when I was in school, the messages I received from my own teachers weren’t positive. I cut school as a teen constantly, except that every year I found myself being passed to the next grade. I don’t know how I passed this, I never did any homework. I probably showed up about two weeks out of the school year, and here I am going from the 8th to the 9th, and then into the 10th, and 11th grade. How is this possible?

And then as an adult you realize that teachers were just passing the problem along. I found myself in the 11th grade with an 8th grade reading level. Where the teacher says, oh you didn’t do your homework, well it’s OK, you’ll probably end up in prison anyway…

So they’d already given up on you in high school…

Oh yeah, without a doubt. So let’s talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. When you go in school, and our schools resemble prisons. You have to go through a metal detector, the’re are armed guards there. I can be arrested inside of school, if the teacher deems I’m being disruptive in class. How I’m suspended constantly for behaviors that other students might not be suspended for.

Next thing you know here I am, I have a criminal record from engaging in school. Then once I get in front of a judge for another infraction, I already have psychologically been exposed to these restrictive environments in a sense.

I think the policing, the education, and I bring it back to the resources that are afforded in these communities. There is nothing to do for people inside a lot of these impoverished communities.

I wonder what would happen if we were to infuse these communities with the resources, financial resources, human resources, opportunities. For people to take advantage of them. Instead of feeling like, I have to sell drugs to help my mother feed my three brothers. Which is the reason the first time I went to jail.

I hope something like that happens. It is very complicated in reality to implement that. 

And then we can talk about alternatives to incarceration. When people are arrested for  a certain crime, you should not go to prison. You should not go to jail for using drugs. You should not go to jail because your behavior was a direct result of your mental illness. You should not go to jail, because you’re sleeping on a park bench, because your homeless. You should not go to jail for hopping a turnstile on a train, because you can’t afford to pay $3 dollars to get on the subway. Except that you get arrested, fined $100 dollars and run through the system.

And I ask myself, have we criminalized poverty? Have we criminalized mental illness? And people are going to jail not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are.. .in a lot of different cases. 

Yeah, lot of things to solve, a lot more problems to solve. I would envision an island instead of filled with boxes, have an island with gardens, wood-shop, every kind of possible skill that could be taught there. And then I imagine people coming off that island very different than an island with boxes on it.

Yeah, places like this jail in Sweden. People there are so humanized, they don’t even have fences there. And people are not running away, because there is no fence. Places in India where the officers don’t use handcuffs.  Where people willingly go to the precinct with the police officer, and are held accountable for their actions!

We can rethink our entire system beyond where it is now, in a way that empowers people. And protects and upholds their human dignity and worth. and is very directly reflective of our human and American values.

And would be a lot cheaper!

Yeah, millions and millions cheaper. I think the last estimate I read was a total of 270 billion dollars on the criminal justice system, out of that 80 billion dollars a year are spent on incarceration criminal justice system as a whole. Police, corrections, and courts.

And this cycle keeps on going unless you have some advantages right now, like you could self-educate your way out of the cycle…

Yeah, and to have the support of people who say, we’re going to invest in this person. This person has potential.

I told a reporter from the times the other day, the entire time I was in prison, for 13 years straight, day in and day out…Not once did I meet a person who was incorrigible, who could not be changed, who was deep down a criminal. I met people who had so much unrealized potential. I’m talking about so creative, so smart. I know scholars who don’t have PhD. Who have studied subjects for the last 10-15 years because there is nothing else for them to do. And they’re so smart, but they would never see the light of day. 

And I ask myself…Imagine…if the cure to cancer was stuck inside of the head of a person who is sitting inside of a cell, who is not being allowed the education to bring the cure into fruition. There is so much unrealized potential inside of our prisons. 

If we were to invest in these people….our society as a whole, not only the moral fabric of our society would be upheld, but our society would be furthered by the accomplishments these people would make. 

Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)

Anything else that I missed that you would like to get off your chest that you think people should know about incarceration?

I think I said it all, but I would emphasize for listeners who have never been exposed to the system or come in contact anyone who has been affected…People should know that a lot of people are in prison just because they haven’t given the opportunity to do better. And they can’t do better, unless they know how to do better.

So definitely education is part of the conversation. And the other part of the conversation is that there are no bad people. There are people who may commit bad acts or irresponsible acts. But we can’t subject one person to relegate one person to one chapter of their life.  We’ve all made mistakes, whether we’ve been caught for that or not. Whether we’ve been held accountable for them or not. This could be your reality. You can also be subjected to this system.

And the reason people should care because 95% of the people who are in prison right now, are going to be released one day. Tomorrow, next week, next year. And they are going right into our communities. There is people in your community who may have criminal records who you may even be surprised that have a record, but have never mentioned or told you about their record.

Until we see people as people, we will not treat people as people. 

Thanks for bringing light to this issues. For giving me a voice, to help me amplify my voice and reach a wider audience about these issues. I’m always available to answer any questions, and am available to do presentations  in person, across the country to talk about these issues.

Thanks so much

Resources

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Johnny Perez quotes:

We are not saying you should not hold someone accountable, we are saying there is never a time in… Click To Tweet

“Prisons are there to take away the prisoner’s liberty, but solitary confinement strips them off their humanity. ”

“If we shift our focus towards rehabilitation, we would not only reduce our prison population, but give people the tools to live meaningful and successful lives.”

“People are deserving of love in prison.”

 

 

MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

MF 39 – Bringing Stillness and Peace between Police and Community

Cheri Maples is a dharma teacher, keynote speaker, and organizational consultant and trainer. In 2008 she was ordained a dharma teacher by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, her long-time spiritual teacher.

For 25 years Cheri worked in the criminal justice system, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, head of Probation and Parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and as a police officer with the City of Madison Police Department, earning the rank of Captain of Personnel and Training.

Cheri has been an active community organizer, working in neighborhood centers, deferred prosecution programs, and as the first Director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. As Past President of the Dane County Timebank, Cheri was instrumental in creating its justice projects – the Youth Court, which is based on a prevention and restorative justice model; and the Prison Project, a prison education and reintegration initiative supported by multiple community groups.

She has incorporated all of these experiences into her mindfulness practice. Cheri’s interest in criminal justice professionals comes from learning that peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and compassion to others. Her initial focus was on translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri’s work has evolved to include other helping professionals – health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies – who must also manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries.

(video above is a sharing or dharma talk by Lay Dharma teacher Cheri Maples during a 21-Day Retreat)

Cheri holds a J.D. and a M.S.S.W. from University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently a licensed attorney and licensed clinical social worker in the state of Wisconsin.

(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)

Cheri Maples in MeditationWhat brought you to a meditation practice?

Either series of coincidences or perhaps miracles. I was certainly open to it. About 7 years into police career, was a street sergeant at the time. Had a back injury, from lifting a moped out of a squad car. Went to chiropractor, and in her waiting room she had the book, Being Peace. This got Cheri interested, started reading her own copy. Then she found a flyer for a retreat in Illinois, in 1991, and decided to go to this week-long retreat.

In those days Thay or (Thich Nhat Hanh), translated as teacher. In those days Thay did everything. Dharma talks by Thay, questions and answers. And they were taught sitting, eating, and walking meditation. It was lovely to stop and she got very interested in the practice. So she started practicing. She didn’t understand Buddhism very much. She had an intuitive understanding of it from practice.

Where there moments during this retreat for you that sort of woke you up?

There were several. For example, during eating meditation the first time she did it. She was such a fast eater, especially as a cop. You try to get food in as fast as you can between the next siren call. Wolf it down as fast as you could before the next call. To actually slow down and taste my food, be with it, and think of where it came from. Was a wonderful experience.

It was sitting and walking meditation.  Of course just watching Thay walking to a room is a dharma talk in and of itself.

Bells, there were beautiful bells, not just the bells that were invited (rang) in our sessions. But this was in a Catholic college campus, so we’d also stop whenever those bells went off. We’d stop and take three breaths when we heard any kind of bell.

That was also the retreat where I had some tough questions. I still had a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a cop. Was sure I’d be pigeon holed and people assume what my politics are, and that I only eat donuts. So I didn’t say much.

But there was this whole thing about the 5 mindfulness trainings, see below, taken from http://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-5-mindfulness-trainings/

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing, or Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva (someone who joyfully and wholeheartedly hears and participates in the “sorrows of the world”). Knowing we are on that path, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or in fears about the future.

1. Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

2. True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

3. True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

5. Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

Interview continued..

And someone asked me if I was going to take these 5 mindfulness trainings. And I said, I can’t take these, I’m a cop.  During a question/answer session, I asked Thay about it, and that’s where he said. Who else would we want to carry a gun, but someone who will do it mindfully? So I took the 5 mindfulness trainings and joined a Sangha that was formed after that retreat. And slowly started developing a practice.

When you came back out into the world, it changed the quality and intentionality on how you confronted the day-to-day consumption of violence that police officers have to go through.

I don’t think anybody faces the consequences and results of poverty, racism, and violence on a daily basis more than cops. I had a very powerful experience right after the retreat that taught me a lot.

I came back to work, and I literally couldn’t understand why everyone had changed. Even the people I was arresting, it just seemed like they had gotten kinder in my absence. It was the energy I was putting out. 

It was such a powerful experience for me. To realize that. It’s not like it lasted, but I did something that knew was very important for me, and that I could come back to.

I started realizing over time, we’re talking incremental changes here. That it was possible to start every call with the intention not to do further harm. Even if force was required.

Not to do further harm.

I have an example too that I wanted to talk about with you. Some time back I remember going to the airport to pick up my wife. I did not notice the speed sign, and went a little too fast coming into the airport. And a police officer stopped me and as he was walking to my vehicle. I recall being very still and peaceful place at that time. Perhaps I had come from a retreat as well recently. At any rate, my heart was calm in that moment. I could see the stress on the officers place. It was eye opening to me. I realized my own state of mind was then shifting his state of mind. I could see the tension drop off his face. It made me realize how important the quality of our being that we bring to every interaction and every encounter. 

So true, love that example. It’s a powerful example how energy follows thought. What we tend to put out comes back at us.

So many of these awful things that are happening right now. The unnecessary use of deadly force. I often wonder in these interactions that happen. The main responsibility should be with the professional, but I often wonder if either person in the interaction was just able to calm down.

Just start turning that volume down, what would happen?

Whether it’s the police officer or someone like yourself, who’s trying to bring some stillness to that interaction. It makes a huge difference. 

What you saw, is what happens a lot of the time. Police officers are taught to expect the worst from people. And they’re taught that their safety depends on it. That whole things needs to be reexamined.  

And there’s already this kind of expectation of tension and plausible conflict just by the way the police officer has to not just figuratively put on body armor, but literally put on body armor.

Just imagine going to work, having to change, and with that change comes. I have small children, so kept things in a locker. You’re putting on a uniform.  Before you even put on the outer clothing of a uniform with a badge. You’re putting on a bullet proof vest, gun-belt, weapons, you’re literally putting armor on. You’re preparing for work by putting armor on. Most places now require bullet proof vests, it’s not optional.

One of the things I wanted to explore. You know rational thinking often will say, you’ve got to be pro-active, and react (when someone provokes you, or in the case of a terrorist attack for example). But there’s something that happens (Thay calls that the miracle of mindfulness) when you inner disarm, when you bring that stillness in your heart, that then de-escalates the encounter, whichever encounter you then have. I think it can be extrapolated for example with wars as well, to all kinds of situations, like with the military and politics, where there’s a military reaction, rather than a calmer response to a provocation. 

Well you see what happens. Thay would be the first to say, you can’t fight violence with violence. It’s so interesting, because I think..

Until we start learning from history, this will probably continue. We’ve just seen in the history books. Humiliating the Germans gave a springboard to Hitler. Then we bombarded Cambodia in ’73, which became fodder for the recruitment campaign of Khmer Rouge. and then the war in Iraq really led to Islamist fanaticism and the current crisis. As long as we continue doing what we’ve done, we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten. 

What would this look like from the point of view of deep listening? To someone who might be looking at these crisis and provocations from the point of view of someone who is of the viewpoint that you have got to fight fire with fire, or else you’d be seen as weak. What ideas or advice would you have for someone who struggles with that.

That’s a really hard one.  One is to recognize the responsibility that someone like the president of France has right now (This was recorded after the Paris attacks). As the US president had during 9/11. They need deep listening, people have to know that they’re not alone. There are times when you absolutely can’t let people, terrorists take over. But the answer is not bombing civilians, or tearing countries apart.

Someone who had interviewed all these ISIS people who had been prisoners, and what had motivated them there. And a lot of them were saying they’d lost their adolescence, because of the war. Lost all means of supporting their families, and a lot of it was plain financial, and some of it was hatred towards America for forcing them to live in a worn-torn country. And now we’re doing that to Syria. So what are the alternatives?

I’m not sure, but I am sure that we can’t continue to do the things we did. I do think that we need better intelligence, we need to understand the whole idea of interdependence. It’s not just an idea, we are all inter-related. What we do matters, what we do to ourselves and others. 

There has to be some very careful thought about how to respond, and what is going to be the most effective response. We’ve learned over and over that that is not violence.

We can verify that in our own lives and with our practice, waking up, doesn’t matter what job we have. It’s the intention we bring when starting our day. If we come from a place from stillness and peace, and wanting there to be more love in the world. Then it changes our interactions everywhere. 

So true. I was reading something by the Dalai Lama. He said, we’re all equal members of one and the same family. And the affairs of the entire world are our internal affairs. There’s a complete recognition of the internal and external, and how totally interdependent they are.

Can you imagine what it would look like if we had people running the world, who were mindful human beings?

Getting back to not letting ourselves get run over. It’s a different way for a police officer to come at a situation from a mindful perspective. Than carrying and using a gun is a compassionate action if you do have to use it. A different way to use a gun when coming from that place right?

Exactly the focus is always intention. What is my intention in this interaction. Is it to stop the violence to protect more people, or is it coming from a place of anger and vengeance and punishment? Those are two very different places to start an interaction with. Whether it is with an individual or with another country.

That’s one of the reason I appreciate what you’re saying. A lot of people would look at Buddhist practitioners and peace activists and they would ask. How does this apply in real situations where there is a threat and you do need to save someone, and it may require force to do handle that situation.

And folks need to understand that there are some encounters that demand the use of force. But again, not as many as people think. And this includes from the police officer’s perspective, and the militairy. And it can be done in a manner again from where the intention is. It can be done for the good of the most people possible. What would that be, what would that look like?

There’s a Buddhist parable. There was a captain of a ship, he had some 200 people on board. And he realized that this one guy who came on the boat, was going to do great harm to this people. Very mindfully he actually killed this man. And in his act he said out of love and compassion and to keep him from having to live with the karma of what he was doing. Very different intention, or very different place to start that interaction from, than most people would start from.

How would you work with the current situation where the police and the African American community are at odds in some places. How would you change that on a systemic level?

People have to understand that this is not a police issue. Questions have to be asked, why is racial profiling happening? Why is it happening. How is this happening in my own organization? Where are the individual and organizational decision making points were race is and can be a factor? And that is certainly. Race is and can’t be a factor in deciding who to stop. That is where it starts.  

But this is not just a question for police officers. This is a question for all of us. How do we become more aware of the conscious and unconscious bias operating in our individual and organizational decisions making. 

How do we begin to monitor and shift the unconscious agreements that lead to racial profiling. So for example, there are many officers, I’m only talking about my own department. There were not many officers in my department who walked around with a conscious belief that one race is superior to another. But if you’re walking around with unconscious biases of any kind…

Let’s take it out of the race context. Let’s say I belief Ford drivers are more likely to commit traffic offenses than Chevy drivers. So I’ll put myself outside Ford dealerships and stop more Ford drivers. Put myself in a position where more Ford drivers are. And I’ll stop a lot more of these drivers. And because I stop more of these Ford drivers than Chevy drivers. And because I’m going to stop more of them, I’m going to arrest more of them as well. Which reinforces my own bias. 

The analogies are obvious. What makes it worse is that the racial disparities actually gets worse at each point in the system. So they start with who’s stopped. The racial disparity is so clear there, its been researched extensively. Who gets arrested is another decision making point. Who gets actually charged, is another decision making point, in terms of who gets prosecuted. Who gets sentenced, and how they get sentenced, whether it’s going to be jail or prison is another decision making point. And then there’s all kinds of decision making points, once someone is actually incarcerated. In terms of conduct violations, parole, who gets treatments. List goes on and on.

So it’s Cheri’s (as a member working in the criminal justice system), it is my responsibility to define where those decision making points are. And to do what I can about them. It’s important for all of us, no matter where we work to do the same thing.

And what would you recommend an organization do to reveal to expose or reveal these subconscious beliefs, these implicit biases?

One of the things I would NOT recommend is a talking head up on the stage, and have a “diversity training”. People just get resentful about that. There are experiential trainings that can be really helpful.

For example with racial profiling. We know police officers have this mechanism for training, it’s called fast training. It’s with simulators where they have to make decisions whether to shoot or not shoot with these infra-red weapons. The simulators will mark if they make the right decision or not. It’s a training exercise.

So why not use this same sort of technology and have officers making stops, and talk through exactly what is going through their minds. And why they are stopping and for what reason. 

The other thing that is very important, and can be done anywhere.

It’s not so much what the mission statement of an organization is, but what are the unconscious agreements, that peers, employees, socialize each other to. They’re usually unconscious, unspoken, usually not talked about publicly, you won’t find them on paper. It’s important to get people together and just ask questions.

For example, as a young officer the first thing I got taught is where to go to get a free cup of coffee. By the time I was a sergeant I was interested in examining that norm. It wouldn’t have done me any good to say, hey I’m ordering you to not go to that coffee store, because I know they give out free coffee, and I see 4 squad cars out there all the time. That would have been a joke.

But if I can get people together and say, Hey, I know from the time I came on the department, I was told that you could go to get free coffee there. So let’s talk about it. Is that OK? So I’ve had those conversations about that, and when they talk about that, they raise their own consciousness.

They might have disagreements, about it. But it is out there, and the norm is challenged. I think that’s how you work to change ethical climates in organizations. You bring unconscious agreements into the conscious arena of dialogue. You don’t tell people to do things, but you make inquiries.

But you are talking to some extent about challenging the status quo in some organizations. Not everyone would be open to that, especially a top-down type organization. In some organization, if you question anything, your career promotion is up for grabs. What would you say for those situations, where people are afraid to speak up, or bring up issues they see?

Until I rose through the ranks, and was a captain….Everyone works in a team, at least in policing. I was just talking to my 7-8 people team about this. But what they do matters, and that can have a ripple effect. They then talk to 7 or 8 more people. There are ethics scenarios that can be acted out with 20 people at a time. The order is already there, it’s in the policy manual, don’t accept free things. There are good reasons for that.

Think of the gossip that goes on in organizations. How many organizations have a culture where you try to recruit somebody to your viewpoint behind closed doors? A lot of time is spend doing that. What if people made an agreement not to gossip? I did that, it was the most satisfying wonderful work experience I’ve ever had.

I told them that they are the ones to take responsibility for refraining from gossip. So let’s all agree on that, if we all want that. And I used the fourth mindfulness training (see above). Basically I said to them. How would it be, since we all talking about not liking the gossip, and politics that goes on in this organization. If we made a decision to take a complaint directly to the person we had it with, or somebody who could do something about it.

You had some buy-in at this point?

I didn’t say, let’s do it. I asked everybody, what is the biggest source of stress, the major stressor in this organization? That’s what they came up with, gossip, politics in the organization. What if we did something just on our team. Not an order, that wouldn’t be effective. We don’t make an agreement, unless everybody agreed on it. Everybody agrees to police each other. And they did, and then they brought it to the recruits, and they bought in to it.

So you changed the organizational culture at that point. 

It all started in 2002 for Cheri at Plum Village, where she was chopping vegetables with someone. She had this image of seeing police officers walking hand in hand, trying to make peaceful steps on the earth. And the person she was relating that image to, said, “Sure, you can make that happen.” You can make that happen!

Thursday, the day after she said that to me, with an FAQ session with Thay. Cheri asked Thay to come to a retreat for police officers. He said to me that we don’t need to wait 2 years to do a retreat for police officers. We can do this next year, so  in 2003 there was a retreat for police officers. That woman does not know the ripple effects of what she said to me, she will never know what she started.

Her practice was so much part of her, it came out without hesitation. 

It did. I can’t even remember her name, or what she looked like, but I can remember the impact that she had on me.

So here you have a complete stranger that started all of these ripple effects that have reverberated on and on. 

Is this something that you’d recommend for all police departments. To have a yearly or so retreat?

I’m working with someone in the DC area to hold a retreat for police officers on the east coast next year. So I’m hoping that we’ll get a lot of people there.

One of the things in terms of deep listening and understanding that has to happen..I really believe that trust isn’t going to be restored between police departments and their communities without dialogue.

Police officers have to meet in small groups with community members, and we have to tell each other. Police officers have to tell community members, and community members have to tell police officers what it’s like for them.

And listen to each other. That has more of an impact than anything else I can think of. 

At the end of the retreat for police officers, Thay asked to hear from police officers. I’d never heard police officers share like that in my life. And I’ve never seen a community respond to them like they did. That had a big impact on me. I think that has to be replicated.

And communities also have to put pressure on their police departments. They have to understand what it’s like.

But the communities also have to ask questions.

  • What is your standard for using deadly force? Police officers have the ability to use an employer state sanctioned violence. And communities have the right to know under what circumstances they’re using it. And why? And how it’s being trained for. And those are important questions that every community needs to ask.

Is there anything else you’d recommend to folks who don’t currently have a retreat to go to, where they can cultivate that peace in their heart-mind? When they step in their patrol car or wherever they are in situations of conflict?

  1. To understand the cycle. So many people are either very hyper vigilant to keep themselves safe. Which produces adrenaline. Or multi-tasking like crazy. Especially people responding to trauma, there’s a lot of adrenaline that gets produced in those situations. The research shows that, that adrenaline pushes you out of the normal, and it takes 24 hours to return to normal. But people go back to work before that. So a lot of the time what people experience is this spike. They’re at the top of their game. They have humor, they can make quick decisions, they’re not procrastinating. Then they go home. They’re listless, don’t have any energy. They start to project that unto the people that are at home. I’m feeling better at work. At home is where I can’t make decisions, procrastinating, a lot of the things that look like depression at the bottom of that cycle. I see that over and over. There are people that have researched and talked about this.

Watering the Seeds of Joy

  1. So one has to do some very pro-active things. And one of the most important things is watering the seeds of joy.  What are the things that you really like to do? Here’s the trick though. If you wait until you feel like doing them, you’re not going to do them. But if you schedule them pro-actively, you will do them. 

When you’re at work there are a number of things you can do..

  1. Take 3 breaths….Each time you get a call, before you respond, before you do anything. Find reasons to take 3 breaths during your shift during your work. If you get a lunch break, you can get off the street, and chose to eat mindfully. If you’re in an office close your door and spend 15 minutes eating mindfully. Rather than eating on the computer or while driving.
  2. The most important thing anyone can do is to develop a daily practice. To learn how to still and disengage from your mind, and to learn how to understand that your thoughts are not the truth. They are a result of your conditioning. When you really get that, things become very different. And you get that from being still, through practice, through learning how to be mindful. And there are so many tools available to us. Everyone can access to a podcast. There are so many people out there offering tools, so many tools in how to meditate, and learn mindfulness.
  3. If you’re a police officer, go to the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Watch the calendar, and come to the retreat.
  4. Read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Keeping the Peace. The book which came out of the retreat for police officers.

I was thinking about my first retreat with Thay’s. Part of this is also self-acceptance. Especially in the west, we have the problem of self-loathing. That we don’t even think we deserve to get 3 breaths. Than that could be another obstacle. 

That’s so important I think too. Pema Chodron says that she gets the same letter from everyone of her students in some form. And that letter says, “I’m the worst person in the world, help me”. And in some way it’s like that. And right away there’s one thing we can do about that. 

We can undo what the Buddha called “the second arrow”.

In other words, for example, and event happens with me and my son that is extremely stressful and leads to suffering. That suffering is an event that has occurred. But if I start to say, “bad mother” to myself. That is suffering added to suffering. That is the second arrow, and the kind of suffering that we can control.

That is another thing that meditation and mindfulness help us do.

They help us recognize our self-talk. And it is so helpful to recognize our judgments. And they help us become friendly with ourselves.

For example, one of the questions that I started asking myself through meditation was, when will I be enough, and what would make me enough?

Another one I started asking myself, is what would I do in this situation if I didn’t have an ego? To protect, defend and build up. What would my actions look like?

This practice is not about a goal of enlightenment, it’s about transformation. 

It’s about transformation and freedom. 

Getting those arrows out of the way, is very freeing.

Learning not to shoot them in the first place, wouldn’t that be freeing? (laughing)

I just want people to take advantage of all the resources and teachers out there right now, so take advantage of them. Thay has so many podcasts out there as well. And I think retreats are so important. If you’ve never been to a retreat, it’s like an acceleration what you might get from 60 times of trying to meditate on your own. Not only do you get instruction, but you have other people, and you all contribute energy. You’re contributing to it, and you’re drawing from it. And you’re letting the details, the to-do lists, go for a few days, so you can totally devote yourselves to this. So find a retreat and go to it.

Thanks again!

Resources

MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

Biography: Bodhipaksa is an accomplished teacher, published author, and founder of the popular Wildmind web site. He recently (Oct 2012) gave a TEDx talk on compassion (“The Surprising Secret of Unlocking Compassion”).

He has been meditating and practicing Buddhism since 1982. He was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order (former known as the Western Buddhist Order) in 1993. In addition to his work with Wildmind, he leads activities at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and for nine years he has taught a summer course to low income teens at the University of New Hampshire.

He was formerly the director of a retreat center in Scotland, and was center director at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana. He completed a Master’s degree in Buddhist approaches to business at the university of Montana, and founded Wildmind in 2001.

He has published several books and audiobooks on aspects of meditation and Buddhist practice, and is well-known for his guided meditation recordings. As the director of Wildmind and the father of two young children, Bodhipaksa understands the challenges of balancing a meditation practice with a busy life. His online courses have been running since 2002, and he has received consistent praise for his practical, down-to-earth approach as well as his care for and commitment to each student.

What brought you to a meditation practice?

It was a confluence of things in his life. Bodhipaksa was young and in high school, 17 or 18 years old, when he got interested in finding some kind of religious path, to find meaning and purpose in his life.

He did some exploration of left-wing politics, in an era where the communist party was very strong at the time. It was idealistic, socialism that attracted him. He’d been an atheist since he was eleven years old, the concept of God didn’t make sense at all. He did go back to the New Testament, interested in the ethical teachings of the New Testament.

He did come across references of Buddhism. It was not well known in Scotland at that time. But Buddhism made sense to him. It was rational to him, and didn’t require any belief in a supernatural being, etc.

At that same time, he went through a personal crisis as well. His friends went off to do other things, and left the area. His friends were very important to him, and he experienced a lot suffering. He felt quite lonely, anxiety, and a feeling of not fitting in. He had a hard time getting on with the people remaining.

Bodhipaksa was looking for something that gave his life meaning and purpose.

The idea of meditation as being a way of finding happiness within oneself was attractive to him. Because the outside world didn’t seem at all reliable.

Unfortunately there was no way for him to get to a meditation class. The nearest town was about 30 miles away, and might as well be on the other side of the world, as he didn’t drive. So it wasn’t until Bodhipaksa went to Glasgow, to the university, and he saw posters around campus, until he started going to these classes.

Did your sense of what you were looking for change as you started going to these classes? Anything you wanted to delve more deeply into?

Bodhipaksa had some particular experiences fairly early on. On particular day, he was with some classmates, and they were sitting together in the car to go home. And he was in a terrible mood, he tended to be very irritable in those days. In some ways he was quiet sensitive, and irritation was his defense mechanism in those days. He was listening to this conversation these two girls were having, and getting annoyed at how trivial and trite it seemed. But he caught himself getting really annoyed.

“And I remembered this loving-kindness practice that he had learned.  And just started saying to myself, “May I be well…. may I be happy… may I be free from suffering”. And it completely stunned me, but after 3 or 4 minutes of this, I actually felt really happy! Nothing mystical, or anything like that, meditation just works.”

Yeah, it’s pretty radical..

It does actually work. Today, I’m getting into teaching very short meditations to people, just 3 or 4 minutes long. They very often, almost everyone reports they’ve experienced a change in their level of well-being.

The reason for teaching these short meditations is because he’s very interested in helping people to make meditation part of their life. The trouble is that we teach meditation, make them sit through 25, 35, or 45 minutes of meditation.

People can get the idea that meditation isn’t real meditation, no point in doing it, unless you sit for 45 minutes. And then they go home at the end of the meditation class, and the next day its like, OK, I suppose I should meditate. Do I have 30 or 40 spare minutes?

No of course they don’t, because their lives are already full, they’ve already got a bunch of habits and responsibilities. And because they have this idea that it has to be a full fledged long meditation, or it is not a real meditation. And they end up not doing it at all.

So Bodhipaksa tries to encourage people to just try tiny 3 or 4 minutes of meditation, this is what you can do. He gets them to do the meditation standing up, or sitting in a chair. Get the idea across that you don’t need special equipment, get all setup, or lighting all the candles.

Yes, in our daily life is where the real fruits of meditation are..

Yes, especially with regularity, consistency in practice.

Do you find that the folks who do the mini meditations repeat the meditations until it becomes part of their lives..that something kicks in that activates within the person that then practices automatically, where it might be really helpful to de-escalate the inner turmoil? 

Yes, I think it’s quite hard for people to start meditating on their own. This is maybe another reason to encourage people to do shorter meditations. Because what we’re asking people to do is to apply a certain mindset, things like being patient, and kind with yourself. Recognizing that it’s OK to be distracted. You’re not the worst meditator in the world because your mind is distracted and all over the place. 

People bring a lot of unhelpful attitudes into the practice, so it can be quite difficult to get a meditation practice established.

Did you find that as you as you bring these meditations online, that this influences the way you’re doing these meditations? Because some of the folks are like you were when you were young in a remote place far away from a meditation center. So maybe that is part of the reason why you decided you wanted to bring it online to make it accessible to people who are like you at an earlier time in your life?

That’s really interesting. I haven’t made that connection before but i think that’s quite possibly the case. Yeah I have a very strong sympathetic, empathetic response to people who are in isolated situations, and who find it difficult to get a meditation practice started, and there are a lot of them. 

How many are there, what is that like since you’ve been doing this since 2001?

Yeah, I’ve doing it for a long time. I mean when I said there’s a lot of them I was thinking there’s a lot of people in a similar situation and perhaps the entire state where there’s hardly any meditations centers. And you have to travel like a 120 miles to get to a meditation center.

But in terms of how many I managed to reach through online activities is quite difficult to count. We have a lot of traffic to our website. I have this website with structured guides to meditation, all free. There’s recorded guided meditations that you can listen to. The Wild Mind web site get something like a 150.ooo thousand visits per month. 

Wow, that’s a lot. 

Yeah, and they’re all over the world as well so when the last time I looked, there were visitors from every country in the world except for think Western Sahara. It’s a disputed area, government or maybe there’s not even the internet there. Quite possibly there’s no internet connection. 

You wrote a couple of books about diets. Did that change as a result of meditation in any way?

Yes, it did interestingly. To put this in context. I first got in touch with a practicing Buddhist since I’ve been meditating. I was going to the University of Glasgow and I was training to be a veterinarian which is something that I had wanted to be for a long long time. Since it was a long time, probably since I was about 14 years old. 

I was in contact with Buddhists and most of the Buddhists I knew where vegetarian. And I actually hung around with Buddhists a lot. I really enjoyed being with them. I was actually working with a Buddhist company during my summer vacation. We’d eat with each other, going to each other’s houses after working all day. So I was eating a lot of vegetarian food but I was almost militantly anti-vegetarian.

People would say you’re eating a  dead animal. I didn’t affect me at all at that time. It was completely normal and natural to me to eat meat. And then my entire veterinary class went to a slaughter house.

One of the things that you’re trained to do as a veterinarian is meat inspection.  Two aspects to it There’s the welfare of animals before they die, and there’s also inspecting carcasses to make sure they’re not diseased so that cancer and infections and things don’t get to the food supply. So we had to go and learn how to do these things. 

And the very first day I went into the slaughterhouse was quite horrifying. First of all those the smell of the place felt absolutely disgusting. Nobody else having this reaction I think it was possibly because I had just for several months not been eating much meat and been living a vegetarian diet. As I was hanging around with other vegetarians.

I had to have a scarf wrapped around my face to try to filter out some of the smell. And then we went through into the killing floor to have a look at the end of the day and they’d finished slaughtering animals for the day. There was a pig which had been spotted which had been quite badly injured. And the animal welfare rules say, that the animals to be killed as quickly as possible. So I saw my first pig being slaughtered, by being shot in the head and having its throat cut and bleeding on the floor.

And at that point the question or statement, “you do realize that that meat is a dead animal” is something that made sense. I didn’t actually make a conscious decision to become a vegetarian. I just went home and I couldn’t eat it anymore. We already had some meat that we bought for our meal. And I just looked at it and I realized I can’t eat this. And I think it was a combination of, as I mentioned not having it very much meat for a while, while hanging out with vegetarians. Their philosophical approach to vegetarianism had not really affected me on a conscious level. 

I think the meditation practice that I’ve been doing had perhaps woken me up. Because I was the only person out of like 40, 45 people.  The only one who had this kind of response. 

I don’t want to have anything to do with this.

Yeah so that it opened you up in in a sense to the the suffering of someone else. Kind of like an empathetic response.

I think so yeah. I’ve been doing a combination of mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness practice for several months. And at that point I think it opened me up in an empathetic way.

I also noticed on your website you mentioned you see your children as your spiritual teachers. Maybe you can explain that a little bit what you mean.

Well , so you’re a meditation teacher and you go and teach your meditation class. You’re friendly and understanding to everybody, even when people can be quite difficult. And you’re patient with them. It is much more difficult to maintain that sense of, I’m in public, and I’m in charge of myself and I am emotionally non-reactive, kind and patient.

It’s much more difficult to maintain that kind of equanimity when you’ve got a child who’s screaming at you. Or having a temper tantrum or really upset about something. Doesn’t want to do what you want to do. Or even when they’re sick you know. When my kids were really young and I’d have to stay up half the night, holding them up right because they couldn’t sleep lying down, because of an earache, etc. 

It really tests you. Children push your buttons and they learn how to push your buttons . So it teaches you to practice patience and kindness in a much deeper level. Because when you’re doing it at the meditation class, it’s relatively easy to do.

When you’re in public and people are watching you, you’re on your best behavior. But you can also remember to be on your best behavior all the time when with your kids. And you don’t feel like anyone is watching you when you’re on your own with them. 

Yeah just like at the workplace, you know it’s easier to be nice there too because you’re you’re also getting getting paid to be there and so forth.

 I think sometimes the amount of time that people spend at work leads to that familiarity that breeds contempt. That’s also a very good practice place for sure. Especially at meetings, where people disagree with you, it’s very easy to get heated and to get stubborn. 

And in terms of your website, what inspired you to decide to do the Wild Mind web site about meditation full time? What what makes you realize this is something that you wanted to do full time right?

It is now. It was not full time at first, it was a very part time thing for a long time. The idea for the website came to me but I was doing a master’s degree at the University of Montana.  And I had this decision that I wanted to go and study Buddhism at University. I wanted to do a master’s in Buddhism.

And the reason for that was because being smart can be a bit of a problem sometimes, because it can seem quite easy to get your head around Buddhist teachings. And because you think you understand it, you don’t ask yourself the deeper questions, like do I really understand this?

On an experiential level. Does this even make sense. Are there contradictions. Because you can sometimes find yourself holding contradictory ideas in your head. And you can flip from one to the other without even realizing that you’re doing. It is very common to do that. So I wanted to be challenged to think more deeply about about the Dharma, about Buddhism.

And I was lucky enough to bump into professor of Buddhist Studies who is looking for a teaching assistant. And a teaching assistantship would pay for a masters degree.

However, and this was a real stroke of good luck. It wasn’t possible to do a pure masters in Buddhism at this particular University. There weren’t enough for credit courses available. So was gonna have to do some kind of interdisciplinary masters. And choose two different areas of Buddhism. And something else and focus on both of those areas but especially on the overlap between them and I considered various options. I was quite interested at one point in studying Zen Buddhism and so on studying Japanese. But my adviser pointed out that would take many many years to develop enough proficiency in Japanese and Chinese, which I’d also have to learn, classical Chinese, in order to be able to make any use of that.

And it occurred to me that one of the things I’d always really love doing was running businesses. Hadn’t really thought of myself as doing that. But when I was in Glasgow and involved in Dharma center there, I volunteered to run the book shop. I love the craft of taking something and making it work well. And making it appealing to people. Increasing the range of books there, expanding things, building things up

So I love that, and then moved into a Buddhist center for a number of years. A retreat center in the Highlands of Scotland when I arrived it was a very small scale operation then. Again I just love building it up and be able to reach more people and being the benefit more people. 

And so I thought well maybe I could study Buddhism and business. A really intreaging thing to do. Most people do what you’re doing right now and give a little nervous laugh. Buddhism, business? Aren’t they the complete opposite? (laughing)

But of course in the Buddhist teaching there’s the 8 fold path, which is the core teaching of Buddhism, and one of the aspects of the eight fold path, is right livelihood . So that’s Buddhism and business. It’s how to make your work into a practice.

So I was studying classes in the business school and I was studying Buddhism in the philosophy department. And I was trying to think what am I gonna do with this degree. Where is this going to go. I had friends who were Buddhists who were running businesses, and I got involved. And looked at whether I might be able to apply the principles I was learning to their particular businesses.

Lin Chi in trashHello dogs! (NOTE: Sorry, the dogs were barking for a few seconds at this point..As you can see, our dogs can be troublemakers. They want to apparently insert themselves not just in pots, pans, and trashcans, but also in the podcast!)

And then it just it just came to me one day, but it just came to me that the internet at that time (around 2000) was not a good place to go if you want to learn meditation. There were people who were advertising meditation classes there, but you can’t go onto the internet at a particular time and learn how to meditate.

And I thought well you know you can. People don’t think it’s unusual to learn meditation from a book to go out and buy tons of books about meditation. People don’t think it’s unusual to go out and buy a CD on meditation. And then you can do all of those things on the internet.

So I worked on putting together a structured program, and actually wrote a grant proposal to the Council of learned societies and managed to get some grant money. Which funded me for a summer to work on writing and recording some material and I tried to make in the University first of all of it was an online course. Just within the university and then I you know that started the website and that was 2001 November 2001.

And and then it started attracting people to come to it, and and how did you do change over time, to meet whatever needs they had. Did you just do it based on whatever feedback you got?

Well things just kind of evolved. My original idea was just have a website where people can come and we can learn something about meditation. And that was it. Trouble, I was a graduate student and I could barely scrape through a week and feed myself. Never mind set a website. I had a friend who was a Buddhist was fairly successful businessman and I told them about my idea for this website and I said I’d probably need a couple hundred dollars to get started. He said, no problem at all more like this one particular time. He asked if I thought about doing meditation classes online, because he knew I was a meditation teacher. And I thought, yeah I know how I could do that. I Immediately thought about how you could you could do that with discussion forum and readings and guided meditations.

And so after starting their website I moved into having online courses . And people liked the recordings I done. So tried to put some of  those CD and CD did very well. And things just gonna took off from there.

And then did the CD’s then turn into downloadable audio?

Yeah we’ve the website now has a an online store, where you can buy CDs. The online courses have changed quite dramatically. I used to work with a small number of people quite intensively. And have a daily correspondence with them about their practice. That limits you to a small number though. 

Now there’s a suggested donation, no fixed charges. If you got some more money use another level of donation. And so you know we’re getting in our most recent course there is like 227 people.

You also mentioned prison, do you the same way with them?

Yeah for several years I went along to the state prison for men in Concord, New Hampshire, where there was already a meditation group. They don’t have a lot of internet access in prison, for obvious reasons. So that was actually an incredibly fulfilling thing to do. This was quite frustrating in some ways not because of the inmates that the staff was often making it quite difficult. I would drive an hour there and discover that was something else planned at the chapel that day, and no one had bothered to call any of the volunteers. So you drive an hour home again. So sometimes it it was quite frustrating.

But the amazing thing was that these guys had an incredible depth of practice, as they were living in very difficult circumstances and the Dharma practice, their meditation practice was a lifesaver. But it was actually inspirational to be with a group of people who are so committed to the practice.

It was much more satisfying in many ways then teaching meditation class in my my local Dharma center just down the road. Where you know in some cases people would come along and meditate in the evening. But that was the only meditation that they did all week.

It’s almost like that image of your hair being on fire. I have a sense that if you’re in prison you’re more willing to make a full commitment. Then in the case that you’re not in prison where you got lots of distractions and other things. 

Yeah absolutely the problem became one of time and resources. My then wife and I adopted two children , and she wasn’t working anymore, because she was staying with them. Staying at home to look after the children. And a lot less money came in, and I just have to be more careful about how I spent my time. So unfortunately there was one of the things I had to withdraw.

Their group is still meeting by the other people who stepped. I also went down to a couple of prisons in Massachusetts as well to manage to get somebody else to take over.

And you also mentioned you worked with low-income teens have at one point.

That was the University of New Hampshire. There was a program there is actually a federally funded program called Upward Bound. And everyone thinks I’m saying outward bound, and think it’s about camping. It’s a federally funded program that started in the nineteen sixties. Back in the days when people had a consensus around helping people from low-income families to get into higher education, and when they saw it as a good thing. Because it would strengthen the nation, because you’re tapping into talent, that might otherwise go unrealized.

And so the program means to help teens from low-income families prepare for college. Very well actually none of their parents have ever been to college. Often their parents are quite impoverished. Sometimes now your mental health problems substance abuse problems etc. So they were great bunch of kids and I did that for ten years. I have very tentatively started doing some meditation with them. I was basically asked to come in and help teach them study skills and personal development skills.  And I was a little hesitant about it at first, because it’s something that really precious to me. And the thought of taking something very precious and offering up to a bunch of people who might not appreciate it, or think it was boring or dull or something like that that was that was scary.

But I took the risk and I started introducing to meditation to the low-income kids, and found out very quickly it was their favorite thing of everything that was being taught. And they wanted more of it. It became a regular thing, and we did it in every single class. And they found that very beneficial.

Did you notice it changed them as well?

It’s kinda hard to tell, whether meditation changes people. I mean I’m getting a bunch of people I don’t really know very well I’m teaching to meditate. By the time I’m getting to know them they had only been meditating for a few weeks. But a lot of them said that they find it helpful. I have to go on their reports, rather than mine. 

How do you explain Wild Mind in terms of working with habit patterns?

It was just a name. Well it’s become in a way just the name. I would explain it in terms of ecosystem for example. An ecosystem doesn’t have anyone in control of it. There was no one saying, okay we’ve got too many insects you know, let’s send in the birds. There’s no one saying, oh, there’s a clearing. Let’s plant seeds so that some trees drop. It just all you know works perfectly and beautifully.

So meditation can bring about something like that as well. First we feel compelled to meddle with our minds. Feeling like we always need to be doing something. And actually we do need to do something at first. You know we need to make some kind of an effort. But with practice you can get more of a sense that your meditation practice is just happening. It’s just something that’s just arising within you. And it can happen quite beautifully.

There can be no conscious intent to do anything. You’re just sitting there. It’s like sitting observing a forest and seeing all the life going about its business, doing whatever it does, staying, keeping in balance. And it can be like that with the mind well. You’re not doing anything but sitting there.

And sometimes even when you’re not watching you get the sense there’s things going on. I’ve had many times in my meditation practice, where I’ve become mildly distracted. And I’m thinking about something, and then I realized. Oh, I’m distracted, let’s go back to my experiences and notice what my experience is. And I find that my experience is very different from what it was before I got distracted.

Suddenly now I’m really happy. And it’s really easy to be calm. My mind feels bright and I feel energized And it’s like, while my attention was out of the way, some parts of me were collaborating to produce this beautiful experience for me to come back to.

And so, yeah there is there is a sense in which I’m using this word Wild Mind, to suggest something quite expansive. Also tend to use a lot of nature images.

I think all meditation teachers end up using a lot of nature imagery, as it is very evocative. So we talk about sitting like a mountain.

We talk about letting your mind be like water so the water. You stop stirring the water, and you just let it settle down and let it become clear and and calm. And able to reflect. You find but as water calms down, you can see into it. With your mind calming down, you can also see into that more easily.

So there’s a lot of nature imagery that tends to come into meditation practice. Again this idea, of the wild as being something spiritual.

But I don’t tend to think about why I called it, “Wild Mind” very much these days. 

But it’s really nice to let meditation help you become aware of the background (nature), instead what is often the foreground (our minds). The Background comes to the foreground.

You’re also an individual coach. Is that part of the website as well?

It’s something that’s available through the website. It is something that’s fairly new for me as well. As I mentioned I did quite a bit of coaching in my early days when I first saw online courses. I mean a lot.  I was doing a lot of coaching. But primarily through text. Corresponding with them pretty much on a daily basis. And that’s where I got the idea from being on the generation X dharma teachers conference this past summer. And there were a few people there who are coaching.

Folks listening to this might be thinking, maybe that’s a helpful way to have somebody like a coach, “see your back”. You’ve already mentioned your kids, and that’s wonderful. That folks folks like us who have families. They look at the back of our necks as well. They can see the parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily notice or wanna notice as much. And as a coach you kind of do that as well, seeing patterns that someone else might not recognize as easily?

Yeah, I think that’s one of the big advantages of Kalyana Mitta (spiritual friends) or special friendship. It is interesting you look at the scriptures and you see that, “spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life“. That is a very strong statement.

There’s actually very little in terms of teachings apart from that, spiritual friendship. I can think of a couple of suttas where either the Buddha either discusses spiritual friendship or praises spiritual friendship in a detailed way. But it’s not really developed very strongly. One of the advantages of spiritual friendship is it helps you to become conscious of things that you’re not so conscious of.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell people that would be listening now, who want to be free from suffering?

There are many things I could say. The first thing that springs to mind is to find some kind of balance in your meditation practice. A lot of people when we they go to learn meditation take up some kind of mindfulness practice. That’s the most common thing. So you’re sitting watching everything or paying attention to the body are you sitting watching thoughts passing through. And letting go of them.

That’s all great so wonderful very good thing to do. That’s an excellent practice. But there’s a whole other side of practice which involves working with heart. And developing more kindness and developing more compassion and developing more appreciation. And that is really important.

One of the things that I’m quite wary of in the modern Buddhist world is, there is this emphasis on the goal, as being having a particular kind of insight. And so people want to have this kind of insight.  They want to see you through the illusion of self. Which is a completely valid, and wonderful thing to do. And everyone should have that experience.

But the Buddha’s ideal of somebody who’s awakened was not just somebody who has that insight and seen through the illusion of a separate self. But the Buddha’s ideal was of somebody who is like an ideal human being. Somebody who is warm and compassionate and kind. Somebody who is patient and who is able to live in a very simple way. So some of those elements tend to get lost in people’s practice because they’re focusing on developing mindfulness and insight.

But if you’re doing that, you not really aiming at becoming the kind of person that the Buddha was encouraging us to be. So you’re not really aiming for the Buddha’s goal was. So I really encourage people to take up not just mindfulness practice, but also some kind of loving-kindness or compassion practices as well.

Great advice. I know my my teachers teacher put that, is he said, “I’m not interested in your enlightenment experience. I’m interested in the day after.” (laughing)

I really appreciate your time and and your kind words, and I hope that folks can check out your website. 

Thank you.

Resources

MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh

MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh

MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Gun Violence and Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh

About Laura Bakosh

Laura obtained a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from Sofia University and has spent more than five years researching the academic and behavioral effects of mindful-awareness practices on children in k-12 schools. She has a Bachelors Degree in Business fromp Boston College and worked for 20 years in large, multinational companies, including Northern Telecom, EMC and GE. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and co-developed the audio-guided Inner Explorer Programs. She has had a personal mindful awareness practice for more than 21 years.

Laura discovered the benefits of mindful awareness more than 20 years ago when she was trying to manage the stress of travel and long workdays. While working at GE, Laura had the insight to share her mindful awareness practice with hundreds of fellow employees. Upon seeing the many positive results the daily practice had on performance, creativity, and wellbeing, she realized it would be the perfect fit for education.

The practices can help children navigate the ups and downs of life with resilience, alleviating stress and anxiety, and can help them focus, allowing them to be ‘ready to learn’. — all with compassion, openness, and love. She can hardly wait for the first generation of kids going through this program to reach adulthood! Laura received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Boston College and a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from Sofia University. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.

When not working, Laura loves to spend time with family and friends, especially with her husband Rick and son Will. She loves being outside, which is much easier now that she moved from Illinois to Florida, going for a bike ride, running with her dog Scout, kayaking, or playing tennis.

About Inner Explorer

Janice L. Houlihan

Janice L. Houlihan

Laura Co-Founded Inner Explorer with Janice L. Houlihan. Inner Explorer’s Vision is to inspire people to develop a daily mindful awareness practice, leading to a more compassionate, joyful, healthful, loving and peaceful world. They accomplish this by providing programs and tools, for children and their families worldwide, that inspire a daily mindful awareness practice. This practice will help lead the children and teens towards their highest potential by bolstering academic performance, creativity, social & emotional aptitude and well-being.

Laura Bakosh Interview Transcript

What follows is a summarized partial transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.

 

How did you get started with Meditation and Mindfulness?
Laura came to it in 1994 to manage the stress of long hours and travel when working for GE.  She felt stressed out very often, not eating and sleeping well, unraveling and reactive.
She started reading about stress reduction, and one of the books was from John Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. She found this incredibly eye opening. So then went to a retreat, and became very committed to practicing everyday. Started to notice lots of positive changes. She started feeling better, sleeping better, a lot more calm and level.
She continued to practice, and went to several training classes and retreats. As her colleagues began noticing changes in her, she realized it might help them too. She introduced MBSR to GE in 2001. Lisa Grady, an MBSR instructor created a program called the “Corporate Athlete”. Lisa conducted several retreats for the team and helped them develop a personal practice through audio-guided tapes, and weekly call-in’s. Over time, more and more GE employees asked to be included in the retreat sessions, to the point where they got 100 people to come in on their weekend retreat. The business outcomes were fantastic, higher orders, less employee turnover, and improved culture and collaboration. It transformed the entire team, from 2001-2004.
At the same time, Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at UW-Madison were conducting exciting mindfulness research using functional MRI (fMRI) equipment on the Buddhist monks. The results showed that the brain changes as a result of these practices. In general, the researchers found that there is less reactivity in limbic (fight/flight) system and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning). GE made the fMRI equipment, so there was a tie-in.
Through her own personal practice and the interactions with the team, she realized the biggest challenge is that it’s hard to practice every day. If you go to a seminar, it may be interesting, yet it’s hard to integrate that into your daily life. The practice is simple in that you are just sitting, but it’s not easy because most of us are not used to just “being”. Also, if your work environment doesn’t integrate mindfulness, it is difficult to find the time on your own. 
So if the employees that came to these sessions didn’t have that support when they returned to their divisions/departments/teams, they ended up losing the practice.
Laura realized that regular practice is critical to integrating these skills and to realizing the health and well-being benefits. So if you teach them while their young, it’s going to be extremely useful to them when their young, but also for the rest of their lives. So then she decided to leave GE at that time.
She went to the U-Mass teacher training program in MBSR. And went to grad school to further study and evaluate the impact in education. She then began to translate these mindfulness practices designed for adults into language that would be applicable to kids. 
In 2011 she co-founded Inner Explorer with Janice Houlihan, to bring daily mindfulness practices into K-12 schools. 
I’m curious about the struggles you experienced integrating the mindfulness practice into the GE workplace?
Yes, the key thing is some learning you can get from a seminar, but with mindfulness it is very critical that you practice every day. If you don’t practice it every day, or at least most days, the benefits will be more fleeting and won’t last. It’s similar to brushing your teeth every day, which leads to dental health.  Practicing mindfulness every day leads to cognitive health (and physical health)
Your team has to be supported in your practice efforts. In her team, the practice was front and center in people’s mind.  We encouraged them to dig in as they felt comfortable. As they did that, they found that it was very useful in their lives, so they embraced it. If you don’t have that kind of structure in your life, it is very hard to fit it in.
Most workplaces didn’t have acceptable policies or ways to do this mindfulness practice every day.
So many people have a hard time fitting this practice in. This is one of the reasons Laura and Janice started this company. Each of the tracks is just 10 minutes, the teacher simply presses play, and participates with the students.
So this program that you created with Inner Explorer, how does this work?
Each series (Pre-K- Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School) are audio guided, where the first thing the recording (audio stream) says is “closing your eyes”, because we want them going inward. Each series has 90 separate tracks, 10 minutes for most of them, 5 minutes for the youngest kids. Students listen every school day.
We ask the teachers to consider when is the best time during the day is to re-engage the kids. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes after lunch, sometimes after recess. It depends on the class and the teacher, it’s flexible. The program is streamed into the classroom. The teacher just logs in and plays the program.
We encourage the teachers to participate with the students, so they get a chance for 10 minutes a day to reground themselves. The teachers consistently report to us that it’s their favorite time a day. Because they get a chance to settle.
Teachers are under a lot of challenges. Students report higher and higher levels of stress. We know also that the majority of US students are living in poverty (51% ). Teachers have to meet this stress, anxiety and trauma every day with multiple students. These practices teachers the chance to develop resilience in the face of these challenges.
And do you find in some cases where the class is particularly riled up that the teachers decide to use the meditation audio during those occasions?
Yes, definitely. It’s generally a time when it is difficult to get the student re-engaged. Like coming in from lunch for example. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to get settled. It depends on the student. Once a routine is established, students settle quickly, and over time, (within a few weeks) they will begin reminding the teacher to run the program. 
Students are already pretty mindful in the moment. But they don’t operate in an inward sense. They’re not usually digging in to understand what’s going on in their inner world. Once they do, they realize that it feels good. To notice thoughts and emotions coming and going. They start to disconnect from the sense that they are their anger and frustration.
They see anger and frustration coming and going. It’s really healthy for them to separate the thought and the thinker.
Do the students learn this distinction from the audio meditations, in other words, are these narrated instructions in the audio?
Yes, the program follows the MBSR protocol, which has been well studied for the last 25-35 years or so. It’s been very well researched and received very well. We’ve taken that protocol and have created out of that these 90 bite-sized pieces. So yes, the program is guided. Each day different instructions.
The Inner Explorer program then builds. Starts with awareness of breathing, relaxation, moves to physical senses, then thoughts, then emotions, then connection and compassion.
As kids build more and more attention and focus, they can then do it longer and longer. And they can handle more complicated ideas, like noticing emotions come up.
What’s remarkable, is that children start to practice what it feels like to be angry. They for example notice a time that they were angry. They notice the bodily sensations of that emotions. They become familiar with how anger comes up for them. We’re used to reacting in those circumstances.
But in this case they have that momentary awareness, that, “Oh that’s anger, I recognize that sensation”. Giving them that little bit of pause, is giving them a chance to respond. To bring that pre-frontal cortex part of the brain back online.
And that de-escalates it..
Exactly. We’ve done a bunch of research and others have replicated it. Students have a 50% reduction in their behavior problems. Fewer principal office visits, fewer suspensions, fewer incidences of bullying, higher grades higher test scores.
Read/download the Research Article: Bakosh Houlihan 2015 Maximizing Mindful Learning
Amazing improvements with a 10 minute a day intervention, very cost-effective too.
So how did you do the research?
There were 3 different research studies conducted with about 1000 children. There was an 8 week study, 10 week study. And then a 27 week study. The first quarter grades were the pre-condition. And then for the next 3 quarters the student went through the intervention. And then the 4th quarter grades were the post-condition. The first study was controlled, meaning some children participated, some didn’t.
The second and third study were randomized controlled. Some of the volunteers (teachers) were randomized into either the control or the intervention condition.
Randomization is considered the gold standard in research, you have more faith in those results, because the teachers didn’t pick to do it, or not do it. They all picked that they wanted to do it, and were then randomized. It avoids self selection bias.
You had an interesting article in Mindful magazine, about the programs that were created to combat bullying in schools. But you explain that these programs were intellectual understanding of bullying. There was a gap between knowing and doing with regards to bullying.
Yes, that’s the thing about listening to a lecture, going to the seminar, or reading the book.  We all want to “know” to “check the box”, but with mindfulness, you don’t know it or embody it, until you practice it.
Many studies have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness have greater sense of self of self awareness, greater sense of resilience, and greater sense of compassion. Those are all well documented outcomes. 
If you consider
The bullying triad: the Bully, the victim, and bystander, or witness.
If all children practice mindful awareness, here’s what happens to these three parties.
The victim (suffer in silence, they don’t feel they deserve help)
  • Mindfulness helps these children become more resilient.
  • Which means, they’re more likely ask for help
  • Less likely to become a target.
  • These things alone will shift the dynamic.
  • They start to become aware from a deep and profound level who they are, and understand their gift.
  • They start acting differently, no longer the easy target, they are not their story anymore
The bystander
  • 90% think bullying think it’s wrong and that they would intervene.
  • Only 11% actually do intervene.
  • So it’s a fight flight response, they don’t want to get bullied, they get nervous, they don’t know what to do in that situation. When push comes to shove, they don’t know what to do.
  • But with mindfulness there is tons of research that people/kids become more compassionate. This part of the brain becomes more active.
  • They start to act more compassionately, even with people they don’t know. You end up with bystanders that are much more inclined to engage to help, they have this growing sense of compassion.
  • They’re more wiling to touch base with the victim, if anything give a word of support to the victim or report it, or get someone else to help.
An enlargement of self idea is going on here too right, with the bystander not just thinking of themselves any longer?
  • When kids practice mindfulness on a regular basis, they shift. You can see it. The kids become more engaged with each other.
  • All of the people in the triad, are developing all these skills. The bystanders are also becoming more resilient, more willing to not let situations put them down.
The bully 
  • Bully’s have all kinds of complicated situations in their backgrounds, that propel them into this role to begin with.
  • The practice foundation is awareness.
  • The bully’s are so disconnected from the actions they’re causing, especially with online cyber bullying.
  • A developing sense of awareness of their own actions are bound to connect them at a different level with their victim. 
  • They’ll be able to understand, my actions have a consequence, they can tune into that more.
As a result of the mindfulness practice, we’ve seen the number of bullying incidences go down.
When I was at GE, the team of adults had bullying going on as well. This cat fighting and backstabbing. Not unusual in a corporate environment.
However, what ended up happening after this mindful practice, it all changed, cohesive, highly loyal team. The team became loyal, the “dream team”. The team was so much changed after the mindfulness practice.
And we see that in the classrooms, the teams become this connected, cohesive unit.
Wonderful. Especially now, this is so relevant, with these school shootings.  I can see how mindfulness programs in school would also have a beneficial effect on school shootings. School shootings, the perpetrators feel alienated and disconnected, and so they seek attention in a very negative way. I can see how mindful programs would de-escalate would make them feel more connected, rather than less connected. 
Yeah, I have a story about that. Here in Florida, we have an after school program for girls at-risk, Girls Inc. They inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through enrichment programming like finance, business, leadership. The idea is to give these girls a chance at a better life.
There was one girl who’d been going for some 5 years, a girl who was so difficult. She was violent, mean, she stole, was angry, and  unhelpful. Literally the antithesis of what they were trying to promote as an organization. But they wouldn’t give up on a child. So the staff had meetings every 2/3 weeks for 5 years, to figure out a new plan to try to reach this girl. They’d been trying everything to help her. This girl has a traumatic life, both parents in jail, lives with aunt in a chaotic household, health issues, diabetic, a challenged girl in many ways.
One morning after 8 weeks of the running a daily mindfulness program, this girl was voted unanimously “Girl of the month”. And the Executive Director read through the comments, from the students and staff, she couldn’t believe what she was reading. They said this girl was “helpful, kind, goes out of her way, caring, team player” etc. It’s as if she found herself for the first time, at just 12 years old.
Children from really challenging environments don’t know how to process what is happening to them. They don’t have the tools, and don’t know where to turn. Sometimes, the people who are supposed to be taking care of them are not able. The result is mental and physical health disorders, destructive and bullying behaviors, poor academic performance and often, engagement in the juvenile justice system.
So when you give them the chance to dig deeply, into whatever their essence is. Most often what’s there is really good. They just have to tap into that, and start to trust what’s there. 
They then emerge from this beautiful amazing place, and they’re unstoppable. These former bully’s become these forces of good, positive momentum. We see this all the time.
That’s amazing, the transformation of a bully into a force for good!
Yes, it’s the regular practice that’s so important. Once they get that habit, it’s fantastic, and they love it. But it takes a little time to develop this practice.
How much time is involved?
We have a sense. Broadly, the littler kids the pre-KK, elementary. Within a week, week-and-a-half the kids are used to it. Teacher just hits the button and go. It’s also easier to fit it in those age-ranges, because the kids are in the same room usually throughout the day. The teacher can fit it in easier.
In the older grades, middle and high school, it’s a bit more challenging, because the courses are typically 45 minutes, so harder to fit in 10 minutes. But it can be fit into the study hour or home room type thing. The other thing is that with those ages, it takes a little longer before the pre teens and teens get the sense that this is helping them. They don’t immediately feel a difference, so they question it. So it might take 3 weeks or so.
So we guide the teachers to not give up, even if there’s push back initially.
Most students who get deeply engaged in it, do so because they really can feel a profound difference. 
And if they did it in earlier grades, then the transition must be even smoother? Yes. 
Do they continue to practice mindfulness once they leave school?
Yes, we know that 40-50% of the students bring their mindfulness practices home and teach someone in their household. They can see the stress that their families are under, not just families in poverty. All families have lots of stress. So they bring it home to teach their siblings and parents. So they have lots of students ask Laura and Janice if they could make an at-home program for the people in the households.
Ideally, we try to give them the skills and the tools through the Inner Explorer program. Our program is nice and easy, it’s guided. But they also mention in the program that, “Hey you can do this at home!” Try this at home. Because not everyone needs or wants the guidance, or guided meditation. They don’t need the guidance once they’re experienced with mindfulness. Some just want to sit at home, and do some of the practices at home. We’d love for every child to do these practices at home. The world would change.
Where do you see this mindfulness in schools development 5-10 years from now? With all the recent gun violence and other violence, folks talk all about controlling violence, and mental institutions, however, I think what your doing is much better, taking care of the root problem, rather than treating the symptoms.
What would be fantastic for us, would be to have the awareness, educators and parents need to be aware. Programs like ours and others are very cost effective, easy to implement, and can literally transform classrooms and schools today! We ought to be doing this everywhere.
There’s no reason why every school shouldn’t run a program like this.
It’s not just the academic and behavioral improvements. But there’s also health and well-being improvements. They reduce depression, anxiety, all kinds of mental health issues. This has been documented.
1 in 5 kids has a mental health disorder that inhibits their ability to succeed in school. Kids today report so much stress, which is linked to other disease states and immune system dysfunctions. This stuff is simple, and yet, I don’t know what we’re all waiting for.
We’re trying to reach 1 million children by 2019. There’s 55 million kids in this country. We’ve served close to 15.000 children so far that are practicing mindfulness every day. We’re not doing it fast enough. It’s all about funding and all. But we’re working on it.
I think it just needs to hit critical mass, and it will go quickly. 
Exactly, we’re working on our systems, to make them easy to scale and robust. Streaming, and that the price point per classroom is low enough that it’s a strong value proposition for schools (The cost of the Inner Explorer program is now $100 per classroom for a one year license.* International rates differ). And that we’re ready when they’re ready.
Yes, it comes back to employers, saving sick leave and other costs by investing in a mindfulness program. 
Yes, it is hard to get people to do this in the workplace as initiatives. So if we get these children to do mindfulness through school, we’ve improved the likelihood, that the habit will be developed and will be solid by the time they’re adults. And we wouldn’t even need a mindfulness workplace program for adults. Because it will already be done.
Yes, one generation should be able to do it. 
Yes, that’s what we believe as well.  It’s exciting work!
Thanks so much!

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MF 006 Russell Kolts – Compassion Focused Therapy Interview

MF 006 Russell Kolts – Compassion Focused Therapy Interview

Russell Kolts Compassion Focused Therapy Interview

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview with author and professor Russell Kolts

Russell began with an intense study of Buddhism; reading, meditation, and doing retreats after three years, he realized that a compassionate, mindfulness practice had been life changing.

He says that it was the birth of his child about how he was motivated to start a a meditation mindfulness practice after his son was born. He taught compassionate therapy, and since he struggled with negative emotions in his own life such as anger, and irritability. He observed himself not following his own advice. So he deepened his practice.  He realized, “if you want your child to become a good parent, become the person you want your child to be”. What message do your children get from their parents? So he started doing meditation practices, and learning from Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama.

He was then later also more able to bring what he learned in his meditation practice  and into his psychotherapy work work, by focusing on, “Compassion  Focused Therapy”. He then had a scientific scaffolding for working with the mind.

Some examples of practices that would work for him in the moment during.

  • Mindfulness meditation helps notice what is moving in the mind, such as anger and irritation. This practice helped him recognize it earlier, so just by naming the emotion, it reduces it’s hold on the person.
  • Meditation and cultivation of compassion have  gradually transformed his experience so that the destructive emotions came up less, due to ongoing work with with deep awareness.
  • Switching out from “that’s a bad emotion” and judgments, looking more deeply, what’s going on here, and other habitual responses.
  • Working with close family members shows that it is not easy to not be reactive.

Insight is hugely trans-formative

From a scientific perspective, those destructive threat emotions such as anger and fear where designed by evolution, so we can make a rapid response.

The compassion work is by seeing how the threatening person also wants to be happy and maybe our goals conflict at that moment. And at that moment. Shifting from judging and labeling to understanding.

Things don’t always go your way. It takes practice to react with compassion and understanding.

He brings mindfulness and compassion into his classes. He has a course on Compassion Focused Therapy, which involves compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation. Students are meditating in the class, because there is just no other way to learn about it.

He sees how it affects the classroom, students feel safer, they can think better, and more reflectively, and they can have dialogue, since there is a container there. It helps the students with difficult course subjects, helps them to center themselves. They don’t necessarily struggle with the problem, but more with the idea, a self-limiting belief. “There’s something wrong with me” is the most threatening idea, very distracting. Meditation helps you recognize these experiences that come and go in the mind, and not necessarily see them as real or true. Notice them, and let them go.

Slowing down their breathing helps the students. They’re not just techniques on the pillow, but at some point it needs to come off the meditation cushion. At some point it has to come into our lives, and begin to transform. It begins to happen behaviorally, and neurologically.

Other Benefits of meditation practices

Russell thinks that because the world moves so quickly, we’re constantly connected. When he was growing up there were just 4 TV channels, now hundreds, tweeting etc, is all wonderful and convenient. But we’re training our brains and minds to expect a certain high level  of stimulation. And we’re not designed to function like this all the time. Just sitting and breathing is hard enough! We’ve trained our brains to expect this level of stimulation. To just sit and do only one thing. If you can’t even sit for 5 minutes, its a sign to learn to slow down and be here now, with full focus of one’s mind. And maybe that’s reading, listening, and be fully present is tremendously powerful. If you want to be really good at something, you can’t be dividing your attention. It’s too stressful to maintain that kind of fragmented attention.

We just need to learn to slow down. He orients students on the front end that this is going to be uncomfortable at first to meditate. Key is to start very small, may start with a minute or two minutes, and go up from there. One of the biggest impediments is expectations. Folks don’t realize that it is actually very difficult. So they get frustrated with themselves, and they give up. In the West particularly we move into this self-criticism.

1. One thing we’re doing is to stabilize our attention

2. Training ourselves to see mental experiences and feelings as mental events, and not necessarily the stuff of reality

3. Training ourselves to notice the movement in the mind. Mentions giving a ticker for a finger biter, which helps train themselves to notice when they start doing the biting. Same with mindfulness. From this perspective the distractions are not a problem at all. These are opportunities to notice movement in the mind.

Russell’s focus right now is Compassion Focused Therapy to help people with emotions like anger. He’s currently working on “CFT made simple”, to help clinicians help their clients. They’re doing more research to demonstrate it’s effectiveness. It really helps that the science is beginning to be there, they now have data to demonstrate it.

He’s starting to see increasing interest in institutions. Lots of misconceptions still about compassion, it’s not being “sweet and nice all the time”.

Compassion is really about developing the courage to come face to face with suffering. Click To Tweet

Being sensitive to suffering and help out in an enduring way. It is still hard to pursue compassionate agendas in politics, because the money is not yet going there. We can have both, compassion and a good bottom line.

If you’re interacting with compassion and mindfulness, you can spread that pro-social stuff.

Training ourselves to notice movement in the mind Click To Tweet

Russell Kolts one tip for dealing with an oncoming destructive emotion.

  • When we notice, “I’m getting angry, anxious, etc”. Take 30 seconds to a minute. Slowing down the in-breath (in CFT it is called “soothing rhythm breathing”) and the out-breath. And after that ask yourself the question, “what would be most helpful in this situation”? What would I want them to understand? Slowing down the breaths doesn’t make the problem go away, it just softens, gives “that thread stuff”, gives it some space.

Resources:

http://compassionatemind.net

http://ewu.edu/

Books by Russell Kolts

(A gorgeous sunset we had in Anza-Borrego a few days ago)