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.
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.
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.
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 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.
MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel
Laurel Vogel, M.A. received her degree in contemplative ecopsychology (A Psychology of Writing) in 2006, and is an ecotherapist, writer, Zen practitioner, and Nature Immersion group facilitator. She founded and runs the Holding Earth Sangha on Whidbey Island, and conducts Nature Immersion camps on the West Coast. Her writing is anthologized in Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (ed. C. Chalquist), and her articles have appeared in Ecotherapy News, and Restoration Earth Journal.
Interview with Laurel Vogel
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What brought you to a contemplative practice?
I’ve been a spiritual seeker for a long time, from a young age. Vacation bible school busses would haul us off to church, and this opened up my seeking personality. I had a seeking personality, but couldn’t find a home in the traditional traditions. I couldn’t reconcile myself in those traditions. There was this God father that would punish people into eternal damnation. So I left that kind of church, and continued seeking. As a young adult, I went through many things.
In my 30’s I started Yoga, and had a strong Yoga practice for a long time. And in my 40’s I started meditating with Vipassana. Eventually came to Zen practice 11 years ago. I found that Zen was the one place where I could have all my doubts, and be exactly who I am, but still have a really strong containing kind of a practice.
Even though I came with all of my questions, and my sometimes contentious relationship with spirituality, it can hold that, and it can stand up to that. I find the non-exclusive nature of that, to be as close to a home in a practice as I could find.
Interesting that you mention the judgement of the old testament religion, and then the non-judgement and inclusivity of Zen.
Yeah, I don’t really belief anymore that all Christian religions are like that, but I’ve come to find that, maybe even not all Buddhist sects aren’t as inclusive as I would like. But for the most part, the one that I found seems to really embrace… it doesn’t tell me what to think, what to feel, and how to be.
So I had to go away from practices that were too prescriptive..
And the preconceived notions, and conditioning that they come with..
And of course there are precepts which we follow, but nothing like you have to believe, and have to think this way.
But there’s also a faith element in Zen as well. How do you relate to that as opposed to accepting something on blind faith?
The faith is to keep practicing. To keep going, to keep sitting, to keep doing the meditation practice I think. That’s really where the faith comes in. The process will take us toward wherever it is that we’re going. I see that as different than being told what I need to have faith in.
Through the culture, certain churches, not all of them, have really come to try to tell people a lot on how to live, and what to do. The particular church I was in for a while, they got into your life, from telling what length the sleeves of your shirt should be, to whether or not you should go bowling or swimming. It’s that kind of a context that I was reacting to when I was looking for a spirituality that was more open and inclusive.
Would you say you’re still seeking, or is some of that now dropping away, now that you’re feeling more at home in your practice?
In a way I think I feel at home seeking. I do feel like, no matter what I do, I’ll find a way to be seeking. Not sure if that’s a good/bad thing. I think it’s just part of my nature, and i’m finally coming to a place where I’m accepting that more. That I just maybe one of those people who needs to question everything. Maybe that’s just part of my path.
..You’re accepting it, whatever state of mind you are, you’re accepting that. That’s a very liberating feeling right?
Yes, it is, it’s very liberating to realize that no matter where i’m at, i’m accepted in this practice..As I am with all my questions and doubts. It doesn’t mean that I’m not practicing right, or doing the right thing.
Yeah, I think it was Shunryu Suzuki who said (Correction: Suzuki was actually quoting Dogen), life’s one big mistake…that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature are one continuous mistake.
..One continuous mistake, that’s right (laughing). That would describe my experience of practice.
How does this practice affected your relationship with the world. We’re going into Eco-therapy, which seems very similar to changing your view or relationship with everything.
Yes, the more I go into Zen practice, and the more I go into Eco-therapy, the more they seem to dovetail with each other. Especially with the ways I practice Eco-therapy. I actually defined what I was doing during my degree, as contemplative Eco-therapy. Which was very much about bringing people in a contemplative open state in their practices out in nature.
Has the sense of self/other changed over your practice?
Definitely..explain more what you mean by solid self and other?
I guess our culture and conditioning is about believing in a separate identity, I’m here, and that person is out there. I end at the ends of my skin..or skin bag.
Yes, that’s a good point to bring up. Both Zen and Eco-therapy are really congruent in a way. They give me a sense that I am interconnected and not separate from the natural world. There really is a mutuality, and inter-relatedness. The more that i practice contemplative practice, the more that I dissolve in my sense of nature and the natural world. And that happens when I walk in the woods. If I’m engaging my senses, pretty soon it feels like…I am my senses. And I’m not only sensing the world, the world is also sensing me. So there’s an inter-being.
When you started your Zen meditation practice, was there a moment that you can remember that you realize that you wanted to deepen your practice?
Probably…It’s been a sort of slow dissolving into practice, that I’ve gotten into. I’m doing a combination of Soto and now started studying the Aitken tradition, the Diamond Sangha. And I was doing Vipassana meditation, with a group sangha, but there was no teacher, no guidance. But I needed someone who i could ask questions of, and explore things more deeply with in terms of my practice. I just needed help basically to understand some things.
I happen to see a flyer at the local Dharma hall, in Bellingham, and Norman Fisher was coming to town. I remember attending my first Zen weekend retreat with him. I got a very strong sense that, here’s this person who didn’t have big charisma, which would scare me away. I felt like I could connect with him. And I pretty much jumped in at that point, became his student, and have practiced with him almost 11 years now.
How do you practice with him?
He’s in Marin County, Ca, but at the time he was coming up to Bellingham and Vancouver, BC about 6 times a year, so I would catch those retreats. I would go to those retreats, and sometimes I would go down to Ca as well. He has decreased the retreats up here, so that was part of the reason I started looking around for other Zen practice places.
Could you elaborate on what retreats do or give you, that you wouldn’t get from just joining a group and/or sitting on your own?
The experience of Sesshin, the extended 6-8 day retreats, are really immersions in the practice where you come together with different members of the Sangha/community. You live with them, cook with them, you do everything together, as one body. For me, it increases my sense of belonging, and the sense of being supported. And supporting others, because there are always many, many opportunities for service in those practices.
Some of those people I’ve barely spoken a sentence to, but I feel very close to them. So that’s part of it, why it’s important. But it’s also the structure of the schedule. Having all of the constraints of your life removed for a time. Or all of the things that are calling you, or pulling you out of yourself, and really just getting a chance to not have to make decisions and not have to have to do the usual life that you do. You just get to be contemplative. That in itself is a real possibility for opening.
Do you recall getting an example of getting an insight that you would likely not have gotten if you hadn’t gone to an immersive retreat?
I would say almost every retreat i have something like that. There’s just something about being away from my life, that is just really conducive towards that kind of thing. At one point I went to a practice period at Green Gulch down in Marin County, and that was really conducive to some openings, because not only are you relating to yourself in a practice place, but a lot of other people, a lot of different personalities. So there’s a lot of opportunity to look at your habits and patterns.
For me one of my biggest patterns is resistance. And so I almost always get a chance I can look at the ways that I’m resisting, like following a schedule, or whether I like people wearing robes, and things like that.
Do you have a funny example of that?
I don’t know if it’s funny…It’s just part of my contentious nature.
There’s times when it’s really serious and annoying, like you say, and then there are other times when it almost becomes comical.
Yeah, I guess that is pretty much it. It became funny to me, that I do spend so much time resisting and not just allowing myself to just follow the schedule. Obviously I’m there for a reason, and I’m putting myself in that position for a reason. Putting myself in that pressure cooker of a Sesshin for a reason. So it’s funny that I come up against this part of my personality…I have authoritarian issues, so I’m going to map authority onto everybody. So it could be funny sometimes, if we know how to laugh at ourselves.
Robert Aitken, who is our teacher’s teacher, has a story where his entire Sesshin retreats revolved around as he called it, “his damn mother”. Some issues that he had with his mother in the past was just brewing and dominating during his retreat. It can happen like that, a whole retreat where you have one issue that is taking the dominant form.
Yeah, I’ve had many Sesshin like that. It can happen even as you walk into a retreat. That I decide I need to obsess about something for a while. Now after 11 years of doing these, I’ve just started to get much better about dropping these stories. Where I can go, “OK there’s another one, I can let that go now.”
I think most of us, have some habits that are easy to let go, slide of, and some that are much harder to let go of. And we may look at another and see us struggle with a habit that for us would be very easy to let go of, but then they might look at us and see something we struggle with that they could let go off very easily.
All depending on our inheritance from our particular upbringing or culture that we were brought up in.
Then when you come back into the busyness of life, how does a retreat then affect the way you attend to your regular life? How does that affect your regular life?
At first I used to be bothered, because regardless of how many perceived openings I may have had, I was disappointed in myself. Because I was “supposed to be all peace and love now right?” years ago I would think that. Eventually that wore off, and I stopped trying to be something…once I left retreat.
Particularly work practice, and certain moving mindfulness practices, are helpful with this. All of a sudden, you find yourself becoming mindful, coming back to your mindfulness when washing dishes, getting to your car and driving to work, or walking through the woods, etc. It’s not something that I was able to bring consciously from Sesshin, into my daily life. It’s just something that happened as a result from consistently going.
We keep doing the practice, and at some point the practice does us. And carries you wherever you go.
That sounds right yeah..
Do you have an example where you notice that in your daily life, maybe in traffic, or cooking, or.. How do you become aware of that?
I’m not sure how it happens, maybe it was Jack (her teacher) who said using those experiences as mindfulness bells. Like when something difficult or alarming happens, like my neighbor’s leaf blower. That’s one of my favorite ones. I can use that experience as a mindfulness bell, and bring myself back, when I remember. And I do think as a result of pretty intense practice, I’ve come to where I can do that more often, and remember to do that more often.
And when you come back, that changes your relationship to the leaf blower?
Sometimes (laughing), sometimes I can drop the story that I have about that. I guess it does, because if I don’t do that, I can be agitated for a long time. And if I do that, I go can go somewhere else and focus on something different.
That’s nice, I bet a lot of people want to understand how that works better (laughing).
I wish I understood it better, but i really do think practice makes that happen. I don’t know how else to explain that, I don’t think we can try. It’s like you said, the practice practices us eventually.
That’s great, something de-escalates, becomes less tight, constricted, it sounds like from what you’re saying.
Yeah, and the heart opens up a little more to the other person. This happens all the time in human relationships. You get this email with a tone that you’re uncertain about, and at first you feel like, oh, that person is saying such and such. And instead of reacting, you take a break, there’s another mindfulness bell. And then come back to it, you can kind of let go of the story that you have about that person. Maybe it’s someone you’ve had conflict in the past. And maybe you, or I can see it as my trigger. That was my own personal psychology at work there, I can now let go of that. And deal with this person who has their own particular way of seeing the world also.
That’s great, and that then has the ability to create a new opening in that relationship too. And the de-escalation, and then maybe a new appreciation.
Yeah, so often we encounter others except through the lens of our own stories. The more we can discern between what is my story, and what is your story, the more potential there is for an authentic meeting.
How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?
I grew up as a barefoot kid, running around, and climbing trees. At some point that got closed of, and shut down, probably age 13-14-15. Whenever that happens. And I kind of moved indoors, probably a lot of stuff going on in my personal, and family life. Then when I was about 24/25, and married at that time, and he decided we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. And I didn’t want to go. I had pulled away from nature in a way that I was unaware of. But we went..
So we went down into this canyon, and I’d been afraid of everything in nature. Like some young women are. I was fragile around it. I was taken into the Grand Canyon, and it was this process of stripping away culture for me.
We entered in at Lees Ferry (part of Glen Canyon), as most people do..and we had these oarsmen who were wild men. It was cold and rainy, I hated it, and thought it was the worst thing in the world. We had to hike out of Bright Angel, due to half of a trip pass. And by the time we hiked out, I was begging to stay and go on with the rest of the guides. Something happened to me in that canyon.
I think it was just the awakening of the senses. I was touching rock, seeing wildlife, feeling the river, the sky, the sun. We were open and in nature. I had not seen or felt what I had been missing. And so that experience stayed with me. I started camping much more. We continued to go back to the canyon. I became much more the person I was supposed to be.
Eventually that relationship ended, I went back to school, where I got a degree in Eco-Psychology. I was interested in the field of psychology, but not so much interested in working in a confined room/office. Which I tried to do for 3 years, but eventually taking my practice back to eco-therapy and eco-psychology. Practicing in context with the world.
So what is the main difference between eco-therapy and eco-psychology?
Eco-psychology is the academic field that i’m in, and Eco-therapy is the way that it’s practiced. Applied eco-psychology. There are some other nuanced difference, but I like the term Eco-therapy because it’s readily understandable and gets away from the world psychology.
(Below a short video from the Eco Belonging web site)
How does that work in practice, do people have some eco or nature deficiency, and then get referred to you, how does that work?
I do have some referrals with therapists in the area, who think it would be beneficial for their clients. A lot of work is coming out in hospitals now, that this is a good adjunct to certain illnesses that people have. You know that is one of the biggest challenges in this field is, how to help people see the difference between doing eco-therapy, or going to a therapists office.
We have found that working with other groups, or with other types of things is the best way to go. One of the things I do, is write a lot about the topic. I used to write to eco-therapy news and I’ve written for restoration earth journal and an anthology for the topic. And so that’s one area where it’s a big educational piece, to try to join it to other things.
The other thing i started doing is when I started our Zen practice group here, we are moving it towards becoming a green Sangha. Introducing a little bit of Thich Naht Hahn’s materials, he has the “holding earth” idea.
We’re also taking people camping. My husband is a psychotherapist, he works with couples. So one of the things we’ll do is taking couples out. This is a great way to work with couples, combining his marriage counseling with the eco-therapy. It gives it a context, and gives them something to hang what they know about therapy, and yet we can do it outside in nature. And so they like that piece of that. They’re getting something that they know about, and they also get to go kayaking, or whatever it is that we’ve concocted to help them experience nature.
You mentioned taking folks outside. What else do you do with your clients to change their relationship with themselves, those around them, and nature?
Sure, I have a 6 part series that I do with people. So there are 6 sessions. I’ve extracted some Buddhist ideas, which has to do with the senses. And I’ve also combined it with Shinrin-Yoku. A Japanese forest immersion practice or forest bathing”. It is a way of using the sense roots, in Buddhism, which is part of the Abhidharma. So the sense roots would be the eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, taste, touch, and mind.
I’ve taken each of these senses, and made a practice that they can do out while we’re outside, partly when we’re together, and part at home on their own. So they can do their own micro quest with that particular practice. And really help themselves open that particular sense up.
And then these build on each other. And eventually we get to the 6th, which is the mind. It’s domain is thinking. So mind and thinking. That would culminate this initial series with.
The mind in the west is pretty much the primary organ that is paid attention to. Which is why it’s so dominant, so how do you treat that in your eco-therapy session?
First of all we distract from the mind, by taking people out. One good way is getting people out of their shoes. Just getting them sensing, touching, and feeling. And in that process dropping stories. Just coming to direct visceral contact.
And eventually when you get to seeing the mind as yet another sense-root, you can also see thinking as something that is like a sense, you can drop it.
What are seeing people reaction to that, do you see people have reactions to that? Do they resist?
Some people are resistant to that, just like me. And very often..can’t talk about individuals, but I can talk about folks I’ve paid attention to outside my practice. I find that they experience a sense of joy in the connection. When they have a contact with something wild, or something that’s not in their normal domain. And when they feel their mutuality/relationship with that other being, that more than human being. And this really sparks in us both what’s missing from our lives, and our need to reconnect.
It instills a desire hopefully to continue these re-connection practices.
Do you give them assignments to go out every day to reconnect with those senses?
Ideally that’s how it works. One person I can talk about, she passed up her porch swing everyday for the last 3 years. They put in this beautiful porch swing. And after this retreat she was adamant, she was no longer going to do that. She was going to enjoy her porch swing.
Other people have different experiences. We had a couple kayaking, and it brought up their relationship difficulties. And they were able to sort through some of those things. One person needs to steer on the rudder in the back, and another needs to paddle. They need to paddle in unison with each other for it to work! They’re metaphors that can happen in the process of taking people out on adventures.
So it gives them insight where they’re stuck in their relationship…
Yes, it did. Actually my own husband and I we got some insight into our relationship on that trip too (laughing).
What kinds of mental illnesses are particularly benefited by taking part in eco-therapy?
There is a lot of research coming out, for those who are inclined to the western way of thinking. Mostly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Finland. And they are showing actual quantifiable effects. Decreases in anxiety and depression, increased immune function. They’re finding that people who exercise outdoors, what they call Green Exercise. It helps people to have better stamina, when they’re outside, working out. they found a reduction in ADD symptoms, that focus is improved from increased contact with nature. And even improvements in self-esteem.
That’s great, you can’t go wrong with that. I saw one (2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K), which found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. (The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.)
So the challenge is that not everyone is aware that this is solution they can use right now, they can go outside…
Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think people can get kind of bored after a while, if they don’t really understand how to connect outside..Because we’re of of practice, and we’ve also been conditioned by a culture that needs us to be dependent on what it gives us. A constant stream of entertainment, media, maybe sugar…. (laughing)..I struggle with that…things like that.
So I think this dependence on this culture detracts from our ability to go out and fully experience the subtleties that nature has to offer. Also I don’t think we understand how much reciprocity there is in nature. That it’s actually giving to us, as well as us giving to it, her/him…There’s so much to this.
Like you said, I don’t see Facebook anytime soon asking people to go outdoors. They do not want people to leave their platform, and their sugar, and whatever else..
Right, and that is where I think mindfulness helps. And having a little bit of stamina to sit and stay with something..You know there’s a good story by Eve Ensler. She wrote the vagina monologues, and in her more recent book, In the Body of the World, she talks about her experience with cancer.
The only salvation is kindness.
Eve Ensler ended up in a hospital being treated for her cancer. And after treatment was so debilitated. She didn’t have the strength to watch TV, or check her text messages, or do any of the things that we’d ordinarily do to distract ourselves from the pain that we’re in. And in her hospital room out her window, she could see a tree. And this is a person who left a rural area for New York City, and said she hated trees. She wasn’t going back. So here she is, stuck in her own situation with no other outlet, and here is this tree.
There’s a beautiful distillation of this story on brainpickings about what happens to her as she interacts from her hospital room with this tree. Staring at the bark day after day, and getting to know the bark. Then staring at the shiny leaves. Then near the end of her stay the tree blooms. It had a profound impact on her. She found a lot of healing both emotionally and metaphorically she was able to understand her relationship to the tree and all that had happened. And also as she was fighting cancer to her own body. So it’s a great story and example.
You see these stories in the literature. Like Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older than Words. His own story of childhood sexual abuse by his father. And the ways that his relationship to his father, and a mirror of what we’re doing to the culture plays out in the book and his own personal healing.
And a more recent book, H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, about grieving, the death of her father. Beautiful stories about the ways people interact with nature, and find the deep spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.
Ideally we’d teach this ability to recognize this at an earlier age then when someone gets cancer right? How do you think that’s going to happen in the future?
Little kids already have this, and humans in general already have this knowledge. To me it seems that what we’re doing is we’re training them out of it. And so it’s a good question. I do believe that we’re seeing more, my ears are attuned to hearing stories about nature. And I was at a writing retreat last weekend. And many of the stories that people were compelled to tell each other, had to do with like, “well there was a squirrel dragging a giant mushroom around.” This is at a retreat center in the woods, so there was a lot of nature around there. They were able to go around and walk.
Another story i heard was, “Well a deer chasing a coyote!” And you know one story after another about their interactions with nature. So it gave me some hope that people are interested in nature. When you hear people tell stories like that, and you’re listen to them, you’re hearing something about their longing for what is wild. And what is not so domesticated.
So I think if somehow we can speak to this longing that they have, we can help turn people toward…yes.. this is our desire to be back in relationship with the natural world. I’m trying to do this on all the fronts that I can think of to do. I think people know it, they don’t really know how to do it. If I can get someone in the door, then we can work from there. But we have to write, blog, and talk about it. I love taking people out, and immersing them in it. And that’s what happened for me, and I think that is a really good way to support somebody to sort of peel off those layers that they’ve gathered from the culture.
And the wall that’s build up between them and nature. To take down that wall.
Yeah, take it down or play with it. There are many things we can do to interact with it, in a way to help it come down.
Do you have any remaining thoughts on how someone can benefit from nature. Maybe some remaining ideas they can explore to reconnect…
Pay attention to those moments when you encounter wildness and pay attention to what that feels like.
I was walking around the arboretum in Seattle the other day, and encountered a young couple who had just got really close to a great blue heron. They didn’t even know what it was. They came out of it, and had this delight on their faces. And I questioned them a little bit about this. It was clear that they didn’t have a lot of contact with nature, but they were sooo happy! That they got to see this bird up close.
I would say, really attend to and pay attention to those moments. It’s really important that we all recover and bring rich non-human environments into our lives. To learn as much as we can about it. Whether this is gardening, or photography…This is an activity, that gets you to put your shoes on, and get out the door. And we need something like that in our lives. That not only gets us out into the woods and enjoying it, but go out and do something that will really motivate you, whether it’s gardening or kayaking, something that makes you want to do it.
Because that is going to give you the long sustained contact with nature that will get you thinking in a different way. And to experience your own wild nature, and to also experience the domesticity. How domesticity is affecting your life. Because if you do that, you won’t tolerate animals that are caged or in factory farms. It’s going to wake up the heart. Because there’s a lot in the natural world, that wants to speak to us. If we can develop these ears to hear.
MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice with Sandy Haskin
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Sandy Haskin practices Zen meditation with the Three Treasures Sangha of the Northwest. She currently lives and works in Spokane, Washington. She works as a Nurse Aide at a home for mentally ill adults, and also sells books, DVD’s, CD’s on Amazon with her sister. She has worked at the former for 10 years and the latter for 5 years.
What was your life like before taking on a meditation practice?
Sandy remembers how she began to meditate and when, she had just left the town she grew up in, Spokane, WA. And she moved to Olympia. And found out because of her family history, she could get some help via friends through the 12 step program, so she joined (ACoA) Adult Children of Alcoholics and began to work the 12 steps. This was in 1986. And she thought moving away from her hometown would help her take care of her problems and her dissatisfaction with her life and herself.
What she had done was move to Olympia, and create yet another dysfunctional relationship, like she had had in Spokane. So she was disappointed that it repeated itself and where her life was headed at that point.
And you mean by relationship, with another?
Yes, with another man. So she was confounded what to do with her life, and how to make her life work. So she read a book called, Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood. And she said, if there’s any alcoholism in your family, look up a 12 step group. And I said, well, I qualify! (laughing) It was just an afterthought, last chapter in the book. So Sandy went to ACoA, and found her home.
12 steps is all about finding a spiritual answer to your life, to your problems. And it is not an option, that’s the whole basis of the 12 step program. But they don’t tell you what it is going to look like, that is your job to find the answer.
So Sandy began to meditate at home, watching a candle flame. That particular meditation just so happens to be the one she began with. She then ran into a friend, Pamela Lee who invited her to meditate with her in Seattle. So she began sitting with a group, which was fundamental for Sandy. To start a practice, and be connected with a group, a schedule, a teacher, and a community. That was back in late ’86. And she’s been meditating ever since, off for about 5.
Was meditation part of the ACoA, or is it all find it on your own?
I called myself not an alcoholic, but ACoA, I was in 4 different 12 step programs. But yes, the 2nd step is coming to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And the 11th step is through prayer and meditation seek to improve your conscious contact with God as I understood God to mean. Praying only for knowledge of God’s will, for me to carry that out. So yes, prayer and meditation are very basic, I made them basic to my program. But it is not necessary, but it is part a path you could learn. Other folks go to church and don’t meditate, and yet others do go to church and meditate. You gotta find your own way, finding your own spiritual path.
And you were in 4 different 12 step programs?
I was, I was quite the addict! (laughing) In fact I was ordered to go, my best friends were there, it was so much fun. I was going to treatment for my alcoholism, which I love, I love the attention to myself. And the counselor said, when we’re finished with your treatment, you will go to AA. And I said , I will not, I’m already in another 12 step group, I love it, and I’m getting it. So she couldn’t finish her treatment there. She started out in one group and ended up in quite a few others.
So what kind of meditation group did you end up in?
Her friend had sat extensively with the Three Treasures Sangha, a Zen meditation group in Seattle, Washington. They’re under the umbrella of Robert Aitken’s Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. And she has been with them ever since.
What did you find in particular very helpful about a Zen group like the one you’re going to?
I guess the focus is totally on meditation, and not so much what you do or don’t believe. In fact, the people that introduced her to this practice, are Catholics, and don’t even want to be called Buddhists. So the focus is on the practice. Doing the practice, and committing to it. Sandy liked what she saw in these people, they were adults, her age. She seemed to really settle into just meditating. Not too much of read this, follow that person, there wasn’t so much asked. Then when there was a teacher, you could listen. It wasn’t like sermons in church. More focus on meditation, which fit her personality more.
Where there insights during this journey, maybe early on that made you realize you wanted to keep coming back to it. In other words, that kept you motivated to keep coming back to it?
Yeah, one thing about meditation that is hard for our culture, is I don’t believe that there are typically not instant results. There are subtle results, like over time, her personality started to calm down. From the outside, for example, you wouldn’t guess that I have a lot of anxiety. But I did, I was tongue tied, I was very self conscious, worried about things I would say, etc. And meditation seemed to calm things down, but it took a long time.
I remember a strange story. I was sober and looking for God, looking for a program for a few years. And I wasn’t getting it…Like where is God, or the spirit, whatever. I was miserable.
When you go into meetings, Jamborees, retreats, etc. With all these people that seem so happy, and I wasn’t so happy. So I was asking God for a sign. I was desperate. I was like, there is nothing happening, there’s nothing here, I just wasn’t getting it.
And..I was, maybe I need this, maybe some people don’t need to get what I got. So I asked for a sign, but I did, I was up in the middle of the night. I had been sober for a year, religiously doing the steps. And I was on the toilet crying in the middle of the morning. Sometimes you have those nights! About a half hour after that, I started to smell smoke. I lived in an apartment, and I opened the door, there was smoke coming down the hallway, and one of my neighbors apartments was on fire.
So I went back to my apartment, and we ran to get everyone out of the place. I went back and locked my door. It was a mess, my place was a mess, they smashed my door, so don’t lock your door if you’re ever in a fire!
So anyway, I was at a friends house that night. And I was just thinking about everything that happened that evening. And I realized that the day before the fire, I had done this motherpeace Tarot card game. And the I had gotten this card of a person, a woman sitting in meditation, and she was surrounded by flames. I know this is new agey, its weird, but the moment I remembered getting that card, I felt the presence of God. I felt a peace about my life, that this was supposed to happen to me. I don’t know why, I don’t understand. But I gained something through understanding that in spiritual terms this was the way my life was supposed to go.
And her friends would say, aren’t you going to cry? Your stuff is trashed! But she would just say Wow!
So anyway she gained a tremendous amount of peace. I just believe that when we sincerely want answers, that when we sincerely seek, that we do get answers. That we do find guidance, on the spiritual path. Even if it is not what we expected. So yeah, I’ve had ups and downs. But you just have to follow through. I think anyone on any spiritual path, is going to find it is not going to be easy. But the alternative, I don’t want to go back to my old life, and how I used to feel, it was pretty ugly.
Yeah, you get your answers along the way, I guess if you ask in all sincerity.
I’m sure you’ve had more moments along the way..and it just continues to unfold…
Yeah, in the Zen tradition, it’s liked by some people, because it’s not heavily promoted that you have to believe the ancestors. Or that you memorize books. But the longer I meditate, the more I see the world the way they see the world. That it is very satisfying. I know this is because of my meditation, not because of my intellect. They’re talking about a spiritual plane, and it is not something you can intellectualize.
Yes, and I’ve had some whoppers of experiences, that helps one to keep going. But I also think human beings, human contact, having a teacher, are so so important to having a meditation practice. If I had not met that woman, who meditated and who connected me to a meditation group, it would have just been on my list. Oh yeah, some time I’ll meditate….
To be in a group with a schedule, and needs your help, volunteer, do service work, getting involved, it’s crucial. Because I’m self-centered, just want to live my own life, and I still just want to be left alone! (laughing). So involvement in a group is crucial for the long haul of sticking to meditation practice.
At some point you also started to attend retreats, can you highlight some of the benefits of retreats, as opposed to just group gatherings?
Yes, I would go on these 7 day retreats a year, which really solidified my in practice. The experiences in Sesshin (long retreat intensives) are that one is very much supported in turning around your attention to look inwards and do your practice. And it’s really rare to have that opportunity in our culture, because even if we’re home alone, we feel compelled to be productive.
So to have some place to go, where you have permission. It’s set up to not have to thinking, talking, planning, or writing. It’s very helpful. So that year when I started retreats fixed me into practice. The benefits I would say.
When you’re in retreat, you’re with the same people sitting, eating, snoring for 24 hours a day. And it’s easy to get critical or judgmental with people. But going with other people, really opens you up to accepting other people, and being able to help them in their practice. I’m often judgmental with others, but when you’re on retreat, you communicate on a level that is not intellectual, it’s not verbal.
You almost get to experience what I would call love, a unity, and a co-traveler type thing with all of these people, maybe half of whom you’ve never met before. So it’s an experience that speaks for itself. Just having value in the quit time and doing that with a group of people.
Maybe you have an example of an experience that you had during a retreat that stood out for you..
I’ve been over to Mountain Lamp retreat center in the past few years, where her teacher Jack Duffy and partner Eileen Kierra teach retreats there. The weather can be very chaotic, raining, storming, sunshine, hailing etc all in the same day.
So this one day it was storming around around us, and we’re sitting in this zendo (meditation hall), and I was like 5 days in a 7 day retreat. And towards the end of the evening, I’d been listening to the storm, letting it flow in and out of me. And after a while I realized that I was no longer sitting there on the cushion in my body. I was raining. That is just the reality, I was no longer a person, I was rain!
Yeah that’s great. (laughing)
It was fabulous. Yeah, you’re talking about the boundaries that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as, were dissolving, you no longer ended at the edge of your skin.
And we don’t meditate to “get experiences”, but certain experiences come along. But when they do, you know that you’re really settled. And that was wonderful.
And I think it’s good to see what’s possible during retreats, rather than reading from a book. It’s nice to hear examples of what can happen during a retreat.
I’m always surprised at how much energy we take, to do social greetings, to smile at people, to always have the right composure, etc. All of that takes energy. And when you’re in a group, that the focus is taken care of, and not expected, so you can turn inward. That is a huge freedom.
And it’s very difficult to do alone. When you meditate with a group, there’s a power, a strength to keep going, because everyone else is. So you can do more with a group than you can do alone. It’s just what I found to be true over the years.
It turns into a way of life, which is so wonderful. I set my life up more now on retreats, than on vacations. It’s a lifelong practice. It’s very wonderful to have as I grow older.
When you come out of retreats, do you get the sense of wanting to mingle or integrate that into the rest of your life?
I think in retreats I think you can become rather naive and you’re feeling a certain way, a certain zone of vulnerability. I tend to fall for it every time, I tend to think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t. I guess what I take with me, I re-integrate is slowly, have a peaceful the day after a retreat. And I recognize how my judging people stops. I appreciate the work of everyone who’s made the retreat happen. Those are the things I take into my life hopefully. The ability to watch my mind, and lessen the judgement of others.
It’s just a habitual way to separate. It’s not even true. It’s about my ego, having one-up over yours.
That sense of peace is there for a while, but I can’t keep it for a long time. But I think of it later, let that person alone! Don’t hassle him in my own head!
It’s a gift to have a practice.
What would you say to someone who struggles to have and keep a meditation practice?
I strongly urge people to get together with a group. (If you’re into Buddhist meditation practice), check out the web site called Buddhanet. If people are trying to sit alone, it can backslide. It’s very difficult to do that. But if you try a group, like on the web site above, you’d be amazed how many groups there are in the US. So my first idea is don’t sit alone, do that, but also connect with other folks, and talk about your practice.
The motivation I’ve had, was that I was emotionally miserable. The more miserable you are, the more you may want to seek out a spiritual path. It is very difficult. It may not be obvious that you’re growing, or that you’re getting it. And that’s just the way it goes.
Yeah, like a crock-pot slowly cooking….
Yeah, right, but in the end it’s worth it. And it’s good to reflect back. That’s the 4th part of the 12 steps, “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.” It’s good to look back, and look at why you are where you are. I don’t owe it to myself, I owe it to AA and 12 step groups.
MF 40 – Sound Healing Meditation & Resonance with Mark and Denise
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Interview was at the home of Mark and Denise, so it started casual. You will be hearing the wind chimes outside in their garden in the background, it was rather windy that evening.
Mark talks about holding a sound meditation and there was all of a sudden someone playing Elvis music in the room next door. “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes!” So he played his meditation sounds with the music, so it was incorporated. He brought their awareness in and outside the room, allowing all sounds to be. This was helpful to hear to the meditators. One of the ladies at the end said she loved the part of the Elvis sounds. Others also were glad that the sound was allowed to be there.
By allowing the sounds to be there, it was OK.
It became an ally..very applicable to daily life. So many of want to cut things out, creating friction with reality.
Yes, that’s my keyword, is, surrender to what is, just allow it to be. That’s where I found my peace. Ahh..Just to breathe it out.
One of our teachers is Matt Kahn. His teaching is simple, Whatever Arises, Love That.
It’s just really simple, whatever comes up. “Ah…I stubbed my toe!” Find the present in that, where’s the gift in that. Maybe the way I am, not paying attention. Perhaps not conscious where my body is in relation to other fixed objects. Or need to stop thinking about a certain thing, so I stubbed my toe. Could be simple, or very complex reasons for it. Whatever arises, love that.
So how did you get on this path of Sound Healing, sound Meditation? What does it mean to you?
Mark: My experience, about 7 years ago. I was doing guided meditations with different recordings, and listening CD’s. A friend of mine brought to my attention Tibetan singing bowls. I didn’t know what they were at that time.
The first time I heard them, I felt an immediate kinship with the bowls. At that point, I wanted to learn as much as I can about them. How they came about. It physically moved me. That was my primary introduction with meditation with the bowls.
Do you have a more detailed moment where this clicked for you?
Yes, it was the chant, “The end of suffering”. I was moved internally. I could feel this release and ease in my body upon hearing it. Not something I noticed in previous meditations before. So I started researching Tibetan bowls. And I wanted to see if there was a school that teaches the history, the use, and how to work with them.
I found a school and teacher in Encinitas, California. They have a two year program on how to work with the bowls, to learn how to diagnose in the body, to use them in a healing practice. To learn every nuance.
Denise: For me meditation is an opportunity (I’m very new to meditation, so this is an opportunity to learn the practice. What it is, what it isn’t) I’ve done a lot of reading. And a friend who taught silent meditation, and learned about the benefits. For myself meditation has been an opportunity to see what works for me. And trying things out. In the discovery of meditation, I’ve come to a place to notice that it does take practice to let go of judgement. Whether I feel or not that I”m progressing. Having the opportunity to be with myself, and an opportunity to be with what I feel is the All, the Universe, God, etc, however one chooses to express that.
With the moments where I’ve gone into meditation, I used to think of not being successful. But now I see that any moment to sit and explore in meditation is a success. I’ve had profound moments in my learning and studying meditation, where it will take me to a place where I do feel very much connected to a place of peace, and a divine source. And everything else that is around in my environment is in a place of peace and calm. So that’s been a fun part about discovering meditation. And Mark has been beneficial in helping this bring into my life as well.
And so you got into sound meditation as well?
Yes, all the bowls, chimes, bells, gongs. They are transforming, in being able to hear something of such beauty. And being creators, in our human nature, we can create a beautiful space to envelop ourselves and others, and being able to share that and participate in that is a very peaceful process.
The instruments are a big part of bringing a non-scripted method of…For us it’s like a play with the universe, creating something that is coming from our hearts.
It’s not scripted, all free floating from our hearts. A form of expression, I think we’re expressing the God within.
(Video above shows Anza-Borrego Desert State Park scenery, with sound healing music in the background performed by Mark Mobley and Denise Bradford)
There’s a sense of wonder about it too. It reminds me of my Jazz improvisation days, where it’s actually quite vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable. It’s not predictable. Because you don’t know what will come out of you. You have to trust that whatever comes out is going to be OK.
You mention Mark, you had a physical problem, how did meditation or sound healing play a role in that?
Yes, it does. With my lower back. The bowls will resonate within the body, due to the fact that the body has 75-80% water content. What happens through sympathetic resonance, is where one body is next to another body. If that one body has a high frequency, the other body will try to raise it’s frequency to match the next frequency, that’s next to it.
You can play a drum next to a drum that is not being played, and once you stop playing the drum that is being played. You can feel or hear the drum next to it playing the same that was never even struck.
So what we do as human beings, as we hear these tones, and overtones of the bowls, our bodies will try to emulate what it’s hearing and feeling. Through that resonance, both bodies will become one with that sound.
In my particular case, where I have a lower back injury. What’ll happen is that the muscles will try to contract. The body is trying to protect me. The nerves are sending the messages to protect. So the muscles will try to contract/constrict.
So what happens with the bowls, is that it will allow the muscles to realize, Oh I can relax. By doing that, now it will allow proper energy flow through the body. And it will actually allow healing within the nerves, within the muscles.
Just in the act of relaxation allows more oxygenated blood to go to the area which provides healing.
So when I was working early on with the bowls, I noticed that my body became more relaxed, and it allowed me to sleep a full night. Usually with a significant level of pain you don’t sleep well, very deeply. Because you move, and then you wake yourself up.
With the bowls, allowing the muscles to completely relax, allows more energy to flow through more naturally. And that is a healing aspect. Even got rid of my prescriptions for pain. And through some diet work, I was able to get rid of my blood pressure medicine that I took for almost 25 years.
Now what we do is herbs, and things of that nature that we made ourselves, that we infused with love, heart, and sunshine. It’s very high frequency when we work with things, like lemon balm. A wonderful tincture, first sign of a cold, you can take that, and within 12 hours, the symptoms are gone. I also attribute that to the bowls, that allows us to resonate at a higher frequency. You are a magnet for any illness to come in if you are tired, stressed, etc. If you are in a “lower” state of frequency, the sounds help raise your frequency. The immune system responds to these healing sounds.
Stresses are usually the leading cause to any kind of illness. If we can learn through meditation, diet, and even positive thoughts, what you think is what you create. You have to have this thought about it. What Einstein said, Creativity, or the intuitive thought is much more important than the intellect. Intellect comes in afterwards, but you have to have that creative thought first. It’s authentic and original…yes.
Are there other conditions, or dis-eases that can be helped with sound healing? Insomnia, back issues, immune system. You mentioned you know someone with cancer who has much more energy from being exposed to sound healing? So there’s an energy increase..
I attribute that to the frequency of the body, being raised at a higher level. You feel and have more energy. Through just the lack of stress and pain. It takes the body a lot to focus on pain. That is a full body experience. But when you can release the pain enough, you can focus on creativity. What can I do today, what makes me happy. When you can go from what gives me joy, instead of what pains me in life, then it transforms the whole human experience. I believe its through the bowls.
Denise: I think of a friend who worked in a high stress, high demands job, and folks get to a point where they don’t know how to come down, how to de-stress. She had her first experience with the bowls. She said up on the therapy table, and said that she thought this should be in all corporate offices. She didn’t know how to relax, but it took her about 30 minutes to know how to relax. This being in a constant fight or flight, high adrenaline response. So this brought her into a whole new level of awareness of how stressed she was. Things we may not even realize that may be an issue. Beneficial to have an opportunity to have a healing at a more profound level like that. She had the biggest smile, and was exited to have that experience.
Mark: It warms our hearts to see folks have that kind of experience. We are facilitators or witnesses of other people’s healing abilities. We all are able to heal ourselves. It’s just that we look for different modalities, in order to facilitate our own healing abilities. That’s the gorgeousness of sound and frequency.
There’s an oncologist Dr. Mitchel Gainer in New York in his practice. He uses bowls, pre-op and post-op for cancer patients. He has decreased the hospital stay times after surgery by 65%. By simply using sound therapy.
He works with the bowls in the office setting just before he gives the patient the information that has to be passed, the test results. It has knocked the fear aspect completely out. The person is now not in fear about what is happening, but more in a place of what are my options? It skips the huge stress response, releases that stress, and makes the options more workable.
We know see magnetic resonance used in the medical fields. Or think of ultra sounds. We’ve been doing that for years, to look at the baby’s health, or other things in the body. They’re starting to work with sound and light mixed together to attack cancer cells right in the area where they are, without using invasive surgery or burn or poison the person. Same with gall bladder and kidney stones. You just move them around with some frequency, and goes right where it needs to go. You don’t have to have a large amount of scar tissue anymore.
Same with my back injury. They look at me with an x-ray on my back, and they say you shouldn’t be walking anymore. Even though it’s bone on bone. But my experience is that I’m the new normal. If you can work with meditative states, where you’re in the Theta area of the brain. That frequency where brain is moving. That is what the sound healing does. It brings you to that pre-sleep state. Very important for folks with stressful jobs. Maybe just turn off the cell phone and a hot bath is enough. But even better with with the bells and sound healing.
Theta, could you explain that state?
It’s just the measurement of the brain waves, alpha, beta, delta, (normal daily activities). Strong meditator can get into Theta state, it’s the no mind, no thought quiet state. What ends up happening, through our energy centers in the body, like the one right up our heads, in the crown. We have synchronicity, where you feel energy tingling through your body. Like when you think of someone, and then they call. But when you’re in that Theta state, you’re at one, at peace, with all the universal energy. Where God, or spirit can come in. And that raises our consciousness. The reason why meditation is thousands of years old. It’s a practice for us to be able to increase our awareness, our wisdom and our peace.
This is the way that we find heaven on earth. It’s all in the perception. What you pay attention to, like when paying attention to the news, or paying attention to the animals, and seeing harmony. Depends on what you chose to pay attention to. I chose to pay my attention towards peace, joy, love, family, caring for others, and creating a business that promotes peace within. If you really want peace, start within. Like Gandhi said, Be the change.
Creating balance is a big part of sound healing as well, you’re trying to induce a Theta state and there’s a balance…
There is a balance. Here’s an example of a meditation. We bring people into the body, by starting with the breath, just feeling the breath. No judgement, allow the thoughts to come up and allow them to be, and then let them go. Just feel the breath in the body, then bring them into their body, and then into the room.
Then we bring slowly the instruments into it, and then we start bringing the gong into it, allowing it to crescendo slowly. And then allowing it to walk its way down, it’s a musical journey.
Denise: There’s balance with the feminine and male aspects (both Denise and Mark play). We both have different playing styles, which is evident in the creation of the meditation. So it’s able to speak to male and female, and the balance is created in that as well.
And the male and female aspect of each person as well, bringing that into harmony as well.
Yes, it is, that’s an unspoken gift that is there. You don’t even have to speak about it, it’s evident, it’s a beautiful flow. To have the male and female working in harmony where there’s no leader. If you’re both working with each other, and making each other sound wonderful. It’s this wonderful dance, co-creation. No left brain leading or follower. Seeing the beautiful harmony of the Yin and Yang.
Creating a gift that is so much a sense of joy to share that gift. What we hope for our participants, is that they can take that with them. We always say, take that with you, it’s a gift you give yourselves. It’s a sense of play, sense of wonder. And the innocence of wonder and childhood.
We had a meditation workshop, and we had a concert, and we did it in the spirit of fun, doing it together. That builds those friendship bonds, with these beautiful sounds and gongs, and interplay of sound and light and friendship. Definitely a lot of creation.
Video above shows fall leaves floating down the river of life, with Koshi Chimes in the background performed by Mark Mobley
Do you see a dance between yourselves as a student as well as a teacher?
Absolutely, as long as we’re on earth, we’re still students, and still teachers. There’s always nuance that happens. Even your truth changes, what your truth is in this now-moment, in the next now-moment, just through experience, that truth can morph into something else. That doesn’t devalue the previous truth, that was your truth at that time. But as you move forward, you have a new truth.
Everything is fluid…it’s not rigid.
Yes, always fluid. Denise: yes, nobody is perfect. As much as we love to be calm, and good meditators. We’re still learning, we still have challenges, we still live on this earth. We have moments that bring us teachings, showing us that we are students. But we can laugh at that, we can see the lessons, and see the teaching moments.
It’s always fun to tease each other, “Oh good, I see that your ego is still intact! ” Yes we are here, we still have cellular memory that we can work with. If something comes up, because we’re reacting to something in life, then that reaction is not something to put away, but we want to allow it to come up, because it is something that needs to be healed. If it comes up, it could be anything, something from earlier life. You have to make time for it. What happens if we don’t address it, it comes up as a physical symptom in the body. It could come up (manifest itself) as ulcer, kidney stone, tumor, from Mark’s experience and research that is solidified sadness.
Whatever ailment you have there’s a spiritual meaning for it. Ether the spiritual, emotional, physical body. If it doesn’t get dealt with, then it will finally manifest itself in the physical body. Something that is unresolved, that we didn’t have the time to work with at the time. Like knees is afraid of moving forward. Or back injury could be unresolved child trauma, could be anything, something we felt powerless about. Back is usually something that happened in the past. It’s more important to realize there is something like a twinge, that it means we need to work on that. We don’t want to cover it up, which is more the standard plan, like giving you a pill for it.
For every symptom there is a cause. If we forget that, that is at our peril. We’ve got a lot of pill pushers these days. Instead of what are you doing in your life that is creating this? Not likely to hear from a westernized doctor. But we’re seeing changes as well says Denise. For example we’re no longer seen as alternative healers, but more as complimentary. So you can still work with western medicine, but also work with folks like us as complimentary.
Video above: Ocean sounds with Koshi Chimes (performed by Mark Mobley)
If you were someone with a disease, how would you approach this as non-judgmentally as possible. In other words, it’s not necessarily that all disease is something that a person did wrong. How would you recommend they investigate that unopened letter is that calcified in their bodies.
The same way that I learned that there is a spiritual meaning to most of the illnesses that we have. Hayhouse has a book that talks about self-healing. But use your discernment. If it doesn’t feel right, then probably that information is not for you right now.
The only reason I look into this knowledge as a practitioner, is that if someone comes in say with a broken heart, from a lost relationship, I know that the issue is probably going to be in the body, is in the sacral area, below the belly button. That is our relationship chakra. That’s the first chakra that starts moving in the body. It’s element is water, color orange. And usually there’s something that wanted to be spoken, but was held back. That would be in the throat chakra. Those two work together very closely.
So as someone who works with someone like that in a healing situation, I’d want to work with the throat, to clear that open, to allow them to speak their truth. I’d be working with the sacral as well, because that’s about relationships.
It’s one of those things, like I have a gut feeling. We’re not just picking a spot on the body. But the gut we feel something there, it’s beware! It’s not just what we ate earlier, it could be a warning, that we’d want to be acutely aware of.
I don’t mean to say take it too literally, It’s not about one more way to have negative self-talk. It’s just about becoming more aware of everything. We just want to become more aware of where in my life we might be more apprehensive about, for example what to do tomorrow. Not everyone can always bring themselves back into that now-moment.
If we can’t stay now. Eckart Tolle talks about staying now, you start to get the idea we create our future by staying present in our choices that we make in the present.
Denise: Given the scope of dis-ease, and knowing whether that cause for that disease is an environmental, or spiritual cause, or an accident. However that disease came into our body, the broader our thinking and knowledge is about where disease or occurrences in our body can stem from. That gives us more opportunity to seek healing, and seek the creation of helping ourselves in whatever method we can, without just having to seek a pill. Having that broader spectrum of possibilities opens you up for more explanation for where your healing can or cannot come from.
I believe personally that not all of us are meant to experience healing, because it is part of our human experience. Being able to be OK with that, brings you to a religious, a spiritual, or personal level that one is not always attaining, unless they’ve experienced that within themselves.
Video above: Photos by Margot Rood (my sister) and sounds by Mark Mobley
Sometimes you have to through the pain, part of the learning experience.
Yes, sometimes that is the only place to make sense of things, because sometimes things don’t always make sense. We can try our best.
So the attitude and one’s own peace about it makes a huge difference.
There’s a dance to living with pain. You can really increase your life experience to be able to include that in your life experience, and still function, and still work with what comes. You’re also living with pain on top of it all. To be able to sink or swim, you’re carrying something while your swimming. So anything where’s the compassion of someone, or whether you’ve gifted yourself knowledge. You want to try your best to have people find their way out of pain if even for a moment. We don’t want people to suffer, that’s our human hearts, our compassion. We want to find a way to ease that.
So this might be a good time to share some of your sounds!
They now start playing a sample of their sound healing in the podcast. You can see a full sound healing bath session in the Youtube video below. Performed by Mark Mobley.
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)
What 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.
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.
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?
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
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..
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.
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.
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.