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

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

MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

It disrupts your circadian rhythm…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was permanently damaged in there…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Silence is also a choice…

Yeah…I like that..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just invite me (laughing)…

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

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

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

Its just for lip service, just for show….

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

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

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

Just a better burglar….right..

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

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

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

Or they simply were not found out…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And would be a lot cheaper!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much

Resources

Johnny’s Social Media Sites

Johnny Perez quotes:

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

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

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

“People are deserving of love in prison.”

 

 

MF 44 – The Role of Mindfulness, Gratitude, & Peace Practice in Islam with Rose Hamid

MF 44 – The Role of Mindfulness, Gratitude, & Peace Practice in Islam with Rose Hamid

MF 44 – The Role of Mindfulness, Gratitude, & Peace Practice in Islam – Interview with Rose Hamid

Rose Hamid in Salam Peace shirtRose Hamid is a Muslim American of Palestinian and Latin descent.  She was born in Buffalo NY, grew up in Cleveland OH, and has been living in Charlotte since 1987.  She grew up in the Catholic tradition but chose to follow Islam when she started her family.  She has been married for 33 years, has three children; Suzanne, 28, Omar, 26, Samir 24.

She has been a flight attendant since April 1985.   She is the Co-Founder and President of the Muslim Women of the Carolinas; a local organization whose mission is to bring the diverse Muslim women of Charlotte and the surrounding area together in order to get to know one another and to do good works. She is a frequent speaker about topics such as Islam and the role of women in Islam and is a guest columnist for the Charlotte Observer, writing monthly columns.

After the attacks in Paris, Donald Trump proposed the establishment of a database of all Muslims in the country. Later, Trump called for a “complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

Hamid told CNN before the Trump rally that she only wanted to give Trump fans “an opportunity to meet” a Muslim. “I figured that most Trump supporters probably never met a Muslim so I figured that I’d give them the opportunity to meet one” she said.

Interview with Rose Hamid. How did you get to a spiritual practice?

My mother is from Columbia, South America. And her father is Palestinian. He went to South America in 1938, when his country was in turmoil. And the economic development had a downfall. Where he met Rose’s mom, and they got married.

We grew up in the Catholic religion/tradition. Where she had a lot of questions. I remember asking nuns these questions. My biggest question was this concept of original sin. And when I grew up, this was they way it was taught, or at least the way I absorbed it. I recall that Eve in particular had tempted Adam, and they had eaten the forbidden fruit. And they had sinned against God. And that was the break between God and humanity.

Therefor people couldn’t have a direct connection with god. That’s how I understood it. Therefor I would have to talk to a priest, who would talk to Jesus, who would then talk to God. Because I was not worthy of this connection to God.

So a lot of middlemen, intermediators?

I felt at an early age that that was not fair. So we plotted along, with going to church, until right before confirmation. When she was about 12, or 13. By that time, her father started to learn about his own faith, he was a Muslim, but wasn’t practicing it growing up.

So we started to realize how the church was very different compared to what he was used to growing up in Palestine. Where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived among each other and were all considered people of the book (adherents of Abrahamic religions that predate Islam) from the Muslim perspective.

I don’t think he realized how different the teachings were, until he came to America. And until he really started to learn his own faith. So he was trying to teach us more about Islam, but we really didn’t have much interest in it, at 13 years of age. And he wanted us to wait until we were older to become confirmed.

So I really didn’t practice anything. I believed in a higher power, God. But not much else. So it wasn’t hard for her to leave the Catholic church at that time. It seemed to me that religion was being used to divide people in her experience. So I didn’t have much desire to join any particular religion.

Until after my husband and  I got married and we started a family. My husband didn’t talk much about religion, he is Palestinian. There was an assumption there was some Muslimness going on. But we didn’t talk much about it. But I was going to have to teach my kids something. I started to learn about Islam, and it answered a lot of questions I had growing up.

The biggest Aha moment, was the idea in the Islamic tradition of the story of Adam and Eve. In this tradition, the two of them. God here doesn’t make Eve more culpable than Adam. The two of them disobey God. Then when the two of them, realize what they’ve done, they ask for forgiveness. And God forgave them. So there was never a break between God and humanity. 

There was always a connection. They suffered the consequences of their actions, but they were still connected to God. That to me was monumental, to have this ability to connect to God.

Interesting..Where there other questions as well that were answered for you in Islam?

This is just what I remember, I don’t want to make the Catholic faith sound bad. I’m just telling my personal experience. I remember it seemed like God was always angry.

Yeah, the old testament God for sure…

Even in the Catholic tradition, I just feel like it’s from that concept of original sin. You just feel like you’re not worthy if you don’t do that kind of thing.

I remember a couple of things in Islamic teachings that drew me. And one of them is this idea that God is not just your judge. He’s your attorney, your character witness, your supporting friend, who’s going to be there to help you during the judgement. Seeing God in that perspective was very comforting.

Also, the concept of there’s a saying, that if you turn towards God, he comes running towards you. That idea, of a God who wants us to come to him, that felt more like the connection that I had been searching for.

And also from my own reading from the Koran, as compared to reading from the old testament, it seems like God is described as much more compassionate and forgiving.

Right, most merciful, most kind. That’s repeated time and time again.  As Muslims pray, 5 times a day. We repeat it 5 times a day 3 or 4 times within each prayer. We’re constantly saying, “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most kind…Praise is due to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the universe, most gracious, most merciful. Master of the day of judgement..Guide us along the straight paththe path of those whom You favored, not of those who earned Your anger or went astray. ”

So is something we say in Arabic. Those words, are things that, contrary what people think, that is how we see God.

Was there a particular transformative moment of grace in your journey as well? 

I wound’t call it a moment of grace, the understanding of the story of Adam and Eve was my Aha moment. Realizing, if God was willing to forgive Adam and Eve, then how should we as humans treat other people as well, as far as being forgiving beings.

My shift in the way that I saw God, and the relationship I had with God. That was really the most transformative thing. 

You mentioned the 5 times a day of prayer, which I see as a very beneficial practice. I practice Zen Buddhism, and there too is a strong emphasis on constant practice, not just once a week, but constantly. This is much more likely to help you give you a more intimate spiritual connection. 

Yes, and I know that with any faith tradition there’s a big range. There’s people who pray daily, Christians who are more spiritual daily, and try to make more connections with God throughout the day. And then there’s folks who go just once a week, and then there’s what a friend of mine calls the, “Creasters”, the folks who just show up at Christmas and Easter. So there’s a range.

The same is true with Islamic faith. People who are very diligent about prayer, and then some who not so much.

Same thing in Buddhism as well, a lot of people who paying lip service to this practice, or those who wear the clothes, but don’t practice it. And I was going to talk about that later. But to me to some extent the people who are hijacking the narrative of Islam, the actual terrorists…

…they didn’t read the whole Koran book at all.

They’re not doing anything that’s being said, and they’re very judgmental. They kill and chop people’s heads of, etc. They’re being the judge and executioner. That shouldn’t be their job at all. Based on what I’ve been read in the Koran (In the Koran God instructs the prophet and Muslims not to judge or harm disbelievers, that this is his job to deal with them). 

You probably read more than they have (laughing).

I think these folks who are in power in many places in the so-called Muslim world, are not following Islamic doctrine. When I hear about things that people have done, I can’t fathom that these people have read the Koran, or whole Koran. They might have read snippets that somebody handed them, and told them this is what it says.

Right…

Unfortunately I think that humanity is like that. If you get a new cell phone, and you get all these instructions on how to use it, but you tend to just usually go to a 12 year old, and ask them how to use it. Just show me the basics so I know how to get along. That’s what people do…they just want the quick, get it to work, work for me in whichever way I want it to work. Without really understanding the depth of what it can do…

So I take that analogy into how people understand their faith. It’s just easier to listen to whoever has the microphone, and then go, “Ok, I’ve done my studying”. And people don’t get into the depths of it.

Yeah, that’s very expedient…not doing the work themselves, kind of outsourcing it to whomever has the loudest horn. 

And another big part I noticed, I see it a lot in the old testament as well. It required me to have fresh eyes in reading it. Is the gratitude part, and how important that is. As humans we have such a tendency to take things for granted so quickly. One of the advantages…Spiritual and religious practices get such a bad rap, but there are so many good things as part of it, that would make humanity as a whole be in a much healthier state of mind. Like for example, the gratitude emphasis. 

What’s your take, or what role does gratitude play in your practice?

Part of the daily 5 prayers, there’s some parts are structured, where there are certain things you can say and do. And other parts, you can read different parts or verses of the Koran. And some people have memorized certain verses that they’ve connected to, depending on how they feel. And a lot of them have to do with gratitude.

When you’re in submission, you’re praying, and your forehead is on the floor, you’re in a state of gratitude. Thanking God for what he has provided. It’s difficult to pray 5 times a day without having an element of gratitude in it. So there’s constant gratitude.  

There’s an expression, “Al-ḥamdu lillāh”, which means, all praise is due to God. Like if someone says, “you did a great job, or other compliments, you respond with Al-ḥamdu lillāh. All praise is due to God, that to me is this gratefulness that God has bestowed on us.

There’s even a sense of, if something bad happens, it’s an expiation for past sins. So there’s even a gratitude for that. Thank you for providing me an opportunity to expunge a sin. So they’re a constant sense of gratitude for what has been given, even if it’s a bad thing. For having the opportunity to get through that.

Do you find that since you converted to a religion after evaluation rather than being born into it, and I’ve seen that with other religious traditions, that you are not taking it as much for granted, compared to folks who’ve been born into their religion/tradition?

Definitely, I think that when people learn their faith through osmosis, they learn it, because that’s what everyone else is doing. And people don’t have the sense then to go in depth and learn it. Karen Armstrong is a writer of religious books. She can’t find a big market for these books in England where she’s from, but can find much more of a market in America. Maybe I’m talking about Diane Eck, A New Religious America. 

In this book, she talks about because in America have competing religions, they almost have to step up their game, like they almost have to advertise to bring people in. So there’s more talking, conversing about it. Whereas if you’re in a country where there is a State religion, and everyone has more or less the same religion, then there is less discourse (Rose thinks a lot of European countries have that). Then there is less opportunity to investigate, to question or search, or to question ourselves. Where in America there is more opportunity because there is more competition amongst religions. At least that is what she wrote in her book.

…Interesting. It’s like it has a fresh chance to be seen again…

It also goes deeper. In America we go deeper into our faith. A lot of Muslims who come from so-called Muslim countries, who come to America. Once they realize they’re in a minority religion, they find themselves to becoming more adherent to their faith here in America, than they did at home. Because back home everyone is just following along, and learning through osmosis. But here in America, you have to really learn it, absorb it, in order to live it. Because it is not all around you. 

I heard a Jewish woman say the same thing, she’d grown up in Israel. She didn’t keep kosher, she didn’t read the Torah, didn’t adhere to her faith. Until she came to America, and became a minority. She realized that she had to be the one who knew how to be Jewish. So she learned more about Judaism in America, then she did in Israel.

I think most people come from a place, where the majority of folks come from the same faith.

I’ve seen the same with Buddhism as well, it kind of languishes and goes into auto-pilot in some of the older countries. But here in America it is much stronger, and like you said, much more seeking, questioning, and being inquisitive about it.

 What about fasting, what does that teach in your view? We had a friend who did that, and he talked about how humbling gratitude type practice that is. What’s your relationship to that?

Ramadan, I have so much will-power (to abstain from eating) when I’m on Ramadan, when I’m on a diet…not so much. I gotta have this peace of pie, not as much will-power. But when fasting, so much will-power.

My kids are young, they look forward to Ramadan, part of it is the social experience. I think it also has to do with what your environment is. We’ve been blessed with a large Muslim community, and we get together a lot during Ramadan. So we look forward to it and the concept of fasting. They all started when they were in second grade. My daughter did, because she had a Muslim classmate. They’d go to the library instead of the lunch room. My boys, not so much. They stayed in the cafeteria, because they didn’t have to waste time standing in line. They could just start talking to their friends. To them it was like a badge of honor to tell people they were fasting. There’s a sense of community at that time.

That’s the outside part. The inside part is this deep desire to connect with God. I usually end up taking vacation days during Ramadan. I try to connect more, read more, be introspective. And just try to take all of it in as much as I can.

Sounds like a retreat to me…

Yeah, people spend a whole lot of time cooking during Ramadan, making everyone’s favorite foods. It’s like having Thanksgiving every night for a month (laughing). The battle is to not allow yourself to do that, to find a balance.  You want to make it festive, you want to make it a tradition that people, in particular kids look forward to. Trying to make it festive as well as spiritual. 

So it’s not too serious…

Yeah.

And do you think part of it is easier because you’re doing it with a whole group together? Because if you were doing this fasting alone, it would be a lot harder..

If you’re menstruating, you’re not required to fast. But you make up those days. Making up those days after Ramadan by yourself is really hard! Or there’s a recommendation of fasting 6 days the month after Ramadan. Even though you just finished a whole month of fasting, it’s really hard. So definitely there’s this whole sense of community and connectivity the month of Ramadan brings with it.

The other thing I wanted to ask you…The Koran talks a lot about being mindful (of God). How do you see mindfulness of God. How do you practice that?

When I see a tree, I’m just enamored by trees. And I think about what goes into a tree. And God has provided us with this thing that we could benefit from in so many different ways. Just being mindful of the things that God has created, the sunset, sky, stars, moon. All of that is like mindfulness. All of that God created for us to help us.

And so there’s many verses in the Koran that talk about what God has created for us. So we have to be constantly mindful of living things. Even the things I have. If I get in my car, I’m mindful, and feeling blessed that I have a car. There’s people who don’t have a car, so I feel blessed that have a car that works.

But then my kids are now the ones taking the bus (laughing).

When I think about everything I have, I have water, power, etc. So there’s constant mindfulness, and there’s the prayers that bring me back to it.

So the prayers help you with being more mindful then…

Oh definitely. That goes without saying. I’m doing this, because we’ve asked him to. God didn’t ask us to do this because he needs our prayers, he asked us to do this, because we need our prayers.

What’s your take on this life, vs the hereafter. How does it affect your life today, to look forward to the life hereafter? Is that affecting how you live your life today?

Muslims believe in the concept of heaven and hell. We know that life is a test. How faithful we are, how we behave, how we adhere to the guidance that God has provided us. Is going to determine our afterlife. This life is very short, unlike the hereafter. 

So it’s also a constant, that you should always be thinking about the actions taken today are going to affect the hereafter. There’s a belief that every bug that you killed unjustly will speak against you on the day of judgement. Everything that you’ve done will be a witness to what you’ve done. Your hands, will testify against you on the day of judgement if you struck people. “This hand was used to strike or beat people.”

So we’re very mindful (or we should be) about how we live our lives. Knowing we will be held accountable for how we treat each other. 

So being aware of the consequences of one’s actions…

Definitely. We have the concept of free will. We are making choices in everything we do everyday.

Making conscious choices….

Sometimes not so conscious (laughing). It’s what we aspire to I should say. To realize that everything we do has consequences.

The Koran talks about disbelievers a lot. And that is something that some people in America has latched on to. My interpretation of that is that they’re afraid that Muslims see disbelievers as something bad, or trouble (and even needs killing). But from my reading of the Koran, that is not up to Muslims to decide, as that is something that is only God’s business. In other words, it’s not up to Muslims to judge disbelievers. What’s your understanding of it?

That’s exactly right. There’s a group of people in America, Islamophobic network of specific groups/people, and specific groups that are funding these people. They are working hard at presenting misinformation about Muslims and Islam.

Muslims themselves in other countries are not doing themselves any favors either, because they’re doing some stupid stuff also.

But the fact that there is this group in the US, that’s constantly churning out this misinformation. Presenting it in a way that people believe it, especially people in power. These groups have the ear of people in power.

It is quite frightening to hear some of what they say. For example, they say things like how Muslims are, “required to kill non-Muslims.” That’s not anywhere in the Koran.

Yeah, I did not read that anywhere in the Koran either…

If you look at the history how Islam spread. Not the abridged or tainted history that some present. Islam is not spread by the sword. There was different reasons why people became Muslim around the world. It was not a forced conversion. 

They didn’t kill people who were not Muslims. They were battles that were had, but is wasn’t in the doctrine to kill people who are not Muslim. There is this concept of the People of the Book, which are the people who received the messages before (Islam). This includes Christians and Jews and some other traditions that I can’t think of right now. They are given respect to the People of the Book. And there is constant reminders and guidance on how to treat and speak with people who are not Muslim. How to treat your neighbor, the believer and disbeliever.

Even in the life of Muhammad, you could see the way that he treated non-Muslims. When he migrated from Mecca to Medina, there was a treaty that he signed. That outlined how to treat people who are not Muslim. It said pretty much says that non-Muslims can administer their laws according to their faith tradition. There was rights and responsibilities for Muslims and non-Muslims. So there was a framework set right in the beginning on how to interact with non-Muslims. In a certain context then as a defense they had to kill, but that story has been perpetuated by the Islamophobic network.

And so in a way, and part of what this interview is about is as taking back that narrative. That they’ve almost hijacked narrative for terrorist propaganda for less peaceful reasons. 

Yes, whenever people hear about religious wars around the world, it’s not about religion. Every single religious conflict. It’s always about the haves against the have-nots. The people in power wanting to maintain their power. The people wanting wealth, resources, wanting to take ownership of a place, or an oil field, whatever it is. Religious battles are not based on religion, it’s based on political socio-economic struggles that people are having. It just happens that those folks have this religion, and the others have another religion. Like in Ireland, it wasn’t really about religion at all.

Right, it’s just easier to pit people against each other, if you use religion. 

Yes, it’s a great baiting hook, demonizing the “other”.

Yeah, and creating an “other”.

And that brings me to your Trump experience, because I found that a very creative way, that you showed your face, and showed you as a human being. Because this rhetoric, this constant repetition, and mis-characterization. It just takes the human face out of it. And that is when I think it becomes dangerous, when they take the human face out of it, and they’re creating something that is not really true.

I have to say, that it was not my idea to do this particular protest. There was this man next to me in the audience (in the pictures, his name is Marty Rosenbluth, (who happens to be Jewish and practices as an immigration attorney). He’s a friend of a friend of mine who I had gone with that night.

Rose and Marty Rosenbluth standing at Trump rally

They do work around social justice, immigration rights, black lives matter, voting rights, anti-hate, anti-Islamophobia. These folks do a lot of diligent work on the ground, trying to educate people. My other friend, works with Amnesty International, they do a lot of that kind of work. And it was their idea to do this campaign, called, “Go Yellow Against Hate”.

And Marty, when Trump said that Muslims should have special ID’s, and they should tracked through a database. For him as a Jewish man, that really struck a chord with him, that was very disturbing to him. So when he had seen this yellow star, somewhere in England, and he purposely made it with 8 points. And not the start of David, because he didn’t want to…

Bring up the holocaust?

He wanted people to be reminded of what happened to the Jews, he just didn’t want to use it inappropriately. That means so much for so many people, but it was painful for him, to see how things are starting to go down that slippery slope. That he recognizes that this thing started that way for the Jewish people back in Germany.

So it was also their idea to stand silently, they’d done that before.

But you were the only Muslim standing?

The group of people there were various different faith traditions. There was Marty who was Jewish, there were Christians, non-Christians. Gabril was the man shouting off to the other side, he shouted when Trump started saying, “we’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem”. Then Gabril yelled, “Islam is not the problem.” We talked about this in advance, this was his way of protesting.

We decided it was not a good idea for Rose to stand near him, because in Akron, the crowd attacked him when he yelled. I didn’t plan to say anything, so I can’t take credit for it. I just wanted to stand silently.

It could have been a problem if you had stood with the wrong crowd though…

Yeah..

The other thing I read you said somewhere, that “If we all said hello with a smile, just start an encounter that way, that gesture alone can change the world.” And I think it spoke volumes by the way you stood silent, and smiled. Did you find that people saw you as more human, as a result of those actions?

Definitely. When I was standing in line, we purposely split up, so we ended up in different parts of the line. I was worried they wouldn’t let me into the rally, so I was trying to keep low-profile.

But in line ahead of me, there was a woman who caught my eye, and as we got closer to the front. She came to me, she said, “I’m so glad to see you here”. And there was another woman, who said to Rose, “I didn’t look scary, that I looked nice”.  I was wearing the shirt, “Salaam, I come in peace”. I imagined I might get my picture taken, but did not anticipate at all the amount of media attention this turned into. But I wanted my shirt to say something in case my picture was taken.

My son owns a T-shirt printing online business, coolmuslimshirts.com That’s one of his designs, so that is what I wore. And I happened to have a matching headpiece at home, so that went well together. People thought I chose that on purpose, but that just happened to be the color of his design.

After this media frenzy, did you notice anything that surprised you as well. With the social media, etc?

My son was sending me stuff. We were out of the door, and they led all the other folks with yellow stars out as well. They were pretty aggressive with that. So my son was telling me, you are all over social media. There was a reporter from CNN, he came over to talk to me, before the rally started. He came over and talk to me where I was sitting. I purposefully sat behind Trump, because of the camera.

People were kind of criticizing me for sitting there, and I’m like, “well yeah, I’m protesting!” So he spoke to me, so as we’re escorted out, he asked me what had happened. So before we even got to the restaurant where the protesters met up again, Anderson Cooper had tweeted about me being escorted out of the Trump tower, (laughing) I mean the Trump rally for no apparent reason.

And them my niece, she’s a social media wiz, and a makeup artist (her Instagram page was taken down when she posted about it). She was sending me stuff that people were saying, mostly positive, but also…people

Yeah, behind the computer creates this invincibility, separation, which makes it easier to be verbally abusive..

Same as mob mentality. I’ve a friend who studies the genocide, and how a society can allow that, what is that makes society permit that? Behind the computer mentality is very similar to the crowd, mob mentality. Where you’re not taking personal responsibility, creating an other entity.

A mob mentality, individual gets dissolved of that, and absolved of individual responsibility. 

Exactly, when I was going upstairs, and people were yelling at me. I wasn’t mad at them, I just couldn’t believe you’re behaving that way, you’re a human. But I tried to make connections, and snapping them out of their trance they were in. But they were pretty stuck in their trance.

One of the negative things that has happened, and it’s all tied to this Islamophobic group of folks, who have labeled any valid group of Muslims as a terrorist organization. So they’ve labeled an organization as terrorist supporting organization. So anyone with a connection is then also labeled as supporting terrorist organizations, or unindited co-conspirator.

That’s a dangerous thing, for people to make these ridiculous claims. At first I was like, no one is going to believe that. But the other day a friend of mine who I work with, told me that there’s people who I know, and have known for years, that are starting to believe some of that stuff. That is the scary stuff, you’ve known me for 30 years, and you think I’m a secret terrorist? Really? It’s actually painful, because I’m thinking, what can you do about that?

Other than being a decent person you’re whole life, and then for someone to claim you’re a terrorist supporter. Now people believe it, it’s disheartening.

Like the 2nd Bush, when he said, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us”, that kind of black and white thinking that Trump appears to be doing and promoting as well. 

There’s a report called Fear, Inc that outlines who those people are, who are behind that Islamophobic campaign. But as negative as that is, I’ve also got overwhelming support, like this gift certificate I got for 100 dollars from a restaurant! So that, and people send flowers and cards, and people who say they were inspired. It’s so heartwarming, and overshadows the negative. It’s amazing support. Someone who said I was a bad-ass (laughing) rock-star. I don’t want to be seen or portrayed as a victim..

I expected to get walked out, but did not expect the crowd to turn so quickly. In retrospect I should have expected, because I saw how others had been treated.

There’s a German reporter, who’s been following Trump around for a year. And he said there is a written statement, at every rally, they say the same thing. Mr Trump supports the first amendment, almost as much as he supports the 2nd amendment.

Then they say, “This is a peaceful rally, if you want to exercise your first amendment, freedom of speech, you’re free to do so outside the door.” And if there’s anyone who disturbs this rally, the supporters were told to stand up and chant/shout, “Trump, Trump, Trump…”, and point to the person whomever is causing the disturbance, and security will escort them out.

Oh, so they’re actually being instructed, all the people that come in there?

Yes, and this reporter said that they say that every rally. But I did find out that they took away the “almost” from the first instruction. Because they must have realized how wrong it is that Mr Trump almost supports the first amendment “almost” as much as the second amendment.

What I discovered is that media has been interviewing me, like Al Jazeera, and they said, “So Americans really hate Muslims now?”. And I said, “No, no, that’s not how America is!” It’s just a few people like that, it’s not all of America.

It’s still a minority..

And I found myself having to explain to these foreign press. That’s not how America is, and having to explain the concept of the first Amendment. So this one interviewer then asked her to explain for our audience what this first Amendment is. And then I realized how significant it is, what the first amendment is, because other countries don’t have freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

So if we’re going to export anything, THAT’s the thing we could export! But us Americans often don’t realize how fortunate we are. People have said, why don’t you go protest in Muslim countries against the Muslim terrorists. And they don’t realize that who protest in these countries end up dead! People who are trying to fight these regimes who’ve taken power, they end up dead. They don’t have these protections we have here. It’s not as easy to just object to it, it’s a battle, like the Arab spring, but it’s just not as easy, then you end up not knowing who are the good guys and the bad guys.

And were you contacted by any conservative media after this Trump event?

Not really, I’ve had about 30 interviews. And they’ve been very supportive. There were a few things that they inaccurately. So some misinformation, but it’s all been positive. There were people who interviewed me, and then there were people who didn’t interview me and just took information and quotes from the main interview that was posted right after the rally.

And then the negative stuff, I don’t know where they got that from, or what they were looking at. I’ve created a web site to archive all those things.

I write a monthly column for a local newspaper that addresses a lot of questions that a lot of people have, like why do women cover, what the Muslim holidays are like, how Muslims celebrate those. Basically, what it’s like to live in America.

A know a lot of folks have the question about the hijab, and you mentioned you find the head covering liberating, freeing, could you share your thinking about that?

For me the hijab is an act of worship. That’s one aspect of it, I”m doing something that God has asked me to do.

It also sends a message, that my value and my worth to society doesn’t come from my physical attributes. That who I am as a person, is how I behave, and how well I follow the dictates of my faith, and how well I do  my job, or whatever it is I do, and how I treat people. Those are the things I should be measured by, not by my physical attributes.

In that regard it is very liberating, because I can pretty much put together whatever outfit I want, I have scarfs that match every outfit. I feel like I don’t have to adhere to whatever the latest fashion trends are, and I can pretty much wear whatever I want.

And it also feels like protection to me. And I also feel protected. We only have to cover in front of men who are not family. For example, a neighbor comes over, I have to cover. But not with my kids, dad, uncles and family. And I also don’t have to cover in front of other women.

However, I would not feel comfortable to uncover with someone whom I don’t trust. So even though it’s permissible to uncover among other women, especially other Muslim women. But I’m more careful about uncovering with non-Muslim women. I’d have to evaluate. Because I feel more protected.

You also mention you’re still do your job as an airline attendant, this continues without problems?

Yes, I’ve never had a single passenger do or say anything negative to me. If anything, people have been extra nice, is what I’ve noticed. I might get a funny look, like, “look at that!”. Not in a bad way. And I see hundreds of people everyday, never seen anything threatening to me.

That’s really good to know..

Last question…What is your deepest wish for the future?

I wish people would follow their faith, whatever their faith is. Because if you look at the guidance the creator, God has sent. Whatever faith tradition there is, if people followed their faith tradition, and not the leaders necessarily…who they think are their leaders. But actually learn what their faith tradition says. And follow those guidelines, we would have a much better world.

There’s nothing in these teachings that permits the way that we’re treating each other in so many ways. Like the ways that we treat people who are “different”, whatever that difference is, in a negative way.

There isn’t a faith tradition out there that promotes that kind of mentality.

I agree, that’s my wish too…a wonderful way to end it.

Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing!

 

 

 

Resources

  • www.MsRoseHamid.com
  • Fear, Inc. 2.0 Behind the network to manufacture Hate in America “These two reports reveal how a well-funded, well-organized fringe movement can push discriminatory policies against a segment of American society by intentionally spreading lies while taking advantage of moments of public anxiety and fear. We are seeing this dynamic play out yet again in the aftermath of the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as former elected officials and certain media commentators have used the terror attack as an opportunity to call for increased profiling of the American Muslim community……

    A number of these misinformation experts are still able to disproportionately influence public policy in America. From hate-group leader David Yerushalmi’s impact on anti-Sharia legislation across the country to Islamophobe William Gawthrop’s influence on the FBI’s training manuals, it is clear that the well-funded and well-connected individuals within the Islamophobia network still have the ability to promote bad public policies that ultimately affect all Americans.”…”Islamophobia in the United States takes many shapes and forms. It takes the form of a general climate of fear and anger toward American Muslims, as seen in the “civilization jihad” narrative, the religious right’s rhetoric, and the biased media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. It comes out in cynical political efforts to capitalize on this climate of fear, as seen in state-level anti-Sharia bills introduced across the country and in far-right politicians’ grandstanding…..And perhaps most dangerously, it manifests itself in institutional policies that view American Muslims as a threat, as seen in the FBI training manuals that profile Islam as a religion of violence.””Although the American public largely dismisses such prejudiced views, the Islamophobia network’s efforts to target American Muslim communities remain significant and continue to erode America’s core values of religious pluralism, civil rights, and social inclusion. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, offers the Islamophobia network a new opportunity to leverage unrelated geopolitical events in order to create a caricature of Islam, foment public anxiety, and push discriminatory policies against American Muslims. The Islamophobia network’s new effort to equate mainstream American Muslims with the perverted brand of Islam promoted by ISIS is a reminder of the ongoing vigilance needed to push back against the anti-Muslim fringe.”

 

 

 

 

MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

MF 39 – Bringing Stillness and Peace between Police and Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheri Maples in MeditationWhat brought you to a meditation practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

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

1. Reverence For Life

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

2. True Happiness

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

3. True Love

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

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

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

5. Nourishment and Healing

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

Interview continued..

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to do further harm.

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

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

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

Just start turning that volume down, what would happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You had some buy-in at this point?

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

So you changed the organizational culture at that point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the communities also have to ask questions.

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

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

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

Watering the Seeds of Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about transformation and freedom. 

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

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

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

Thanks again!

Resources

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “The Western Lama.”

Lama Surya Das Surya has spent over forty five years studying Zen, vipassana, yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with the great masters of Asia, including the Dalai Lama’s own teachers, and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation cloistered retreat at his teacher’s Tibetan monastery. He is an authorized lama and lineage holder in the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and a close personal disciple of the leading grand lamas of that tradition. He is the founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its branch centers around the country, including the retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he conducts long training retreats and Advanced Dzogchen retreats. Over the years, Surya has brought many Tibetan lamas to this country to teach and start centers and retreats. As founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama, he regularly helps organize its international Buddhist Teachers Conferences. He is also active in interfaith dialogue and charitable projects in the Third World. In recent years, Lama Surya has turned his efforts and focus towards youth and contemplative education initiatives, what he calls “True higher education and wisdom for life training.”

Lama Surya Das is a sought after speaker and lecturer, teaching and conducting meditation retreats and workshops around the world. He is a published author, translator, chant master (see Chants to Awaken the Buddhist Heart CD, with Stephen Halpern), and a regular blog contributor at The Huffington Post, as well as his own AskTheLama.com blog site where he shares his thoughts and answers questions from the public each week.

Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications and major media, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Post, Long Island Newsday, Long Island Business Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Free Press, New Age Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, The Oregonian, Science of Mind, and has been the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based on his life (“Leonard’s Return”). Surya has appeared on Politically Correct with Bill Maher, and twice on The Colbert Report (see links below).

Surya is the author of thirteen books, the latest: Make Me One With Everything: Buddhist Meditations to Awaken from the Illusion of Separation (May 2015) See the rest of the book titles and links in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.

Lama Surya Das resides in Concord, Massachusetts.

Interview Transcript

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

Maybe you could start us off with a guided mini-meditation? (I usually do a short mini-meditation before all interviews)

Maybe we’ll just keep silent for the whole 45 minutes! (laughing)

Yes, let’s have a little instant meditation, very American. Friends, Meditate as fast as you can (laughing)!

  1. Breathe in first, and say “Ahhhhhh” 3 times, the seed-syllable of Dzogchen, Tibetan Meditation. And enjoy a moment of mindfulness and contemplative sweetness, of just being. Getting of the threat-mill of events, and momentum of our conditioning and drivenness, and just breathing, just sitting, just being.

Present attentive. Lucidly aware.

Mindful, rather than mindlessly sleepwalking through life.

Just sitting, natural body is Buddha’s body.

Let it be, relaxed and at ease.

2. Just breathing, natural breath is letting go, letting if flow.

Awaring…Awareness is a verb.

Aware of physical sensations in the body.

Mindfulness of breathing,

3. Aware of awareness itself. Aware of thoughts, memories, moods, not trying to suppress them.

Mindfulness of thoughts is meditation. Not trying not to think.

Incandescent presence. Choice-less awareness. Nowness awareness is the true Buddha within.

Letting everything come and go, letting be, as it is.

Aware open, friendly accepting.

And enjoy the joy of natural meditation.

This breath as if the only breath, this moment as if the only moment. Enjoy the joy of naturalness, of genuine meditation.

Silence…

Tibetan chanting follows…

“May all beings be happy, peaceful, in harmony, fulfilled and serene.

Healed and whole again.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of this spiritual journey.

One family, one sangha community, One world.

All beings, love to one and all.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her. “

I like that, as a substitute for God Bless America some times. 

Yes, that’s what I say, “God Bless Everyone”. Let’s be a blessing in the world, a light, rather than a blight on the landscape. The world needs it.

Thank you..

That was a little natural meditation. You can find these in my books, which are like work books full of practices you can do.

Like breathe, relax, center and smile. 4 steps to instant meditation. Not that complicated. There’s 2600 years of ethics, practices, wisdom, and meditations behind all that.

3 pillars of natural meditations behind it. Just sitting, just breathing, just being aware. These are great practices for today. Secular, non-sectarian, no beliefs or conversions needed.

How did you get on a a path of meditation?

I grew up in the 50’s and sixties, and went to college in New York at the university of New York, university of Buffalo. And his best high school friend, Allison Krause, was shot and killed in may of 1970, along with 3 other students, she was 19. It was a big tragedy. She was running away from the  part-time soldiers, the Ohio national guard. Who shot the students who were demonstrating the secret bombings of Cambodia and Vietnam by Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam war era.

That turned his head around about fighting for peace, and the radical anti-war movement. Lama Surya Das wanted to be for something positive. To make peace, become peace, be a peacemaker in the world. Rather than fighting for peace. Which became increasingly a contradiction in terms.

Like today we have suicide bombers, killing in the name of God. I don’t think that is exactly what God has in mind for us. Nothing new about this fanaticism, it’s been going for millennia and centuries. It’s part of our human society, we have to deal with it.

I went to India after graduation from college 1971, went to Zen retreats, meditation, encounter groups, legal and otherwise consciousness research. Hitchhiked across Europe, and middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. Went to his first Vipassana course, insight meditation course.

That was in August 1971, with people like Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Coleman, and many of our current mindfulness teachers in America. Then met his first Tibetan teachers, Lamas. His first Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him his name Surya Das.

Surya Das was there throughout the 70’s and 80’s.  Became a Buddhist monk, went to tibetan buddhist training for lamas. Did that twice in the 80’s, learned Tibetan. Was then invited to teach by some of the Vipassana teachers in America. Taught these teachers Dzogchen. His lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, starting in 1989.

By the 90’s started to write books and teach in Europe and America, started Dzogchen centers in America. That’s what he does, teaching, writing, and social activism. Spiritual service, or activism. Make a positive difference in the world. Be a Bodhisattva, an edifier, an awakener. A light in this world.

Now as he gets older, a spiritual elder. A role we sorely need today. Young folks don’t necessarily want authorities, religious leaders. Or trust political leaders. And yet..

We’re all thirsty for for this timeless wisdom, self knowledge, inner teacher, inner peace, outer harmony. How to heal the planet and climate issues. Not very esoteric. Everyone is interested in this today.

I did read in your book, you read a line as a teen, that “the whole universe is my body, all beings are my mind”.  At that time you may not have realized it very deeply, but you were attracted to it right?

Of course, when I was in college, I was a Woodstock. Everyone he knew went to Woodstock. He read books like Aldous Huxley’s Perennial philosophy, Tibetan book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda’s Yaqui way of knowledge, about his teacher Don Juan.

So he read that, but had no idea, was a kid, a jock, not interested in religion. Had no idea, just studied philosophy in college. He was into psychology, political science, creative writing. So now even now when I look at those notebooks from that day that I wrote down. Maybe I remember some of that. It’s amazing how much was there, and how little I understood about it when I was a kid.

Hormone driven, anti-counter-cultural, Vietnam era. But then it all starts to come back as you open your third eye. When he came back from India, even in the bible, of course humanism, of course Judaism and Christianity, there’s was plenty in there. But growing up, we weren’t that interested in it. Nobody taught us really how to meditate or pray to bring that into our bodies or into our lives.

It was more like oh on Sunday, where you listen to an old person give a boring sermon while reading a book in your lap about a totally different subject.

Right, I was the same way..

That’s what we did. I’m Jewish on my parents side, I was Bar Mitzvah, went to Hebrew school.  There was nothing of interest for me. When he asked all his millions of questions, they would say, “Sheket! “, translated quiet little monkey! Shhh, Shh. OK, I’ll try..

When he landed in India, he went to the meditation course, 10 day mindfulness course, silent for 10 days with S.N. Goenka. Not many questions. Teacher gave one hour talk everyday. Which the insight school is carrying on these days in America. Tara Brach, Jon Kabat Zinn is an offshoot of that. Terrific mindfulness training.

When he was with his first lama grand old masters of Tibet Kalu Rinpoche, he was Dalai Lama’s teacher of the 6 Tibetan Tantric Yogas. He used to pepper him a lot with questions, he had a lot more work and teaching, refuge camps, building schools and infirmaries.

So when Surya Das asked him, is it OK if I ask you all these questions? He said, “Ask me all of your questions, then one day you too will know.”

That was very empowering. Quite different then my, “religious upbringing”. He also gave me practices, self inquiry, ways of thinking, basic Buddhist philosophy and psychology. How to meditate and look into his mind, his feelings. Ways of looking into relationships, ethics and moral precepts. How to develop virtues, like generosity and patience.  Not just believe in them.

Oh Jesus could love the enemy, well I don’t know how? But he taught us how!

To exchange self for others, called Tibetan Tonglen practices. Put yourself in the other’s shoes, equalizing yourself and others. And mindfulness and awareness practices.

I encourage people to question, seek, inquire. Find out for yourself, don’t just belief everything on blind faith. Of course most of us won’t, since many of us are Americans.

Do you think we have to journey into separateness, into a sense of self and other, so we can fully appreciate non-separateness?

Yes. That’s really the universal pageant. It’s a little hard to talk about, so let me talk in English.

God created the world because he/she was lonely. Likes a good story. That is one amusing way of looking at it.

The whole journey back to the Garden of Eden, or oneness or God or beyond separation. First you have to be separate to experience Union, otherwise you have no perspective. 

Like the poet, mystic Saint Kabir of India said, “The fish doesn’t know the sea that there in. ”

“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.

You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house;
and you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Kabir will tell you the truth: go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can’t find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!”
― Kabir

The bubble has to burst to return to the sea, but it has never been apart.

So we’re conceived and we cut the umbilical cord and become separate, and grow up and individuate and become independent. These are healthy stages of development. But then we also have to have a healthy ego, not be an egotistical bastard.

And then, start to recognize interdependence and interconnection. And have autonomy within interdependence, not just be independent like a teenager wants.

Find autonomy and freedom within interdependence. Recognize that we’re not separate, that we’re all interconnected.

As we see in the global level today, with the global economy, environment, ozone layer, rising seas. We’re all connected, we can’t just worry about what’s going on in our village in our own country anymore. And not worry about the bigger issues.

And also individually, nobody can do it alone today. It’s not the age of isolationism of specialists anymore.

Belief me, I’ve tried as a Tibetan monk in monasteries for 8 or 9 years.

We need each other, to develop compassion, empathy, loving-kindness Not just wisdom from the far head up.

The whole journey is about coming home to oneness or ourselves. The subtitle of my book, make me one with everything, is “Buddhist meditations to awaken from the illusion of separation”.

So we have to experience separation in order to come back, just like with love. You can’t know love unless we feel a little separate. Then we can experience the oneness and the union of being one and together, as we come together and apart in a healthy relationship dance.

When you became a monk for those 8 years when you still thought that it was a separate journey, was there a point that you realized that you perspective was shifting from that sense of separate individual journey to we’re part of a larger whole. 

Well it was very gradual in the sense that growing up I was always on sports teams, stayed in one neighborhood, being with my buddies. That was great, and then also in college, and later, a little bit more inner, with hallucinogens, started to write poetry, creatively, songs, develop my inner. That was a little more of the separate. Self growth, self development. Although still with friends, women.

My teachers in India, Nepal, Tibet, even in Japan where Lama Das studied Zen and teaching English. Mostly monks or monastic style, they wanted us to become monks and nuns. Like the Kalu Rinpoche started the first 3 year western training in the west. But I never believed I’d be a monk my own life. I wanted to come back to my own culture. And place and time  and make a difference. Not be an ex-pat in foreign country. It’s different if you’re part of the scene there, like you as a Dutch person married here in America.

But in India it was more separate, like sahibs and memsabs. Like the British invaders. I wanted to go back to my own time and culture, and starting teaching counseling, writing, and organizing, social activism.

As a monk that is very hard to imagine continuing to do that. I didn’t intend to stay a monk forever. As a monk, it gets really complicated. Not being able to do many things. It’s not my vocation anyway. I’m more of a people person, Bhakti, as they say in India. A lover of life, people and of God. God in people, God in nature, God in animals.

So when the 3 year retreats were over after 8/9 years, I gave up my robes.

My message is if I can do it, you can do it, everyone can do it. I’m not different, I’m not the Dalai Lama, I don’t want anyone to idealize me. Just a Jewish jock from Long Island. Like a player coach, let’s do these practices together. It’s a wonderful joyous spiritual path. 

I love this journey of kindred spirits together. I love the beloved community, the Sangha, the Satsang. So gradually I got used to this idea. Starting to see, this is not the time, it’s never the time for selfishness. But self-growth, isolationism, and closing my eyes, and going inward, and being silent for years.

This is the era for integration, collaboration, of the 99% occupying the spirit. Not just the 1% percent waiting for the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa to do it. 

This is very important, so that is why I wrote this book about co-meditation, inter-meditation, awakening together.

I could tell by the way you wrote it, you want to take the “me” out of Meditation. So you created the new word, inter-meditation. 

Yes from Me-ditation to We-ditation. Not just with people, but with nature, with animals, with the lake, trees, the sun, the sky, with the sound of the waves. And let them do it for you, wash over you and through you. Relax a little, be open, not just close our eyes, and try to get away from it all.

Be with it, not trying to get away from it. Be with it, be open, not against it. Be with it!

Loving kindness means friendliness and openness. And also be friendly and open to what comes up within us. To our own inner phenomena and noumena, the mental stuff, bodily feeling. Healthily integrating it all into our open heart and Big Mind.

It’s the Big Mindfulness. Re-Mindfulness, remembering through member what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Not just trying to getaway from it all or stop thinking.

To me the sense of integration, that you talk about, is we used to spend a lot of time developing or nurturing the little self, the ego, ignoring the big self. And now when the Big Self is in the foreground, and the little self is in service of the big self. At the same time we need to develop our own unique expression of the Big Self, which is non-repeatable, which has it’s own talents and skills that still need nurturing. Some might think they have to kill their ego, or toss it away. Because the world needs everyone to be there, authentic to show up. 

Authentic, effective, yes. Authentic is a hard word to define. But it’s so important. No need to kill anything or kill your ego. Anti-ego is just another crime. Egotism, “I’m the worst”, or “I’m worse than anybody else!”

I think Buddhist greatest teaching is the middle way. Not too much and not too little. Not ascetic and not indulgent. There’s a lot of room in between, it’s not a razor’s edge. There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway of authentic awakening.  And the awakened life. The mindful life. The beautiful loving true life that everyone deserves. Not in an entitled way, that everyone can have and participate in equally.

There’s a lot of lanes in this great highway of life, let’s just try to stay away from the ditches on either side. Nihilism, nothing matters. Vs Materialism, everything is as real as it seems. If we can’t weight it or see it, it’s not real. That’s materialism. Nihilism and materialism are extreme views, the ditches off the highway. Extreme views. Killing for God mentality.

There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway including the different religions, like humanism, and atheism. Atheists and Agnostics are some of the most spiritual people I know. There’s room for all.

Suicide bombings and genocide, not so much room in my mind for that. We have to deal with that for sure. It’s part of life. And the inequalities and injustices of life make the problem worse. So we have to make some systemic changes, not just change ourselves.

When I become clearer, everything becomes clearer. That’s Buddha’s basic premise. That’s why we meditate, concentrate, self-inquiry. But still we have to work on the outer level, as well as the inner level. 

It’s election year, an important time to step up, speak out, and vote. If you don’t vote, I don’t want to hear you complaining about what’s wrong with politics in Washington.

Being an informed citizen is a co-meditation in a way.

Participating. If you’re a parent you got to participate with the children, not just send them off to school, and hope someone else do the parenting. Stand up for them, going to the school, and being involved.

This is a time for integration, not getting away from it all.

Of course having said that, I got away from it all for a long time. I still lead silent meditation retreats year-round. You can see my schedule, see below in the resources. But I still talk a lot about integration and selfless service, seva.

Linking our hands, hearts and heads. We’re all in the same boat, we rise and fall, sink or swim together.

We got a lot more to do, with terrorism, school shootings, separation and alienation. 

Yes, it’s terrible. The education system in North America. But the gun problem is even more of a crisis than the education crisis. There’s some pretty entrenched lobbies around that issue. Maybe we need to implement more mindful anger management in law enforcement. So people can think before they respond. More mindful management amongst teachers and institutional leaders. And with children. But it’s coming.

Mindful anger management can go a long way to reducing the violence that is becoming so endemic to our society.

These school shootings and mass killings are becoming like a national characteristic. It’s infuriating. Doesn’t happen in Canada. In this country there’s more guns then people! Don’t know why.

Inner peace and outer peace and harmony have to go together. I’m all for it.

You mention in your book, there’s a massive movement towards mindfulness , but folks miss out on some of the spiritual benefits, if they only go for the more mindful this or that. Effectiveness training.

It’s probably always been this way, com-modifying. Different societies generalize the things they import, like Yoga, that came into the 50’s and 60’s. Now probably in the armed forces.

Yoga just for exercise and health is missing out on the real meaning of Yoga, which is Yoga as Union with the Oneness, God, the highness. Missing out on the spiritual dimensions. The 8 limb yoga. Not just physical yoga.

Similarly meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness for effectiveness, mindfulness for relaxation, for stress relief is terrific. But mindfulness is also part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Brings enlightenment, brings other benefits. Brings wisdom development, less selfishness, more openness. Wouldn’t want us to lose out on those aspects.

If prayer would be only for what you want, like kids petitioning Santa. It would be a big loss.

If mindfulness becomes only about us getting what we want, like feeling a little better, getting a bigger high, reducing blood pressure and stress. It would be a loss from the point of view of wisdom cultivation and development.

Awareness, self-knowledge development, attitude transformation, and so on. Other aspects of mindfulness. When Surya Das teaches, he also teaches about 6 kinds of mindfulness. It’s a very rich subject.

It’s also about soulfulness and heartfulness. Not just about the mind. That’s very American, we love the mind and thoughts. We’re think-aholics! Addicted to thinking. 

But there’s life without thinking! Sometimes we’re having an experience and we’re still there, but not thinking. Like in the throws of ecstatic love making, or other situation, extreme exercise, or lucid dreaming.

Thoughts are a good servant, but a poor master. We’re too much under it’s power. Which is why I stress awareness.

I really appreciate my uncle who was a priest at the time. We were on a boat, about to go under a bridge, and I was standing on the boat about to get my head sliced off. He swore the most highest profanities at the time to get me to immediately bend down, or my head was about to get sliced off. That response was very appropriate!

Yes, you can’t legislate that. We call that wrathful compassion, not anger. He saved your life by cursing at the top of his lungs. If your children run into the street, you scream. You don’t just tiptoe, mindfully, silently toward the street to save them. That would be insane.

Spiritual life practice make us more sane, not insane. 

Meditation is a good friend with benefits.

I wouldn’t want it to be just mindfulness for effectiveness or yoga for health.

And that does require a balance between taking the practice seriously, but holding it lightly..another balance you gotta learn over time. 

Life aint much fun if we’re taking ourselves to seriously. That’s one of the downsides of religion today. It’s become so intimidating, so sectarian. I believe we need to really work to transform the atmosphere of spirituality. Apply it to daily life in many different ways, like mindful anger management, health and stress reduction is all good.

We need to lighten up, as well as enlighten up.

Joy is one of the four boundless virtues of Buddhist practice. Also joy in the good fortune of others, rejoicing. Joy is an important virtue to cultivate. Not just thinking this world sucks, waiting for the next world. 

And your book title, “Make me one with everything”, maybe you can mention this joke.

Here’s the joke! BTW, I’m proud that, “Serious Das” (his wife used to call him that when he got too serious about his practice) has the only book title that I know of, in which the title is the punch line of a joke.

So you probably don’t know what the Dalai said to the hot-dog vendor?

The Dalai Lama walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, “Make me One with Everything!”

But there’s more! So then the vendor starts making the hot-dog, the sweet relish, the crappy onions, bean sprouts, mustard, ketchup, etc.

Then the vendor hands over the hot-dog to the Dalai Lama, and then the Dalai Lama hands over the 10 dollar bill. Then there’s a pregnant pause, a silence, are they meditating? Staring contest? What’s going on? Misunderstanding?

The Dalai Lama then finally gives in, speaks first, “What no change?”

The hot dog vendor responds, “Change must come from within”….:-)

Lightening up, while enlightening up. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and also cultivating the joy. Life is a miracle, we didn’t create it. Everyday we get up is a good day, we’re not dead. We all know folks who are younger and have died or dread diagnosis. In parts of the world where people are in slavery, poverty, wars, famines all the time, or most of the time. etc.

The beautiful nature around us, the freedoms we have in this great country. Increasingly diverse.  Religious freedoms, freedom of speech and so on. Let me add, especially if you’re a white person.

I practice this kind of reverence and gratitude everyday. That makes my heart more joyful. I’m more resilient. Less brittle, less fearful, less cautious. More free and spontaneous. I can give and take. I can breathe in and out. Co-meditate with the difficulties, as well as with the people I like. Have much more resilience, forbearance and tolerance. Joyous, it’s a buoyant awakening.

And the meditation practice is what helps you with these benefits like resilience..

Yes, I’ve been meditating since 19791, when I did that first mindfulness course. Like that American expression, don’t leave home without it. I take it with me everyday, wherever I go.

Sometimes twice a day, sometimes in retreats all day. Sometimes I take part of the Sabbath off to take some time off to meditate. Meditate pray chant. Walking meditation, natural meditation, or sky gazing, lie down, dissolving into the sky, or co-meditation with water. Walk outside without earbuds. Co-meditation helps us integrate, inter-meditate with everything, every moment, even if we’re in a busy place. 

It seems like the lack of appreciation is one of the reasons why there’s so much depression, why people have problems with the world. 

It’s the difference between seeing the half of glass that’s empty and the half that’s full. Or, if things are never good enough for you, if you’re a perfectionist. Or worse insatiable craving or addiction. How those things cycle. It’s hard to get out of it by more of the same things that you’re stuck in. You have to make a quantum leap. Not just a little adjustment.

I’m  not an alcoholic, I’ll just drink less. Well good luck to you if that works. From my understanding, the 12 step program at stopping totally, is the best and almost the only solution for alcoholics. I’m for the middle way, but sometimes you have to be all or nothing with certain things.

With the bad habits, afflictions, things like depression, or other pathologies, maybe we need some psychiatric help, or chemical intervention. Maybe we need to change our diet, or lifestyle. If we can’t change our ways of thinking.

Back to what I believe in is experiential practices. Not just converting to another religion, or converting to another political party, they’re so much the same. But doing the inner work, on oneself, and together. And asking for help, getting help from others who have more experience can be very helpful.

So meditation, self inquiry, support groups, therapy, Tai chi, yoga, or your favorite hobby. Maybe kneeling in the sun in your garden is your way of being closest to the One, rather than kneeling in the church where you have all kinds of other associations. Maybe some creative art is it for you. Authenticity, we have to be honest with ourselves, or imitate someone else’s way. If we’re truth seekers. Not fool ourselves, learn and apply. With our youngers, with our elders, with other species etc.

As a teacher what issues do you see your students struggle the most with?

I shouldn’t tell on them (laughing) from their private consultations, etc. It’s no secret, that westerners mostly struggle with mental stuff. Less so with poverty and disease that you see in other parts of the world. Like genocide, being refugees, or having your family members disappeared, kidnapped.

A lost of his students struggle with relationships. The search for love and wholeness. The feelings of incompleteness, feelings of loneliness and isolation. Meaninglessness, what’s it all about in life. Why bad things happen to good people. People with various cancers, ill children, parents, to take care of. These are things that people struggling with, and have always struggled with.

That’s why I’m thinking about co-meditation. The difficulty or challenge. Being with it not trying to get away from it. The “enemy”, like a disease. To be with it, breathe with it, learn to tolerate it, be more patient less resistant.

See through the illusion of separation, is a great antidote to all this mental suffering. 

You don’t just mean intellectual..

Breathing with it, tolerating. Like befriend anxiety, if you have difficult feelings. Not fighting it, thinking it has to go away. Or over-medicating it away. Like sweeping crap under the rug. Where it festers. Throwing radioactive waste into the ocean. So we don’t have to deal with it. Of course our children would have to deal with it. Breathing through physical pain. Moving your attention can move your world in a positive direction.

Recognizing the inter-connectedness, putting yourself in others shoes. If your “enemy”, “bad” boss, (bad is subjective) employee, neighbors, if you have a problematic relationship. If you put yourself in their shoes, you might see yourself very differently.

We might have been the Hitler youth, if we’d been brought up in Nazi Germany. With the boy scouts, everyone was in the Hitler youth. You have to say that these extremists from the middle east. I don’t know that I’d be a terrorist. But they’re very loyal to their parents, their schools, just like we were. They’re not that different. They have the universal commonality of human beings, we love our land, our children, etc. We gotta find some common ground. Doesn’t mean we have to have the same religion.

Look at our gridlocked separateness in our nation’s capital. The partisan politics. Nobody can get anything done. It’s a real problem if we can’t find a third or fourth way, and see through the illusion of separateness. And get to the greater common good.

We have to take relational actional steps, learning, inquiring steps.

This Tibetan practice about riding the breath is very helpful and important today. Breathing in the difficulty, with Tibetan Tonglen practice is very important. Equalizing self and other.

You mention the shootings, it’s about what we’ve been talking about. Why do people do it, it’s about feeling separate, excluded, meaningless, victimized, pushed out, no one will listen to me. I’m gonna make a statement, extreme statement, because I’m not heard. We need to address these issues.

And the spiritual practice and path is a timeless and evergreen path to addressing these big life questions. 

What further encouragement would you give someone listening who’s not fully committed or sure why they’re practicing?

Nobody fully understands it, I don’t pretend to fully understand. Life is a mystery.  We have to live it. It’s like love, who fully understands love? But some are better than others, they become good lovers, good loving people. Like Buddha or Christ like love. Buddha said only go where invited, and when people ask. You can’t push people. So if people ask, then I share the best that I can.

In general I don’t need people to be different then they are. If they’re interested and looking where I’m looking, then we can start to “co-meditate” together. Discuss, and practice together. I’m not that square that I think everyone should meditate. There are people who should not meditate, like extreme introverts. They might do better with a relational spiritual practice.  Being involved with others, like sing and dance and chant.

Tai chi was a big one for me when I was young. A martial art, not an us/them martial art, an internal martial art. 

Yes, that’s more like contemplation in action, it’s a very good competitive sports. They train kids in ethics, character, self empowerment, courage, I advocate that for sure. Also, as my wife used to say it’s un-american to sit quietly and do nothing. Tai Chi, Chi gong, yoga. Especially with the younger people. It’s a little late when kids are already in college, their habits are already entrenched. It’s hard to change.

Since I was in college I’ve been working in this self-growth and transformation biz. And it’s still hard to change!

But a little acceptance goes a long way to transform your relations, which is the point. Self-acceptance, other acceptance. radical acceptance. I love Tara Brach’s, Radical Acceptance book. Much recommended.

So there’s definitely a discernment where you can’t just shove down each person’s throat to meditate.

Yes, that’s aggressive. Only teach where asked, not intervene. Maybe you don’t really know better than them. People used to say, how can I get my family to go to church, eat vegetarian, do this or that, etc. How can I get them to do what I want them to do. That’s not my situation. What we’re talking about is a journey where you can easily be their travel agent. Not for everyone, inner travel.

So it’s important for everyone today to take a breath, and slow down, breathe, relax, center and smile. Have a moment of prayer, connect with yourself. Not always thinking or looking down the road into the future. Sit in the car and feel the feelings in your bud cheeks and in your hands, not just thinking about where you’re going to arrive.

More fully inhabit your body and mind, and spirit, energy and soul. And then see about authenticity, inquiring into about what you’re deceiving yourself about. Or denying, or “bad habits” that you always wanted to change, but never can.

This is all part of working on ourselves, very doable. Just wise and sane, and the world needs that.

The head is the office, the heart is the home.

Try to live from the heart. Be kind and compassionate to others. 

And then the method doesn’t matter, as long as you’re moving towards the heart. 

And it’s an infinite journey, so there’s no hurry. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive as the Chinese proverb says.

Life moves fast, you must move slowly. 

That’s what this podcast for me is about to, I like to interview folks from very differing backgrounds. I have a more Zen background, I do believe that everyone has to find what works for them. As long as it makes them more loving and move towards non-separation, then whatever works for them. 

Right as long as it doesn’t intrude on others. We all have the right to be as eccentric as we want to be, if it fits. If the Nazis want to march, but they’re not to genocide.

We have to live by that, and also for ourselves. We have to respect others, and respect ourselves. We don’t want to fit into someone else’s mold. That’s imitation. Not just sit there like ice cubes in a tray, like in a Zen monastery. Everyone on a cushion, same position, at the same time.

If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, that’s probably not going to be your practice for the next 20 years. There’s got to be another way. There’s a million ways to worship and to reverence and to be beautiful in this world. All different kinds of flowers in “God’s Garden”. Not just one kind, just roses, not just lotuses. 

And a lot of gardeners. 

If you have a ending poem that helps people feel less separate. 

Let me chant out my millennium prayer that I wrote and said on the radio of Y2K.

May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected

And who want and need the same as we do

May all be awakened, liberated, healed, fulfilled, and free

May there peace and harmony in this world, and an end to war, violence, injustice, poverty, and oppression.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of the spiritual journey.

All together now, one family, one sangha, one beloved community, all one.

In love, the heart of the matter.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her.. friends.

Thank you.

Resources

Lama Surya Das Books 

(PS, thanks for supporting the podcast by purchasing through the links above! Amazon will give the podcast a little bit of credit without affecting what you pay for the book!)

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – with Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

A former marketing director at Showtime Networks Inc., Mark left his six-figure corporate job and is on a mission to bring more authenticity to the world, with a goal to inspire and empower 100,000+ people to be true to themselves and “live an epic life they’re proud of.”  He is the Host of The One & Only Podcast on iTunes, creator of the Be You authenticity workshop, a heralded transformational trainer, coach speaker, and a vocal Alzheimer’s advocate.

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

How did you get on a a path of meditation?

Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro

Mark was like many feeling he couldn’t’ meditate. But keep hearing it over and over how great it was to meditate. But he went to transformational workshops where meditation was used, and fell in love with it this meditation practice, and then learned to meditate and start practicing meditation.

He considers himself emotional and flexible and wants to be present for the people around him. Needs to check with himself, so he doesn’t give his power away. Meditation allows him to ground himself and his breath,  who he is, and check in with himself.  To be himself vs to be one with the changing winds.

Was there a particular moment where meditation clicked for you?

Yes, there was. He was doing a sound bath, and went deeply into a meditation state. He felt so light and clear and in touch with himself, his life, and at peace. He was able to see that from a different trajectory. He could watch these thoughts as they were moving down the street.

What is a sound bath for those who don’t know this?

It is different crystals, gongs, and even a little bit of guitar. That brought him into a deeper meditative state, easier then doing sitting himself. He could then tap into that space easier after this sound bath. The sounds help to quell his thoughts.

So the sounds help to mitigate the thoughts. Yes, I’ve also experienced these sound baths here in So Cal, and it is a beautiful experience. 

Yes, it’s easy to surrender to it. I find it healing and soothing. Easy to focus on, light, and to get lost in.

I like the chanting in our Zen retreats. It’s another way to let go of the trance of thoughts, and become part of a bigger body, the body of the group, community. Music is a wonderful way to get introduced to meditation.

What is your meditation practice like now?

Unregimented currently. At least 3-4 days of the week. It’s a priority for Mark though. He sits outside his house on the front deck. Close eyes, for 15-20 minutes. Listening to breath and birds, lawnmower, walking dogs. That’s just part of it. Continue to listen to it. Present to whatever sounds that come his way, he’s practicing being OK with all of that.

For example, in a public space, I also close my eyes and meditate and also drop into a meditative space. I couldn’t have done that a couple of years ago when he started meditating.

Do you also practice mindfulness or sense more presence in the rest of your day to day life?

Yes, usually when feeling anxiety it ‘s a reminder to take a few breaths. To be appreciate and re-ground himself. Whenever he feels anxiety, he’s either in the future or in the past. It’s just a reminder to see what’s around him. What’s around me that I can appreciate?

You also talk about the burning man, how this also helps you to be more and more present. 

Mark loves Burning Man. It’s so incredibly unique and magical. Learned so many lessons, a years’ worth of emotions in one week. So much stimuli, synchronicity. Open to all the possibilities that present themselves. He’s more likely to communicate with people at Burning Man than at a grocery store for example. He’s more open to the possibilities in the situations at Burning Man. He does do his best to apply what he learned at Burning man into his daily life.

What are some of the other interesting things you’ve learned as a result of Burning Man?

The following is from http://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.


Join the conversation in the 10 Principles blog series.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Interview continues…

Mark: Giving for the sake of giving. It’s a gifting economy. People are giving things, expecting nothing in return. Example getting water when you just need it. So with 70K people attending, it’s a powerful experience. It took a couple of years, to bring the principles of burning man back into his daily life.

He loves entertaining, giving out books in daily life, and giving parties.

The other one is creativity and contribution. Burning Man unlike other music festivals is that everyone is a participant, and contributor. VS a traditional festival, where you have the performers on the stage, and the people experiencing the performance.  But in Burning man everyone is a contributor, bringing gifts, artistic expressions, climbing walls, possibilities are endless.

There is also an element of creativity and self-expression. Encouragement of trying new things. Like talking in song is what Mark likes to do. Just being free to be himself.

Sounds like there’s a real sense of freedom that allows people to uncover their own innate creativity..

It’s way more than just a party. Lots of misconceptions about Burning Man. It’s a transformational experience. To grow in addition to having the best week of his year.

Yes, I wouldn’t want to disregard Burning Man. Some say it trashes the desert, others that it’s a freak show. We need to experiment as human beings, and occasionally let go of the personas, the rules we don’t even know where they came from etc. Authenticity is very important. To stop and pause and try something completely different.

Yes, that was my take-away this year at Burning Man. Applies to my life in general. To be real with myself and be real with others. I’ve found with all the masks that I wear that support me. In his 33 years on earth so far, he’s learned through experience what works and doesn’t work. The various masks, podcast host mask, friendly guy mask, professional mask etc.

He talks about his emotional experience with his best friend and ex. He tried to be detached, but it really did hurt. So it caused him to question himself. It had to do with older hurts, his divorce, his dad with Alzheimers. So when he went to that place and was truly real with himself, that is when he got to let go of a lot of pain and hurt that he didn’t even realize he was carrying around.

Being real with others, is about creating a safe space to dig below the surface with those that we love. Not to settle for one-word answers. Asking open-ended questions. Letting friends know that you are here for them, that you love them.

Yes, an authentic way of relating..

Yes, the stuff that isn’t going well in the world. In order to see what’s working and isn’t we need information. We need to see the entire picture. There’s so much happening under the surface, under our feelings. And if we’re not sharing our feelings, what we’re going through with each other, then how are we supposed to know. We’re then only seeing part of it.  I’m a big advocate for creating that space, so we can best support one another.

And you’re also sitting outside reflecting on it, looking back into your life. That’s part of what retreats are like. To take a temporary refuge in another safe place, to step outside of the river of life, and looking back in to see what’s going on. 

And also in relation to the school shootings,  a lot of these shootings are a reflection of deep alienation. Not connecting on a deeper level. 

Yes, by connecting with others, we give each other permission to be authentic and real. To share what’s really going on. I find that incredibly liberating. It feels so good to let it out.

Whether it’s the fear of this new career path. I left a 6 figure corporate job at Showtime networks to be in service of others full-time. It’s going really well, and very fulfilling. But also very challenging!

Continue to go through all the emotions. This morning, I felt some anxiety,  going to be on your podcast. But I meditated, brought myself in the present, and was good to go.

Yeah, and you get yourself out of your own way. 

Yeah, I use that doubt and fear as motivation to challenge myself how committed I am to my goals. When I get to that place where i’m hard on myself. I ask myself, what have you not tried yet? It unleashes creativity in me. I come up with 5-10 things I haven’t done yet, whether like reaching out to guests, or reaching to companies, or reaching out to increase my consulting business. It’s a motivation to get back in the game.

What made you decide to make a podcast about authenticity?

Mark was running away from his own authenticity for the first 30 years of his life, and didn’t even know it. I played it safe, got the corporate job, the marriage, and when that came to an end. I had to get back to the drawing board. Who am I? What’s next? What am I capable of doing. I’ve always had the desire to live an epic dream life. He knew he wanted to be his own boss, my own kind of company. Didn’t have an idea, didn’t know what value I could provide. Meanwhile doing very well in my corporate job.

Meanwhile when standing in front of a room, I was coming across as scripted and inauthentic. Lewis Howes (lewishowes.com), his mentor said, he was all professional, and monotone. This feedback hit him with a ton of bricks. That didn’t seem like part of him. He was so obsessed with getting it right, and looking good, that he didn’t let himself shine.

That example could be stretched across his entire life. He was playing it safe, focused on fitting in. Looking good, saying what he perceived to be the right thing to say, vs what he really felt. And other people could sense that he was inauthentic. That is what got him pursuing authenticity. That became a big part of his core values. Started practicing this a couple of years ago.

Learned so many valuable lessons.

  1. When he has the courage to say what he really feels, that it feels amazing. Feels so good when he says what he really feels. When I have the courage to be myself, it builds my confidence, and this helps me feel empowered. And then I can do anything. That’s the first big lesson.

2. Second, when I’m myself, I don’t need to try to fit in. I’m naturally going to belong. Brene Brown has been saying this for years.

3. If in every moment I’m choosing to be authentic, saying how I feel. Really checking in with myself. Then over time, my life is going to resemble the life I’ve always wanted. Now after a few years, that’s what’s the results show. I’m my own boss now. I’m heading in this direction because of the courage to be authentic, and in this moment.

You’re living into your question…

4. That when I’m being authentic, I create immense value for others. Whether creating a space for other people to be real with themselves and real with me. But also, if I express how I really feel to someone., that that could be exceptionally valuable., because maybe everyone else is just blowing smoke up their ass.

You’re giving permission to people to be more authentic..

Absolutely. Those are my big 4 takeaways from practicing authenticity.

With your podcast you ask other people what their sense of authenticity is, what have you learned that you didn’t know before you started your podcast?

I’ve learned so much.

  1. Pretty much every one has said. If there’s something you want go out there and get it. Don’t ask for permission.
  2. Just to have the courage, and take a risk.
  3. Failure is part of the game, part of the process. The fear of failure should not deter you. You learn from both what works, and what doesn’t.

Yes, we’ve stigmatized failure. Fear of failure, of looking bad. 

I have that all the time.

What are some of the practices to go into places that are uncomfortable. Its something you have to really lean into, if just once in a while, it’s much harder. You have to nurture it and tend it. 

Yes, I found myself changing my relationship with fear. But I realized from overcoming so many fears, what is available on the other side of fear. And that is tremendous celebration. New ground and opportunities.

Social anxieties and fears I used to have as well. After practicing authenticity, I realize we’re all in the same boat, we all have the same fears, insecurities. Now I find myself having deep conversations, and relationships in just a few minutes for example during social situations, and parties.

You also do workshops to help other folks draw out their authenticity, describe that?

It’s an experiential training, of about 2,5 hours of exercises. Where I primarily ask thought provoking questions. Such as, if people really knew me, they’d know this about me. Or these are my biggest fears about sharing how I really feel. How does my life look today, in relation to my biggest goals. In a scale of 1-10 how happy are you with the way you spend your time. If totally happy, they’d rate it a 10, but if 6, then what do you think a 10 is like?

Then the next question is what steps do you need to take in order to get this 10. Great way for people to check in with themselves. Also valuable for them to see how they measure themselves. They can see how hard they are on themselves, compared to other people.

Is the inner critic a big part of it?

Yes, inner critic is huge. In conjunction with going through this experiential workshop with many other people. Makes them realize we’re all in this together. We all have such similar private conversations with ourselves that may or may not serve us. When we get real with each other, and share those things. It makes me feel so much more comfortable and less alone.

It connects everyone under the surface. We’re very external focused society, not realizing what’s going underneath the persona’s. If we do realize underneath, the same fears and emotions. And connect, then it takes away a lot of the separation. 

Yes, that is the way I’ve found to create the deepest relationships, is to get Real with one another!

Easier said then done!

Yes, requires two to tango. I want to lead by example, lead with vulnerability, lead with authenticity. Aim to create a space where it’s reciprocated. Sometimes I get met with resistance.

There’s a difference between transparency vs authenticity as Brene Brown talks about. To me sharing absolutely everything is more transparency than so much authenticity.

Yes, everyone’s definition of authenticity is different. Some refer to it as being present, open, like a tiger in the jungle. Then others look at it as nothing is authentic, because we’re born into the world with so much conditioning. I think it’s important to have balance. I look at it more of a barometer. And as a practice.

In terms of transparency vs authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t mean I have to share every thought I have. When someone asks me a question, it’s my natural instinct to answer it exactly how I’m feeling. But I do sometimes say out of respect, I prefer to keep that quiet.

What about you?

For me as a teen, one of the first books that drew me into finding out who I was by Ramana Maharishi. I wanted to know who I was at bottom. Not just in relation to, but at bottom. The Self the true self. Not just us as individual expressions of that Self. But also the larger Self, where we’re all parts of. I consider myself a student of this great mystery that we’re all part of. 

To me that’s a lifetime practice. Both a spiritual journey, as well as individual. The individual part is also important. My teacher’s teacher says we’re all at the headwaters of our own unique streams. So it’s important to me to uncover my own self, and move from my own center. Instead of from a script or societal expectation. 

So two parts, the boundless mystery, and the individual sense, contribution, expression of it. There’s only one Mark, and only one Sicco. But we’re all connected in the deep, that’s our Big and boundless and formless Self (or whatever you want to call it). 

100%, yes, it’s our job to be ourselves. We’re irreplaceable. 

 

Resources

 

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

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

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

About Laura Bakosh

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

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

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

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

About Inner Explorer

Janice L. Houlihan

Janice L. Houlihan

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

Laura Bakosh Interview Transcript

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

 

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

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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