MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez
Johnny Perez is a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness. At the Urban Justice Center, he is assigned to MHP’s Safe Re-entry Project, where he works with people with mental illness and histories of incarceration, to connect them to the services in the community that will assist them to attain better measures of recovery and gain the stability necessary to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.
Mr. Perez also works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.
Drawing on the wisdom of thirteen years of direct involvement with the criminal justice system, Johnny has testified at the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission about the inhumane treatment of teenagers in solitary confinement in state prisons and city jails. He is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at Cornell Law, Fordham University, Amnesty International, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.
Johnny is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom.
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What were some of the events that led up to you spending 3 years in solitary out of a 15 year prison sentence?
The first time I landed in solitary I was 16 years old, and ended detained in Rikers island here in New York City for gun possession. Ended up incarcerated for 8 months for having a gun on me. While I was in Rikers Island, I got into a fight with an individual over the phone. If you don’t belong to a gang, you can’t use simple entitlements that every person that’s detained can use, like using the phone. Johnny got into a fight over the phone and as a result was given 60 days of solitary confinement.
One of the things that made the situation worse, was that the person that brought the food, breakfast and lunch, belonged to the same gang of the person I fought over the phone with. So for the first two weeks, I didn’t eat breakfast and lunch as a result. As a 16 year old it was challenging, lot of psychological and physical adversity as a result.
As an adult when I was 21 years old I was sentenced to 15 years of prison for robbery in the first degree in which I served 13 years of that, with a total of 3 years in solitary confinement.
My reaction as an adult was a whole lot different as an adult in solitary then as a teen. Now, years later, I’m a re-entry advocate at a non-profit law-firm at the early justice center. I’ve dedicated my voice, past experiences to creating alternative solutions to solitary confinement.
Can you tell me what that was like to be in solitary confinement?
The cell is very small, very quiet, maybe about the size of a small parking space. I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my arms out horizontally and touch both walls in a lot of the cells I’ve been in. During the summer, the walls start to sweat it’s so hot. During the winter, it gets so cold you have to keep your head under the covers. Except you can’t do that, because every hour an officer walks by your cell, to make sure you’re alive and according to protocol, they have to see your skin. They leave all the lights on during the night and day too for security purposes, so it’s hard to sleep with the light on.
It disrupts your circadian rhythm…
Yes, greatly, to the point where you lose track of time and even the dates. I’d try to keep a calendar to keep track of the days. Because one of my fears was that I would be there in prison for longer than I needed to be.
As a teen, 16 years old, still creating my identity, figuring out who I am. And to be placed in isolation, you begin to absorb some of the oppression in the sense that your self-esteem is damaged, you tell yourself, maybe I am a criminal, maybe I do belong here. You get thoughts of suicide and these kind of things, you think to yourself maybe people won’t miss me if I’m gone.
I felt my self as a teenager very overwhelmed with anger. Anger against authority figures, anger against the circumstances, anger against myself. I punched the wall a lot, I cried a lot, did a lot of push-ups, punched the wall a lot, screamed a lot. I sang.
And at the same time, you could hear everyone around you as well going through something similar?
Yeah, although it is very isolated, everyone in every other cell is doing the same exact thing I just mentioned. So when you put all these sounds together, the sounds itself is enough to to frustrate a person. You hear correctional officers who can’t even stand the noise from even working there, with the people kicking and screaming, and kicking the doors simultaneously.
Other times it gets very quiet also, so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. Your last meal is at 4:30 in the afternoon, next meal at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of times you can get a misbehavior report if your’e caught saving food. If you get this misbehavior report during solitary, you will get more solitary time. So it’s not uncommon to find someone who’s been sentenced to 90 days for testing positive for marijuana, and then end up 5,6,10 years, or decades even from receiving these back to back misbehavior reports.
So for holding a little bit of food, that is somehow a crime, even though in real life outside of prison that would never be considered a crime?
Absolutely, it’s considered contraband..So if I save 4 slices of bread and my milk, and then they come on a cell search, not only are they taking it, but I’ll receive a misbehavior report for holding contraband in my cell. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. But in their rationale is that if this food goes bad, then I’m harming my health. So they’re protecting me and doing something to prevent harm to myself.
As an adult I didn’t internalize a lot of the oppression that I faced. I became more extroverted and outspoken about the injustices, and began to think critically, to question the system. I began to think critically about exactly why we live in a country where it is OK to do this to people.
I remember the only person I’d have contact with was the officer that brought me food everyday. I did a combined 3 years for a number of infractions. Most of them was testing positive for marijuana. I think the most time I did at one time was one year, for testing positive for marijuana.
I asked myself, why we live in a country where it is OK to do this (putting someone in solitary for a year for testing positive for weed). Why are people not more concerned about this. It wasn’t until I was released, and started doing this work, I realized that people just don’t know.
Part of my job is to raise awareness about these issues, using my personal experience, to educate, and to compel people into action. This is an issue that is affecting about 100.000 people across the nation. 5000 alone in New York. We hear about a lot of the successes, but they’re just incremental change. When Obama says, we’re banning solitary for juveniles. Later to find out that there are only 27 juveniles in solitary on the federal level. You start to ask yourself how much change is actually happening on this issue.
So Obama changed the rules for juveniles and solitary confinement on the federal level, not the state level right..
Yes, so I always warn against incrementalism, where we change a small piece of the puzzle, but the entire picture still remains the same. So while no juveniles in the future won’t be placed on solitary on a federal level, that piece of legislation won’t do a whole lot as it relates to solitary reform. I will say that some states have followed suit, and placed their own limits on solitary on the state level. We’re very happy about that of course.
Virginia recently banned juveniles with mental illness from solitary. Here in New York we some progress as it relates to how much time spent in these cells. But the United Nations Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Juan Mendez deems anything above 15 days of solitary confinement amounts to torture (which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions). And here in the US we hold people in solitary a lot of times indefinitely.
The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…
Absolutely. But our prison system is not reflective of that. When you have a person like Albert Woodfox who was recently released after 42 years of solitary confinement. 42 years! I still have personal friends who are in solitary confinement still from when I was with them in these human cages.
At what point is our system going to reflect our human values?
Some of the reactions that people can get when put in solitary confinement that they’ve found from the statement titled “Harmful Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Just seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain. ” Do you see that happening with most people?
Yeah, it happens to a lot of people. A lot of times, people are placed in solitary for completely minor offences. 4 out of 5 offences where people are placed in solitary are for minor offences. It could be testing positive for drug use, having contraband in their cell. Could be tobacco, frying pan, cell phone, cash… And then they are place in solitary. There are people placed in solitary for violent acts. But those instances are far and few in between. While they are there, because we place very vulnerable people in solitary. Such as people with mental illness, or kids (like in New York one of two states). Women who are expecting children. Or elderly people, people who are developmentally disabled.
While they are there they suffer the psychological ramifications of being alone for extended periods of time.
Are they following a protocol for putting someone in solitary, or is this totally up to the discretion of the warden or prison officer?
Both. A lot of the times, the facility has already outlined infractions or behaviors that would land one in solitary in the first place. We’re also fighting that on that front. People should not go to solitary for testing positive for marijuana. They need drug treatment instead.
So the prisons have these guidelines. But then the hearing officer, or officer that writes this report in the first place, they have unwieldy discretion on who they send, how long they send them for, and even which type of solitary they send them to.
So there’s no third party that reviews the rationale, or decision used to send someone to solitary?
No, except that you can repeal a decision…but in practice an appeal doesn’t work like it works on paper. For example, when you get sentence a year in the box for testing positive for marijuana. Then when you get there, they say OK, here is your year, and you can appeal for 30 days. Except when you get to your cell, there is no writing paper, there’s no pen. The supplies only come by once a week. And you have to have it in within 30 days. A lot of times the men and women going to jail feel so defeated that they don’t just don’t even put in an appeal in the first place.
For those that are fortunate enough to have the stars aligned where they can actually submit an appeal, they find a lot of times are often denied at the facility level, and they have to appeal to the court. And the problem with that is that a lot of people in prison haven’t necessarily taken the bar exam to represent themselves in court. They don’t know how to file these court motions, like article 78, etc.
Additionally here in New York state, for you to access the law library, you have to ask for whatever documents you need 24 hours in advance. Then when you get a book, like the jailhouse lawyers manual, which outlines different court motions in laymen’s terms, you might find the book missing, or a chapter missing, or the officer doesn’t feel like giving out law library materials that day, or that week. So that makes it very difficult to appeal the decision, and to bring that decision in front of outside eyes, outside of prison.
And you have no outside representation that can help out, you basically have to represent yourself?
You definitely have no representation at the hearing stage, and even on the appeal stage. Which is another issue we try to fight as the campaign for alternatives to long-term isolated confinement. Due process is not suspended. You can’t isolate someone without due process. We do it in our court system. Except that in prison due process is really non existent. We have people who can’t speak English being sentenced at hearings that are completely in English! That’s a huge problem. People should be alarmed and concerned about what is going on in these prisons.
And this brings back to what you spoke about earlier, that you are not treated as a citizen in prison. This message of you’re less worthy than a citizen, is not just literal in your face, but also in terms of trying to find representation or recourse…
Yes, unfortunately we send people to prison (it’s supposed to be) as punishment, but nor for punishment.
Except that once people are placed in prison, people are faced with all these different kinds of adversity, injustices. And it’s justified by saying that if you don’t like it, they say, you shouldn’t have come to prison in the first place. But there is a problem with this ideology. I’ll give you a case study to show you what is wrong with this ideology..Mister Kalief Browder, who passed away. This was a young man who was 16 years old, who was literally picked up from the streets of New York, accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation, spends 3 years in prison, two years in solitary.
Later on, footage was revealed that he was routinely pulled out of his cell and beaten by correctional officers, put back. Beaten up by gang members, while officers just stood by watched and laughed. He attempted to commit suicide a number of times, yet never received any mental health treatment or psychological attention as a result of these suicide attempts.
Then one day, they dropped the charges. They said, we’re sorry we got the wrong person, three years later. 6 months after Mr Browder was released, he committed suicide.
He was permanently damaged in there…
Yes, permanently damaged.. So I want to say, that when we say, hey if you don’t like it you shouldn’t have gone to jail. People should know that not everyone who goes to jail, A, goes to jail for something they actually did, or B, for something that warrants the punishment that they received. A lot of time the punishment is not proportionate to what it is that they’re even being accused of.
And in those cases where it is justified to remove this person from society, people need to understand that prison IS the punishment. They’re not sent for additional punishment at the hands of people who have sworn to protect them. Which is what’s happening right now.
So getting back to when you were in solitary, how did you cope? You mentioned someone who committed suicide. But you came out with a different maybe attitude or resilience that you had…What was it that you had in prison that kept you going?
I want to say hope…I looked around my environment and said, people are dying here…I don’t want to die inside of a cell. My mother didn’t give birth to me to spend my days locked inside of a human cage. And a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. For me, my source of strength was my daughter who was born 2 days before I was arrested and sentenced for 15 years. And my mother, who has loved me unconditionally, even when I behaved in ways that I didn’t deserve to be loved.
While in the cell, not only saying I need to survive for them, but also saying, I’m not going to succumb to this environment. I dreamt a lot, slept a lot, fantasized a lot, thought about winning the power-ball, and how I would fire every single correctional officer in the nation (laughing) and hire new people who really care about people. I exercised a lot, and wrote a lot as well. In the back of my bible, the back of the books from the library, on toilet paper. And then all of these writings, once I got back to the general population, I added them back to my journal.
This hope that I am more than just another person who’s inside of a cell. And have so much potential, and I’m not going to succumb to this. And today I am who I am, not because of solitary but despite solitary..
In solitary the writing is kind of a reflective practice, did you have any other reflective practices, or did you struggle with a lot of thinking…
Yeah, in prison your memory fades. That’s why in prison people like pictures because it reminds us. There were a lot of times where I thought back to an event that happened, but I didn’t’ remember correctly the way it actually happened. And it wasn’t until maybe I wrote to my mother, and she’d say that’s not how it happened. What are you talking about? It happened more times than I care to admit. Part of it was thinking, am I losing my mind here, am I creating these alternate realities and fantasies?
Which later I found out that is exactly what I was doing. For me to survive the environment, I had to get out of the environment, even if it was just psychologically closing my eyes. So the way I survived solitary was by using my imagination. There was an article written on that process, by Nautilus Magazine. How we use our imagination to detach or escape from an environment, so we don’t succumb to the environment. People who’ve gone through war and experiences like that, use similar visual exercises to cope with an environment. I didn’t know that I was doing that at that time.
A lot of us do meditation practices to get beyond the walls of our thinking, the walls of our minds as my teacher puts it. So it sounds like your imagination allowed you to get past these walls that were limiting your thinking. And in many cases people they think very little of themselves. It sounds like you were able to break through that constant messaging that puts you down…or as they might say, “put you in your place”, but really isn’t.
Yes, and unfortunately, a lot of people that are placed there, don’t have the capacity. They succumb to their environment. I’ve heard correction officers tell a detainee after they say, “I feel like hurting myself”. And the correction officer says, “come back to me when you actually hurt yourself…”.
Another case that happened, mister Bradley Ballard, this individual needed constant insulin shots, and the correction officers completely ignored his pleas to receive his medication. At one point one correction officer was kind enough to go to his commanding officer and say, “Hey, this guy, really might need some attention, we should take a look at that. ” The Sargent tells the correction officer, “is he dead yet?”. The reporting officer said, “No…he’s not dead, this is why I’m coming to you…”. The supervising officer then said, “Come back to me when you have a body, don’t come back here until you have a body.” Two days later, Bradley Ballard was found dead in his cell.
That’s real mean spirited management, is this taught somehow in the culture, is it systemic?
You’re right, it’s not in the training, how to not have failings. It’s more like, a lot of well-intentioned officers, a lot of whom I’ve met through my incarceration. I’ve met a lot of good officers. Except that, they would rather not rattle the cage. They wouldn’t stand by and watch injustices happen, but because they value their job, or don’t want to get fired, they just don’t get in the way.
Officers are taught that we’re criminals, we shouldn’t be trusted, we are criminals, we shouldn’t be spoken to, shouldn’t be said hi to. So it’s definitely deeply embedded in the culture. Except not every officer subscribes to this culture. At least not proactively, but sometimes by allowing things to happen, I would argue that it’s also just as detrimental and bad.
Yes, Silence is also a choice…
Yeah…I like that..
You mentioned treating people like people earlier.. and this culture of you can put them down, because they’re not people develops in a prison culture..
And it reflects itself in the language a lot. You might hear officers say things like, “how many heads, how many bodies do you have?” Completely dehumanizing language. The problem with this dehumanizing language is that there are things I can do to a “criminal”, that I wouldn’t do to a, “father”. There are things I can do to an inmate, that I couldn’t do to a, “son”.
Once a person is viewed in such a dehumanizing way, then an officer feels justified and OK with for example, not giving you toilet paper for a few days, or not unclogging your toilet for a week. Or, “Here’s a cold tray of food, so what that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7:30….Oh you want to hurt yourself? Well, you’ll figure it out..Don’t come back until you actually did.”
Then justify it, by saying, “these people committed horrific acts, they should not be given any pity or compassion.” Being compassionate or compassion is not something that you do, it’s something that you are…
I’m not sure if the department of correction can measure that on the way in. (laughing).
Have you seen any prison examples where that is taught or instituted, where there is emphasis on the humanness rather than making people less human?
Yeah, there are prisons that I’ve been exposed to who, “treat people like people”. What that means, is that they make sure that they have contact visits, educational resources, adequate mental treatment if and when they need it. Where they uncuff people during therapy sessions. This goes a long way, to be uncuffed when having therapy.
Really protecting and upholding the person’s dignity and worth…Something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing today…goes a long way. And really acknowledging a person’s humanity and presence. In prison, “how are you doing?” is not a phrase that’s heard often.
I want to say here in New York we’ve been moving towards that, a lot of restorative justice. A lot of step-down programs from solitary. Giving people the opportunity to get these treatments and educational resources while they’re in solitary. Except that it takes legislation to move towards that goal, and not just the sheer will of the people.
Basically prison used to be just punitive, what do you see happening towards a prison system that is instead of just punitive towards one that is rehabilitative?
Yeah, right now across the nation, criminal justice is very sexy so to speak. States are really taken a look at their systems, and saying, you know what, is our system as humane as possible. And if not, how can we make this better?
I’m just glad and honored to be alive during a period where it feels like people don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
So we’re seeing a lot more progressive changes in states moving towards not only rehabilitating people, but also equipping people with the tools, knowledge and information to make them productive citizens once they return to society. In addition to correcting a lot of the systemic parts that also people face once they’re released. Because it is not just the person, but also the systems that this person has to interact with that determines whether that person will recidivists (becomes a repeat offender) or not.
And so this rate of recidivism…A successful prison would be a model where the rate of recidivism is way lower, and prisoners correctly reintegrate back into society and become productive, there are models worth following right?
I’m not sure how I feel about the term “successful prison”. I even ask myself, do correctional facilities “correct” anything? When speaking to different journalists, they’ll say, “Johnny, prison was good to you…You are educated, eloquent, you work at a law firm, you advocate for people, you all of this, and you did 13 years in prison.”
I always say that we need to find a way to invest in people, not prisons.
For the people that are impressed with my journey, I’m only an example of what happens when you invest in people, not prisons. I discovered the power of education while incarcerated. I took college courses while incarcerated. Now kudos to Obama for the recent pilot program affecting about 12 thousand people across the country who will be exposed to higher education in the form of Pell Grants.
But a lot of that came despite the adversity, not because the adversity.
When I think of a successful prison and what that would look like, it would be prison in which the prison invests in the people inside the prison. Not in security, cameras, or fancier handcuffs. And more educational programs, drug treatment, mental health treatment. How can we empower this person. How can we make sure this person has housing and employment upon their release. Let’s help this person make more responsible decisions….
Would part of the solution be to take the profit out of the prison industrial complex? That’s a big part of the problem right?
Yeah, definitely. I think about my daughter who is 15 years old, and my future son. Do I want to bring my future son into a country where people profit from incarceration, oppression, profit from injustice. And if I’m up for parole and I come in front of a warden whose receiving money to keep me inside of a cell. What is least likely to happen? What’s most likely to happen? And what is actually going to happen?
What would you do to take profit out of the equation?
I would definitely not allow the privatization of prisons. I don’t think that any person should be able to make prison a business. Even though state run correctional facilities also have a piece of corporate America in them. People who are incarcerated work for pennies on the dollar. I worked for 15 cents an hour for over 10 years. Doing work that had I been doing it out in the world, it would have paid $20 dollars an hour.
And yet, how much does it cost to warehouse people, 170 thousand dollars a year?
Yeah, Rikers Island cost 170 thousand dollars a year to warehouse (chuckles), or hold someone in his/her cell. And these same people work for 15 cents an hour. If you give me a young kid who has made irresponsible decisions, and a 170 thousand dollars. Not only would I give this person Ivy league education, buy him or her a nice home and car, and still give you back a 100 thousand dollars left over.
So in the end, society would be way better off just investing in that person, instead of investing in this prison industrial complex…
Yes, huge, huge. And I ask myself why we’re not already doing that.
You’d think that especially the bean counters, the people who are saying money matters, they’d be saying, why wouldn’t we invest money in these persons, thus save society money, rather than giving prisons more money to keep the person longer in prison, thus costing the tax payers more….
Part of the problem is plain old corruption…Every now and then the veil is lifted. You might hear about a judge who is receiving kickbacks from a private for-profit prison for sending juveniles there. And we’re shocked when we hear these stories. Advocates and people in the prisons would say hey, you’re just now finding out about it. I’m just really glad criminal justice reform is on people’s radar, and people are finally getting tired and don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
When you have the pope and the president saying, we need a better system, we need to reform our criminal justice system. It makes people perk up, and say wow, maybe we are over incarcerating people.
2.1 million people locked up in our nation’s prison. 65 million have a criminal record on file. (80,000-100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US where they spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades.) Most of these people are disproportionately people of color…who come from low-income neighborhoods, who have little to no educational or financial resources. Or opportunities, and ending up finding themselves warehoused in a cell for days, weeks, years, decades at a time.
People of different races are singled out, vs, for example on a college campus where someone does the same thing, and receive no punishment. Whereas someone in a poor neighborhood does the same thing, and can end up in solitary…
Yeah, absolutely, I think about drug possession and drug use. I think about in my neighborhood for example, there are 24 hour porn shops, and 24 hour liquor stores. As if people from my neighborhood have gold laying around to pawn at 3 am in the morning. I think about the countless people who’ve gone to prison for drug possession and have gone to solitary for drug use. I’ve been to plenty of college campuses where drug use is rampant, except that there no one ends up going to jail. But in other places people do end up going to jail. It’s not necessarily that certain people get singled out, it’s that the system favors white people over people of color.
Unfortunately this is what goes on. Think of the recent case of the young man from Stanford who was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. And I think about, if he was a person of color, would he have received 6 months of jail? Of course I would never know, I would argue he’d have received a much different sentence than 6 months.
I believe it…so what challenges do you face as re-entry advocate?
There are challenges that I face right now in the work that I do. And that is that I’m always trying to humanize the people in prison. But the systemic change has to come from these different systems that people have to interact with once they return to society. Specifically parole, or HRA, which we call Human Resources Administration, where people receive food stamps and different benefits and entitlements. Medicaid, social security. These systems really work against the people that return to society.
I have people who have been released who are given addresses to buildings that don’t even exist anymore. I have clients who parole says, I don’t want you to work, to go to school. I want you to only take anger management, and once you are done with that, then we talk about you getting a job. And that’s a huge problem.
The other part of the challenge is changing the culture enough to where the policy changes.
A lot of times these policies are created by people who have no experience with the prison system, have never been in the system, or have even come in contact with the people in this system. And yet they are allowed to create policy for these people. So part of my challenge is making people aware of the value of having the voices of people who are directly impacted in the work that they’re doing, when they’re having these policy discussions.
Because between theory and practice there is a huge space. And in order to close that space you need the voices of the people who are directly affected by the issue, who have lived through it. Who can say, hey, that policy doesn’t look like that in real life, that’s never going to work. But here is how we can make it work.
And a lot of times we’re excluded from these conversations, because again, we’re not seen as qualified, we’re not seen as believable in a lot of senses. And just not really brought into the conversation.
So how would you be able to get into the conversations?
Just invite me (laughing)…
Legislators know that there are advocates who are pushing for different reform. We constantly contact legislators, we contact government officials. We contact people in different spaces who are either engaged in new initiatives, or who are exploring ideas about whether alternative incarcerations, sentencing, bail reform, things of that nature. And we say, hey this is what should happen. So instead of saying, thank you for your opinion, why not say, why don’t you come and join us for this meeting that we’re having on how to actually formulate this.
I will say it has happened in some spaces, specifically Rikers Island. I’m on an adolescent advisory board here in NYC. I’m part of the bar association, on the community and re-entry committee, one of the people who’s not a lawyer. But they see the value in having us (the people who are directly affected) part of the conversation as it relates to reform.
They’ve really come to terms, and see that hey, we’re not going to get this right, until we make sure that the people in this cell also have a say-so into how this is going to turn out. And some spaces this is successful, and other spaces you’re invited, but not listened to.
Its just for lip service, just for show….
Yeah, to say, we had Johnny Perez there, formerly incarcerated, and he was part of the discussion. But every suggestion I made was shut down.
Another thing I wanted to ask, you mentioned if you hand someone a paintbrush, they will paint…expand on that a little bit.
This is the idea that criminals in prison are incorrigible individuals, criminals are born criminals, not made. And because of that, you have whether correctional services, or legislators, or even government officials, who believe that people can’t change. I would argue that people can change, they can change as long as they’re alive. Regardless of age. But because of this ideology, the idea is that we should educate people in prison. Because if you teach this guy who’s in prison for burglary, if you teach him computer skills, he’ll just become a computer hacker…
Just a better burglar….right..
Yeah..instead we should not teach them…because if you know there’s no change in this person. Where the reality is that if you teach me computer skills, I’m more likely to become a computer engineer, software engineer, or IT specialist. I won’t become a computer hacker. I’m not innately born a criminal.
That is one, then two, a lot of times, we stamp people with one label based on one chapter, or one act in their life. And for a lot of people, the difference between a lot of people in prison, and people in society is that the people in prison where arrested, and a lot of people in society have YET to be arrested.
I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who are either doctors, lawyers, etc. who’ve put their hand in a cookie jar at some point in their childhood, or early teens. except that they had the resources to not succumb to the criminal justice system. And have this lifelong blemish, or scarlet letter behind them.
Or they simply were not found out…
Yeah, exactly… or it never came to the light of day.
Or maybe because they grew up in a higher crime neighborhood where there is a lot of police presence already watching….You’re more likely to be found out with your hands in the cookie jar if you grow up in certain places.
Yeah, we know street crime is prosecuted at a higher degree than corporate crime. I don’t have to remind people about Enron and Mr Madoff. But those are far and few in between.
But the paintbrush is..I was at a board of corrections meeting, and one person proposed an art program, art therapy in prison. Who knew, let people paint! But a official said we can’t have this program, because we can’t have people take paintbrushes and create weapons out of them and kill each other. My eyebrows went up, wait a minute, people don’t automatically see a paintbrush and see a weapon!
Anything can be a weapon when you think about it. The person has to decide to do so. So saying we can’t have paintbrushes, because they will create weapons out of it, is to say these people are incorrigible and can’t be changed and are born criminals. No..criminals are made due to a number of different environmental and psychological factors. A lot of different variables go into that. Not just born…
And we also have a habit of telling someone, “You are a criminal” instead of, “you had criminal behavior” at one time. That alone is coming back to where words can be very powerful if you say, your identity from now on is just that. Because then they might start believing that, which also doesn’t help…
Exactly, and I think that was true for me as a teenager. The environment was sending me messages. Solitary was sending me a message of worthlessness. Of this is who you are, this is how you should be treated. And then after a while, I said well, if I am a criminal, then you know what, then I’m going to be one.
And real quickly when you go into prison, you learn it’s a completely different world, it’s an upside down kingdom. Where everything that you believed was true, is backwards. People do not value respect, people don’t value diplomacy, people do not value walking away from a conversation. People do not value just being able to talk things out. Violence is really the law of the land. Both for people doing time, as well as the correctional officers. They don’t talk things out, they talk with their batons.
You learn that for me to communicate, you have to communicate with violence. This is the language of the land here. When someone is constantly exposed to that for 10, 15, to 20 years. Then when they return back into society, they still operate by those norms. And that is how this cycle continues, this labeling theory cycle.
In prison, did you also find a lot of people turn towards religion as a way to cope?
Yeah, I found that people turn to religion for a number of reasons. In addition to coping with the environment, and this unbearable reality. The kind of let go, and let God take care of it so to speak of. Part of doing time is to come to terms with hopelessness. I know I mentioned hope before in solitary before. But also hopelessness in the fact that there is nothing I can do about this situation. Like absolutely nothing that I can do about it. All I can do it, is accept the situation.
So your’e not struggling against it the whole time…
Yes, that’s self talk. When I first went to prison, I had to tell myself, “Johnny, you’re not going home for the next 15 years.” This is your home for the next 15 years. Stop thinking that someone is going to open your cell someday, and say we’re going to let you go. It’s not going to happen. And I had to reprogram myself. And a lot of time, it’s saying, hey, God there’s nothing I can do about it, please take care of it. God if you give me another chance, I won’t do it again. That kind of thing.
So people turn to religion to help cope with the environment. And then people also turn to religion for feelings of warmth, to feel inclusive, and feel loved in a lot of senses. To feel they’re not alone, even though they’re in a crowded room.
Do you find that that they still maintain that relationship once they come out of prison into society?
A lot of times yes. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve found faith in prison, and then once released, they stay with their faith and their religion.
In terms of addressing the root problem, why do some turn towards a life of crime..how can we address this?
There are a number of different issues. I think policing is part of the issue. The way that some neighborhoods are policed and others are not. In my neighborhood, I get mobile police towers, other neighborhoods, they get community gardens. Again I have 24 hour porn shops, and these poverty pimps who pray on people needing things.
I definitely think that the resources that are allowed into the communities, except that it is not. When I was 16 years old, I wasn’t trying to decide to if I should go to band camp or karate school. I was trying to decide which gang to join, how I’m going to run from the cops. How I’m going to walk to school and keep myself from being bullied.
And then when I was in school, the messages I received from my own teachers weren’t positive. I cut school as a teen constantly, except that every year I found myself being passed to the next grade. I don’t know how I passed this, I never did any homework. I probably showed up about two weeks out of the school year, and here I am going from the 8th to the 9th, and then into the 10th, and 11th grade. How is this possible?
And then as an adult you realize that teachers were just passing the problem along. I found myself in the 11th grade with an 8th grade reading level. Where the teacher says, oh you didn’t do your homework, well it’s OK, you’ll probably end up in prison anyway…
So they’d already given up on you in high school…
Oh yeah, without a doubt. So let’s talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. When you go in school, and our schools resemble prisons. You have to go through a metal detector, the’re are armed guards there. I can be arrested inside of school, if the teacher deems I’m being disruptive in class. How I’m suspended constantly for behaviors that other students might not be suspended for.
Next thing you know here I am, I have a criminal record from engaging in school. Then once I get in front of a judge for another infraction, I already have psychologically been exposed to these restrictive environments in a sense.
I think the policing, the education, and I bring it back to the resources that are afforded in these communities. There is nothing to do for people inside a lot of these impoverished communities.
I wonder what would happen if we were to infuse these communities with the resources, financial resources, human resources, opportunities. For people to take advantage of them. Instead of feeling like, I have to sell drugs to help my mother feed my three brothers. Which is the reason the first time I went to jail.
I hope something like that happens. It is very complicated in reality to implement that.
And then we can talk about alternatives to incarceration. When people are arrested for a certain crime, you should not go to prison. You should not go to jail for using drugs. You should not go to jail because your behavior was a direct result of your mental illness. You should not go to jail, because you’re sleeping on a park bench, because your homeless. You should not go to jail for hopping a turnstile on a train, because you can’t afford to pay $3 dollars to get on the subway. Except that you get arrested, fined $100 dollars and run through the system.
And I ask myself, have we criminalized poverty? Have we criminalized mental illness? And people are going to jail not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are.. .in a lot of different cases.
Yeah, lot of things to solve, a lot more problems to solve. I would envision an island instead of filled with boxes, have an island with gardens, wood-shop, every kind of possible skill that could be taught there. And then I imagine people coming off that island very different than an island with boxes on it.
Yeah, places like this jail in Sweden. People there are so humanized, they don’t even have fences there. And people are not running away, because there is no fence. Places in India where the officers don’t use handcuffs. Where people willingly go to the precinct with the police officer, and are held accountable for their actions!
We can rethink our entire system beyond where it is now, in a way that empowers people. And protects and upholds their human dignity and worth. and is very directly reflective of our human and American values.
And this cycle keeps on going unless you have some advantages right now, like you could self-educate your way out of the cycle…
Yeah, and to have the support of people who say, we’re going to invest in this person. This person has potential.
I told a reporter from the times the other day, the entire time I was in prison, for 13 years straight, day in and day out…Not once did I meet a person who was incorrigible, who could not be changed, who was deep down a criminal. I met people who had so much unrealized potential. I’m talking about so creative, so smart. I know scholars who don’t have PhD. Who have studied subjects for the last 10-15 years because there is nothing else for them to do. And they’re so smart, but they would never see the light of day.
And I ask myself…Imagine…if the cure to cancer was stuck inside of the head of a person who is sitting inside of a cell, who is not being allowed the education to bring the cure into fruition. There is so much unrealized potential inside of our prisons.
If we were to invest in these people….our society as a whole, not only the moral fabric of our society would be upheld, but our society would be furthered by the accomplishments these people would make.
Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)
Anything else that I missed that you would like to get off your chest that you think people should know about incarceration?
I think I said it all, but I would emphasize for listeners who have never been exposed to the system or come in contact anyone who has been affected…People should know that a lot of people are in prison just because they haven’t given the opportunity to do better. And they can’t do better, unless they know how to do better.
So definitely education is part of the conversation. And the other part of the conversation is that there are no bad people. There are people who may commit bad acts or irresponsible acts. But we can’t subject one person to relegate one person to one chapter of their life. We’ve all made mistakes, whether we’ve been caught for that or not. Whether we’ve been held accountable for them or not. This could be your reality. You can also be subjected to this system.
And the reason people should care because 95% of the people who are in prison right now, are going to be released one day. Tomorrow, next week, next year. And they are going right into our communities. There is people in your community who may have criminal records who you may even be surprised that have a record, but have never mentioned or told you about their record.
Until we see people as people, we will not treat people as people.
Thanks for bringing light to this issues. For giving me a voice, to help me amplify my voice and reach a wider audience about these issues. I’m always available to answer any questions, and am available to do presentations in person, across the country to talk about these issues.
MF 41 – Best Wishes for 2016 and Many Timeless Moments
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Reflection on the past year, and on what next year might bring. Looking to continue to explore meditation and mindfulness topics, and various contemplative practices, and insights that might lead us to a more mature, wise, and compassionate world.
Hope you had a great year! I just want to wish you a wonderful and alive, conscious 2016.
I finished up the episode with Martin Luther King Jr. Quote, since today is Martin Luther King Jr. day.
With regards to the podcast, I’m happy that it is now 40 episodes, and zero advertising! For this podcast, I’m not influenced by any stakeholders, except you, the listener. That is, if I’m aware of you, either through comments, or if you supported the podcast or connected in other ways.
That said, I’m still trying to figure out what folks like yourselves enjoy listening to, and what you don’t like, fill out the short survey if you can! The last thing I want to do is waste anyone’s time. I want it to be high value content, no fluff or filler type of content.
To me the podcast in part is like a puzzle. I treat this like a puzzle, putting together pieces, and being able to say, how interesting how that works, and ah, now I understand that piece, etc.
I hope this year will give you more freedom in your mind and life, more peace, more insight and understanding, more wisdom, more compassion and resilience, more stamina, and allow you to more easily charge your batteries. While at the same time enjoy your family, surroundings and being.
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 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.
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
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.
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.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pretty much every one has said. If there’s something you want go out there and get it. Don’t ask for permission.
Just to have the courage, and take a risk.
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.
MF 34 – The Benefits (and Challenges!) of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Kristina and I reflect on what it takes to cultivate self-discipline in our meditation practice. What are some of the challenges we have come across, and what are some of the benefits of doing a regular consistent practice. We start off with some quotes.
Self-Discipline is needed to get up out of bed early enough to enjoy the sunset, to enjoy the world waking up!
“Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.” Dhammapada
“With sustained effort and sincerity discipline and self-control the wise become like islands which no flood can overwhelm” Dhammapada
This type of effort of course requires commitment, consistency, patience, courage, determination, and enthusiasm.
In, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron understands sila/discipline to be a “process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.”
She notes that:
“Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessness.
….What we discipline is not our “badness” or our “wrongness.”
What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment. What makes this discipline free from severity is prajna (wisdom).”
Self Discipline, or self-control has somewhat negative connotation in the west I think. But I wanted to talk about self-chosen discipline instead of externally imposed discipline.
Discipline is often associated with punishment. However, the latin root of the word means learning disciplina teaching, learning, from discipulus pupil.
Sure, there is a dark side of discipline that is too serious, too restrictive and narrowing. I think too much of that can lead to a separation, where it could move away from intimacy, and turn into too much coldness and detachment from the world, and therefor another type of separation.
That is not what we want to talk about today. Perhaps, calling it cultivation, instead of discipline. For example, the cultivation of moment-to-moment mindfulness sounds nicer than calling it, the discipline of mindfulness. But really what it means to me is simply to practice something regularly and consistently in a structure that I chose on my own volition (or my community), and make it a priority, make time for it.
For example, without discipline, we wouldn’t brush our teeth. But because we don’t like getting drilled, we decide to give some of our time to the discipline of brushing our teeth. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
For me, when I was a teenager, I wanted the benefits of meditation, such as peace, and equanimity, but I did not have the discipline, or some might say, serious enough intent and humility to practice regularly.
I didn’t realize how serious I would need to take the practice in order to really start transforming my afflictions etc. Now I’m not saying meditation is a serious practice, simply saying that we do need to take our practice seriously, but then enjoy and take joy in the practice. You can have both serious and joy at the same time, recognizing these opposites can co-exist at the same time is part of maturity.
Back then, I’d sit whenever I felt like it, do it with eyes closed, try multiple meditations traditions and practices at once, didn’t seek out a mentor, read a lot, etc. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
As I got into meditation formally, and got feedback from a teacher and a community of practitioners. This formal at-home, as well as community practice helped me see the various gaps in mindfulness, the times where I lacked of composure. Some might call those gaps leaks. And the practice is about doing our best to create a gap-less practice.
As I practiced more, I uncovered and became aware of more and deeper levels and areas where I was stuck, or clinging, or afflicted, or forgetful, etc. So that further provided the fuel and motivation to continue to practice. I’d become aware of the tendency to hold onto illusions of separateness, fear of change, desire to grasp onto illusions, “nostalgia for samsara”, clinging to solidity of image, etc. etc.
Can I see and treat each and every “thing” as a manifestation of the “mystery” and realize non-separation? Can I see or exclaim, “not-two!” whenever I see a flower, or perhaps a rapist, or terrorist? If not, I’d have to look even deeper, and see behind the mask, behind the veil, behind outward appearances.
Anger issues when things don’t go the way I expect or prefer. Sloppiness, forgetfulness, like forgetting keys, or forgetting to close the gate, can all lead to a lot of suffering. Not cleaning up after myself, not maintaining relationships or the possessions, etc,.
Each of those instances, are reminders to get back to practicing (or polishing that jewel that we all have). It also takes discipline to remain fully engaged in each moment, even when tired, sick, physically injured, or fatigued. It is so easy to start sliding into complacency, or some type of lazyness.
Jim Rohn says discipline is the bridge between Goal and Accomplishment. Dreams get you started, discipline keeps you going.
A mentor or teacher, community helps push us deeper into understanding. I talk some more on what I think of as non-rigid discipline. Kristina laughs and we talk some more.
What’s your sense of it, what do you make of self-discipline?
Mindfulness in Schools and Education with Alan Brown
Alan Brown is a Dean at Grace Church School in New York City, where he also leads the 9th-12th grade mindfulness program as well as the parent mindfulness program. Alan has taught in both public and private settings as a humanities instructor, and has worked with many other schools andp districts as a trainer for GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network). In addition to his academic degrees in the humanities from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago and a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, Alan holds additional certifications in teaching mindfulness, positive psychology, and yoga. He works with schools as well as with families to help bring mindfulness into the lives of youth and their caregivers.
What follows is a summarized transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
Interview with Alan Brown
How did you get started with a meditation practice (Mindfulness Schools recommended I talk with you)
Alan got started by way of his Yoga practice and Yoga teacher training, in which he started to get more familiar with meditation through a sitting component. He got more familiar then with the contemplative practice.
At the time he was working in high schools, he was then teaching in a particular high-anxiety, high stress high achieving school population. He realized this makes so much sense, both in terms of how he was feeling, he found himself craving a lot more stillness. And of course with the kids spinning their wheels and going nuts and feeling this would be helpful practice for them too.
It wasn’t really until he wanted to share this practice with his students that he felt he had to learn to deepen his own practice first.
Just out of curiosity, what type of yoga were you practicing?
Vinyasa Yoga (also called flow or “breath-synchronized movement”)
So you were already doing an already more deep type of yoga practice then say power yoga.
Yes, in his practice although 100% movement based, it was already contemplative, and exploring the inner landscape.
Were there aha moments, or particular experiences that you had that convinced you what direction to go next with this?
In terms of what he’s doing now, for Alan who loves teaching. With mindful schools he did their yearlong training program. And their yearlong program really emphasizes the teacher’s personal practice as an intervention in the school.
The notion that your presence, your ability to be non-reactive, to find calm, and show up in that way for your colleagues, peers, the people you work with, talking to, is already something of importance already. That was huge for Alan.
So his first Aha moment in his first retreat, they weren’t allowed to talk about the kids. When they came out of silence. The premise was, let’s just talk about our personal practice. As caregivers and educators, they’re really in a rush to talk about how this will work in a classroom, or how you can do this with other people. You can’t poor from an empty cup.
That was a big moment for him, and continues to resonate as his sort of philosophical alignment to what he’s doing. You bring a calm and steady presence first. Then I can also share our practice with you. But that comes from a place of trying to create a certain energy in my own person, in the room, and work from there.
Yes, like Ghandi said, you have to “Be that change” first if you want to affect others .
So then when you got to this meditation practice, how did you end up utilizing “Mindful Schools”?
His interest at the time was with stress specifically. Working with a population with 11-12th graders that he teaches and works with, getting ready to go to college. All this cultural baggage associated with this stage, the amount of uncertainty and anxiety. The heaviness of judgement and expectation that they’re feeling. Wanting to help these folks out. Dragging themselves to the ground at what cost?
So in his own life, this is something that was very powerful, how does he share that.
How could he as an educator create some sense of perspective, some sense of space, a greater sense of ease with what is going on (for these stressed kids about to go to college)?
That was the motivation. Ironically that was what deepened Alan’s own practice. Luckily. It was motivated out of the interest to teach them, but he had a lot more to learn more himself.
In terms those stress and expectation, what do you see as the biggest stressors?
When he first began this work, both public and private settings, urban and suburban settings. At that time I would have said that it was the actual pressure of applying to college. As far as his interactions in the school and classroom setting.
Nowadays the trend towards the smart phone has become a bigger stressor. The anxiety of missing out, the FOMO, fear of missing out. Kids are not alone in this, adults too. The extend of this, like texting while showering, or sleeping next to your head. The ability to have not any moment to yourself, to not have any moment of stillness. Those maybe extremes. But the norm is that their attention, our attention is pulled in so many different directions, without the ability to recover. To have stillness, the ability to be able to hear yourself think, or even hear yourself not think. That is the bigger and more pressing issue as he sees it now.
The fragmented attention, the attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Yeah, it’s very hard. When you create the conditions to not have those pressures on them. Like in a classroom where you even collect the mobile devices where you let them rest for a while. The first time he became an administrator, started doing detentions. Surprisingly, the number of kids that actually thanked him for an hour (of detention) without their device, it was like Wow!
This detention is not the thing that you want to come to! But they actually got a lot done, so they wanted to come back the next week voluntarily for an hour of detention!
That was very telling for Alan. That this (space, not being connected to your devices and distractions) is something that you are actually seeking. Its something that you have a hard time creating for yourself. But when the adults around you impose this on to you, you have to go away from your device, so you can’t respond to your friends AND parents texting is also a common occurrence throughout the day.
It keeps the brain in kind of that stress mode, it needs to be constantly at the ready, constantly ready for stimulus. This stimulus which is constant.
Which makes it really hard to delve into something, to concentrate for a chunk of time.. Yes.
So the kids have to get permission to un-tether, they have to learn to give themselves permission to unplug for a while?
Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s really hard for teens in particular. They’re developmentally where the social world matter so much, that’s appropriate, that’s how it goes in those years. Figuring out who they are, and how they are in terms of their peers, families, individuating from their parents and families, and come into their own. Not a negative, but that makes it that much harder for them to be away from this thing that connects them at all moments to the social network, that is so powerful and so all-important.
So yeah, when there is that permission to put the always-connected devices away, it is for many folks a sigh of relief, there is this nice exhale. I can just be here, I don’t have to be anywhere else.
How do you implement this mindfulness practice in the classroom?
For starters for some classes actually need their devices, otherwise they go away. You remember your notes better when you write them by hand. Let’s put everything away so we can be right here. Then yes, we do begin with something that is contemplative. Usually it is silence, it depends also on the time of day. Right after lunch movement is much more helpful, or they’ll fall asleep. They don’t get much sleep to begin with.
Alan usually invites a student to lead us into the practice. For example:
The “5 finger meditation”
Which is to meet one finger to your palm of the opposite hand. And as you breathe in, you trace up the pinkie, breathe out, and come back down. And then as you breathe in, you come up the forefinger, and back down. And so on and so forth, and then we switch hands. There’s something really nice and tactile about this practice, you just follow the finger along the palm. There’s movement involved without being too much of a big deal, no extra noise or anything special involved. By the time you’re finished you’ve taken 10 nice slow breaths, you’re likely to have arrived!
Also have a bell, it’s an easy and fun one for kids to lead. We just listen to the bell for 1-3 times. Even an 18 year old feels great leading with the bell. We have a schedule who gets to ring the bell.
So that way you’re helping them invest take ownership of this ritual.
Yes, right, and every class has a slightly different personality. And every room is different, it’s a little bit of trial and error. Usually the group responds to something. They feel, how can I get the teacher off topic, to not teach us. This is something students love to do, getting the teacher off track, off topic. They’re feeling like awesome, I got the teacher to not teach! What they don’t realize that those 3 minutes spent doing a meditation, makes them better at the things we’re going to do. We’re now able to do more, rather than less.
It’s a worthwhile investment in the actual stuff of teaching.
What are you finding to be the most effective with the teens in terms of their minds going off wandering. you already mentioned tactile meditations, and using sounds, like the bell.
In Alan’s own teaching, humanities classes, English, History and Philosophy. And also teach specifically to the 9th and 10th grade, he teaches specifically mindfulness. So they’re already familiar with these practices. In terms what is most effective in mindfulness practice, it’s not just one thing that is most useful.
At the beginning of class or just for a quick calm down activity, for Alan the finger to palm meditation works best for him. It’s not for everyone, but has the widest appeal as he has practiced it.
At the beginning when I talk to kids, about mindfulness. I tell them, you can see it as a buffet, he as the teacher provides lots of exercises. Try them all, so you can you know how they feel and taste, and hopefully one or two of these sticks out the most for you. And that will be different to everyone. Even how you breathe, where do you pay attention when you’re breathing. Do you feel it in your nose, mouth, belly, etc. That sensation is going to be different for everyone of us.
We all have different ways of learning. Just as you have different learning styles, we all have different things that will hold our attention, different things to be mindful off, or to use as an anchor, use as a practice. None is more right than anything else.
Do you find some of the students taking these mindfulness/meditation techniques, and taking them for example home, where there might be a stressful situation?
Yes, that’s the most gratifying. To hear when, where, and how these kids are using this in their lives. For example, a kid uses mindful breathing before a test put down their pen, and took a couple deep breaths, and then they were able to come back to the test, and on track again, and do better on their tests. Or a student had a swim meet, and beforehand closed their eyes, visualized what they were going to do, and took some breaths before their test.
So they are actually applying this. And he talks about this in class. But if you’re able to use this in your life, like one student the other day struggled with acting out in school, as a symptom of conflict at home. This was upsetting the family, but the student could do this in family when arguing. The student realized their feelings and behavior or how he chose to react about it, are two different things. And this is better for me, as I was getting myself into trouble. So Alan was blown away by that, that the students had these insights and were able to make those connections.
Very trans formative…
Yes, in teaching social and emotional learning, we want students to name their experience, but then what do you do with that? In the world of social-emotional education, we spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence. Being able to identify your inner landscape, which is a huge first step. But then what do I do about that. If I then able to create a behavioral change, something that I do differently. That is where mindfulness is a often a very helpful tool for kids. It’s a great addition to the social emotional toolbox for teachers.
Like education is not the filling of a pail, but the lightening of a fire, and Aristotle’s quote about education without educating the heart is no education at all..The approach your school and yourself are doing, is much more about integration, instead of compartmentalization.
That’s right. And something that I try to emphasize, when he works with teachers. It’s great that we have our classrooms and this content that we want to deliver. The students are not just content receivers. They show up as a whole person, they bring their whole person to class. If that’s an argument from lunch time carrying over, or nerves about the game afterwards. All of that is sitting at that desk, trying to learn history or trying to learn physics. The more we can provide the space and the tools to deal with one aspect of their lives, and be successful. It does carry over. It is one integrated whole at the end of the day, or at least better integrated, if we help them.
You’re also helping them see learning as a joy, rather than as a means to get to the next level, or piece of paper, etc.
I would hope so, that’s I think what all teachers aim for. The real gold, the way you know you’re successful is you’ve created a lifelong learner. I don’t delude myself into thinking student remember even a minority of what was taught in a semester. If there are skills that you learned with us, that to me is a much more important gift. Because you’ll go on to learn in much greater depth the things you’ll need in your career. Have we provided you the capacity to learn them. There are certain academic skills, other skills, but then there are the life skills you need to learn to just be a human being. To show up in a room of people.
One of the things his head of school said, “I’ll be able to measure the success of this project by whether or not there is Joy in our students”.
Wow, very different by measuring success only by scores!
Yes, measuring by scores is not bad, we need those numbers, they’re helpful for understanding. But when you reduce a person to just test scores or transcript, it ignores so much of their experience, most of it.
It’s very limited. What are some of the other benefits, for example conflict resolution. Some of the other things you’ve noticed, since you’ve implemented this mindfulness life skill.
Yes, another hat Alan wears is great Dean, which means being the primary administrator. Which includes discipline. Teaching mindfulness doesn’t automatically make difficult moments go away, it’s a toolbox to navigate or deal with problems differently.
Teens who are already particularly impulsive. He tells the teens, you’ve got another 10 years before your pre-frontal cortex is fully grown. They need some more time before their good judgment kicks in, compared to those of us adults. But yes, the ability after the fact, when they realize the decision they made wasn’t the greatest.
The ability for them after the fact even, after they’ve realized they made a decision that wasn’t the greatest. The ability to stop, slow down, and figure out, how did that happen. To see what just happened, what did they feel about that, what do I do about that. So often , that impulsivity comes at the cost of any self-knowledge.
I’ll watch kids get into an argument or scuffle, and it’s so it’s over, so they could say, here is what led me to that. And I realize that is the moment I should have probably made a different decision. The truth is, these same kids, without this practice, may not even been able to name that, which just happened. So they would not have been able to do it differently next time.
Part of this is just becoming aware of our triggers, our habits, and all of the ways we’re used to doing things impulsively, without thinking, doing them mindlessly.
When you have an awareness, of , “Oh, this is what got me to this behavior, that I definitely don’t want to repeat, or this poor behavior”. Here’s what I’m going to do next time, being able to figure out, next time I have this trigger, I notice this habit, here’s what I can do. So it doesn’t go down this same road.
Yes, that road can lead to some totally different direction 50 years from now, if the teen didn’t have this consciousness, awareness and attention.
Yes, very powerful to watch kids. And as an administrator, watching them through 3-4 grades, I remember how this went in 9th grade, and 10th grade, and seeing how they’re making different choices.
Where do you see this practice going, inserting it from kindergarten all the way into higher education, so it is not easily cast aside?
Alan does see some of his pre-school colleagues doing this as well. There have been some attempts and interest at researching how this is being incorporated in pre- K through 12 schools. It’s a difficult thing.
His sense is that more elementary school classrooms are already doing it, because those schools are already charged with social-emotional learning. One of the things you learn in kindergarten is how to sit still. It’s not unique to kindergartners to need to learn to sit still.
We don’t teach those things (how to sit still) in high school, although we probably should! It turns out that even though they live in different bodies, we make assumptions that they can do that. It’s an easier map onto the elementary classroom. So folks who teach in a mode of responsive classroom, which allows for classroom meeting time, using a bell etc. I happen to think it is an easy in for middle and high school as well for all the reasons talked about above. If anything just for learning outcomes. The productivity aspect to it.
Which of course isn’t the only reason to do it. There is significant debate and conversation around using mindfulness for those kinds of outcomes. And if that is the doorway that this comes through, then great.
To the larger question about where we’re going with this as an education system with this. Because the undeniable increase in distractions, all the devices, stimuli, increased pace of all those things.
I do think we’re seeing a movement a larger trend towards needing to teach attention, provide stillness, and quiet. It wouldn’t surprise Alan, if this 10 years from now, this become just the standard. There is a tremendous interest in it. And most teachers really are thinking along these lines. I wish I know how to …and it’s a lot of those things that mindfulness provides for those kids.
There is one caveat about this, there is some concern of mindfulness as a tool for classroom management, and compliance. I want to teach you this thing, so that you’ll shut up, and do what I say. And I would see that as a mis-use of mindfulness.
But it hasn’t been Alan’s experience in working with teachers, that this has been the approach.
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that would happen if the teacher doesn’t really understand what it’s about, and so use it only as an external tool.
Yeah, and folks in this community who are trying to bring this work forward, are sensitive to that. The very clear philosophical orientation is towards teacher practice first, even if no one got any farther than learning mindfulness for themselves, that would be a tremendous victory I think in education.
To get into any mindful schools class, you must have first pass through the gateway either already have a mindfulness practice of your own, know what this is in your body, or of going through a mindfulness fundamentals course first. We’d never stick someone into a classroom to teach the cello, who know how to play the cello first.
Yeah, you got to practice what you preach..
Was there any issue you see with folks from Judeo-Christian traditions, like the parents being concerned about inserting mindfulness (with it’s Buddhist influence) into the curriculum?
In different settings, different approaches makes sense. Usually in schools with a faith background, usually, there is already more space for this. Because the topic of spirituality is already on the table, we’re not necessarily afraid of contemplative time, contemplative practice. Schools that have prayer or silence as part of their day, are more likely to be open to this practice.
For us we are affiliated with the episcopal church, we’re a school for children of all faiths, or no faith. We don’t specifically teach in the same way as other faith schools, that said, in terms of religious influence.
My strong belief, is that mindfulness is not a religious practice perse. Mindfulness specifically involves a set of human practices. What it means to exist in a human body, and this human mind and brain. And the space and stillness that we really need to find. In the way that science is starting to back up, with some conclusiveness.
It’s really pointing us in a direction that says, we really do need to provide ourselves space and stillness. Here’s what happens when we do. That is an innate human quality, an innate capacity to have self knowledge. To see one’s own thoughts and experience. To feel the sensations in one’s body.
There can be a spiritual layer to that, that is quite profound. But that has or should necessarily be taught in a school setting.
I’m teaching stillness, silence, self knowledge, the ability to be aware of what is going on in your own immediate experience. What comes out of that, is totally up to the student. I don’t use the Tibetan singing bowl for example, which has a more cultural reference. We teach all religions, but yes, it is not his personal goal to teach Buddhism.
You explain it really well, it’s space and having room to breath, self knowledge, that’s the human experience, not any religious domain.
And all religions have some aspect of contemplative practice. So really what we’re doing it’s not religious. For those who are concerned about religion at all, what we’re doing is not religious. For those concerned about their own religious tradition, I think this is found in most all of them.
One of his colleagues is an orthodox Jew, and was cautious at first, concerned about how this would work with her religion. How does this work with her own faith practices. She had some trepidation. But she found a number of Jewish organizations, like the JCC in Manhattan is teaching MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). Including with a faith bend, if that is what you’re looking for.
Its back to that idea, whatever door you come in through, or go through and into. This is a practice that is there for folks.
If any parent or teacher would like to see mindfulness practice implemented in their own schools, how can they go about this?
His affiliation is with Mindful Schools, mindfulschools.org. This is a great starting place, but there are many good organizations bringing this into schools. Just even raising the question in your school, “why are we not doing/teaching this?” It’s helpful to my child. Is there an opportunity for my child to learn and get exposed to this.
Is there an opportunity for mindful parenting? Mindfulness in parenting is a for sure a great companion skill. If your child is learning this at school, then you can speak the same language if you as a parent do it as well.
For teachers same thing, talk to the department chair, administrator, principal, professional development person. See if there is some openness to this. The benefits that this might provide are so many.
Lead with the benefits, and the intention of doing good for the kids, faculty, parents, whatever the population is.
People are certainly more open to hearing this, investigating this. Folks want solutions for some of the real challenges we’re seeing with our children.
It is our cognition, which is in essence an interpretation system, that curtails our resources. Our interpretation system is what tells us what the parameters of our possibilities are, and since we have been using that system of interpretation all our lives, we cannot possibly dare to go against its dictums. Juan Matus
I’ve never seen a 100% white or 100% black person. Have you?
I have however all my life seen so called “whites” clearly showing a multitude of colors on their skins.
yellow with fever,
blushing and embarrassed with pinks and reds,
sickly off colors,
Just as TV technology started out as black and white, and is now millions of colors and pixels in resolution, so do I think to a large extend our world views, went from two-dimensional (earth is flat, that person is white, or black) to 3-dimensional with many shades of colors.
There has been an increased interest in seeing reality more fully in higher and higher definition. The higher resolution, the better and clearer we can see things as they really are.
As I mentioned on Episode 25 when chatting with Charlie, it really helps to slow down in order to process that higher resolution of life.
If you’re rushing from one thing to the next thing, it will prevent you from fully seeing what is right in front of you though! So does thinking or worrying about the past or the future. Or playing tapes and records about what should be or how good or bad we are.