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Ex-convict Fleet Maull’s lessons on dealing with physical and mental imprisonment

Mar 12, 2013 Ex-convict Fleet Maull’s lessons on dealing with physical and mental imprisonment

Early on in my criminal defense career, I asked Keith Stroup — founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and then the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — where I could find local people and organizations with connections to the Sixties counterculture, which took place when I was in my single digits, and which I thought was an important counterpoint with the increased conformity that followed in society.

By now, I realize that past and current hippies and counterculture people are not what I should be seeking — as much as I am interested in talking with them when I meet them — but that a big part of my focus in meeting others outside of the law practice is to find people involved in transcending the obstacles of daily life in a non-dualistic/non-attached way. Blessedly, the Washington, D.C., area where I live and work constantly brings such people. For instance, weekly, local dharma teachers Tara Brach and Hugh Byrne lead great meditation sessions and dharma talks. Nearly monthly, dharma teacher Sharon Salzberg — who has led numerous retreats with Ram Dass, who is a key teacher of mine and who was a major figure for the Sixties counterculture — leads meditations and dharma talks at the Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C. Throughout the year, additional inspiring teachers come. This month alone, Claude AnShin Thomas — a Vietnam war veteran who now is a mendicant Soto Zen monk who helps me focus on non-anger — will speak at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia; Krishna Das will be performing kirtan in Washington, D.C., and Yogaville; and former prison inmate (1985-99) and dharma teacher Acharya Fleet Maull led a seminar this past weekend entitled "Radical Responsibility & Awakened Leadership: Community Practices for Enlightened Society."

Having learned only late last week about Fleet’s visit to Washington, D.C., I only was able to get to his morning session yesterday. I had first heard about him over two years ago, and was intrigued about this man who had already studied the dharma up close and personal with the highly-accomplished — and highly controversial, for whatever that is worth, but likely by his own admission — Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Naropa University’s founder and inspiration for today’s Shambhala movement) before Fleet got arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to thirty years for drug smuggling, found a way to engage in and transcend what he calls the dharma hell (the title of his 2005 book that includes his prison writings) of prison in part through helping other inmates (including dying inmates), continuing daily meditation in trying conditions, continuing his dharma studies, and establishing the Prison Dharma Network and Prison Hospice Association while still in prison. Lessons from dharma do not call for changing one’s religion, and I speak of them here for the relevance they have to my serving my clients better and having a more harmonious and successful life.

Fleet underlines the importance of serving others in our own process of transcending life’s many hurdles. A more famous inmate, Jean Harris, used her teaching skills to help many fellow inmates while in prison for murder, by educating them, and was very thankful that she had that opportunity in prison, rather than simply marking off each day by drawing a line on her cell wall. I did not know much in advance about what I would learn from Fleet, and went with an open mind, which is always the best way to approach everything in life. I learned (and/or got closer to applying) the following from Fleet:

– Fleet led a great brief meditation at the start of yesterday morning’s session, including focusing us on being aware of our psychological feelings, physical feelings and connection of our body parts and whole bodies to our physical surroundings.

– Awareness is one of Fleet’s major themes.

– During meditation, Fleet advised us not to judge ourselves, and not to ignore the parts of ourselves that we view as less desirable. He reminded us that everything about us and our entire life experience is part of who we are.

– I learned that the weekend included substantial interaction among the attendees, including gazing at each other, one on one. I had experienced that last year at the Contemplative Lawyers retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and not long thereafter at an introductory session of Joe Weston’s Radical Confrontation program. I have not yet gotten into that exercise, but understand that it underlines that we are connected with everyone else, and that it is a chance to confront who we are, rather than to escape that through work, business, and Internet use.

– The group interaction practice that I experienced involved pairing off with another person, and having three minutes to share an experience where we felt victimized, trying to make the other person more convinced than we that we had been victimized, but avoiding childhood experiences and severe victimization. I had trouble thinking of feeling a victim since the time I started college, so shared how I felt too unprepared (more unprepared and less feeling a victim, actually) to deal with an assistant manager at a part-time job who taunted me many times about Jewish people and Judaism, including suggesting that a balding man walking past the store had Nair hair removal cream placed in his yarmulke. Within a year, I stood up more consistently and repeatedly to bigoted talk, including to the co-owner of a clothing store where I worked near my college campus who told me to "Go watch the n—-r" when he went out of site around the corner where more of the clothing was on display; I answered "I do not know what that word means," and he was stunned, believing that I may really not have known what the word meant. But I focused on the matter with the assistant manager, even though at that time I felt more frustrated at my loss of knowing how to handle the situation, than feeling a victim of this man.

Fleet then asked the listeners to describe the feelings (e.g., hurt, pain, and fear) and words to describe the purported victimizers’ actions (e.g. betrayal and violation). Those words were listed on the bottom half of a sheet of paper.

Fleet then told us each to take three minutes telling our partner our view of the same event when including our own role, including what may have been going on inside of the purported victimizer’s feelings and mind, whether we should have been more aware that this situation may have been on its way, anything we did to contribute to the situation (if at all), and whether we could have and should have gotten out of the situation. When we returned to the upper half of the sheet of paper to list the feelings and describe the actions involved, there was less a sense of a feeling of victimization, more of a sense of empowerment, and a greater sense that everyone can be more unflappable. Consequently, Fleet underlines that circumstances are neutral, and we have the choice to go above the line to the top half of that sheet of paper in how we perceive and handle challenges, including having compassion for ourselves and others at all times.

This concept of circumstances as neutral is related to Tai Sophia Institutes bumper sticker that Upset is Optional, and my teacher Ihaleakala Hew Len’s teaching to return to zero limits, that there is no "out there" in the mind, and that we must take personal responsibility for circumstances that we observe and experience (which does not mean that we caused the circumstances, but that we then take on what happens from there.

How does all this relate to my criminal defense work? For clients risking jail, it adds to my previous blog entry about handling incarceration. For me, it helps me in continuing my practice of battling powerfully in the unattached/non-dual taijiquan moment, not letting other people nor circumstances set my emotional nor activity agenda, and taking responsibility for the circumstances and situations I am handling and dealing with.

Here are additional relevant links:

– Detailed 2004 interview of Fleet.

– Fleet’s restorative justice interview.

We’re All Doing Time, so the idea is to work with and transcend that truism.

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