Excerpt from Mindfulness Bell article “Restoring Peace and Safety: Paths to Community Justice” by Cheri Maples
A real danger about the popularity of mindfulness is misunderstanding what it is. It isn’t just a relaxation tool and it isn’t just a medical model. There’s an entire ethical framework that goes along with it. If you separate the two, there is a lot of danger. Most
of the values that are inherent in mindfulness have to do with non-harming in some way. You can be an advocate for peace and justice and still go to war with people on a daily basis with the words you use. We’ve all seen it.
When I teach mindfulness, I start by having a big flip chart with a white piece of paper, and I put a little red dot in the middle and I say, “What do you see here?” And everybody says, “I see a red dot.” And I say, “That’s the problem. That’s where we live. We live in the red dot rather than the white space.” In mindfulness, what I’ve found is a tool that helped me to live in that white space in a remarkable way.
One thing that helped me in terms of my work is that in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, there is a big emphasis on building Sangha and looking at Sangha as an organism rather than an organization. So I started looking at everything I was part of as community, whether it was my family, my workplace, organizations that I was on the board of, anything that I was doing became, “Okay, this is a Sangha, this is a community.” And how do we build this? It led to my starting to see myself as an effect of a lot of the things that went on around me rather than the empowerment of seeing myself as a cause. In other words, it drives me crazy these days when I go to meetings and people walk out and say, “That was really a shitty meeting,” and I say, “Well, were you there? [Laughter] You were part of helping create that meeting.”
How we witness violence, exploitation, in all of its manifestations—how we bear witness to it—is such an opportunity to transform things. The skills mindfulness leads to—one of the major ones—is pausing and refraining. The ability to put space between your thoughts and your words and your thoughts and your actions is huge in terms of transformation. But the biggest gift of mindfulness has been understanding that my mind is not an accurate reflection of the world, that it is a result, that my perceptions are so conditioned they don’t match reality, and that the truth has many sides.
When I try to get people to understand this, I do this exercise:
I’ll have three people leave the room and I’ll say to everybody else, “Build me a structure, but it’s got to be a structure that can be put back together in two minutes. Use what’s in the room.” Then I’ll have the three people come in one at a time and stand in exactly
the same spots and say, “What do you see?”
The most interesting time I’ve ever done this, these were the three responses:
“I see George Washington on the Potomac River.”
“I see chaos and homelessness.”
“I see art and sculpture.”
Then my question is: Who’s right? Who’s wrong? I don’t know.
You know the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think”? Until you have an experience of this, it’s hard to take in other viewpoints in a way that matters. It’s hard to be present to another human being until you truly understand from your heart that your mind is not an accurate reflection of the world and that it’s created over and over again in this moment. I’ve seen absolutely horrendous things individuals do to each other that systematically happen as a result of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia. As a cop, something that started happening for me is that all of those things got covered up with anger and with a numbing of the heart, an armoring of the heart. You can’t respond to people from that place. So mindfulness was a tool to undo all of this for me and it
was an incremental process over time.
Much of this is about awareness, about being a good curator of the museum of our past, taking care not only of our individual seeds but also of those collective seeds that we are all socialized to, and then being a good gardener of our store consciousnesses. If we are aware, we can make conscious decisions about what behaviors we keep and don’t keep, and then life gets much more interesting and much more fun—and much sadder. You can’t have one without the other, and the pain to me is something I now know how to use to tenderize my heart, while it used to be something I just raged about.