Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

mb61-Transform1 Cheri Maples was given the Lamp Transmission in 2008, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked for twenty-five years in the criminal justice system. She was a police officer for twenty years, ending her career as the Captain of Personnel and Training for the Madison Police Department. She was also the head of probation and parole for the State of Wisconsin and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She is a licensed attorney and a licensed clinical social worker.

Cheri has learned peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and com passion to others. She specializes in translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri also helps health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies to manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries

Cheri Maples was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 11, 2012, for this special issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share some of the meaningful experiences from your time there?

Cheri Maples: I’ve only been in Plum Village twice—once for a summer retreat in 2002, when I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and again when Thay transmitted the Lamp to me in January of 2008. It seems like yesterday.

When I went on my first retreat with Thay in 1991, it was the beginning of a self-transformation that continues to this day. I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I had as a police officer and as head of probation and parole or as the Assistant Attorney General without Thay’s teachings.

The most significant experience I had at Plum Village was writing Thay a letter about my aspirations and putting that letter in the bell. I was in a challenging place as a police officer at the time, feeling very much on the victim continuum at times and the oppressor continuum at other times. The next day I was sitting in the back of the meditation hall during Thay’s Dharma talk. He spoke about the different faces of love and about fierce compassion and gentle compassion, and the need for wisdom and skillful means to combine them in the job of police officer. I sat in the back with tears streaming down my face. My heart was blown wide open.

Somethig very significant happened that day that affected the way I did things after that.

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MB: Did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CM: At that retreat I asked Thay during the question and answer session if he would do a retreat for police officers. He agreed, and the next year we had a retreat for criminal justice and helping professionals in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Just as memorable was receiving the Transmission of the Lamp. Thay said to me that carrying a gun with compassion in one’s heart can be an act of love. He gave me a directive to take mindfulness practice to police officers and criminal justice professionals.

Another highlight was Thay meeting with the police officers at the retreat. When they first arrived, they were so angry that Thay was saying things like, “You can never fight violence with violence.” They asked me, “Cheri, what are we supposed to do when we go to a call and people are beating each other up?”

So Thay met with them for an hour and it was incredible to watch the energy in the room change. At the end of the retreat, the police officers were asked to do a presentation to the community. I’ve never seen police officers so open, sharing what it is like for them. It was a lesson to me in how understanding can be created by just getting people talking to each other.

After the retreat, the sixteen officers from my department who attended held hands and did walking meditation. Sixteen police officers holding hands, creating peaceful steps on the earth together, forming a circle afterwards, and bowing to each other, and hugging each other. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d ever see anything like that.

A couple of weeks later, a friend who had attended the retreat told me: “I saw two of your young officers who had been at the retreat; they were arresting somebody and they very gently put the person in the back of the car, then they turned and bowed to me.” That’s what interbeing has come to mean to me—no separation. No separation between the person bowing and the person who is bowed to, between the person we are arresting and the person we are protecting. Each of us has all the elements in us and we have to take good care of all the elements.

The other experience that has been particularly transformative to me is Thay’s emphasis on practicing mindfulness in daily life. I knew nothing about any of the intellectual concepts or frameworks of Buddhism when I went to that first retreat. Now all of them make sense to me, and I’ve learned them intuitively by practicing. At first my life was so busy, I could only find moments here and there to walk or eat or meditate. I was in law school and raising two young children and working full time and I still found a way to preserve my sanity with the practice. And over the years that just got stronger and stronger.

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MB: What does “the Plum Village tradition” mean to you?

CM: I think the strongest part of our tradition that I don’t see in other Buddhist traditions in the same way, is the emphasis on Sangha and community. And also, the emphasis on engaged practice, taking your practice out into the world but being part of the practice organism. What that means to me is to build community wherever I am. To build relationships with all the people I work with and all the people I interact with, not just in the practice Sangha but in the workplace. It means seeing community and interbeing everywhere.

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

CM: Our Sangha has taken on a prison project where several of us teach meditation and mindfulness. We have two people who do prison chaplaincy work and we have a number of people who run circles of support for people coming out into the community. We’ve had a few people released from prison who have become members of our Sangha.

I also travel around the country talking to different agencies in the public and private sectors about how to bring mindfulness to their organization and their daily lives. This includes attorneys, judges, and police and correctional officers, as well as people in social services who work with the families of children who have been neglected and abused. People who see horrible things that many people in society don’t see. People are starting to understand that the employees who experience trauma as the result of the violence they see over and over need help to do their job compassionately.

I also lead unconscious bias workshops as a way of personally committing myself to doing something about the incredible racial disparities in the criminal justice system throughout this country.

The thing that I am most excited about right now is an organization called the Dane County Time Bank, working to change the agreements around money in community through creating a bartering system. Many of the organizations and agencies in Madison (Wisconsin) belong, as well as over two thousand individuals. The philosophy is that one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time, so whether you’re a lawyer or work at McDonald’s, your time is valued the same.

When I spend an hour teaching somebody mindfulness, I get an hour building a website or learning accounting, having electrical work done, having the oil in my car changed. When you see this working in challenged neighborhoods, it creates public safety, because people start to see themselves as part of the community rather than just consumers and critics. Now I’m working to take time banking into a prison in Wisconsin. This is such a great way to transform the underground economy, which is usually based on drugs, to one based on human relational skills. They could provide hospice care for each other, they could tutor each other, they could sit with each other when they’re sick, they could provide legal work for each other. There are so many things that can be done.

MB: It’s moving to hear about this. It sounds revolutionary.

CM: When you start practicing in this tradition deeply, and you begin to see the connections, and you begin to do things from a place of compassion and caring, your heart gets so much more open. It gets really fun.

I’ve been honored to be part of restorative justice days in prisons; they have been phenomenal. When I deal with victims who are only interested in punishing the perpetrator, they don’t heal. But when they start looking for some meaning from the experience, which includes forgiveness and reconciliation, they begin to heal.

MB: How have you been able to be in the midst of violence and all of the emotions that go along with it, while maintaining your own inner peace and being a peacemaker as well?

CM: Fierce compassion means knowing how to set high quality boundaries while continuing to be part of stopping violence. It’s being clear about the intention in my heart. Am I angry at this person and wanting an eye for an eye? Or do I want to protect this person from the karma of their unconscious behavior as well as the people they might hurt? That’s a very different set of values to be armed with.

And it is very difficult and there are times when I feel angry and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the wounded view of my own self, not being attached to that view. And then helping others do that.

When we do unskillful things, it’s often because we’re attached to a wounded self. Victims can develop a sense of entitlement that can be just as dangerous as the oppressor’s abuse of power. We also have to learn to have faith in our Buddha nature and accept our humanity. I encourage people to ask themselves, “When will I be enough? What would make me enough?”

Although I do have the faith that the energy of the universe is always available to me, I also know it is important to take care of myself. I can’t expose myself to violence and suffering every day. I take time to water the seeds of joy and engage in the things that to me are very refreshing and healing.

In order to engage with compassion, which means to have an open heart in response to suffering, one has to have the tools of equanimity or you’ll get lost in anger. I see myself as a drop of water in this ocean of consciousness, that can be relied upon. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my ups and downs, but they don’t scare me anymore. I’m not trying to fence myself off from them.

Everything in life to me is the Dharma; everything is an opportunity to learn something.

MB: How do you water your own seeds of joy?

CM: I bicycle, I boogie board, I go on sailing trips with friends, I go on solo motorcycle camping trips, I spend time with my family and the people that I love. I live in a place that allows me easy access to nature. Meditating to me is a joy. I make sure I take time to go on a couple of personal retreats each year where I’m not teaching but I’m just a member. Sometimes I go on very long personal retreats. I’m a big baseball fan. Baseball waters the seeds of joy for me. To me, it’s a very Buddhist sport because it’s a timeless game and the goal is to come home. Most important, I get my next year’s calendar ahead of time, and I put in all the things I want to do to nourish myself; then all my teaching and work experiences are scheduled around those things, so I make sure that I have time for me.

mb61-Transform4I’m very committed to making sure the most important things for me are not at the mercy of the things that are less important. I try to live consciously in that way. And that has meant renouncing, giving up living in fast forward. I feel like I’ve found that balance of being of service and making sure that I take care of myself. “When I take care of me, I take care of you; when I take care of you, I take and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the care of me.”

MB: Do you have any advice for people whose lives are stuck on fast forward and don’t know how to transition to a more sane life where they’re taking care of themselves?

CM: To understand that being on fast forward is a choice. It might be an unconscious choice; it certainly was for me. This culture rewards us for striving, for achieving, for being competitive. Here are three pieces of advice: 1) Look at your attachment to a wounded self. Is it there? It doesn’t have to be. 2) Proactively manage your time so that the things that matter the most are not at the mercy of the things that matter the least. 3) Understand that everything you do is a choice. Being exposed to this practice and the tools that allow us to work deeply with our own capacity for freedom is a privilege, so take advantage of it.

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

CM: I would like to send my love to the entire Order of Interbeing and particularly to Thay and the monastics, who have been so crucial to my self-transformation.

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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Dharma Talk: Community as a Resource

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

We can make people happy. One person has the capacity to be an infinite resource of happiness for others. The more we practice the art of mindful living, the more we become a source of happiness and joy. This is possible.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But we need a place, such as a retreat center or a monastery, where we can go to renew ourselves. The features of the landscape, the buildings, and the sound of the bell should be designed to remind us to return to awareness. Even when we cannot actually go to the retreat center, we can think of it, smile, and feel ourselves becoming peaceful.

The community does not need to be big. It is enough to have ten or fifteen permanent residents who emanate freshness and peace, the fruits of living in awareness. When we go there, they care for us, console and support us, and help us heal our wounds.

From time to time, the residents can organize large retreats so that we can learn the arts of enjoying our lives more and taking good care of each other. Mindful living is an art, and this community can be a place where joy and happiness are real. They can also offer Days of Mindfulness, so that people can come and live one happy day together in community. And they can organize courses that teach The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, and other courses on Buddhist psychology and healing in a Buddhist way. Most retreats will be for preventive practice, practicing mindful­ness before things get too bad. But some retreats should be for people who are undergoing a lot of suffering, although even then two-thirds of the retreatants should be healthy, happy people. Otherwise it may be difficult to succeed.

Practice has a lot to do with the happiness of the people in a family or a community. We practice not only in the meditation room, but in the kitchen, the backyard, the office, and in school as well. How can we incorporate practice into our daily lives, so that our daily lives can be joyful and happy?

The sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness. When you are with your family and you practice smiling, breathing, recognizing the Buddha in yourself and your children, then your family becomes a sangha. If you have a bell in your home, the bell becomes part of your sangha, because the bell helps you to practice. If you have a cushion, then the cushion also becomes part of the sangha. Many things help us practice. The air, for breathing. If you have a park or a river bank near your home, you can enjoy practicing walking meditation. You have to discover your sangha. Invite a friend to come and practice with you, have tea meditation, sit with you, join you for walking medita­tion. All these efforts can help you establish your sangha at home. Practice is easier if you have a sangha.

The foundation of a community is a daily life that is joyful and happy. In Plum Village, children are the center of attention. Each adult is responsible for helping the children be happy, because we know that if the children are happy, it is easy for the adults to be happy. In old times, families were bigger. Not only nuclear families, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins all lived together. Houses were surrounded by trees where they could hang hammocks and organize picnics. In those times, people did not have many of the problems we do now. Today, our families are very small. Besides Mom and Dad, there are just one or two children. When the parents have a problem, the whole family feels the effects. The atmosphere in the house is heavy, and there is nowhere to escape. Sometimes a child may go to the bathroom and lock the door just to be alone, but still there is no escape. The heavy atmosphere permeates the bathroom too. So the child grows up with many seeds of suffering and can never feel truly happy and then transmits these seeds to his or her children.

Formerly, when Mom and Dad had some problems, the children could always escape by going to an aunt or an uncle. They still had someone to look up to, and the atmosphere was not so threatening. I think that communities of mindful living can replace our former big families, be­cause when we go to these communities, we see many aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that can help us a lot.

You know that aged people are very sad when they have to live separately from their children and grandchildren. This is one of the things in the West that I do not like very much. In my country, aged people have the right to live with the younger people. It is the grandparents who tell fairy tales to the children. When they get old, their skin is cold and wrinkled, and it is a great joy to hold their grandchild, so warm, so tender. When a person grows old, his or her deepest hope is to have a grandchild to hold in his or her arms. They hope for it day and night, and when they hear that their daughter is pregnant, they are so happy. Nowadays the elderly have to go to a home where they live only among other aged people. Just once a week they receive a short visit, and afterwards they feel even sadder. We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.

A community of mindful living should be in a beautiful location in the countryside. In many cities today, you do not see a lot of trees, because so many trees have been cut down. I imagine—and I believe it is very close to reality—a city which has only one tree left. (I don’t know what kind of miracle helped preserve that one tree.) Many people in that city have become mentally ill because they are so alienated from nature, our mother. In the old time, we lived among trees and we sat in hammocks. Now we live in small boxes made of concrete. The air we breathe is not clean, and we get sick, not only in our bodies but in our souls.

I imagine that there is a doctor in the city who under­stands why everyone is getting sick, and every time some­one comes to him, he tells them, “You are sick because you are cut off from Mother Nature.” And he gives them this prescription: “Each morning, take the bus and go to the tree in the center of the city and practice tree-hugging medita­tion. Hold the tree and breathe in, ‘I am with my mother.’ Then breathe out, ‘I am happy.’ And look at the leaves so green and smell the bark of the tree that is so fragrant.” The prescription is for fifteen minutes of breathing and hugging the tree. After doing it for three months, the patient feels much better. But the doctor has many patients, and he gives each of them the same prescription.

So I imagine a bus in the city going in the direction of the tree, while people are standing in line, waiting their turn to embrace the tree and breathe. But the line is several miles long, and the crowd is becoming impatient because they have to wait for such a long time. They demand new laws which will limit each person to just one minute of tree-hugging. But one minute is not long enough to be effective, and then there is no remedy for society’s sickness. I am afraid we will be close to that situation very soon, if we are not mindful of what is going on in the present moment.

When we practice mindful living, we know what is going on in every moment of our daily lives. When we throw a banana peel into the garbage, we know it is a banana peel, and that banana peels decompose quickly and become flowers. But when we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we have to know that it is a plastic bag. This is a practice of meditation: “I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage can.” If we practice mindfulness, we will refrain from using things made of plastic, because we know that they take much more time to degrade into soil and become flowers. And we know that disposable diapers take four or five hundred years, so we refrain from using them. Nuclear waste, the most difficult kind of garbage, takes 250,000 years to become a flower. We are making the Earth an impossible place for our children to grow up.

Practicing mindfulness with friends allows us to get in touch with the healing aspects of life, Breathing mindfully the clean air, we plant seeds of healing within ourselves, our friends, and society. Smiling, we realize peace and joy. Communities of mindful living are very important for us to cultivate these practices.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Lecture at the “Cultivat­ing Mindfulness” Retreat, Mt. Madonna Center, Watson­ville, California, April 1989.

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