Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sitting With the Dhamma Brothers (Part One)

I don’t have a real answer to the violence, but that’s the point of this entry.

I might be way off but something drastically different needs to be done about how Oakland, CA deals with its never-ending violence. Nothing so far has worked so how about getting us engaged in building the answer - starting now. It needs to come from the bottom up. We need a movement of fresh thinkers joining together to form a tribe. Leaving it to our leaders has added little to the outcome. If real change is to happen, it needs to come from a new perspective. We first need this dialogue among ourselves, and then, we need to agree to a process in which we take action – the sooner the better. Let me explain my proposal in four parts.

Background: When the four police officers were killed in Oakland on March 21, 2009, it shocked me and most other people. But just as shocking for many was the support that Lovell Mixon, the man accused of gunning down the officers, was given as a hero's tribute by a small contingent of Oakland residents. This sent a rage of protest and anger from the greater community. I was thinking how separated we were becoming and adding more hardships and hostilities in an already fragile community. We've seen more violence and more soapbox rhetoric of the same brand year after year, decade after decade.

We're frustrated by the lack of progress in bringing more peace and harmony, and then I remembered a book I read that made all the sense to me.

Part One: In 2002, I was introduced to a book entitled, "Sitting In the Fire" by Arnold Mindell. Mindell is an extraordinary man whose perspective on conflict resolution needs to be taken seriously. He was a key engineer in the truce between the Protestants and the Catholics in the decades-long battles that killed thousands in Ireland. He was also involved with bringing peace among the various stakeholders in Compton, CA in the early 90s. Compton was cited as the most violent city in the country amongst those with a population of 75,000 to 99,999. Here's an excerpt from "Sitting In the Fire" describing a meeting Mindell facilitated - when you're reading this, think about how this applies in Oakland:

The atmosphere in the conference room was tense. People from outside Compton were afraid of the area and anger could be felt in the air as the conference opened. There were many heated exchanges and arguments about racism. One argument is particularly relevant to the discussion here. On the second day of the meeting, a white man in his late forties spoke gently but confidently about how he did not like anger. He smiled the whole time he spoke.

A black man in his twenties said quietly he thought the white man did not know what he was talking about. The white man ignored him. The black man then stood up, faced the white speaker and spoke vehemently about not being heard. The white man refused to talk to such an "angry person." The louder the African American man became, the more the white man turned his head and whole body in another direction, repeatedly saying he was open to everyone.

This argument came to a momentary resolution when a white member of our four-person multiracial facilitating team (two were African American, two were white) pointed out that the white man's aloof behavior, his turning away, was based on his assumption that people needed to be calm to debate. A discussion arose about how this apparently trivial assumption was a mainstream expectation born of exclusivity and privilege since calmness is possible only when the issues at hand are not troubling.

Some mainstream participants did not understand.

A black facilitator explained that there was a hidden message in the white man's request for calm: "Follow my prescription for behavior and don't upset me about issues which are not mine."

The black facilitators explained that hidden messages such as this marginalize non-mainstream issues. The dispute seemed resolved for the moment, and the work went on.

Part Two: In 2008, a video documentary entitled "The Dhamma Brothers" was released. It is a story that gives you hope that even under the worst conditions, people are capable of changing for the better when given an honest-to-goodness chance for enlightenment.

"The Dhamma Brothers" (www.dhammabrothers.com) is set in an overcrowded maximum-security prison in Alabama. This particular prison is the end of the line for these hardened criminals. They've been convicted of murders and other notorious crimes. None of them will ever see freedom again.

The importance of this story is how these once hostile prisoners volunteered in an experimental program that must have seemed absurd to the nth degree in such a Christian-domain as the Deep South. And while it was a struggle for its supporters to finally get the program approved after two years, its results proved an important point.

As far-fetched as it might have seemed to most people, these prisoners became practioners of the Buddhist practice of meditation called Vipassana. They were the first of any prison in North America to experiment with this demanding course of deep meditation lasting ten days.

For many of these convicts, it was the first time they had the opportunity to reach deep inside their conscience to reflect upon all that’s happened in their lives. For much of the day, they sat together in silence in a converted gym and allowed their souls to hold an inner conversation. At first, most of the men had to fight the same old inner voices and all the random thoughts that streamed through. But over time, their focus grew sharper and their minds settled into a meaningful dialogue.

Through this meditation, the participants saw how each of them was within control of their own world. No longer did the barbed wires and concrete walls of the prison mean they couldn’t be free. Once realized, they no longer needed to hold a posture of defiance or defense, they were free to be honest and open. What resulted was a life changing process leading to greater self responsibility, compassion for their fellow prisoners, compassion for their victims and their families and a desire to build a movement of social good within the prison. They became advocates of non-violence, and it fortified their desire to educate themselves. For some, they became teachers of Vipassana. For others, they continued to practice their meditation two years after their introduction.

I understand the California prison system is considering this approach.

To be continued

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