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Dharma in the Hell of Prisons with Fleet Maull

Updated: Mar 27

In this episode, Roshi Fleet Maull talks with cohost John MacAdams about his time incarcerated and the creation of the Prison Mindfulness Institute (Prison Dharma Network).

  • Origins of Prison Dharma Network

  • The only real choice; "Practice like my hair was on fire"

  • Unending opportunities to serve the world on the outside

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Fleet Maull, PhD is an author, meditation teacher, mindset coach, social entrepreneur and peacemaker who works at the intersection of personal and social transformation. He founded Prison Mindfulness Institute and National Prison Hospice Association, catalyzing two national movements, while serving a 14-year mandatory-minimum federal drug sentence, 1985 to 1999.

He also founded the transformational education platform Heart Mind Institute and co-founded the Engaged Mindfulness Institute where he trains trauma-informed mindfulness teachers who work with individuals and communities impacted by trauma and marginalization. He has served on the leadership team for the annual Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat for more than 20 years. He co-founded the Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat and has trained genocide survivors as volunteer trauma para-counselors working in villages throughout Rwanda.

He is a Roshi (Zen master/senior teacher) in the Zen Peacemaker Community, a senior Dharma teacher in the Shambhala-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and leads meditation retreats worldwide. He developed Neuro-Somatic Mindfulness or NSM, a deeply embodied, neuroscience and trauma informed approach to mindfulness & awareness meditation practice that facilitates self-healing, self-regulation, and awakening. He founded both the Global Resilience Summit and the Global First Responder Resilience Summit and co-founded The Best Year of Your Life, SummitPalooza, Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy Global Summit, and The Self-Care Summit.

Dr. Maull is the author of Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Live Your Highest Purpose and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good; Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull, and the Resilient C.O.: Mindfulness-Based Wellness & Resiliency for Corrections Professionals.

Dharma in the Hell of Prisons with Fleet Maull Transcript

John MacAdams: 

Hello and welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. My name is John McAdams and I'll be your co-host with this session. I'm very happy and honored to be here today with Dr. Fleet Maull. Fleet, how are you? 

Fleet Maull: 

Great. Great to see you, John. 

John MacAdams: 

Good. Well, I'm excited for this conversation. I want to read your bio, so folks get a better sense of who you are, and then we'll jump right in. Sounds good? 

Fleet Maull: 


John MacAdams: 

Fleet Maul, Ph.D. is an author, meditation teacher, mindset coach, social entrepreneur, and peacemaker, who works at the session of personal and social transformation. He founded Prison Mindfulness Institute and National Prison Hospice Association helping to catalyze two national movements, while serving a 14-year mandatory minimum federal drug sentence from 1985 to 1999. 

He also founded the transformational education platform Heart Mind Institute, and co-founded the Engaged Mindfulness Institute, where he trains trauma-informed mindfulness teachers who work with individuals and communities impacted by trauma and marginalization. He has served on the leadership team for the annual Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat for more than 20 years. 

He co-founded the Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat and has trained genocide survivors as volunteer trauma para counsellors working in villages throughout Rwanda. He is a Roshi, a Zen master senior teacher in the Zen Peacemaker community, a senior Dharma teacher in the Shambala, Tibetan 

Buddhist tradition, and leads meditation retreats worldwide. He developed neuro somatic mindfulness or NSM, a deeply embodied neuroscience and trauma informed approach to mindfulness and awareness meditation practice that facilitates self-healing, self-regulation, and awakening. 

Dr. Maull is the author of Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Live Your Highest Purpose and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good, Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull, and The Resilient CEO: Mindfulness Based Wellness and Resiliency for Corrections Professionals

All right. You've been busy, Fleet, in and out of prison. I think you have just such a depth of experience and perspective to speak with us about so let's start with your background. How'd you end up in prison? 

Fleet Maull: 

I'll try to give you a real down and dirty version of that. I grew up in the Midwest, middle class, Roman Catholic family. A good family, but unfortunately, beset with alcoholism. I came of age in his 60s, a big hole in my gut, angry, classic, angry young man. I went headlong into the counterculture of that time, you know, all the craziness, the anti-war politics, drug, sex, and rock and roll, and drug experimentation. I went through the whole psychedelic era really deeply and then went into hard drugs and just really deeply into that world and really wanted to get away from that, the darker that scene got. 

And also, I was just feeling really alienated within the culture I was in. I had been for a long time. And when Richard Nixon was reelected in '72 I just felt like I had to get out. I was also just looking for something authentic. Barely in my life, I felt very plugged into a vivid magical world, but it disappeared around the time I started school, I guess, and all went to great tone. I was always seeking something real and, you know, I was starting to find inklings of that in the drugs and the music, but you know, that's kind of a mirage. If you have a propensity to addiction or a hole in your gut like I did, that takes you down some pretty twisted roads. 

I left the country and became an expat traveling in Central and South America and really as a seeker. The drug thing went into the background a bit but didn't disappear all together, but it was mainly about spiritual seeking and about just adventure and really exploring indigenous cultures and the archaeological history. I ended up living in Peru mostly. I traveled all over Central and South America but ended up living in Peru way up in the Andes Mountains. It was an incredibly magical place. I did find a really magical world to plug back into. 

Unfortunately, the first time I came back, I realized it was still environmental. I couldn't bring it back with me. I hadn't been able to internalize it. I went back. Lived down there and I eventually ran out of money and fell into small-time drug smuggling. Originally, just drug trafficking, making connections for other people that were coming down to smuggle cocaine. I make a few thousand dollars. I could live another six months down there on that, but then actually got into smuggling myself and can justify it with all this "Us versus Them" thinking. The world is all hypocritical. I'm feeling that sense of self justification. 

I eventually came back to the states to get my master's degree at Naropa University, then Naropa Institute. I became a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and that's what I was looking for. I went to Naropa looking for practice. I started practicing on my own in South America. I've gotten into studying and trying to practice on mountains with Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but not getting very far without a teacher or a sangha. And so, I came looking for that. I found that by coming to Naropa, but I still had all this shadow stuff in the background. That continued. I kept it a secret from my teacher, from the community. 

Before I can untangle all that, I ended up with a long federal prison sentence. And so, I ended up doing all that time. The good fortune was I came in there with a lot of skills and a lot of training in the Buddhist tradition, and also having completed a three-year clinical training program and Buddhism works in psychology. I was also just completely shocked and devastated by realizing what I've done to my son who was nine years old at the time. He was now going to grow up without a dad. I had a no parole sentence because I was convicted on this so-called kingpin statute. 

I originally was 30 years without parole. I appealed and they knocked up five years. It came down to 25. Fortunately, I was sentenced under the old law, and you got a lot of good time if you stayed out of trouble. So, I would have served 18 and a half on 30, ended up serving 14 and a half on 25 by staying out of trouble. Sadly, now, people who get those sentences might get like two years of good time. Everything changed after 1987. But at any rate, I did serve 14 and a half years. I was radically dedicated to turning my life around when I got there because I was just devastated over what I'd done to my son and his mother, how I torched my own life, which I thought was pretty much over, how I'd let down my community, my teacher, my family. 

It took a while sitting in 12-Step groups and really listening to one person after one math. There was a male prison, one math or another talking about how their lives are unraveled after drugs. They really even then confront all the harm I've been involved in, what a harmful activity I've been involved in, and the harm that it brought to so many lives. All that just fueled this passionate desire to turn my life around and hopefully do some good to leave a better legacy for my son than just his dad went to prison or even if his dad died in prison because I had no surety that I would survive that time. 

John MacAdams: 

Okay. Well, thank you for that. It sounds like what you're saying is it took a couple of years for this to land, but it sounds like you really adopted some accountability, some responsibility for all of these past actions. And now we've got another 12 years. So, what was that journey like? 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, the first part of it all landed right from the get-go. It's the minute I landed in county jail, the minute I got sentenced, I knew what was up and I just started practicing like, my hair was on fire. Even during the seven months of going to trial and sentencing. Everything completely turned around when I got locked up. But it was that part of really, yeah, I still have some internal justifications about having been involved in the drug, even though I knew I created a lot of harm to my son. 

I was still, you know, like, "Well, it wasn't as bad as this." or "It wasn't as bad as that." Back then it was recreational. Everybody was doing it. So, there were certainly no 12-Step meetings. I don't think it took two years. It probably took a year. I really even had a face, and the next level is more like facing the next level of the harm I created. I just developed this passionate longing to begin with, to not cause any more harm, to just not cause any more harm. And then, of course, along with that, maybe to do some good. But yeah, that was kind of the transition. 

John MacAdams: 

So, what was that? What did you do? 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, I just really focused on practice. The minute I got there, you know, as a big federal prison, I was in a hellhole of a county jail for several months. And to get to this big prison where I could get a job and there was a prison yard you could walk on, there was a recreation area, it was a big place with 10 buildings all connected with these underground tunnels or a half underground half above ground. 

You never really had to go outside to get from one place to another. It was all controlled movement. You could only move for ten minutes. If it wasn't during free time, you always had to have a pass wherever you're going during normal work hours. 

It was a maximum-security prison, but it was a federal prison hospital. When I got there, I was really full of the drama of my own situation, as you might imagine just being sentenced for 30 years with no parole. But when I got there, I was confronted with that place. It just completely shook me out of that self -preoccupation. Because I remember the first day of walking the halls there, I felt like I was in some kind of Fellini movie of suffering. 

There were door men doing the Thorazine-Haldol two-step down the hall coming out of the psych ward. People on the yard talking to themselves or people being led around who are blind, you know, being helped around in prison who were completely blind. There were men being wheeled around who were emaciated from cancer and AIDS. There were men being wheeled around wheelchairs who are paraplegic or quadriplegic. I mean, it was just so much suffering. 

And so, that's what completely woke me up. And the influence of my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, who, as far as I could tell, lives 24/7 in service of humanity, and the influence of good parts of my family of origin as well kicked in. And now I realized I just needed to show up here and figure out how I could serve. 

So, I got a job teaching school, which I did. It's been my day job for 14 years. Eventually, I was able to get a meditation group started in a prison chapel. I got very involved in the 12-Step work. I was kind of a leader in that for 14 years. And then, you know, a couple of years in with another prisoner, I was able to help start their first hospice program inside of prison and did that. That was a big part of my life for the last 11 years of my time there. Most of my meal breaks in my free time were spent up in the hospital taking care of men who were dying of cancer, AIDS, liver disease, and so forth. 

John MacAdams: 

So, your heart grew. 

Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, definitely. My heart grew a lot. I just led this very disciplined life. I actually took monastic vows with Trungpa Rinpoche. It was a couple of years in, but, you know, I was trying to figure out how I could live my life as a prison monk. And so, I led this very disciplined life. I didn't sleep very much. I got up very early in the morning to practice. And then I went to work. 

You had to be back on your unit at nine o'clock at night. And so, then I studied for a couple hours, and I practiced for a couple hours. And so, you know, I was practicing 2-3-4 hours a day, and I was studying two or three hours a day and living a life of service and probably sleeping for the first six, seven years, I don't know how I did, I was only sleeping like four or five hours. I was completing my nondual practices, the preliminary practices and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which I had managed to complete before I went to prison because of my crazy lifestyle. 

It took me two years to get a single cell. I was in these big dormitories. But once I got a single cell, I could start doing prostrations and go through all the non-dual. I got up really early every morning, like three or four in the morning to do my non-dual practice. And so, I was driven. I was driven. My teacher Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987, two years into my time, so I was full of remorse and longing, regret, and devastation over what I've done to my son. I just was on fire with this compulsion to practice and be disciplined. 

And also, it was really clear to me from the beginning, while I got there that anything I'd be able to do there, that was a value in that place, it was going to not come out of my head, it was going to come out of my practice. By just practice, things would evolve. And so, really, everything I was able to do there with those 14 years with the meditation group, with the hospice work, with the 12-Step work, all the other thing, lots of programs we develop. It really all arose out of my practice and people were, I think, magnetized because they recognize the discipline that I led such a disciplined life. 

They may not have understood what I was doing but they saw that I was really committed and really serious about that. In general, in the prison environment, which is a completely crazy environment, this incredibly negative place. On a good day, maybe only six or seven and really demeaning encounters with either your fellow prisoners or with the correctional staff. 

I just realized that if I really dedicated myself to practice, things could happen. That could become a transformative environment for me, which it did. It was really my monastery time, my ashram time or whatever, for those 14 years. 

John MacAdams: 

So, at this point, very steeped in the Dharma, very steeped in practice and this creation that came about the prison, Dharma Network. This nonprofit that you started there in prison, could you tell us a little bit about that? 

Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, I started fairly early on. I ran into Bo Lozoff's book, We're All Doing Time, early on when I was in prison. We have Sita Lozoff on our summit here. I'm very happy about that. Bo and Sita have started, you know, they are kind of the grandparents if you will, the elders of prison meditation work. They took over Ram Dass's prison correspondents and started a Prison Ashram Project. It became the Human Kindness Foundation. 

I ran an early version of Bo's book We're All Doing Time. I was very impressed with that. I felt like there was a need for an organization supporting prisoners interested in Buddhism and meditation, in particular Buddhism meditation, and also outside volunteers. And so, I started what I called Prison Dharma Network, kind of inspired by the Prison Ashram Project. We raised a little money from family and friends, a couple of thousand dollars and did all the paperwork through somebody on the outside. 

Actually, I started his group in prison. One of the guys that was coming to the group, when we first got started, was from Nepal and a Tibetan Buddhist family. Nepalese but kind of Sherpa families that were Tibetan Buddhist. And so, he didn't have a lot of experience with practice, but he grew up in a family that honored that, and the family had a llama and all of that. So, he was coming to the group and his brother was in another prison. His brother had a girlfriend or something on the outside, and she was willing to help us. So, she became like the mail drop. She would mail forms to me. I'd fill them out and mail them back to her. And then she became the initial volunteer doing prisoner correspondence. 

We got started in 1989, I believe. And originally, it was just about lining up prisons with prison pen pals and sending books to prisoners. What really inspired us to begin with was there wasn't much going on in the Buddhist Prison Ministry back then. There was John O'Leary, who was doing a little bit in New York. There was some pure land minister doing some prison ministry in California, primarily with Asian American prisoners. 

Prisons we're starting to write to dharma centers and ask for help. I published some articles about what I was doing in prison so far. And so, I was getting kind of known in the Western Dharma world. And so, people started sending letters to me thinking I know what to do with it. I couldn't correspond with other federal prisoners, but I could correspond. I got away with it. They didn't stop me. I never asked permission. But I could correspond with prisoners in state prisons and county jails. 

I worked in an education department. I had access to a copy machine. I'd take a magazine, like, you know, Yoga Journal, or Shambhala Sun, and I would copy some articles, and write up a meditation instruction and put that in an envelope and mail it to a prisoner. And being a prisoner myself, I know how happy they'd be when they get this because when you get a mail call, you're happy if you can get junk mail at mail call, right? 

And so, every time I was filling one of these envelopes, I just felt all this joy. I remember Joseph Campbell saying, "Follow your bliss." Right now, I was feeling all this bliss filling envelopes. I thought, okay, filling envelopes as kind of my vocation. I pretty quickly realized this was much bigger than anything I could do on my own from my prison cell so then we started the Prison Dharma Network. It just gradually grew from there. We focused on just building. 

Eventually, I had a friend that was then Vice-President of Shambhala Publications, Dan Barrett. He kind of took it over. The first person kind of burned out. He took it over. He had volunteers. They're working in Shambhala Publications. And of course, they had a lot of books that came back that they could mail to prisoners. So, for the rest of my time inside, it was mostly a book ministry and prison pen pal ministry for the most part. We also started networking and developing a network of other Prison Dharma, Prison Mindfulness organizations. That kind of started but it really went into full swing after I got out. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, there's so much to talk about and there's so much juice with their stories on the inside. But since you've been out since 1999, just this incredible life of service. I'd like us to transition now, particularly around this summit and the interest, I think our audience is going to have around the work that both are going into prison for the incarcerated, those who go in and have to work with the administrative side to make that happen. And then also the work with the staff who are running the show. As we come out and now, you're out, what happened? You sort of dropped into a different country, then you left and you kind of had to hit the ground running. 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, I got out in 1999 and I feel incredibly grateful. I came out to tremendous support. I was released to Boulder, Colorado. By this time, I was also studying with not only what I still very much dedicated to my Tibetan Buddhist tradition and lineage, and Trungpa Rinpoche who had died in 1987, his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche come into the prison to give me various empowerment so I could continue my practice as had another Tibetan teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, but I also started studying with permission from my Tibetan teacher. 

I started studying with Roshi Bernie Glassman, so I got very involved in the Zen Peacemakers. I was originally going to be released to Yonkers, New York. He had the Bald Integration Project, but then Bernie moved and that wasn't happening. He moved to the West Coast. I mean, Grayson was still happening, but he moved. So, I ended up releasing a boulder, which is where I've been before prison. That's where we took the Prison Dharma Network. There was a large Buddhist community there. I knew a lot of people. So, I got out and had a lot of support. That's when Vita Pires, our executive director, got involved right off the bat. She was extremely supportive. 

I worked really hard for 14 years. I knew I was going to be almost 50 years old when I got out. If I survive my time, I was going to be broke, I was going to have a serious criminal record. And you know, I'd have to work really hard to prepare myself. I've had nothing but opportunities ever since I got it. Amazingly, I was invited that first year to present at the American Psychiatric Association National Conference on hospice work. 

I don't think people realize when you come out of prison or you're in prison, it's like, you're at the lowest, lowest societal run. Right? You don't have a number. You don't even have a name. Right? You're really just considered a non-human. And then, to get out and be presenting at a national conference like that, it was wow, what a shift. And so, I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had ever since I got out. 

With Vita Pires and others, we got the Prison Dharma Network going on the outside, so building this national network, but also got involved there and delivering work locally. I started going into the county jail in Boulder. We had a juvenile program out of place called Lookout Mountain, where Vita and others where the Path of Freedom program was developed. 

I started traveling when I could, and you know, going into prisons around the country and around the world. In the last, I don't know how many, 20 to 23 years I've been out, I've literally been into prisons all around the world. And so, it's been very gratifying to be able to go in and do that work and support men and women who are in prison, who are all really to this day everyone feels inside feels like my brother and sister literally. I'm always very grateful to be able to go in and offer something. 

I'm very grateful for the last 12 years or so. We've had the opportunity to do a lot of work with correctional officers, probation and parole officers, as well as other public safety professionals, sheriff's deputies, some police, community, police, even Border Patrol. You've been a very involved network, John, with me. We developed this mindfulness-based wellness and resiliency training. 

A lot of people don't realize that correctional officers who work more than 20 years in secure facilities have a life expectancy of about 58-59 years. That's two decades less than the general population. They're dying of all the chronic stress related ailments, suicidality, because they have this extreme exposure to insufficiently managed stress, which becomes chronic stress as well as both primary and secondary trauma. And so, they're dealing with all kinds of chronic stress related ailments, as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms, and often obesity, and various forms of substance abuse. There's a very disproportionate number of suicides. 

And so fortunately, some of the facilities, some of the systems are reaching out, and we're able to start work in prison. Rhode Island, and then in Oregon, and now we're working in different places around the country and in Canada. We're just bringing them to mindfulness-based skills to take better 

care of themselves and a worker in a way that isn't damaging to them. We're not training them in anything about how they're going to work with prisoners, but we know that a mindful CEO will feel better about themselves in their life and who's healthier and who's practicing self-regulation skills. And mindfulness is going to be very different with the prisoners or the incarcerated persons that are in their charge, right. 

And so, it's very gratifying to kind of be able to work from both sides of the system, so to speak. We've done a lot of work with probation and parole. We've worked with some judges, with some public defenders and prosecutors. I mean, it's a huge system, but at least we are touching it from all these different angles as we continue to train people to go into the prisons and support the programs for incarcerated citizens. 

It's very gratifying to be able to work at that level and then see how people just soak this up when you give people simple skills for self-regulation, because before that, their nervous system is being regulated by the world around them. We're kind of victims of our own childhood conditioning and whatever circumstances we're in, but by training people in these simple self-regulation tools and giving them that context of choice and personal responsibility, that, you know, our destiny is really, you know, there may be all kinds of causes and conditions that got us to where we are, including our own choices. But where we're going to go is really up to our choices. 

That context is really appreciated. I find by both incarcerated citizens and by the public safety professionals that combined with the skills to actually begin to regulate your own nervous system, develop more mindfulness and awareness, develop more self-compassion, more self-empathy, and so on. 

So, it's very gratifying to see this work take off and see it being delivered by so many people around. I mean, we're really excited about this summit because we're able to bring forth a really diverse group of people from many traditions, both Dharma-based or faith-based and secular, that are bringing this work into the criminal justice system in the public safety world.


John MacAdams: 

Well, there's two things that I like to get into with you these last few minutes. The first one is going to be about the work that you've done internationally. What have you seen? I mean, I've been in prisons in the States. I've been in prisons in Canada. They're not the same. Those systems are not the same, but they look similar. 

You've been in some pretty gnarly prisons. Right? I don't know all the prisons you've been to, but I know you've been into some down in South America or Central America that are pretty tough, I think in Eastern Europe or in Europe. So, I'm just wondering if you could talk about the similarities. What is it like to live and wake up in a prison? And then also, in terms of those criminal justice systems that you're kind of getting a look at. 

Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. They are more similar than different, but there are a lot of differences. In general, well, I was in a federal system. So, federal prisons. They're pretty well run, pretty well-maintained for the most part although they can still be an absolute nightmare and full of violence and so forth. State prisons, it's kind of a mix. And, you know, in Europe, a lot of the prisons, unless you get up into Scandinavia, where, you know, it's well known that at least in part, they have a more enlightened criminal justice process and correctional system, places like Norway and the others. 

Well, in a lot of places in Europe, the prisons are just really old. I mean, I've done programs at the main prison jail in Paris, and it's like a dungeon. I mean, literally. I remember when they were bringing the meals up, they had guys carrying these poles holding these buckets with some kind of slop and the buckets. That was dinner, you know. I haven't been to any prisons in the UK, but I know there are prisons in the UK that are still like they've been using them for thousands of years. They're dungeons, right? So, there's that. 

South American prisons are pretty rough. I've been to prisons in Chile. That can be pretty rough. And so, that's kind of true all over the world. I mean, prisons are rough anywhere. I mean, I don't care how modern of a prison facility it is. It's mostly a very dehumanizing place to be unless it's run in the way that they're doing in Norway and some other places where they're really taking a different perspective. A little bit of that is going on in the US. 

In Oregon, they developed something called the Oregon way, which is kind of based on an old Norwegian model, and so forth. I did a lot of research on developing this mindfulness-based wellness and resiliency model for correctional officers. I did my doctoral work on that. So, I read research on correctional systems and psychology, the health of correctional officers all over, actual research on it all around the world. It's all really similar in terms of what they're dealing with and what the results you see in studies in Europe and Israel and South America, in Asia, in Africa, in the US, and in Canada. The research is all pretty similar in terms of the research that's been done around the health of correctional officers and the psychological challenges of correctional officers. 

With prisons, even here in the US. I mean, every facility is really different, even within a state system. Facility developed their own character, wardens have a lot of power, but even a new warden coming into a prison can really struggle to change the culture. It's like they've developed their own culture and it can be really hard to change, even a big system like California where they have a lot of state prisons up and down the state. They're all different, and they all have their own culture and it can be very difficult to change it. 

John MacAdams: 

Okay, so this last point that I'd like you to address is because you've talked about working with judges. You've talked about working with probation parole, obviously with incarcerated people. What is your macro view of possibilities with the US, specifically the US criminal justice system? 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, first of all, I mean, I've often said that my life's mission is to rid society of blame and shame. It's just a little small project. I really feel like our western culture is just pervaded with shame and blame. I don't mean to demonize any religious tradition. I'm a lover of all the great faith traditions and spiritual traditions. But you know, particular, you know, kind of, probably more of the Calvinist strain of Protestant theology has this notion of the flawed nature of humanity, even a depraved nature of humanity. I think that's a really bad misinterpretation of Christianity. 

If you really believed that human beings are completely depraved and flawed, then the absence, of course, enforced we're dangerous are going to behave really badly. Well, what kind of society, what kind of institutions do you create? You create blame-based shame-based institutions, punishment-reward systems, and although we have lots of good values that our society and a lot of other values and principles are there. Still, the underlying it really pervades our society. It certainly pervades our criminal justice system and our prison systems. 

There's even an idea in Penology, the philosophy behind corrections, called positive shaming, which to me is a complete oxymoron. I get what they're talking about. I've even heard some spiritual figures talk about positive shaming. I think what they mean is the sense that we're kind of embarrassed when we act in a harmful way or something but, you know, shame is to me a completely toxic emotion. Shame is the emotion we experience when either the threat or the act of being kicked out of the tribe, kicked out of the family, love is withdrawn, connection is withdrawn, we're unworthy, we're unwanted. That's when we experience shame, right? 

It's a very toxic and very powerful emotion. We all experience it as children. And often a lot of our self-structures are probative of shame because if we have a lot of shame in our early upbringing, because when you get that hint of shame, it's like home, you know, I'm here. And in fact, we even know that people who are involved in sex offenses, you know, they're actually in some way seeking shame. And then, of course, what do we do when they're caught? We just shame the heck out of them, right, which feeds their acting out, feeds their addictive pattern because that hit of shame is like a powerful reference point for "I'm here. At least, I'm here." 

We build ourselves junctions from childhood out of nothing. It's just groundlessness and impermanence, which no young child can navigate much. It's very hard for us as adults, even with spiritual technology to navigate that. It's just throughout our society and it pervades our criminal justice system. The antidote to that, the opposite of that is what has been the dominant view of human nature. If you study cross culturally and historically, that of unconditional goodness. It's this so-called blank slate model as well that human beings are just blank slates, where they're influenced by another one that's out there historically. But the more dominant one historically has actually been that human beings underneath all the noise, underneath all the conditioning are actually innately good, innately whole. 

My first teacher Trungpa Rinpoche called it basic goodness, unconditional innate basic goodness. And so, that changes everything about how you view humanity, but not only are human beings basically good, human society is innately good despite all our problems, that the underlying ground is good, that our aspiration to come together and create society comes out of our aspiration to figure out how to work together to build communities, to build society. It goes awry. It gets corrupted, but still, the underlying ground is innately good. 

And so, if you see that, you can evolve all kinds of different structures, right? And so, if you can imagine a criminal justice system, a restorative justice system, a transformative justice system that's grounded in view of innate goodness. And then how would you work with helping people turn their lives around, if you're not viewing them as thugs and flawed human beings or subhuman beings, but rather, you're seeing them as fellow beings with innate goodness, who, because of 99.9% of time, because early childhood trauma, their lives have gone awry, and they've gotten in trouble. And they don't have the knowledge or skills to self-regulate. And so, a very different view. 

I guess my blue-sky vision is that by bringing mindfulness, whether we're bringing it into the Dharma doors, whether it's Buddhism or Hinduism, all the different programs or even contemplative Christianity. And the traditions have a kind of genuine contemplative inner work which we all are supportive of, always supported through Prison Dharma Network. So, whether we're bringing it in that way, or whether they're bringing in secular programs, but you know, even secular mindfulness. 

Jon Kabat Zinn has made it very clear. Secular doesn't mean not sacred, not spiritual. It's based on the same notion of innate goodness, innate human goodness. And so, my hope is that by getting mindfulness, whether faith base or secular into our criminal justice system, into our prisons, into training poor correctional officers, into the courts, into the whole system, that eventually that system will change, and begin to shift to one that's less based on a negative view of humanity and on blame and shame. And one rather that it's based on the view of the innate goodness of human beings, of human nature, of human society, and one that's not focused on blame and shame, and it's not coercive, but it's realizing, what do we need to do to help people heal and help transform their lives. 

There's a lot of great programs going on. There's a lot of examples of how that works. We just got to scale it. But to scale it, society has to change as well to support that. We have to start seeing ourselves differently in society. Even before we can see our fellow incarcerated citizens differently, we have to see ourselves differently, right? If we're kind of shaming and blaming and coercing ourselves into staying within some narrow range of acceptable human behaviors, societal behavior, we're in that same prob. We're in our own prison. 

So somehow, we have to transform how we see ourselves and how we see human society so we can actually change our view of our fellow citizens who end up in a system, or even before they end up in a system to start really taking care of people, so they don't end up in a system. The craziness that happened with the drug war and the prison industrial complex was that we took all the resources away from the front end that would keep people out of prison from prenatal care onward and put it all at the end of the system, just warehousing human beings for profit. 

Now, fortunately, the brace got hit on that with the recession or the Great Recession of 2008, the states ran out of money, and the kind of prison building boom was over, at least in the States, but you know, and so it's a lot of openness to change, but it certainly hasn't completely transformed yet at all. But there are signs that I think we're getting more progressive. I think we are on a path to. Obviously, there's a lot of decriminalization going on with different things. It's a major movement that involves not just our criminal justice system, but our entire society. And so, that's kind of my blue sky vision and hope for this world, that our work and everybody doing this work, it's going to keep seeding that context of innate goodness into our society in lots of different ways. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, thank you. I'm also hearing from you, and I've heard from you in other venues that this is very much about personal healing, that this work, simply being engaged in mindfulness practice, can be self-healing, and you're talking very much about that in all of these different arenas. It sounds like you're talking about societal humans as well on a grander scale. 

Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don't want to get too divergent here but my friend and colleague, Thomas Hübl does his collective trauma summits, right, you know, a lot of what we're dealing with all around the world with the violence and the wars and the refugee crises and all the different forms of abuse that continue on is really just the recycling of this collective trauma that gets frozen and we don't deal with it. Right? There really is an entire global process of transformation that needs to happen. 

We're talking about creating our global healing community that has this understanding about trauma. We all need to heal. We need to heal collectively. We need to support everyone in healing individually and in healing collectively. That includes everybody. It includes all of our incarcerated citizens, but also includes all the people working in a system because they're all traumatized as well. Right? 

I know you know that very clearly working in it, you know, that we go in and we see that a lot of correctional facilities, you have the incarcerated folks and then you have the correctional staff. And they're basically in a cycle of retraumatizing each other. Both often come from traumatic backgrounds. I mean, people are kind of attracted to prison work, I think, because of that. And then, you know, they kind of demonize each other. They just keep this cycle of re-traumatization going, and it really has to get turned around. 

The Norway model is a great model for beginning that and what they're trying to do with the Oregon way in Oregon. It takes a really concerted effort, but I do see signs of it happening all around. I'm very hopeful. I'm much more hopeful now than I was, let's say 10 years ago. 

I mean, for many years, even for the first 15 years I got out of prison, I felt like the work that Vita and I and so many people are doing around the country in Prison Dharma or in Prison Mindfulness work was like, we're trying to push this really heavy boulder up a really steep hill, and any moment it's going to roll back over and crush us. 

I don't know. I don't know. About 7, 10 years ago, I'm losing track now. It just seemed like things started to shift. It almost feels like the world is starting to cooperate a little bit with our effort. Right? That's very encouraging. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, thank you so much. On that note, I think we'll wrap it up. I just appreciate so much your time here with us and of course, all of your work and co-founding this summit so that we can all be inspired and re-inspired. If people would like to learn more about your work and engage more with you, Fleet, how can they do that? 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, that really is the vision for this summit is to get us all reinspired, not that people lost inspiration. But you know, the pandemic really shut down the world of Prison Dharma and Prison Mindfulness in a lot of ways. I mean a lot of stuff figured out ways to still get the Dharma and meditation and program in by really put the dampers on it. And so, we hope that this summit will really re-engage everyone and we can get the whole Prison Dharma Prison Mindfulness movement, prison yoga movement, just flourishing, again, post pandemic. 

If people want to learn more, obviously, it's Our teacher training workers, Our work with correctional officers and other public safety professionals is And if people want to learn more about my work, it's just

John MacAdams: 

All right, Fleet. Well, be well. Stay strong. Keep doing all that great work. I hope to see you again soon. 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, thank you, John. Thank you for the work you do. You're a colleague in our work with correctional officers. I know you go to the Men's Central Jail and lead the Path of Freedom program there and minister one on one to prisoners. So, thank you very much for the work you've been doing for a long time. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah, always a pleasure. Fleet, take good care. Bye now. 

Fleet Maull: 

You too. 


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