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Shadow Sides of Working in Prisons with Lama Justin von Bujdoss

Updated: 8 hours ago

In this episode, Lama Justin von Bujdoss speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director Vita Pires, Ph.D. about his experiences as a chaplain for the New York City Department of Corrections.


  • Shadow sides of working in prisons

  • Limitations of mindfulness work for highly traumatized populations (the incarcerated and correctional staff)

  • How to do this work in a culturally sensitive and authentic manner


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Lama Justin von Bujdoss is an American vajrayana Buddhist teacher, writer, and the is a co-founder of Bhumisparsha an experimental Buddhist sangha along with Lama Rod Owens. He is the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Authenticity and Embodiment in Dharma Practice published by North Atlantic Books, and contributor to Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections published by Lexington Books. From 2016 until December 2021 Justin served as the Executive Director of Chaplaincy and Staff Wellness for NYC Department of Correction where he also served as Head Chaplain supervising over 30 chaplains and guided wellness programming for staff. Justin was ordained as a repa, a lay tantric yogin in the tradition of Milarepa, by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and has presented on Buddhist practice at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago, Wellesley, Columbia University, and has been a visiting instructor at Union Theological Seminary.


Podcast Transcript


Vita Pires: 

This is Vita Pires, the Executive Director of Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm happy to be here with Justin von Bujdoss. He is an American Vajrayana Buddhist teacher and writer and the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, an experimental Buddhist Sangha, along with Lama Rod Owens. He is the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Authenticity and Embodiment in Dharma Practice, published by North Atlantic Books, and a contributor to Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections, published by Lexington Books. 


From 2016 until December 2021, Justin served as the executive director of chaplaincy and staff wellness for the New York City Department of Corrections, where he also served as head Chaplain supervising over 30 chaplains and guiding wellness programming for staff. 


Justin was ordained as a Repa, a lay Tantric Yogin in the tradition of Milarepa, by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and has presented on Buddhist practice at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago, Wellesley, Columbia University, and has been a visiting instructor at Union Theological Seminary. Welcome, Justin. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Good. Thank you. It's lovely to be here with you. 


Vita Pires: 

So you've been doing this work for quite a while and teaching Dharma. You could just begin to tell us a little bit about your work and what drew you to ever work with this particular population. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah, thank you. So in 2012, I started the Dharma Center for Gyaltsab Rinpoche in Brooklyn and wanted to do some kind of work that was engaging communities that don't necessarily get served by Dharma, and started off by reaching out to folks on Rikers Island to inquire around meditation offerings for people in custody. 


I started around then offering meditation first for the female population of people in custody and then began moving slowly from there into working with some of the most violent offenders on Rikers, as they develop new programming and recognize the importance of meditation, both for stress reduction, definitely meaning-making, and for practical purposes, I think there was a recognition by the department that there was a kind of tonal change with respect to behavior, at least shortly after the sessions. 


And at the time, I was working as a hospice chaplain, and eventually, a position became available to be the first Chaplain dedicated just to staff. And so, I took that and then was promoted, etc. 


Vita Pires: 

So, Rikers has kind of a reputation as being one of the challenging places for someone to end up. So, what do you find was the most challenging aspect of trying to work in that environment? 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. I mean, it was interesting. I think the thing that really kind of opened my eyes to, like, the vast complexity of what we find in the New York City Department of Corrections, especially on records, occurred when I began working with staff. When this was still new, I was volunteering. At that moment, I was able to kind of see the "other side of the gate." Right? The people that leave at the end of their tour or don't if they get, you know, double tours. 


I began to kind of get a sense of the broad cross-section of all the humanity on the island, and then, of course, you know, all of the sufferings as well. And so, there are a lot of the sufferings that I think you could definitely say are unique to the detainee population. And then, when you add the stressors, anxieties, and the impact of working in a place plagued by dysfunctional violence, how that affects the staff's ability to actually respond as they should. 


I did some serious reform, and while I worked there, I did have the opportunity and the benefit of reporting directly to the commissioner of the agency, which was great. And in many ways, I was able to make some changes. But, you know, I think that the way everything stands now, the level of violence, the problems that staff face, and the immense support needed for staff to be able to function over the course of a career is really quite intense. 


Vita Pires: 

So you talked about staff and folks who are incarcerated. Anxiety is a really huge issue, it seems like. Did you give practices that were helpful, or did they report back any, you know? 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. So initially, I worked with people in custody as a volunteer, but then when I was hired, I was no longer able to work with people in custody directly because I was often visiting staff at home and had access to a lot of confidential information. 


So, with staff, the main thing that I focused on was this kind of intersection. Well, a couple of things. I think you could say the intersection of meditation around being able to listen very deeply to one's own needs. That could be anything from being very tired or stressed out or having family problems, which then leads one to have a lot of months' mind while working in an environment where situational awareness is quite important for safety and things like that. 


I also tried really hard to kind of blend in some aspects of meditation that you find in the Tibetan tradition around connecting to the spaciousness as a way to be able to shift people's experience from the intensity of the myopic experience at the moment to violence, not being able to leave the post. Sometimes heat. There are a lot of problems with the air conditioning on the island, and the staff wears these very heavy uniforms. And just, you know, all of the things that might occur over the course of their day so that people can connect to something much larger than themselves, whether it be the faith that they practice or no faith, or just wanting to get a, as a staff would say, like a "woosah moment." 


When I was working with people in custody, there was a deputy commissioner I was working with while I was a volunteer who asked me to work with some of the most violent offenders on the island in some new housing areas that were being designed specifically around violence and reactivity.

 

And so, under those circumstances, what I spent a lot of time doing was sitting with the men and listening to stories of people's relationships to violence from very early on. In some cases, even as young as toddlers, to what happened right before maybe this meditation session began. And then helping people to track through awareness practices, physiological and bellwethers around when anger is arising, rage is arising, how to be able to listen. And then really kind of feeling into this kind of lynchpin moment of being able to be faced with either acting on this or stepping back and saying, you know, this really isn't worth it right now, under these circumstances. 


In several of these enhanced security housing areas, I worked for as long as nine months. Again, these were people who were facing charges of manslaughter and murder and who had slashed or stabbed people while in custody. Those folks would make it into these housing areas, and then I would work with them there. 


So, it was a bit of a mixed bag. But I think across the board, the similarity was rooted in helping people to empower themselves to be able to understand really what's arising as an undercurrent to their experience so that if you're a staff member, you're able to make the right decisions, and you're able to care for yourself, you're able to obviously provide safety and necessary support for people in custody and your peers. And then for people in custody to not reoffend while on the facilities, while also spending time in as best as one could have it a contemplative relationship to their own reactivity in the moment. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Wow. Okay. So as you were talking about that, especially when you were talking about the police officers or the corrections officers who had the clothing on, it was all too hot. And, you know, then there's all the stress, and then there are the people incarcerated, and they're in uncomfortable situations, and where they came from, and why they ended up there and why they even have, you know. 


How causes and conditions all come together that there are so many of them created at any given moment. And when I presented, there was some kind of relief from them. Like, "Oh, you're right, it wasn't just A=B because sometimes I think people think, "Oh, I had to do this thing. I didn't have any choice." 


Well, there were all kinds of things coming together to create this kind of perfect storm moment, including maybe your clothes were uncomfortable. So, it just kind of helped them. They said kind of step back and go, "Oh, right. I'm just me being a bad person." 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. Well, that in particular, I mean, you know, the role of shame in coping with what either why one might find themselves incarcerated or as a staff member since there have been some studies done on the negative impacts of media images of correction officers, and how that leads to not only just a sense of lack of morale and the work but the sense of being disrespected, the sense of not being taken seriously, the sense of being perceived as a thug or as a villain, which is the case. 


I think you could say, probably speaking in the media world of New York City. And so yeah, it doesn't take much for people to feel pushed into a very negative place when everything is presented in, as you point out, maybe too much of a black-and-white kind of way. It's your fault. You made an error. You, you, you. 


Vita Pires: 

All systems that are surrounding creating this? 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Well, yeah. I think that this kind of speaks to a much wider reform that needs to happen in the criminal justice system because, as you see, and actually, this is something that I really opened my eyes to when I first started working on Rikers, was the recognition that if we had better social services across the board, there would be fewer people in custody, especially public mental health services. 


I'm sure that statistics are pretty stable across the country. But in New York City, it's estimated that somewhere between 55 to 60% of people in custody suffer from mental illness, and if they were receiving the proper treatment, which includes, I guess, dual diagnosis and substance abuse issues, these folks wouldn't have to be incarcerated. 


I think between education, food access, and job support. And so, this speaks exactly to your point, like, all of the complex causes and conditions, everything from the, you know, dropping out of high school to every little thing can contribute in different ways, or being a person of color, you know. All of these factors make it very complex. 


Vita Pires: 

What is the shadow side of showing up and working in the correctional system in light of the sort of prison abolition kind of work? 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. I think that it was interesting. As I was getting ready to leave DSC, a friend of mine, a colleague, had come over, and she was like, "You've done all this amazing work. Now, working with staff and all this stuff, but isn't it amazing that you and I probably make this place worse by basically guessing up a system that is just broken?" 


This is something that I had to contend with while I worked with DSC. I think for some reason, volunteering, it felt a little cleaner, so to speak, but when working within the system and being somebody who folks would, they would kind of roll me out when city council people would be touring the island or, you know, and they'd be like, well, here's our head Chaplain as Buddhist and can provide meditation and really, like, you know, really kind of made people very excited. 


I think that while there was a decent amount of room, I had to make some progressive changes. We really are best served by being fairly critical of the system. My particular feeling at this point is that these systems, I mean, the whole criminal justice system needs radical transformation. And that's not to say there isn't suffering going on in Rikers right now at this very moment. There are people there that need support on both sides of the gate. But I guess the question is when and to what respect can we help break this particular cycle of violence that the carceral system creates and propagates generationally? 


And so, I guess, for me right now, I am curious as to whether or not these more progressive offerings like meditation, mindfulness, etc., actually sully the waters a little bit, making it much harder to actually maybe put one foot down and say, "You know what? This has to stop." 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, but then again, I hear from so many people, folks inside, that this helps them get through the excruciatingly suffering moments they're having in being where they are. They don't have anything really to go on the outside. So it's kind of like, well, at least this is giving me something. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. No. Again, kind of stepping back from the black and white. This is complicated. It's complicated for a lot of different reasons. I guess one of the things that I would often say at DOC was, you know, the main mission that I wanted to accomplish there was to be able to be a force of compassion within a system, which can be quite harsh. 


I think that that is necessary no matter what. I think that it really falls upon us to continue to push and push and push and, you know, this means pushing in local government, state government, federal government circles around really re-envisioning what its intention really should be, how it shows up to do the work, even if it can achieve its intended purposes. Because right now, in New York City, it's debatable whether or not the New York City Department of Correction is able to actually accomplish everything that it's tasked to do because of staffing problems and a lack of vision. 


Vita Pires: 

Burnout. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Burnout, yeah. COVID, yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

Flooding. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Exactly. Yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

Hurricanes. Yeah. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. Yeah, it's a lot. It's a lot. The kind of fluctuating political winds doesn't help. You might have somebody come in and say, "We're going to implement all this reform." And then, the next mayor comes in and then shifts everything in a different direction. I'm not naive about the political side of it. 


However, we tend to forget that there are people who are so radically affected. It could be the decisions that are being made. But often, they're radically affected by the decisions that nobody has the strength to actually stand up to make. I think that that's a major problem in this. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. That film that we had about our thing, the Path of Freedom, reminded me of that gentleman in Rhode Island who said, "This isn't a place to breed a better person. It's a place to breed a better criminal." Given the way that the conditioning isn't there. I know in a class I was teaching there, the guys were telling me, "Yeah, people get a lot." I said, "Well, what about you guys mentoring?" And they go, "Yeah, everybody gets really good mentoring here." Didn't have to be, you know, be more violent in a way because that's the only way they're going to survive. 


So, it's like, okay, how do we, you know? But I do think there are some strides being made, but changing the system. I think, oftentimes, police in public safety are trained in tactical methods to deal with, like, "I'm not going to run into a burning building. I don't have the skills to save people and drag them out of a burning building." 


I mean, a lot of people were talking about, "Can we change it, so the social workers are dealing with people instead of the police?" But then I talked to some social workers, and they're like, "Are you kidding me? I'm not going to deal with somebody who's on opioids and running at me with a gun. I don't even know what to do." 


So there's this mix of compassionate training and tactical training that has to happen with some people that have gotten to the end of the line, and they do result in violence. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I was quite close with one of the chiefs of the department when I was working at DOC, and it was great to kind of have my eyes open to the whole kind of tactical response piece. And much of the work I ended up doing, responding to staff in crises, meant that I was on call 24/7, as, you know, often responding to staff for assaulted or injured or after hours, in some cases, you know, even murdered. 


The violence part isn't a concern for me personally. I think it's the structural violence around the system. I think that, in addition to this, I feel like, you know, maybe it's just being Buddhist, but I feel like there's a huge blind spot in our culture that veers heavily towards the binary, especially with respect to Criminal Justice and doesn't allow for there to be any option other than, you know, for lack of a better term, you know, the sinner and the person who follows all the rules. 


The labeling that we end up engaging in for people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law is so damaging. And as you point out, it places people in these positions where it's much easier to just reinvest in that world and receive all of the mentorships that one needs to be able to be a criminal, for example. It seems to absolve people from the hard contemplative work of being in a community with one another and learning forgiveness, and learning how to show up to communities that are different. 


This is where the work needs to happen. Half of my chaplaincy training was on seg floors. And so, I'm comfortable being in secure locations with people who might be unstable. In the DOC, there were people in custody who were unstable. I would often deal with staff who are unstable. So when it gets to that point, no problem. There needs to be a certain kind of tactical response. 


But you know, when you look at young men and young women who are coming into the system for the first time, and you see how very easily the system will help them or replicate stories that may have happened in their communities or families of returning and returning and returning and returning in the cycles of harm are just made worse. That's where I think more work needs to happen. It essentially becomes political, whether we're political people or not. 


It's interesting because when we look at the faith background behind the Buddhist tradition or the faith background behind the Christian tradition, people like the Buddha and people like Jesus were inherently political because they were pushing people to love one another and to show up and be respectful. And in these systems where everything is such hard lines, hard boxes that everybody has placed in, to ask people to see things differently, including themselves, is inherently going against the stream. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. When I first started doing this, maybe 25 or so years ago, it was really hard to get programming because, you know, we were from a Buddhist background, even though we were saying it was, you know, not. It's just going to be meditation, but mindfulness wasn't a big deal then. So it was all about trying to pacify people. We're not trying to take people to the devil. And when I understood like, "Oh, this is what they really believe. They think we're going to harm people's minds by doing this." 


Then, it was like, okay. I just kept getting into a relationship with them. And then they said, "Okay, you guys seem okay." You know, after a while. But now there's this mindfulness thing. Now that mindfulness is the craze everywhere and on magazine covers, it's like, "Oh, my God, let's get a mindfulness program in here, and that's going to be like our new solution." 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Oh, totally. 


Vita Pires: 

There are all kinds of limitations with that, with all sides of drama happening there. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

I mean, I saw this on the staff side of things. It was this time last year, actually. A very high percentage of the staff were forced to work triples. And so, that's over 24 hours or about 24 hours. People were asking me, "Well, can we introduce some mindfulness?" I said, "Yeah, we could. We could definitely try that. However, there's this thing called Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and there are things such as sleep and, you know, access to food, and the kind of more basic human biological needs that need to be attended to." 


I think that, again, just as much as we see mindfulness being implemented in the corporate world, I don't have a particular issue with it outside of the fact that I don't think it can live up to the expectations that it promises. We have to question mindfulness implemented, I believe, towards a more productive role within a capitalist system that is just causing a tremendous amount of harm environmentally, even with respect to this adjustment, post-COVID, to working at home or going into the office, right? 


Some people might say that it's more efficient for everybody to return to the office. Not all human behavior has to be rooted in efficiency. When we're recovering or even just beginning to recognize the level of traumatization that we may encounter, either as a person who's incarcerated or working in the carceral system, the recognition of traumatization really ought to be able to be held outside of the brackets of productivity and job satisfaction. It's not to say that they're not connected, but it's not to say that they dovetail very well into one another. Or very neatly into one another. 


Vita Pires: 

So, what would be your recommendations for someone who's really excited to go in and teach mindfulness at Rikers? So, I would say I'll be enthusiastic and think this is going to be so great. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. Well, I mean, I definitely think people should engage in the work. When I was training volunteers to work with people in custody, the first thing I told people is, you know, you need to learn how to pray for parties' instructions so that you can actually explain them from your own voice from a place of authenticity because if everybody has their script, most people would just say, you know, get the hell out of this, you know, the housing area or whatever. 


Get out of here. I don't need you. This is crazy. You don't know anything about my life. You don't know anything about the intensity. I used to get this all the time when people would ask, "What's the worst thing you ever did?" If you can tell me something messed up that you did, I will listen to you. So, there's kind of that reality. 


I do think that people who offer these services, again, I think the services are ultimately quite noble, but some kind of critical work around spiritual bypassing and confirmation bias, I think, is really important so that one isn't just going in there necessarily to make oneself feel better or to kind of propagate a story of the noble Dharma practitioner who was healing the world. It's not to say we're not healing the world, but there's pain everywhere. 


I think this work really asks us to be able to be deeply in touch with our own pain and our own wounding because we're sitting with others, where that might get touched upon, and where a compassionate response just by sometimes providing space, holding space for people becomes a valuable piece of the work. 


I really would ask people to just keep this little critical voice in the back of one's heads around, "Am I really creating benefits here?" Again, it's not to say that offering meditation in the carceral system does not bring benefits. But in certain circumstances, I think it can lead to a whitewashing of much larger, systemic cultural problems that, in some cases, will continue to cause harm in a very serious way. It could be that the volunteer leaves, and then the gates shut, and it goes back to hell. 


And so the argument is, as well, you know, this just one hour or 45 minutes of non-hell, you know, is that worth it? And, you know, generally, I think it is. However, once the person gets in there, the system needs to be able to be flexible so that these things can kind of bleed and trickle into other aspects of the way jail facilities and prisons run or anywhere in the criminal justice system with people who do this, you know, more broadly in law enforcement with any kind of uniform staff. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. I mean, I really got that when I was working in the juvie hall with several different juvie halls. I just had to give up my agenda. There was no way I was going to go with an agenda with what was going on there. One day I didn't show up because I was sick or something happened. I had called in, but nobody told them I wasn't there. And then the next week, some kids said to me, "You know, nobody comes to see a lot of us. And if they do, it's for a reason, like our lawyer. But I started to feel like you just came here because you like us." 


I thought, "Oh." And that really meant something to know. And so he said, "So I was kind of upset when you didn't show up." It was kind of like, "Oh, yeah, right. It was me just showing up." I was having the impact because nobody else was showing up for them anywhere. Also, the same group of kids called me. I asked them, "Why are you mumbling so much?" They said, "Everybody says that to us." 


I said, "Well, why?" And they said, "Well, because nobody wants to hear us." And then I said, "Well, I do." I meant it. And then the guy goes, "Thank you, Miss." He was like a real tough guy. He said, "Thank you, Miss." I was like, "Oh, God." you know, because nobody listens. They're getting yelled at. They call them scumbags. 


I don't think people get how rough this is on young minds to be conditioned in this way that the whole world is calling them a scumbag and calling them a number. These crummy clothes and making them crummy food and putting them in boxes. And you know, it's just the reality of it so far from any reality of people on the outside. 

It's not like TV or black or anything like that sometimes, but you know, just very hard to put yourself in. But I sometimes think just showing up makes it, you know. It's not necessarily putting up fluff on the whole system, but at least they've got somebody at least once in their life, you know? 



Lama Justin von Bujdoss: Absolutely, yes

We give them wisdom books from people. They are like, "Nobody ever sends us stuff for nothing." It's like, well, we are, you know. We will continue. That meant so much just getting a book. Think about getting a book. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah. I mean, one of the things I would often tell either volunteers or divinity school students who were coming to Rikers was that, at the end of the day, we could leave. That very difference between us and the people that are being served is hugely significant. We might not even ever think of it. Maybe occasionally it might, you know, sink into heads when we are crossing the bridge off of Rikers, but, you know, for every time one leaves a housing area, you are demonstrating freedom and a power that everybody who is in that housing area does not have. And so, to be able to show up on weekends, to show up on holidays has a huge impact. 


Yeah. I mean, you know, it is complicated. I mean, I think that there are all sorts of things that need to change. And in New York City, there's a big push to switch over to a borough-based jail system so that, at the very least, it makes it easier for people to come and visit. Rikers Island is pretty inconvenient to visit. In terms of security and technical response, it's ideal because it's an island. You can lock the island down, etc. But it's very hard for people to come and visit, and it's hard for volunteers to come as well, you know, relying on public transportation. 


So that's a really good example of the reason why perhaps, I think we could say we need to integrate even any kind of, you know, structures into the wider fabric of urban culture or even rural culture, moving it when these people are not, like in New York State away from the border of Canada. And a little bit closer to the communities from which these folks have had family and friends, and loved ones so that these relationships can be maintained. 


I think even in our own lives, when we feel isolated, isolated from family, isolated from friends, isolated from the community is when we begin to suffer. I think that that is just more probably seen in correctional settings because people are isolated, to begin with, but then, you know, some of these larger issues around where jails and prisons are located definitely do not help. 


Vita Pires: 

One of the questions we want to talk about is how people can show up in a way that's non-colonial. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

So, you know, it's funny. There was a very well-known meditation program that wanted to come to the New York State Department of Correction. They had very proprietary rules for them. If we're going to do this, like, we get, you know, we're going to need a little bit of press as a result. We're going to need this. We're going to need that. 


Somebody reached out to me and asked me what I thought of it, and I was like, "Oh, well, would you mind them sending me their literature." And they did. And so, I was talking to them, and I was talking to them about language, and they wanted to language everything so that it was that this program was helping people and saving people. Again, this is a meditation program. 


I was just like, you know, "This is not going to happen. This is not going to happen." For example, this is the case in state and federal corrections as well, but in New York City, anybody who's incarcerated does not have the ability to give consent, right? That is taken away from you when you're coming in as a detainee, let alone you're convicted and become the critical property of the state. And so, as a result, it is people who are incarcerated who are a protected class, right? They do not have the same freedoms and rights as you or I or anybody who's watching this does. 


And therefore, from my own kind of ethical standpoint, a really thorough analysis needs to happen with respect to what I am bringing to the people I am serving, whether they are people in custody or staff. The colonial aspect of this is really rooted in whether we're seeing these people that we're serving at that moment as numbers to tick off, like, "Oh, see?" Like, we served XX number of people this week? 


How are we addressing their basic humanity? What is our relationship to productivity in all of this? I tell this to my meditation students all the time. It's my goal for meditation to make you less practical. It's really about feeling out into some kind of larger sense of being. Being Vita, being Justin, being whoever we are in the moment. And that is where the root benefit, I feel, at least in this is. 


As with every kind of human endeavor, there are some people who are able to very respectfully, safely, and harmoniously be able to provide every kind of service. It doesn't have to just be meditation for others. And then there are groups for whom notoriety is important. We find in the Buddhist world that we'll talk about name and shame becoming a motivating factor. 


And, again, just given the fact that I had to make a lot of emergency responses for people in custody who did not have the same rights that I had just drove home to me the importance of being able to show up in a highly sensitive and highly respectful way. It just seems like a no-brainer at this point. And, you know, again, it's complicated, right? Working in a helping profession sometimes causes us to have a very kind of strong sense of induced emotion around the benefit that we're creating. And that is something to celebrate, right? 


I mean, you know, the benefit is being created, people's lives are being made perhaps more meaningful, perhaps being centered or rooted or grounded, or perhaps people are able to connect with the necessary support to cope with the loss of sadness or the trauma that they're in the midst of recovering from, or sometimes in some cases, just recognizing that I celebrate that 100%. But I think, you know, for caregivers, we also need to be able to keep this healthy voice in the back of our head around when am I kind of being whipped up into some kind of frothy, you know, mania around how great this work is and how great my organization is and how great the work is that we're doing. 


Because, again, you know, what is it really about? It's really about helping others. We are providing support for others to be able to be themselves, feel respected, and connect to that human dignity that you or I or, you know, again, anybody watching this really, ultimately values the most. 


Vita Pires: 

On that note, as a person in there helping or supporting or whatever you have been doing, what did you learn from that? What have you learned about yourself and about humanity? I mean, you have said a lot of things you learned about humanity. But personally, what kind of things did you learn about your own practice? 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah, thank you. Yeah, that's a really good question. With respect to my own practice, I think what I learned the most was the value of specifically nonconceptual meditation of things like in the Tibetan tradition when talking about the MahaMudra tradition. So, this very kind of profound, you could say, like radically open awareness practices as a way of centering into a deep resilience to be able to be available for others. 


Again, a lot of my work was an emergency response, and almost all of it was at night. For over five years, I got less than five hours of sleep at night every night. I made it a really central part of my work to respond with a high level of integrity to those who are in crisis, which means that I was often running on fumes, which also meant that I had to learn how to kind of clinical drop into my practice as a way of recognizing what am I bringing into this situation? What am I bringing into this housing area? What am I bringing into this hospital room to meet with a staff member, to the family of a staff member who died? So that kind of off-the-cushion situational practice was a huge benefit for me. 


And then, on another kind of personal level, I get a lot out of practicing in places that are very dark. So, correctional systems. And then, even when COVID hit in New York City because I was a Chaplain working for New York City and at the time the New York City's potter's field was run by the New York City Department of Correction, then I was asked to bless the bodies of all the city residents who ended up being buried there, in that first wave. That ended up being over 3000 bodies within the first year. I did that at five in the morning, you know, as needed. And then I would go to Rikers from there. 


There was this process of just giving myself over to the intensity of it all. Trusting into this larger process of understanding that not only the I, the you, and again, everybody watching this, is so much more resources than we can possibly imagine. It's just a matter of letting go of that. I can think of all these reasons why I should have a chip on my shoulder about the work, but I don't. I'm so super grateful for the challenge. 


Vita Pires: 

Well, I guess we're at the end of our time. I really thank you so much. It was very inspiring to hear from you and hear all your knowledge and wisdom about working here. And Bravo. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Oh, thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

You impacted so many people. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Yeah, well, it's my pleasure. Again, I really love the work that you all do at the Prison Mindfulness Institute. Keep going. Keep going. 


Vita Pires: 

You've got those dark places. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

Thank you, Justin. 


Lama Justin von Bujdoss: 

Thank you, Vita. Take care. 


Vita Pires: 

Be well. 



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