After 25 years of police and criminal justice work, Cheri Maples co-founded the Center for Mindfulness & Justice to coordinate her work in criminal justice training, organizational consulting, and mindfulness workshops. Cheri has worked as a police officer and detective in Madison, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General, and head of Probation and Parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. In 2008, she was ordained a dharma teacher by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, her long-time spiritual teacher, prolific author, poet, and peace activist.
The following article was adapted from a public presentation by Cheri Maples at St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, on November 13, 2009.
Mindfulness is a flexible, moment-to-moment, non-judging awareness that enables us to be more present to our experiences. By slowing down and paying attention, we learn to recognize each thought, each thing, each feeling for exactly what it is. We recognize it with tenderness and a non-judging attitude. This puts us at greater ease for life’s ups and downs. It cultivates a sense of balance and equanimity that is extremely important these days when most of us live our lives on fast forward.
To me, mindfulness has always been a fearless proclamation about what’s possible for us as ordinary people. It’s about learning to be aware of what we do, what we are at each moment, recognizing how energy follows though. Then we internalize the understanding that we are all co-creators and we all have the ability and opportunity to participate in our own resurrection, with whatever larger force we take refuge in.
, seven years into a 20-year police career. I was an unlikely candidate, but discovering mindfulness was the most important blessing of my life, because it made possible the wonderful life that I now enjoy.
I want to share aspects of my own spiritual transformation and practice that have been most important to me. But first, I want to set the stage by providing just a little background information.
I grew up in a poor, working class family with two alcoholic parents. That experience produced an unconscious rage, and I fueled that anger by literally fighting for social justice as a young adult. I was a very young, self-righteous, leftist rebel.
When I became a cop, I became the enemy to my peer group. I continued to fuel my childhood anger even more with my perceptions of their misunderstanding and my exposure to the violence, poverty and racism to which I bore witness each night. I was a delightful person to be around. When I think about my own painfully slow transformation from an angry, cynical, alcoholic cop with the armor of a closed heart, I immediately fall into a space of gratitude.
Slowly my mindfulness practice brought about a sense of balance, acceptance, equanimity, and, most importantly, an ability to be more present to others and myself. When I reflect on my experiences as a cop, I see the hyper vigilance that went with the job of being a street cop. In that role, you are always suspicious. You’re taught to do this as part of the job of serving and protecting the public. You are always alert for the unexpected.
Meanwhile my life kept up a frantic pace. I was working full time at night from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. During the day, I was going to law school plus raising two sons. I lived on surges of adrenalin from this frenetic lifestyle. When you live on such surges, temporarily you may feel alert, energetic, humorous, and involved, but what goes up must come down.
At work, I rose through the ranks, from street sergeant to street lieutenant, detective lieutenant and then captain. I would take responsibility for setting up crime scenes, delegating responsibilities and boom, boom, boom. I’d come home from work and stop at the grocery store; the clerk would say paper or plastic and I couldn’t decide. Or I’d come home and somebody would ask me a tough question like, “What should we eat tonight.” I don’t know, you decide. But when somebody made a decision, I didn’t like that decision. Crashing from a biological roller coaster, I’d feel tired, detached, isolated, and apathetic. The bottom part of that cycle, which some of you can relate to, actually mimics the symptoms of depression.
If you mix the cynicism that comes from seeing people at their worst every night with the adversarial training of a lawyer, you’ve got a recipe for burnt toast.
I can tell how long a person has been a cop by how many times they say bullshit in any given day. I call it their cynicism ratio. Hey, what’s the in-service about? I don’t know, some bullshit. Hey, did you hear about that bullshit the brass pulled today? If you work nights like I did and you don’t run into a sober person for several nights in a row, you start to interview people about what happened and you say to yourself , bullshit, before anything even comes out of their mouth.
Now, mix in the ingredients of cutting yourself off from former networks as a result of work hours and the desire to hang out with those who don’t consider you the enemy, and you get a recipe for disaster. You develop what I call the “I Used to Syndrome.” You know the syndrome: I used to camp, I used to bike, I used to garden. You give up all the activities that you deeply enjoyed at one time and you develop a smaller and smaller lens through which you view the world. You start to rely on a variety of dysfunctional coping mechanisms and addictions that offer quick but temporary ways to cut the edge. However, the cost is high; they also close down and sap the energy of your heart.
The form is different from person to person and from job to job, but I see this recipe for disaster repeated throughout many different kinds of paid and unpaid work. The risks I’ve noticed can be particularly acute for crisis responders and caregivers whose job is to help others manage crisis and navigate through trauma, framing the meaning of their own suffering.
For some, trauma is obvious and it occurs as the result of a particularly horrific or frightening encounter. But for others, it’s more insidious because it’s experienced over time, in incremental waves that often go unnoticed. Either way, without good navigation tools, that trauma eventually takes its toll, physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Physiologically, it is the biological roller coaster that I described earlier. Emotionally, it often appears as anger, depression, or both. And spiritually, it can manifest as an armor numbing the heart.
During this time, I was literally stumbling across the path of mindfulness that would have provided me with the tools to navigate my way out. When I did discover it, mindfulness gave me the resiliency to bounce back more quickly, because it cultivated my ability to notice and observe my inner world more clearly. For me it continues to provide refuge and freedom from the tornado of negative energy that used to violently toss me around.
What mindfulness actually brought to my own life is protection in the form of an awakened heart and a commitment to set my life up to cultivate equanimity and water the seeds of joy. Mindfulness brought me faith in my ability to make friends with whatever happens. It gave me the confidence and inner integrity that come from leading a more ethical life and being more present to others.
That is my story.
If you are interested in learning more about Cheri Maples views on the seven most important elements of spiritual transformation, you can find them in articles on this web site. We suggest reading them in the order they appear in the table below. Click on the article title in the lefthand column to which you wish to go directly.
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