TAKING CARE OF OTHERS
“… and whenever I speak to people, I do so with the feelings that I am a member of their own family. Although we may be meeting for the first time, I accept everyone as a friend. In truth, we already know one another, profoundly, as human beings who share the same basic goals: We all seek happiness and do not want suffering.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama
My name is Molly Fitzgerald and I focus on applying the above principle not only in my personal life, but also in my professional life. I work in what many people would consider to be one of the most difficult environments to be employed in: a large inner city probation department where my clients consist of sex offenders, thieves, drug and alcohol addicts, the mentally ill, and violent offenders. These are people that if you saw them walking down the street towards you, you just might want to consider crossing to the other side.
Most would consider the work that I do very challenging, yet applying such principles helps me survive and thrive in this setting and gives my work meaning.
Not only do I apply the principles of kindness, respect, and tolerance (part of the 16 Guidelines for Life), as I engage with probationers, I have also created a method of teaching these principles to my clients in a way that results in them reporting a big difference in their lives.
This all came about in November of 2009, when my job description drastically changed, and I found myself with a caseload of 140 probationers. It was at that initial transition when I first encountered Larry, who was a man that struggled with drug addiction, anger and a failing marriage. Sensing how lost he was in his life, I spontaneously asked if he had some time to spare because I wanted to share with him a few things that I had picked up along life’s journey. Larry agreed. He later stated, as his probation was coming to a close, “My life will never be the same. It is better than I could have ever imagined it to be.”
THE SPONTANEOUS TEACHING
Note: Throughout the description of my process, I use parentheses to connect Buddhist terminology and concepts with the terminology and concepts I would actually share with probationers in non-religious work environment.
Though this teaching came spontaneously with Larry, I’ve learned that not everyone is ready to listen (as is seen in the metaphor of the four cups) and I’ve learned to ascertain who is ready and who isn’t. When I feel it’s appropriate, an individual session with a probationer starts off with a clean sheet of paper on the desk between us, and I start with a seemingly simple and straightforward question: “What is the nature of your mind?” The majority of people look back at me as if I were asking them a trick question, and expecting that, I gently lead them to a seemingly simple answer: The mind’s nature is to think … 24/7, and this is true for all people no matter who they are or where they come from. I immediately follow this up with an explanation of the three types of thoughts and emotions (positive, negative, neutral), the three bodily sensations (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), the three levels of consciousness (conscious, preconscious, subconscious) and how we spend our entire lives unconsciously (ignorantly) seeking to satisfy these mental and emotional states and body sensations (desires, grasping, attachment) with little-to-no awareness of their interdependence and consequences.
After some discussion of how all this interplays (dependent co-arising or interdependence), I question them about where they think that they spend the majority of their time in their minds: “Is it the past, the present or the future?” This is a section that I explain in depth and repeatedly return to on the paper throughout our discussion. Actually, for many, this is usually an “ah-ha moment” because up until now, they have never given it any real thought.
Next, I lead into how they are feeling in the present moment: anger, anxiety, etc. Then we look at their habitual ways (unconscious motivated behavior) for handling stress, anxiety, anger, boredom, depression, etc. (afflictive emotions), and what is it they are trying to accomplish when they steal, use drugs or pornography, or whatever their habits are. This is followed by discussing how in the present they experience being triggered, or in the words of Lama Yeshe, “the buzz of irritation,” and what triggers actually are (unconscious, compulsive, unresolved, afflictive emotions based on causes and conditions) and how they are tied to the strong and unacknowledged ego (self-cherishing), the true enemy of us all. Once again, another “ah-ha moment” is experienced due to the realization that it’s their own self-cherishing thoughts (mainly unconscious) that have controlled them and not only caused suffering for themselves, but for others as well. This is, for many, a pivotal moment which leads to being willing to at least consider taking responsibility for their own thoughts, words and actions, and their consequences.
Generally, at this point, I flip the paper over and ask if they have ever heard of the four powers (regret, remorse, remedy and restraint). I haven’t met anyone yet who has, but it is still a great question to ask each and every time. It is then when I talk about remedy and hand out the 16 Guidelines as a perfect way to apply a remedy in their lives. Together we explore how they could choose one or more of the guidelines each day and then look at how to apply it. Many times the remedial process begins as they leave my office, for example, they might allow others to get onto the elevator before they do or they open the door for others.
Let’s say that they choose kindness as a remedy for the day. They start their day with awareness of their motivation for kindness, and they plan acts of kindness for the day, allowing for spontaneous opportunities to occur throughout the day. After each act of kindness, they dedicate it to make up for the wrongs that they have done (if they can stay aware) or they do so at the end of the day when they do their day’s review (Virtuous acts are the key ingredients to happiness: motivation, action and dedication). Everyone so far greatly appreciates this opportunity to make amends, and because of this response, I frequently suggest that they also dedicate it to all the people they have harmed, especially to their victims (people with whom they have a negative relationship), to the people they love (people with whom they have a positive relationship) and also to all of those people who have committed similar crimes (people with whom they have a neutral relationship), but are not fortunate enough to have found this wonderful method (the whole process is a form of tonglen).
On many occasions I have received a call by the end of that day from a probationer informing me what a joyful day they experienced after leaving my office. They tell me that they eagerly sought out ways to do good deeds for others and that the 16 Guidelines really do work. For example, Rod, a probationer once told me, “I really like opening doors for people now. Before I use to try to get ahead of them and not look back. Now, everyone goes before me.”
At this point, I recap what they’ve just learned, and then add another method to harness their mind’s awareness. I suggest that the next time that they are triggered and/or think of what we’ve talked about, to ask themselves these three questions:
1.) Where am I now? (Is your mind in past, present or future?) and if triggered, take a couple of breaths.
2.) What about my thoughts and emotions? Are they positive, negative or neutral?
3.) So, how’s that working for me?
These three questions allow for them to immediately become aware of where their mind is, its emotional state, and to sort out whether or not that is leading to the causes of happiness. The probationers appreciate having a method that is easy to apply under any circumstance that they find themselves in, and when asked if they think that there is any wisdom in using these three questions, the response is a unanimous “yes” each and every time. I often hear that at one time they thought that they were crazy, and that there was no hope for them. But with this method, they can slow things down and give themselves another chance to choose either happiness or more misery.
I also have them look at consequences, for example, that drug use can lead to a criminal record. No one wants this for themselves, but here they sit in front of me, exactly where they claim they don’t want to be. So, I have them think about cause and effect, and that leads us to exploring the consequences for everything we think, say and do. When they learn that 95 percent of what they think, say and do is based on the previous day, and day before, and the day before that, etc., they begin to understand, and tentatively start taking responsibility for where they are and for how they got there. So, if they want to predict the future, they have to own and become aware of, in the present moment, what they are thinking about, saying and doing, because they are learning that they are creating their own world.
The probationers particularly delight in my own personal stories of struggle. They love to hear the stories of my husband asking me, when he notices an afflictive emotion ruling me, “So, what’s the buzz, Mols baby?” Or, “So, where are you now?” They let out a chuckle when I tell them that when I get caught in that all-too-familiar and seductive negative emotion, and my husband points it out it out to me, well, that I don’t always respond very well. I inform them that I too apply the three questions when triggered or when just musing throughout the day, and that I find the four powers very useful, and that I especially enjoy applying the 16 Guidelines in coming up with a remedy. That is how I create virtuous acts which lead me and others to happiness, and isn’t that what we all want after all?
There really is so much more that I could add, but I think that this gives you an idea of how Buddhism can be applied in a line of work such as mine without ever mentioning the word Buddhism. I tell my probationers that I want them to learn how to become aware and mindful of their mind and how it works, otherwise it works them. I tell them that their mind is like a powerful horse and if they don’t find and pick up the reins of the horse to control and guide it, well, the horse will go anywhere it wants, do anything it wants with no consideration for its rider.
Molly Fitzgerald has worked extensively in the criminal justice system in Ohio, USA, researching and publishing on issues surrounding child sexual abuse, sex offenders, drug abuse, literacy and skills development in the criminal justice system, and negative emotions. Molly also has had a lifelong interest in the fine arts, particularly painting.Tags: 16 guidelines for life, criminal justice, four opponent powers, negative emotions, prisoners