Fleet Maull: Meditation After 14 Years Locked Up

The following are excerpts from an interview conducted in San Francisco between Fleet Maull and MBA Board Member, Andrew Getz and by Martha Mahony.

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Fleet Maull served 14 years in prison from 1985-1999 on charges of drug trafficking. While incarcerated he founded two national organizations; Prison Dharma Network, and Prison Hospice Association. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Naropa University, an ordained priest in the Zen Peacemaker order, and he is U.S. Director of the Peacemaker Community, a global interfaith network working to integrate spirituality social action, and peacemaking. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Youth Horizons: Fleet, I want to ask you to tell us something about your teen and young adult experience – did you have any spiritual intimations as a young person growing up?

Fleet Maull: When I was very young I remember life as being kind of magical, very vivid, I had a sense of being plugged in to reality. At some point in early childhood- probably about the time of starting school I really remember that fading and the world going from being very vivid and very colorful to being kind of black and white and losing that sense of magic. That’s probably a normal developmental process that you’re supposed to make peace with, but I remember being kind of pissed off about it. I was always looking for that- I graduated from high school in 1968, and so the whole youth culture and drug culture, and revolution of that era was happening. I got involved in drug use and then it was , “Wow, there IT is again.” So I thought I had rediscovered this magic. But it turned out to have a mirage-like quality. To some extent it was genuine, but it had so much baggage with it and a shadow component that led to such addictive things in my life.

YH: For a lot of at-risk youth any discussion of aliveness tends to gravitate towards drug stories or stories about doing—

Fleet: Yeah, all the high-risk behavior…. That’s exactly what those behaviors are all about. A lot of at-risk youth are seeking these edgy activities in ways that are very self-destructive – I think they’re just trying to connect with being alive.

YH: How can one invite that sense of aliveness in healthy ways?

Fleet: That’s a difficult piece especially when you’re working with youth. I would get them involved in high adventure, high interest kinds of things like rock climbing—high adrenaline stuff, but with good adult mentors. What happens when we’re traumatized in various ways as children – is we’re experimenting … putting our being out there and then we start getting feedback from the world. Even in the best family we’re going to start getting “no’s,” so to some extent we get the message that part of me is not safe, that part of me is not OK. And when those “no’s” come in the form of verbal abuse or emotional abuse, or sexual abuse or physical abuse, it means a whole part of ourselves starts to shut down and eventually we find ourselves in this tiny little box. We’ve lost our voice… lost the energy of our own being and that’s how we get so shut down. And in that small world that we end up living in, it doesn’t feel alive anymore, it feels dead. And I think that’s why our young people are looking for all these edgy activities – high-risk activities to just to try and reclaim their sense of being alive.

YH: What role do you see for mindfulness meditation in working with these youth?

Fleet: What I find powerful about basic meditation training whether it’s with youth or adults, is just getting that first hit that you have a mind. I mean, that sounds kind of funny. “Well, I know I have a mind.” But actually there’s this intense flow of habitually patterned conditioned thought that’s running your life. Most of us don’t realize that until we somehow are introduced to it, wake up to it. It’s just running our lives… It’s like, does a fish really have an awareness of the water? And so when you begin to meditate you actually see that ….and through enough practice of mindfulness one is able to see that there’s this connection between thoughts, feelings, actions and consequences…. because these youth have been finding themselves in the consequences over and over and over again. So if we can begin to get that sense and slow our mind down enough to see that there actually are places of freedom… suddenly we see ourselves in the midst of one of these patterns and wake up and it’s like, “Oh, I recognize this. I don’t feel like going to the hole today so I’m not going to hit this guy.” We were clueless about having that option before.

YH: How long has it been since you were released?

Fleet: I was released in May of 1999 so it’s coming up on 3 years.

YH: Have you ever looked back at the decision to turn yourself in or regretted it?

Fleet: No, I’ve never regretted it, actually, not at all. That was one of the first times in my life that I ever took anybody else’s advice. [Laughter] I’ve never been very good at that. I’m still not great at it … the idea of being on the run was not attractive to me at all. And, yet, I knew that the government was threatening to put me in prison for 30 years and that wasn’t very attractive. [Chuckle] That was pretty scary. And so I really left it up to other people in my life – primarily to my teacher. And my teacher encouraged me to stay and just face it and I’ve never regretted it, ever. The 14 years I spent in prison were just an incredible, powerful, transforming journey – very, very scary, very painful journey in many ways at many times, but really it was a time of tremendous transformation.

YH: Can you tell us a little bit about how you related to that period of your life?

Fleet: I was a federal prisoner, taken to the county jail, and I spent 7 months in the county jail just going through trial and sentencing. And I was never granted bail so once I turned myself in I never got out. The minute the cell door shut I had just a profound experience of really, really deep regret and remorse. It just caused this really deep-seated turn, a kind of conversion experience. Or I think of the Greek term Metanoia, of just this kind of deep 180-degree turn in the depth of one’s being. And I really developed this profound desire to eradicate any kind of harmful or negative things out of my life. And to be of benefit in some way. It just radically changed me.

*Fleet spoke of the predicament of those who are convicted of a crime and incarcerated and how difficult it is to find a way to access the support needed to do the work of inner transformation… *

Fleet: Not knowing where to open on any level to one’s own heart, one’s sadness and regret and no way to reconnect with any real sense of being in relationship with others or a sense of community. There’s no trust… your inner world is shame, the outer world is just a reflection of that coming at you. The community outside is just demonizing you. So you just go into a cocoon of armor and live in that place of armor and aggression. And that’s what incarceration does to most people.

YH: And isn’t that really an extension of what a lot of people who end up incarcerated and many other people – many of us – are trying to recover from in the first place, is early shame?

Fleet: Yeah, absolutely.

YH: In the program that we’ve started in the juvenile halls we really try to communicate to the youth that it’s like a practice group. It’s not a group where we come in and give the answers. It’s a practice group where all of us sit together, meditate together, do some yoga together, and then share our experiences together. And, to me, something remarkable happens as soon as you create that kind of a premise. These guys even at the age of 16, 17, very defended will start to talk about – and it doesn’t take much – they’ll start to talk about their lives. It really does shift and they seem to hunger for that.

Fleet: Oh, absolutely… create the ground of community where there’s permission for them to get into – be vulnerable and expose their humanity and get authentic about their lives. They have a huge taste for that. I mean, what we see in the work we’ve done with adults in prisons through the Beyond the Release program is once people break open they have this huge thirst and passion for that kind of authenticity because they’ve been living – locked up in this shell… I think the best role is really some kind of facilitator who can hold a space and which you then train them how to hold the space so they all become space holders for each other. To me, that’s the way it works.

Fleet went on to describe how his inner transformation found it’s expression in service…

Fleet: …there was this count called continuous criminal enterprise, which is the so-called “king pin statute,” and that’s why I went to trial and I lost- and that statute carried a no-parole clause with it. The paper the next day said I would be 65 when I got out and so I arrived in federal prison thinking I was there for 30 years and it was pretty shocking. …very fortunately I was sent to a prison hospital. I thought I was going to go to Leavenworth, which is a heavy federal penitentiary, but I was sent to the federal prison hospital…. I was surrounded by people who were dying of cancer, dying of AIDS, had DT’s, paraplegics, quadriplegics, blind people – can you imagine being blind and being in prison? Because this was a hospital suffering was just all around you. It was just amazing, it shook me out of the drama I was caught up in about myself…all the training I’d had – very direct training with my teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, kicked in-I just started showing up and seeing how I could be of service.

What follows are some excerpts of the ways in which Fleet was able to use his understanding and his unique gifts to serve others….

Fleet: I headed over to the education department and they gave me a job as a tutor. It was a regular 9-to-5 job and that was a very rich path of service and a very challenging area ‘cause to be a teacher in prison – there’s a very egalitarian thing among the prisoners that you’re all the same and if anybody tries to stick their head up just a hair’s breadth you’re going to get shot down….And it can get very threatening. You can get killed over that. So I patiently and very thoroughly made friends with every individual over and over again, so I could learn how I could cajole or push or encourage them into learning. So that whole experience of teaching in prison was like a spiritual path all by itself…
….I went to the chapel and asked if they had any meditation programs and they didn’t. I said I wanted to start one and they said I couldn’t. And so I asked if I could just sit in the chapel – it was empty when I was there. And the chaplain couldn’t come up with a good reason why I couldn’t go sit in there, though it was very clear that she wanted to. And so I just started showing up and sitting and sitting and got some other people to come sit with me, and it just kind of emerged into a group. Pretty soon, through some kind of subterfuge or something, we became recognized as a group and I led a meditation group and taught meditation there for 14 years… Several thousand went through that group over 14 years….
… And then this is in 1985-86. The whole AIDS epidemic was just taking off and they had all the AIDS patients locked up back in the mental health wing in a secure unit for their own protection, basically. I was taking movies back there and they wouldn’t let me stay , but I would take the projector, and I started putting magazines under it and bringing stuff back to them and getting into relationship with them, getting to know them. I got very concerned about their situation. I started writing to all kinds of AIDS organizations on the outside to see how I could get involved and get help. I started thinking about trying to start a hospice program. Then I ran into another inmate who was a (paraplegic) patient up on the hospital floor – he had befriended two patients who were dying and just kind of stayed with them through their death on his own ward where he lived. He had started working on a proposal for a hospice program, so I joined forces with him. In 1987 we started off with just a voluntary visitation program, but eventually grew it into a full medical program. I helped devise the training program and worked with training volunteers. I got material about our program published in major hospice journals and then started a national organization to promote that model out into the country, which is one of the two organizations I still direct – National Prison Hospice Association.

We asked Fleet to reflect on what he thought would be an effective model for working with at-risk and adjudicated youth…

Fleet: Like anything an effective model has to be done well. I believe you need to take an integral approach, addressing the whole person with a variety of effective tools for transformation. I think you’ve got 16, 17, 18-year-olds who need to be doing some kind of deep emotional clearing work to deal with all that childhood patterning. If you can introduce them to some kind of body-mind discipline- yoga and meditation, tai-chi—that they’re attracted to and get them involved in the arts in the context of a community building process. If you can empower them to take responsibility for lives, and get them involved in some type of community of service. It’s doing all of those things together, doing them well in an integrated fashion and within a context of empowerment, of adult to adult peer relatationships, that will be most effective.

YH: I really agree with what you’re saying, and thank you so much, Fleet, for taking the time to share you story with us. It has been so inspiring to hear how your incredible journey has unfolded and continues to be of benefit to so many of us…Thank you!