An interview with DR. JAMES GARBARINO conducted by MBA Board Member, Andrew Getz and by Soren Gordhamer

Dr. James Garbarino is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and the the author of numerous books, including Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, a pioneering book on the causes and solutions to youth violence. A national authority on youth aggression and violence, he has served as an expert witness in a number of youth homicide trials throughout the country. Dr. Garbarino is Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center in Ithaca, New York.

Andrew and Soren: How did you get interested in offering contemplative practices to very violent youth?

James Garbarino: One influence has been my partner, Claire Bedard. She has a very strong interest in spiritual development. A second influence is my own interest, going back to my college days and being interested in contemplative practices. Some of it also has been my own scrambling around working with these violent boys and wondering what might help transform them. I’ve also been very influenced by my friend and colleague, James Gilligan, who speaks a great deal on violence. He says something to the effect, “Only the person who is not fully alive, who is dead inside, can commit acts of violence. For anyone who loves life and is spiritually fulfilled, such acts are incomprehensible to them.”

AS: Taking that question a step further, based on the causes and conditions that you see bringing about violent behavior, how do you think meditation or yoga can help violent kids?

JG: I think there are several grounds for thinking that. One, the commonalties of untreated and unresolved traumatic experiences in their background argues for this. Anything that can help them deal with problems of arousal and focus and a way to manage emotions other than dissociation is a useful tool. A second reason is that the dominant larger culture is so unhelpful, if not outright hostile, to the development of spirituality and mindfulness because of its materialism and its nastiness that this is not something they are likely to get in the mainstream culture, let alone the fact that most of the kids come from the most socially-toxic environments. Nor is the secular educational system likely to provide this. So it is not likely accessible or presented to them otherwise. A third reason is the dynamic connection between spiritual emptiness and violent behavior. This would argue for trying to fill that spiritual emptiness through spiritually-grounded practices, as a way of disarming violence directly.

AS: Some people cannot believe that we go into to juvenile halls and youth prisons and teach contemplative practices. They say, “You go where and teach what to whom?” You’re going to teach a kid who is charged with murder how to meditate! What are you thinking?” How do you respond to such a question?

JG: Well, I would say from my observation and experience from visiting guys on death row, serving as an expert witnesses in many cases, I have observed that these people fall into two categories: monks and savages. The people who do not take the monk route, become savages. That’s how they seem to sort themselves out. The question, then, is how can we decrease the number of savages and increase the number of monks? This is to everyone’s advantage.

A second reason is that conventional approaches are so dismally unsuccessful that anybody should be open to trying something different, especially when you have recidivism in certain areas at 90%. Third, these are boys who have great difficulty managing intense emotions. They usually either dissociate or act out, and techniques of mindfulness are specifically designed to create the space with which these boys can control themselves better, which everyone says they want them to do. People have been working out the kinks in mindfulness practice for two thousands years. It has a track record we ought to go with. Also, I have seen first-hand kids make use of meditation. Most people do not have direct contact with kids in these institutions and they are at the mercy of second-hand accounts. And even the ones who do work there, when I tell them that kids in these places can thrive on meditation, they do not always believe me. The biggest impediment is not the youth, it’s the staff. We are doing a project on two units at a juvenile hall. In the unit where the staff is supportive of it, something like 90% of the kids are into it. In the class where the staff is not supportive, something like 20% to 30% are into it. Same population, same facility, same situation, different staff interest.

AS: What do you think are the cultural responsibilities for youth violence? When a violent youth or adult is let out of prison and commits a crime it is in all the newspapers. It is often the negative acts that get highlighted. As you know, it cost $40 billion dollars last year to house about 2 million adult prisoners. What do you think as a culture we can do to help turn this around? What can the average person do?

JG: I think one action is for people to talk to their legislatures about how we can use this money more wisely, which means putting more money into programs both inside the facilities and post-release. People can also look at what opportunities they have to support kids once they leave facilities. African-American churches used to have an adopt-a-child program. People might be able to get their church to adopt a child who is being released from a juvenile facility and help that person integrate back into the society.

AS: In the people who have taken the route of the monk versus the savage, what has brought that about? Have you seen any patterns?

JG: I don’t think I have an extensive enough database of knowledge to talk about the process. From my informal observation, one of the mechanisms is a newfound interest in education and developing a literary interest. Another is making the time, often out of desperation, to do the meditation so that it becomes so self-reinforcing that they feel a deprivation when they do not do it. Sometimes there is a specific influence like another inmate or volunteer who is helping them do this.

AS: We want to ask you a little more about the role of early trauma and how that influences violent youth. In your book you said that first kids need spiritual anchors, and that once that is in place, they can take on other forms of help like therapy to deal with trauma issues. Could you speak to this?

JG: Certainly, the damage of trauma provokes diminished future-orientation and produces terminal thinking, and all of these are fundamentally a crisis of meaninglessness which, in a sense, is a spiritual crisis. I think you can make a very good case that the most efficient way to address these symptoms is to first build, or in some instances create, a sense of spiritual grounding, spiritual connecting, so that self-improvement and therapeutic intervention makes sense. It becomes a much more efficient use of everyone’s time. It is really amazing the time spent trying to therapeutically intervene when it is often completely ineffectual. I think there is a good case to be made for improving the efficacy and efficiency and cost-effectiveness of these other interventions by first creating a more fertile climate for them, which is exactly what mindfulness meditation practice aims to do. Rather than saying that it is therapy or it is therapeutic, I think it is better to see it as building the context and the foundation in which therapy and other forms of interventions can thrive.

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