By Tommy Housworth, contributor
For Fleet Maull, taking radical responsibility required facing the music. In the mid-80’s, Maull was a Buddhist practitioner with his felonious days as a drug trafficker mostly behind him. Call it bad luck or karma catching up with him, but in 1985 Fleet was arrested and indicted for his previous involvement in trafficking cocaine. Faced with the option of fleeing to Central America or going to jail, his spiritual teacher told him he could do more good – for himself and others – by serving his term.
Sentenced to 25 years in jail without parole, Fleet Maull committed to “practicing meditation like his hair was on fire.” And so he sat inside his cell for hours each day, committed to finding equanimity in a place designed to create unease. It was a hard won peace, one that required being keenly aware of his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. Eventually, he realized he was able to mitigate many of the challenging circumstances that prison life brings: fights with fellow inmates, arguments with guards, and much worse.
His next step was to find a way to bring the benefits of meditation to other inmates. He did so by developing a program that helped prisoners work with difficult emotions and inherent challenges through sitting practice and mindfulness exercises that delineated “reaction” from “response”. Then, he helped found a prison hospice program, providing end-of-life care to incarcerated men suffering with AIDS, cancer, and other fatal illnesses.
When Maull was released from prison after fourteen years (reduced from the original 25), he formalized the techniques he used to survive his prison sentence into a program called Radical Responsibility. Maull’s aspiration was to provide a blueprint for people struggling with such self-limiting challenges such as fear, guilt and blame so they could create a more fulfilling and purposeful life.
If it’s starting to sound like a Tony Robbins seminar, fear not. There are no hot coals to traverse here, no motivational mantras. After years of shaping this program through his Engaged Mindfulness Institute, the Prison Mindfulness Institute and other organizations, Fleet Maull has identified a roadmap steeped in practicality, wisdom, and science of the mind.
Maull has gathered what he’s learned and taught, from prisons to boardrooms, in his new aptly titled book, Radical Responsibility. The book engages the reader in an experiential journey, designed to shift fear-based conditioning to habits of courage and compassion.
It’s a tall order, but Maull provides a remarkable set of tools and exercises to help the reader get closer to authenticity and, yes, responsibility. He begins with a truly radical notion: that all human beings are innately good. Acknowledging that this may seem naive, he quotes the old Sufi proverb, “Trust in Allah, but tether your camel”, (later Americanized as “Trust God, but lock your doors”). In other words, at our core we all have access to our innate goodness, but Maull is aware not everyone is in touch with that, and we must maintain healthy boundaries.
The premise of Basic Goodness, core to Maull’s Buddhist background, teaches that we all have the capacity to “wake up” to our better nature by recognizing our interconnectedness. It’s a leap that, especially in today’s social and political climate, is a hard one for many to make. Thankfully for skeptics, he doesn’t insist you buy into the notion before moving forward in the book. Instead, Maull invites the reader to start the process by working with the person whom many of us wrestle with the most: ourselves.
Through “Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence” and meditation exercises, Maull explores opportunities for greater self-awareness. Awareness that — in turn — grants greater potential for self-agency, shifting away from blaming ourselves and others for circumstances, and taking a position of ownership over our lives.
This is an awareness that can serve those struggling with addiction or suffering at the hands of abuse, though Maull wisely acknowledges that many of life’s challenges require the kind of support a book cannot remedy. Additionally, this is a guidebook for those who are navigating challenging relationships with family, coworkers, or partners. It’s for those wanting to offer a more measured response to those with whom they vehemently disagree with, so they can build rather than burn bridges. Many who are plagued by self-sabotage will find themselves in these pages as well, with strategies that allow them to spot their habitual patterns and tools to help interrupt them so they can explore different choice
Much like Rick Hanson’s 2009 book Buddha’s Brain, a book that explored how we can rewire and retrain our brains, Fleet Maull relies on enough neuroscience, explained in digestible terminology, to keep Radical Responsibility from feeling like mere “self-help.” Instead, he builds upon rationale and experience to lay out an approach to living that feels, both, challenging and liberating.
Unlike Fleet Maull, most of us won’t likely experience a long prison stint. But, in our own way, we’re all doing time. In an age when depression and anxiety are on the increase and we find that civility and common ground are harder to come by, the philosophy Fleet Maull offers in Radical Responsibility isn’t so radical after all. It might be good medicine for what ails us.
Fleet Maull will be in Atlanta in August to sign and speak about his new book, Radical Responsibility. Friday, August 16th, 7pm at the Atlanta Shambhala Center and Saturday, August 17th, 7:30pm at Charis Books and More. He’ll also present a two-day Radical Responsibility program at the Atlanta Shambhala Center August 16-17. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. www.tinyurl.com/FleetinAtlanta.