Fleet Maull, from Federal Prisoner to Radical Responsibility

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by Andrea D' Asaro

Fleet Maull is a meditation teacher, author, coach, and social activist working for prison reform and social transformation. As a senior teacher or Acharya, appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, he teaches at Shambhala Centers around the country. Maull was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Sakyong’s father, and served as his personal attendant for years in the 1970s.

Maull’s innovative approach to personal transformation is called Radical Responsibility, which encourages people to focus their energy beyond blame where they have the power to make a difference.  He trains people from all walks of life, including executives, managers, correctional officers, law enforcement and prisoners to discover freedom, power and creativity through accountability, self-empowerment, emotional intelligence training and mindfulness practice.

“Meditation can be an act of self-responsibility and empowerment rather than just an effort to become comfortable.  We can focus all our energy where we have the power to make a difference.” He suggests that we need to acknowledge what’s going on with ourselves rather than stuffing it or blaming it on someone or something.

“When we ignore concerns on the individual level, then we tend to turn away on the collective level.  I hope that people will take steps to participate in collective efforts to leave a better world. “
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I was enchanted with Fleet’s personal and generous style when I spoke with him by phone. As a mindfulness teacher for at-risk teens, I was eager to ask how he makes sitting meditation accessible to a range of audiences from corporate executives to lifelong prisoners.

I learned that self-regulation or “state shifting” techniques help people step out of an unregulated or angry state and regain access to their brain’s executive function and thus their ability to make good and beneficial decisions. He suggests that simple breathing techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing and other methods, can quickly produce a beneficial state shift by engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. 

“Simple breathing empowers us to manage our own physiology. Instead of going into flight, fight or freeze, we can down-regulate ourselves.“

Maull‘s inspiration comes from his own experience of living a “secret life” as a drug dealer when he was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s.  “I had part of my life caught up in drug smuggling and the other part in meditation.”  

He suggests that most of us have hidden lives, which are a “means of instinctive self-protection or pain-avoidance, especially when we are working towards personal growth and change. It’s common to compartmentalize our lives and focus on one aspect, leaving other parts untouched. Meditation teachers can help inoculate students to prevent this.”

While serving a 14-year-minimum sentence on drug charges, he was motivated to “turn my life around, knowing my 9-year old son would grow up without me.  Getting locked up totally woke me up. I dedicated myself to practice and made my whole life about service to other.”

He lived as a “ prison monk” meditating in a broom closet and teaching prisoners in a twice-weekly meditation group.  He started Prison Dharma Network, a national support network for prisoners and prison volunteers and the National Prison Hospice Association, and authored Dharma In Hell, the Prison Writings of Fleet Maull, all while still incarcerated.  

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Now, as head of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, (formerly Prison Dharma Network), he provides prisoners and staff with tools for rehabilitation, self-transformation, and personal development. He teaches trauma-informed mindfulness to prisoners, who often live with recurring memories of abuse and aims to help them “step outside their resentment and blame.”

After interviewing Fleet Maull about his work with prisoners, I tried his “state shifting” approach with a group of students at Middle College High School for at-risk teens, where I teach mindfulness and special education.  The term “state shifting” intrigued them right away and I used Maull’s suggestions to gently encourage them to find a comfortable location in the classroom where they could feel secure.

“I use sensitivity and non-aggression so prisoners can find a way to breathe that feels ok.  I encourage people to gently lean into difficult emotions with a safe place to come back to. For those with trauma, shorter guided meditation, focusing on external object or moving meditation can work. “

As students fell silent with the vibrations of my opening bell, I suggested they feel the floor with their feet, bring strength and confidence in their posture, and notice the sound of their breathing.  The darkened room, with students spread on chairs and the floor, settled into an extraordinary silence. And as the final bell faded, a few students told me that they “felt protected with everyone in their quiet place.”  

“I see meditation from a transformational perspective, as part of taking responsibility for the hand we are dealt. We can develop greater insight and transform beyond our conditioning to consciously to deal with our lives” says Maull.

Maull’s training encourages prisoners, correctional officers, executives, and meditation students to cultivate mindfulness in action, to remember to be alive in each moment.  He integrates the spirit of Shambhala meditation into his work, an approach created by the Sakyong that “allows us to experience our innate basic goodness and wholeness.  It begins with feeling… directly, gently and nonjudgmentally experiencing every dimension of being alive in our human body in the present moment, including our sense perceptions, emotions and thoughts.”