Book excerpt: Dharma Cop: Tales of Street Zen


By Tom B. Collings

Denzel jumps up from his chair in anger. “Why are you f – – — with me?!” He is very frustrated and is now running the floor of his social worker’s office, cursing profusely. As his parole officer, I was the first officer to arrive. Standing to the side, I keep an eye on what is happening. The employee seems to be frozen in fear, as she just sits there letting the guy wander around her office and curse at her. At one point my mind would have screamed, “Don’t just stand there – do something!” but since then I have learned and trained to do otherwise. A quiet voice says, “Don’t do something, Thomas. Stand there.”

Just watching and listening, I understand that the social worker is not frozen in fear. Her silence has a reason. With no one to argue with, no direction to go against, Denzel seems to be settling himself down little by little. The employee’s controlled response allows the intensity of his feeling to slowly dissipate. Her inaction has allowed Denzel to vent his anger and frustration without argument. She saw the behavior for what it was: not violence, actually the opposite of violence. Harmless oral release of pent-up energy. Noisy, yes, dangerous, no. I wish my fellow officers would understand this.

When other officers arrive, they are pumped up and ready for action! The sergeant says, “The call said a man is out of control. ” I guess things are fine. “Everything is under control, Shearg; he got a little tall. The guy was just a little confused. He didn’t hurt anyone.”

The sergeant accepts that, but he probably thinks: “How lazy…” The officers seem to be both relieved and disappointed – they had responded ready for action. I know they had expected me to arrest Denzel, and face his trial for disorderly conduct. I understand what they feel. It is very uncomfortable when that adrenaline cannot be released by physical action.

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I sure would like to hear one of them tell me “You’re a real person. ” Don’t we all? But I’ve seen all too often that the inevitable burst of adrenaline that always comes with potential danger, along with the prospect of “doing something,” is unfortunately often creating violent conflict.

If we arrested everyone for occasionally venting loudly and rudely, wouldn’t we all be in prison? I know I would. Should “order” be our highest value? “Order” does not equal safety, which is the true mission of a peace officer. Being quiet and “not doing” often takes more energy and discipline than “doing.” Ask anyone who has tried meditation. Try to sit still for more than a few minutes. You quickly experience an onslaught of thoughts, sensations and emotions. There are terrible feelings of exhaustion and restlessness, or itch, pain, or physical discomfort in the neck, back or knees. Are you sitting still? Not likely, not without a lot of training.

It took me a long time to learn this, and even longer to gain the self-control needed to use it under pressure; to avoid overreacting, which usually leads to physical conflict; and the noise and fury of shouting, cursing, etc. seen for what it is most often: an alternative to violence. It really is a form of self-discipline – disruptive, and sometimes scary, but the release of pain is far more destructive than violence. I understand now that allowing people to express their feelings, even shouting and cursing, reduces their need for physical action. In reality, expressing strong emotions is very human, and rarely dangerous.

The Taoists got it right: it was the actions we didn’t take that allowed Denzel to express strong emotions, calm himself and restore his mood.

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The discipline required to simply listen, without arguing, correcting, lecturing, or grasping someone in an agitated state allows de-escalation to occur. It takes time and patience. He must resist pressure to get things quiet quickly and “back to business as usual.”

When peace officers are called, people expect you to “take the lead,” and fix the situation. It feeds your ego, provides a sense of purpose, makes you feel useful – a “real control” person. That is why it is so difficult to be still in these situations.

When friends say, “I tried to meditate; it’s not for me,” a more detailed report would be “I tried to meditate, but silence is too difficult. It’s scary!” Being still and doing nothing but being aware is, in fact, just about the hardest thing you can do (or not do). After thirty years of practice, I still find it very challenging.

While being quiet and just listening usually helps people get louder, the police receive very little training for this. But we are expected to use restraint, not teach any skills to achieve this. All of our training is “action” based.

Meditation and breathing practices are two of my most important prevention tools. How could I do this job well without them? I learned these things living in Japan and studying in China, but they should be part of my peace officer academy training. Maybe we need a new kind of police academy.

As I leave, walking to my car is another quiet habit I’ve learned. I’m not busy planning, fantasizing, daydreaming, worrying, etc.; I feel my steps on the asphalt, then how tight my shoulder is. Next, my breath moves in and out. I feel the wind blowing my hair around, and hear the sound of a seagull sitting on a nearby dumpster. They call it awareness, just being still and coming to our awareness.

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At my next destination, the post office, there is a long line. The man in front of me is complaining angrily about the wait. I understand his frustration. It’s hard to be quiet and do nothing. However, I do not share his annoyance. The line offers a quiet place, without any stress and nothing to do. My deep breathing takes over, bringing me to a deep rest. A quiet place in my busy day. It feels like being back in a Zen monastery again.

Oh no – I’m almost at the front of the line. Maybe next time I’ll find a longer line!

Next: Why reflection belongs in law enforcement

About the author

Tom B. Collings was born in Forest Hills, New York. In his twenties, he moved to Japan for three years to practice Zen Buddhism at Chogen-Ji Temple in Shizuoka and aikido. In four subsequent trips to Asia, he studied Taoist meditation, Tai Chi and Qigong.

Back in America, he worked for seven years as a psychiatric social worker, followed by 26 years as a street parole officer and probation officer and police instructor for the NY State Department of Corrections. As a self-described “street monk” he has enjoyed the challenge of testing Dharma practice through encounters with convicted felons, drug addicts and juvenile delinquents.

Tom has taught de-escalation and violence prevention skills to a variety of organizations including police, hospital staff and residential care staff. His current interest is integrating the use of awareness in police work. As director of the Long Island Center for Asian Studies in New York, he leads training in mindfulness and Zen meditation, Tai Chi and Aikido.


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