As I sat taking part in a Tibetan Buddhist smoke offering in celebration of Chokhur Duchen (Buddha’s first teaching) today, I thought of a recent conversation I had with one of the at-promise kids with whom I work. This youth came into the facility resisting everything he encountered. He relayed to me, often with great arrogance, the fights he had been in and the people he had harmed. He was what I would consider extremely manipulative as well, reporting all sorts of mental health phenomena that he would later have an entirely different story about. He was due to be moved to a treatment facility soon and would talk quite a bit about how he didn’t want to go and how he would scheme and bargain to get what he wanted out of a situation. I see kids like this often and I chalk it up to them being seriously let down and disappointed many times by the adults in their lives. I often jump through hoops for these kids, so that they are able to feel like at least at some point in their lives one adult cared enough to listen and be on their side, even if they are doing something “wrong”. There is a general sense of injustice underneath what is perceived as manipulation and wrongdoing that runs deep and is based in a greater truth. It isn’t the thing they did to land them in trouble that we should see, but the entire conspiracy that led to that point. I am firm on the notion that it is a conspiracy that we all participate in, from the personal, family, community and on up to the institutional and governmental level. We really aren’t doing enough to notice these kids and give them the compassionate and wise attention they need. Punishment doesn’t work and I do my best to help these kids personally navigate these systems of punishment they find themselves in. With this background information in mind, this kid sat before me and was doing everything in his power to stay in a deeply negative mind state. On one occasion he even stated to me that he would rather go to prison than receive help of any kind.
A few days ago, I went to do a weekly session with him and he seemed different. He seemed lighter in his gait and posture and let me know that he was going to accept an alternative to prison. He brought to me some poems he had written and a picture he had drawn. He admitted to me that he had been lying about some of the mental phenomena he was reporting and that he really just wanted attention. He performed a rap he had written and talked about his plans to do his best wherever he ends up. I asked him what had changed and he let me know that he came up with something as he sat in his room thinking. He said on the first night he decided he wanted to be peaceful and stay in control of himself. This was a response he felt came from someone telling him he would get another chance. He then commented, that after that he realized how negative he was all of the time and wondered what it would be like if he practiced treating people with respect. He said that he started being respectful to staff and peers, making sure to use the words please and thank you. He let me know that at first, it wasn’t very genuine and that he was simply doing it as an experiment. He then described what sounded like Diane Fosha’s notion of “good spiraling” from her study of the psychology of change and transformation. “Good spiraling” is undoing aloneness and jumpstarting connection and positive feeling so that healing may occur. This helps build resiliency and healthy relastionships that before seemed impossible. He commented that after being respectful for a while he started to really feel it in a heartfelt way. He then let me know that he was able to make plans for his treatment and look at it as an opportunity.
This brings me back to the smoke offering and how I sat and watched the clouds billow around me. The smoky pit was taking the stuff of ordinary life, even things considered poisons and transforming them into purified food energy for all beings of the earth and space. As Lama Yeshe said, “It is precisely because our present life is so inseparably linked with desire that we must make use of desire’s tremendous energy if we wish to transform our life into something transcendental.” This kid was able to take the energy of his negativity and utilize it in non-destructive ways. He didn’t have to spend long hours in meditation, he applied the very simple practice of seeing himself and others as worthy of respect. It is a bit like what we describe in the Buddhist tradition as seeing all beings as Buddhas. This troubled youth used words and phrases to convey the message of respect whenever the opportunity presented itself with everyone around him. He transformed the destructive behaviors and emotions into positive ones. Like the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen we breathe in the dull smoke of negativity, transform it at the heart and send out the transformed billowing clouds as compassionate energy for all beings. This energy creates a spiral that moves us in new directions. This is how the phenomena of change and healing works. This isn’t just a way for us to bliss-out and forget about our misguided systems and institutions of punishment, this is where the conspiracy may begin to radically unravel.
Introduction To Tantra: the Transformation of Desire – Lama Yeshe