Justice from a Meditative Perspective
a talk in memory of Susan B. JordanBy Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 23, 2012
Location: Yoga Mendocino
In topic: Law / Business
First – can we have a little meditation practice? Feisty as she was, Susan was very seriously devoted to her meditation practice, and so I think to honor her, the best way to begin is to sit – to sit in silence. I’ll give some brief instructions. For those of you who knew Susan, this is a good moment to feel as if in the silence and presence of your sitting you are sitting with her – that your heart can open all the way to the place where she is...
The world is a sad and difficult place. I doubt that anything we will do or can do will change that. Today is May 23 – Susan died May 29, 2009, nearly three years ago. The flyer for this event shows her standing in front of an airplane, probably hers. As you all know, she flew airplanes, and died in an airplane. I find it still, even now, hard to believe, because Susan was such a vital and passionate person. I can still hear her voice and see her face. Her absence for me is suffused with the strength of her presence. She had tremendous presence and tremendous power for justice. She began I think as a teacher, wanting to help children. But social injustice so rankled her that she became an attorney in order to do battle with it, and she spent most of her life fighting for the accused and the wronged and the disadvantaged, fighting for justice. I think this effort made her very powerful, but it also wore her out, and she got sick and had to stop for a while. That’s when she began her spiritual practice and developed her taste for silence – which led her step by step to an appreciation of the tragedy of our shared human life, and of love. And then she began applying that appreciation to her legal work – to finding out how she could continue to fight for justice and at the same time keep a radically open heart. This was something she was just in the midst of exploring with when she died. She was a strong voice for this exploration, and she was beginning to speak out for it at our Lawyer’s Retreats and elsewhere. She was eloquent and completely convincing when she told her own story and explained why spiritual and meditation practice had becomes so central to her life.
I got to know Susan as a member of the Lawyer’s Working Group, a project of contemplative mind in society, an org I am affiliated with. This is a group of about 15 lawyers that’s been meeting for nine years now, in an on-going discussion of how to apply the insights and personal changes that come about through meditation practice to work in the law. In our meetings Susan was always a pretty fierce discussant. She insisted on truth, and on going as far beneath the surface of what you were saying as you had to go to get to what you really felt, to what really mattered. She was always extremely sensitive to gender and power issues in our discussions – constantly pushing the group to examine these things, and to get past them to something more real and more satisfying. Our group truly misses her. I truly miss her. She was an extraordinary soul.
Meditation is very popular these days. Everybody now knows it’s good for you, good for your health, reduces stress, makes you more peaceful. Charlie Halpern of our Working Group tells me that Justice Breyer of the US Supreme Court practices meditation every day in his chambers as a way of treating his heart condition. So this is good, very good. But also, if you practice meditation thoughtfully and with a searching mind, as Susan did, you find that meditation can also be more than a way to calm you down. It can become a life path, a way of seeing and living. And then, inevitably, it will change you, transforming your life. If you are a lawyer, it will transform the way you view and perform your work. The Working Group some years ago drafted a document that attempts to describe some of the ways meditation practice can revolutionize a lawyer’s work life. Called “the Meditative Perspective,” this document lists some of the significant ways meditation practice can influence a lawyer’s perspective and activity:
• Patience and sustainability. The meditative perspective changes problems into challenges, and strengthens vigor and commitment. Its helps us to approach situations with a fresh perspective.
• Wisdom. The meditative perspective helps us to to see things as are, not as we wish they were. Consequently our decisions come from a more expansive place of understanding.
• Passion. The meditative perspective helps us to transform anger and self-righteousness into energy to serve one’s clients and justice.
• Honest self-reflection. The meditative perspective fosters honesty with our experience and relationships. It makes denial, distraction, and the demonization of others more difficult.
• Calmness. The meditative perspective promotes stability and calmness. We can know and tame our emotions rather then be victimized by them.
• A sensitive and realistic sense of ethics. With the meditative perspective we become more aware of the discomfort that comes with unethical conduct, and resolved not to allow it. Confidence in this brings courage and strength.
• Integrity in the midst of complex situations. The meditative perspective helps us to hold and maintain a clear vision of the values we are trying to promote in our work in the law. It helps to ground us in these values.
• Compassion. The meditative perspective helps us to appreciate on a visceral level the interconnections between people. It promotes empathy with clients, colleagues, opponents, and neutrals. It heightens sensitivity to suffering and opens the heart, allowing us to move towards difficult situations and handle them with a greater sense of ease.
• Focus. With the meditative perspective we are less obsessed with a stressful emphasis on achievement, so there is more moment to moment focus on every situation, whether it is drafting a document, talking on the phone, meeting with a client or co-counsel, or speaking in court. Such clear and focused presence enhances effectiveness.
• A whole life. Lawyers who are influenced by the meditative perspective bring to their work the values and styles they hold in their personal and spiritual lives. For them it is neither desirable nor possible to conduct themselves professionally in ways they would find uncomfortable in their private lives.
• Awareness. Of our own condition and that of others. Of our own needs and motivations and the needs and motivations of others. Of the total situation in which we finds ourselves.
• Skillful listening and communicating. The meditative perspective promotes empathetic and accurate listening. We listen better to clients, colleagues, opposing counsel, judges, and ourself. With listening comes clearer and more effective communication.
• Creativity. The meditative perspective, in promoting flexibility of mind and heart, and the ability to let go of habitual patterns when necessary, allows us to open to novel strategies to solve problems and accomplish objectives.
Maybe we can simplify this and say that meditation can bring you to a place of compassion and empathy – to understanding your own human feeling with generosity, and through that understanding, to understanding the feelings of others. It can bring to your life a lively bright presence, patient, enduring, focused on the good and on kindness. The document I just quoted from was not written as a theoretical or an aspirational piece – it is a description of how the lawyers in the group have come to feel about their own lives and the impact meditation practice had had on them, as members of a very difficult and often too stressful and contentious profession.
I remember once Susan telling us about how she applied all this in the Lynne Stewart case. Lynne Stewart is a famous New York attorney who was, like Susan, constantly defending the defenseless. In the 1960’s she worked a lot with William Kunstler defending political prisoners. In the mid 1990’s Lynne was defending the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman on terrorism charges, and was herself convicted of illegally passing prison notes from Rahman to his associates. Susan had been brought in during the sentencing phase of Lynne’s trial – when Lynne was facing up to a 30 year sentence. I don’t remember too many details about this but I remember Susan saying that the team of attorneys handling the case were always arguing with one another, and this contentiousness made getting anything done very difficult. Susan described how she let go of all arguing and just practiced quiet concern for the members of the team, listening more than speaking, and in this way was somehow able to have an impact, and bring things around, creating harmony within the group. As she thought through the strategy for presentation of material to the judge she suddenly had an insight, that, like all profound insights, was completely obvious. She realized, she said, that the judge was not a rational justice machine, he was a human being with a heart . And that the trial’s result would be better if the judge was appealed to on the basis of his heart, rather than rational contentious political argument. Using this insight, the team was able to get a short 28 month sentence for Lynne, possibly without further jail time, which at the time was perceived as a tremendous victory. Not long after this I ran into Lynne Stewart in a restaurant in New York City. I was with some friends who knew her, and they congratulated her on how things had turned out. When I told her that I was a friend of Susan Jordan, Lynne’s rather beaten-up looking face immediately brightened into a huge smile. “Susan is the greatest person and the greatest lawyer on earth.” she told me. Because a felony conviction brings automatic disbarment, Lynne later appealed the conviction, and this raised the stakes. In November 2009 (about 6 months after Susan’s death) the original sentence was lifted and a much longer one applied. Lynne is now appealing this sentence but is serving time in prison.
It may seem a bit naive or maybe even foolish to believe that simply sitting in silence could have such effects as claimed in the Meditative Perspective document. Maybe so. But sitting – if you sit still and silent with your mind and heart open – you do begin to feel and see your life differently. You begin to see that your thoughts come and go, none of them stay. Even your most cherished belief is a thought that comes and goes, just like a sound comes and then melts into the silence. You begin to see that certain kinds of thoughts are inherently painful and others and inherently peaceful. You begin to feel safe enough to bear witness to deeper levels of thinking and feeling and with this you begin to have a more appreciative sense of your own struggles, your own strengths and weaknesses. When that happens, little by little, you become more appreciative of others, and more able to understand that others too – even others who maybe threaten or oppose you – also have their struggles and their needs and desires. That they, like you, are human beings with human hearts. It naturally becomes more difficult for you to override your feelings, to ignore you most tender and best impulses – more difficult to demonize others and reduce them to cartoon-like enemies. And if, getting up from your meditation cushion, you begin to pay attention in a similar way to your life, to what you say and do and feel all day long, and to how and why you do what you do, day after day, week after week, you begin to study your own suffering. You begin to see the many ways in which you make good situations bad, and bad situations worse with old conditioned habits of mind and emotion. You realize how foolish this is and you realize you don’t have to do it any more. You begin to behave differently. So no, this is not magic, and it is not a magical effect of silence. It takes time, it takes intelligence, and it takes courage and commitment. But it does happen, if you will let it. It certainly happened to Susan. It made her life happier, more peaceful, more loving.
It would be wonderful if this were enough. It would be wonderful if simply by meditating and working on your own heart you could bring justice to the world. No doubt the meditation and the personal work helps a lot – it helps you, it helps your friends, it helps your clients and associates. But all of us are still living in a difficult world, where the political arrangements, in many cases, probably most cases, are very bad, if not very very bad, and not so easily turned around.
I have studied Buddhism and meditation for a long time, and it often strikes me that the concept of justice is unknown in Buddhism. As far as I know, there is no word in Pali or Sanscrit or Tibetan Chinese Korean Vietnamese Burmese or Japanese Buddhism that corresponds to our word justice. There are many discussions about compassion and caring and love in these languages, many discussions of ethics, of not killing not stealing not lying and so on – but no discussion of justice per se. There is of course in Buddhism a very sophisticated and complex – and mostly misunderstood – theory of karma, natural moral law – but this is not the equivalent of what we mean by justice. And you could very easily and I think accurately fault all traditional Buddhist societies for being essentially unjust societies – maybe having, admirably, cultures of kindness and graciousness – but not of equality of justice or opportunity. Traditional Buddhist societies are all essentially feudalistic, and Buddhist religious establishments throughout history have always been aligned with rulers and ruling classes who enjoyed absolute political and economic power over their subjects. So the application of categories like justice – especially social justice and human rights – to Buddhist thought and to the process of meditation practice – is something unique to our time and place. It is something new to Buddhism. In fact now in Korean and Vietnamese and Chinese and Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism you do have words that are the equivalent of justice – but these words have come into these languages, I am pretty certain, as a result of the encounter with the West.
I am actually not sure what justice means. I looked it up in the dictionary, but, like most words, the words that define justice (like right or righteous) raise more questions than they answer. When I watch the police shows on television – and there are many of them – I get the impression that justice means that the bad guys get put away, or if not put away then killed by the end of the show. This usually happens, and when it doesn’t, you know that something is left hanging, something left undone. Several of the shows have an ongoing theme of revenge – the main character’s husband or wife or mother or brother was killed long ago by someone and show after show there is a recurring brush with this killer and near misses in his apprehension – and the tension and suspense builds. The evil person must be brought to justice, and if not, there is something out of control in the world. The need to bring evil doers to justice has been an international theme of the last decade or so. So justice seems to have an element of revenge or punishment in it.
In Western thought – which invented the idea of justice – justice usually implies God, the ultimate Judge. God ordains right and wrong. The moral law is given by God, it is far more than a mere practical matter. Last month, when voters in North Carolina were deciding whether or not to approve a constitutional ban on gay marriage, I heard a preacher on the radio say, “it’s not that I am opposed to gay marriage, God is opposed to it. It’s not a matter of what anyone wants or doesn’t want. It’s God’s law.” Maybe most of us here wouldn’t say that, and maybe the idea of God is not part of our thinking about justice, and yet somehow we do feel that justice comes from an absolute source. Justice is not merely a practical matter or a matter of preference. Something is right because it’s right – it’s more than our feeling about it. Good is good, bad is bad. There’s something very strong about this – also something scary about it.
The same scary dimension is there too in questions of social justice. It is right, it is good, that poor people, deprived people, old people, sick people, disadvantaged people, be taken care of, and someone – the state or someone else – should see to it that this happens. In states where social justice was enforced – or supposedly enforced – the results were mostly not pretty. Wherever justice needs to be imposed and forced, enforced, there is a problem – there is always a problem - and injustice results from the enforcement of a state’s conception of justice. Of course rule of law and social justice are important – they are important to me. It’s just that the effort to discover, maintain, and enforce them will almost certainly lead to problems. So far, we have not seen a just state. There are many who say that our society is the closest the world has ever come to a just state. If that is even partially or debatably true, it is a sobering fact.
So I end where I begin – with a sense of the tragedy of our human world. But this doesn’t mean that I am in despair about the prospects for us. No, I think that when we will collectively – as Susan Jordan did individually – combine our passion for justice with a heart felt development of compassion, based on an appreciation of our shared pain, we will have a better and a good enough world.
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