Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fighting Over Me in the Criminal Court?

That’s what happened according to my husband Brad, who has trial litigation experience. I was in a room of 175 people called for jury duty in a criminal case.  I was surprised that I, along with 70 others, were called to the courtroom. We filed into the courtroom. The defendant – a man named Mohammed with dark hair and skin – and his attorney scanned our faces as we sat down.  I immediately felt sorry for the defendant, imaging he had been the recipient of harm, not a criminal. I wonder if this showed on my face.

We went outside the courtroom for about fifteen minutes and were called in again. Much to my surprise, I was named second seat in the jury. There were twelve of us, with six back-ups. Then began the questioning by the judge. This was a misdemeanor case of alleged vandalism. Ten people of the potential jurors had been victim of car vandalism. The judge asked each of these people whether they could be objective in this case. They wavered saying variations of “I’ll try” or “I think I can.” The judge was getting exasperated. “No, I don’t want ‘I’ll try’, I need to know whether you will or will not put your own vandalism experience aside.”

I was then questioned by the judge. I said I was a Zen Buddhist practitioner and teacher. I said how I was a defendant in a criminal case. I had turned into a parking space at Safeway, and a woman accused me of hitting her with my car, backing up and hitting her two more times.  I was outraged and humiliated and suspected a scam. I told the court that I was shocked how easily criminal charges can be filed against someone. I didn’t say this to get out of jury duty, it was simply the truth. But I thought the plaintiff attorney wouldn’t want me and the defense attorney would.

We were dismissed again, while the judge and attorneys conferred.  It was at this time that the attorneys were discussing their peremptory challenges. Each attorney could dismiss three jurors without a reason. When we returned to the courtroom,  the attorneys proceeded with voir dire, the process of questioning jurors to determine if they would help or hurt their case.

They asked several people whether they thought “the criminal justice system is broken.”  Most people mumbled opinions that the system was not broken; people make mistakes. Mumble, mumble.

I, on the other hand, said: “I read an article in the New Yorker about a young African American man, who was incarcerated for a very long time on false charges. Very sad. People of color fill the jails and prisons, while the white and affluent stay out of jail.” [I wish I had said, “Like the white criminal who is the President of the United States.”]

Questions to me started flying from both plaintiff and defense attorneys. I knew the plaintiff attorney would not want me on the jury, and for the defense, I would be a dream juror: aware of systemic injustice, personally aware that false charges can be brought, and yet articulate about the necessity of following legal instructions by the judge.

The defense attorney said,

“Ms. Byrum, what about my client?”
“I don’t know him.”
“Well, look at him, what do you think?”
“I think I would be sympathetic, but I would judge the case on the merit of the evidence produced.”

[I wish I said Buddhists are trained to sympathize with everyone.]

“What would be beyond a reasonable doubt for you?” [The standard in a criminal case.]
“If after all the evidence was produced, and I still could not be certain that this man was guilty, I would have to vote “Not guilty.”

It was bizarre. There were 17 other people, but I was asked question after question. Plaintiff attorney wanted me out, but she had to make sure there were not more “biased” potential jurors. Defense wanted me in and wanted to demonstrate I could be fair and reasonable.

After questioning, the plaintiff attorney said,” Thank you Ms. Byrum. You are excused.”

If I had known that I would have the platform of an entire criminal court, with 70 potential jurors, I would have come better prepared to give a speech about injustice in the criminal justice system.

The best long term outcome, however, was that at a break, a young software engineer asked me about Buddhism. She lives in San Mateo and I recommended the Insight Meditation Center.  I think she will go. My one for sure bodhisattva act.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Is Forgiving a Choice?

My husband Brad told me a story that Frank O. tells. A devout Catholic woman was dying. The priest came to give last rites, but she refused. She did not want to be in heaven. She did not want to be with her husband who had beaten and abused her. I wonder if she was thinking, I would rather forsake heaven than see that man again.

Aren’t we told we should forgive all those who have hurt us? Of course, we all know that forgiving is a good idea. We Buddhists receive the precept: “A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill will.” Forgiving is ultimately freeing ourselves from the knot of pain around resentment and ill will. And, when it comes down to it, forgiving is for ourselves, for our own peace of mind, not for the peace of mind of the forgiven.

I have led workshops on the IONS Conscious Aging curriculum. One of the sessions is on Forgiveness. Last time I introduced this session, I said, “Sometimes I would like to skip this section. I am sitting up here teaching how important it is to forgive, and I have a really hard time doing this myself.” Perhaps this kind of upfront honesty is good, but, also, it is troubling to me that there are people I cannot forgive. How can I encourage others to forgive, when I sometimes have such a hard time forgiving?

One of those people I can no longer forgive is my sister. Over our fifty years together, she has repeatedly said the cruelest words she could find. The cruelty of her words has been like a knife, cutting deeply into my heart. And family can sometimes do this better than anyone else, because they intimately know our vulnerabilities.  Often her words had no relevance to the trivial situation at hand. I know that she has had a lot of suffering in her life, but that does not lessen the deep hurt of her words. And, after having let go and forgiven her many, many times, I am no longer willing to do this.

I realize that I have closed the doors of my soul to her. I will protect myself.  This is not a choice. It is like a sea anemone that automatically closes up when it is touched. Self-protection, self -defense is probably a deep evolutionary response. (Evolution is used to justify a lot these days!) It is not that I choose to hold on to anger; it is that I can no longer trust and risk the pain.

So we are enjoined to forgive: our families, our friends. But in some cases, I cannot do this. So then a super-ego kind of voice scolds me for not being a good Buddhist. For not being a good person. Blame on top of pain. Perhaps self-compassion is in order instead of self-scolding.

In our religious groups and sanghas, there is often a kind of spiritual bypassing: Just forgive. Just let go! A noble aspiration, but this can ignore reality as it is: trauma, pain, fear. In trauma work, in the world of psychotherapy, trauma can only be healed when it is met head on. Maybe there should be another precept that bodhisattvas take: I will honestly meet all the grief and anger and pain within.  I think Pema Chodron calls this “The wisdom of no escape.” It is Buddha practicing within delusion.

When we honestly acknowledge the “inner demons,” grace might then be possible. Forgiving is not a gift we give, it is the gift we receive.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Burning down the house

“Hold tight
          Wait ‘til the party’s over
Hold tight
We’re in for nasty weather
There has to be a way
Burning down the house.”   ~  Talking Heads

“All my ancient twisted karma
From beginingless greed, hate and delusion
Born through body, speech and mind
I now fully avow.”  ~ Buddhist chant of repentance

In a way, we can be grateful to Donald Trump. He is the spokesperson, the big screen poster boy, for greed, hate and delusion. The whole world can see this darkness clearly, broadcast every day on national headlines. As a symptom of a deep disease, we can now see and address chaos and evil as never before. (Note: I almost never use the word “evil,” but now it seems appropriate.)

HATE is tearing us apart: personally, within families and nationally. Now, with Trump, it is more apparent, more blatant, more shocking. His mouth is a megaphone for hate. American politics has devolved into open, partisan contempt and hatred. There is internal warfare among families, fractured because people will say on Facebook what they will not say openly face-to-face.  Open hostility on the road has escalated. The other day I accidentally cut off a man’s car because he was in my blind spot. He positioned his car right in front of mine and continually braked, while leering in his rearview mirror.

And I am really pissed off.

Corporate GREED is ravaging our planet. We all know the evidence: anthropogenic global warming, melting artic ice caps, destruction of the Great Barrier reef, daily extinction of animal and plant species – perhaps all irreversible, perhaps a downward spiral. This catastrophe is ignored for reasons of personal aggrandizement and greed by the 1% - Trump and his club of billionaires, especially Tillerson, his Secretary of State.

DELUSION: Humans are not an isolated species with unlimited power to manipulate and control. Interconnection and codependence are reality, not some beautiful Buddhist ideas. It is worth noting that Trump’s mental pathology is malignant narcissism, which means he cares for no-one but himself. But this delusion is hardly limited to Trump. Fundamentally we all share the delusion that the only thing that really matters is ME.

So is the house being burned down, or can we burn down the house? The latter calls for a revolution. A revolution and transformation of consciousness that is beautifully called The Great Turning by Joanna Macy. She says, “Having evolved us into self-reflexive consciousness, the world can now know itself through us, behold its own majesty – and also respond to its own suffering.”  ( see her website

I have sat vigil for the earth in Union Square, San Francisco, but a far deeper transformation is called for in me.  I need to recognize my own anger and how it is daily triggered by the news and the all-pervasive, ambient anger.

I have made it a daily practice to recognize my anger and work with it mindfully. I see how anger destroys peace of mind. I pause and ask myself Where does this anger come from? What am I trying to protect? Why am I afraid? If I can learn to be accepting and compassionate with my own greed, hate and delusion, I can move toward treating everyone in the same way through kindness and compassionate action.

If corporate America is burning down the house, I feel helpless and in despair. If I can burn down my own house of anger and just be a flowing fountain, then that is, at least, a step forward from this insanity.