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Book excerpt: Dharma Cop: Tales of Street Zen

How can a cop act from a place of wisdom and poise to be a true peace officer?


The following is excerpted from “Dharma Cop: Tales of Street Zen” by Tom Collings, a collection of stories of his 26 years working with convicts, drug addicts and emotionally disturbed individuals on the streets of New York, as both a social worker and a law enforcement officer. Tom has taught de-escalation and violence prevention skills to diverse groups including police, hospital staff and residential care workers. His current interest is integrating mindfulness practice into police work.



By Tom B. Collings

Denzel jumps up from his chair in a rage. “Why you people f - - -- ing with me?!” He is very agitated and now paces the floor of his social worker’s office, cursing loudly. As his parole officer, I am the first officer to arrive. Standing off to the side, I observe what’s happening. The worker seems frozen in fear, as she just sits there letting the guy pace around her office and curse at her. At one time my mind would have screamed, “Don’t just stand there – do something!” but I have since learned and trained myself to do just the opposite. A quiet voice says, “Don’t do something, Thomas. Just stand there.”

Just observing and listening, I realize the social worker is not frozen in fear. Her silence has purpose. With no one to argue with, no directives to defy, Denzel seems to be gradually calming himself down. The worker’s disciplined response allows the intensity of his emotion 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. A harmless verbal release of pent-up energy. Noisy, yes, dangerous, no. I wish my fellow officers understood this.

When other officers arrive, they are pumped and ready for action! The sergeant says, “The call said a guy is out of control.” I gesture that things are OK. “Everything is under control, Sarg; it just got a little loud. The guy just got a little upset. He didn’t hurt anyone.”

The sergeant accepts that, but he is probably thinking: “What a lazy… ” The officers most likely are both relieved and disappointed – they had responded ready for action. I know they had expected me to arrest Denzel, and violate his parole for disorderly conduct. I understand what they are feeling. It is very uncomfortable when that adrenaline cannot be discharged with physical action.

Sure I’d love to hear one of them tell me “You’re a real take-charge person.” Don’t we all? But I’ve seen too often that the inevitable burst of adrenaline that always comes with potential danger, along with the expectation to “do something,” unfortunately often creates violent confrontations.

If we arrested everyone for sometimes loudly and rudely releasing emotion, wouldn’t we all be in jail? I know I would. Should “order” really be our highest value? “Order” is not the same as safety, which is the true mission of a peace officer. Being still and “not doing” often takes more energy and discipline than “doing.” Ask anyone who has tried meditation. Try sitting still for more than a few moments. You quickly experience an onslaught of thoughts, sensations and emotions. There are overwhelming feelings of boredom and restlessness, or an itch, an ache, or physical discomfort in the neck, back, or knees. Are you still sitting there? Not likely, not without a lot of training.

It took me a long time to learn this, and even longer to gain the self-discipline needed to practice it under stress; to avoid overreacting, which usually leads to physical confrontation; and to see the sound and fury of yelling, cursing, etc. for what it usually is: an alternative to violence. It’s actually a form of self-control – disruptive, and sometimes frightening, but a far less destructive release of pain than violence. I now realize that allowing people to verbalize emotion, even yelling and cursing, reduces their need to physically act out. In truth, expressing strong emotions is a very human thing to do, and it is rarely dangerous.

The Taoists got it right: it was the actions we did not take that allowed Denzel to express strong emotions, calm himself down and restore his composure.

The discipline required to just listen, without arguing, correcting, lecturing, or grabbing someone in an agitated state allows de-escalation to happen. It takes time and patience. It takes resisting pressure to quickly get things quiet and “back to business as usual.”

When peace officers are called, people expect you to “take charge,” and fix the situation. It feeds your ego, providing a sense of purpose, making you feel useful – a “real take charge” person. This is why being still in these situations is so difficult.

When friends say, “I tried meditation; it’s not for me,” a more accurate report would be “I tried meditation, but stillness is just too hard. It is terrifying!” Being still and doing nothing except being aware is, in fact, just about the hardest thing one can do (or not do). After thirty years of practice, I still find it very challenging.

While being still and just listening usually helps people de-escalate, police receive little or no training for this. Yet we are expected to use restraint, without being taught any skills to accomplish this. All our training is “action” oriented.

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

As I leave, walking to my car is another practice in stillness I learned. I am not busy planning, fantasizing, daydreaming, worrying, etc.; I am feeling my footsteps on the asphalt, then the tightness in my shoulder. Next, my breath moving in and out. I feel the breeze blowing my hair around, and hear the sound of a squawking seagull sitting on a nearby dumpster. They call it mindfulness, just being still and coming to our senses.

At my next destination, the post office, there is a long line. The guy in front of me angrily complains about the wait. I understand his agitation. Being still and doing nothing is hard. But, I do not share his agitation. The line offers a quiet space, with no responsibilities and nothing to be done. My deep breathing takes over, leading me into deep relaxation. A peaceful space in my busy day. It feels like being back in the Zen monastery again.

Oh no – I am almost to the front of the line. Perhaps next time I can find a longer line!

NEXT: Why meditation 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 and probation officer and police instructor for the NY State Dept. of Corrections. As a self-described “street monk,” he has relished the challenge of testing Dharma practice during encounters with convicted felons, drug addicts and juvenile delinquents.

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