“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” This quote graced one side of a puzzle put together with the names and hearts of attendees at the Yoga Service Conference on May 15 at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. This quote gave life to my understanding of community, and where I see police officers fit. I’ve often said that I see police officers as being a part of the community, not apart from, the community. The hard question is, how do we build, sustain, and repair relationships in our communities when there is much separateness?

As the conference opened, attendees sat together listening to the vision of the Yoga Service Council (YSC):

“Our vision is a world where everyone has equal access to yoga and mindfulness practices that support healing, resilience, self-development, community building and positive social change.’’

I was suddenly aware that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, even though my attendance at this conference was slightly (okay, very) unconventional for a police officer. I came to the Yoga Service Conference because my work with the L.E.A.P. Program explores how mindfulness can be a bridge between the police and the public, specifically, in our work with children.

I developed L.E.A.P. in 2012 as a solution-focused method for authentically connecting police agencies with the communities they serve. The program brings school staff, parents, police officers, and community partners together to support positive youth development. L.E.A.P. teaches a mindfully compassionate way of teaching/parenting/policing our youth who face so many challenges today. Ironically, as I sat listening to the YSC vision, I realized that L.E.A.P. uses mindfulness practices to support healing, resilience, self- development, community building, and positive social change!

As the conference opening continued, Council Board Member Molly Lannon Kenny quoted Father Greg Boyle saying, “We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come that we stop throwing people away.” I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing as she read this quote. I had a hasty reaction of, Yikes…people as disposable? Yes! This is what’s wrong with our world! Bravo, Father Boyle, for calling them out! This reaction was followed by a harsh realization (which I think was the actual thing that took my breath away), Please… you have disposed of people before with your judgments. My mind wandered, and I recalled one of my less-than-finer-moments where I “threw someone away;” a lesson that is buried, eternally, in my psyche.

It was the start of my shift and I went to Dunkin Donuts for my morning coffee. I pulled my police cruiser into the drive-through line and was feeling exceptionally chipper. I waved to a young child who was walking to school with her dad. I watched as she picked up a radiant, ruby red leaf in awe; nature’s treasure, I smiled to myself as I took a deep breath of gratitude for the humble beauty of fall in Massachusetts. My positivity propelled me into a sudden desire to do something nice for someone else, so I decided I would pay for the person behind me. As I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I noticed a young man driving a souped-up mustang, smoking a cigarette, and blasting his radio. I thought, this may not be the best person to pay for considering his harsh look (okay, I’ll say it, he looked like a punk). I thought, he probably has a criminal history, maybe even an open court case, and it would not be appropriate to buy his breakfast. As I approached the window to retrieve my cup of motivation, the cashier told me, “you’re all set. The gentleman behind you paid for you.” I looked behind me and the assumed punk-ass kid waved at me with a genuine smile.

I lamented for days. I’m more enlightened than this, especially when it comes to our young people! I’m the biggest champion for young adults, especially those who come across as “punks”! Or am I? This experience pushed me further into self-reflection, and I vowed to commit to a deeper understanding of equity and service (which is part of what brought me to the Yoga Service Conference!) I found what I was looking for in our first workshop with renowned Yoga Teacher and Author, Rolf Gates. He challenged us to become “excellent in helping others become excellent.” I thought, yes! This is what I’m here for! feverishly pulling out my pencil and notebook.

Rolf asked us to look at the medicine we are meant to bring into the world through our path of service. I dropped my Type-A persona and pencil when he asked us sit for a loving-kindness meditation. As I sat teary-eyed in contemplation, I had a vision of myself behind bars. Caged. Locked-up. I explored this, post-meditation, in a small group where I had to face my fears with complete strangers. I explained that though I feel confident in the medicine I bring forth, fear is always there. It’s the type of fear that’s been with me my entire life…

Will they understand me?
Will I be accepted?
Will my work…work?

I shared that my work is hard. I get caught in the hurry of the hurricane; those harrowing moments where I see the sick, marginalized, and forgotten, and feel powerless to do anything, but needing to do something. I take it home with me, wearing my slippers but constantly sliding into the vision of my battered police boots in the garage. Those boots get me everywhere I need to go in 8-16 hours each day, and trace every worry, every joy, and every fear I hold inside of me. At the end of the day I wonder, did I do it right today? I do take solace in the fact that my personal mindfulness practice has allowed me to process, assess, and accept my thoughts, fears and actions. Had I not developed this practice and mindset (which is still a work in progress), I would not be where I am today.

As I sat in community on the final day of the conference, I presented on my current work with L.E.A.P. in a Common Interest Community (CIC) for Children and Adolescents. My presentation, while planned, took on new qualities of heart and mind as I spoke. In this community I felt safe, and able to speak the truth of the work; the valor and vigor, progress and pitfalls, and my dream for a world that breaks free from fear and misunderstanding.

I shared my message, speaking about the recent disconnect between the public and police, and how my mission was to create a society where trust is rebuilt, and relationships flourish. I talked about my favorite Norman Rockwell painting, The Runaway, which portrays a Massachusetts State Trooper eating in a diner, leaning in lovingly to counsel a young runaway sitting on the stool next to his. Rockwell’s work is mindfulness on paper. He was a constant witness of small moments; ten seconds of goodness and raw, everyday life were painted on his empty canvas. The visual language of The Runaway expresses what I feel in my heart; the care and protection of children by members of the village.

As I shared this, my mind suddenly went to that image of a prison…a dark place where I felt my Rockwellian portrayal of police/youth relationships were far too idealistic for today’s times. I told the group that there is a dark parody of The Runaway painting by Richard Williams, where a militarized officer with an assault rifle on his back looks over to a fearful, Black child.

I fumbled, trying to share how my mission and vision for L.E.A.P. is to show how healing can occur when we build relationships with youth through a shared mindfulness practice.

Suddenly, I noticed the thoughts as the eyes were on me:

Do they understand me?
Do they accept me?
Is my work going to work?
Are they wondering what on Earth I’m doing at this conference?

I paused. I remembered to breathe. I placed one hand over my heart and spoke from it. I shared my work, wisdom and worries with clarity. The YSC community taught me to lean in to myself, and lean on others, for support. With one hand on my chest, and another’s at my back, I move head and heart first into the work. We can escape the mental prisons we lock ourselves into when we trust the medicine we bring forth into the world.

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Michelle Palladini
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