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Becoming an Unsstoppable Force for Good
Fleet is a meditation teacher, social entrepreneur, executive coach, and global changemaker. He leads transformational courses & programs ~ and a Community of Practice ~ focused on empowering you to create possibility, abundance, and authentic relationships in your life. Fleet has been practicing mindfulness-awareness for five decades, training in the Tibetan, Zen, and Vipassana Buddhist traditions. He is a fully empowered senior Dharma teacher in both the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditation traditions. While serving 14 years in a federal prison on drug charges, Fleet co-founded the first inside-prison hospice program anywhere in the world. He launched two national movements, the prison hospice through the National Prison Hospice Association and the prison Dharma/Mindfulness movement through the Prison Dharma Network and Prison Mindfulness Institute. He has trained correctional and law enforcement officers and other public safety professionals, as well as treatment providers, trauma counselors and prison volunteers all around the world.
His mission is to uplift lives and help people transform challenges and suffering into opportunities for positive change.
Create the Life you Love Community: https://www.facebook.com/CreatetheLifeyouLove1/
Reiki Healing: https://moirasutton.com/long-distance-reiki-healing-session/
Intro: Welcome to the Heart Soul Wisdom Podcast, a journey of self discovery and transformation. Moira Sutton and her amazing guests share real life stories, tools, and strategies to inspire and empower you to create and live your best life. Come along on the journey and finally blast through any fears, obstacles, and challenges that have held you back in the past so you can live your life with the joy, passion, and happiness that you desire. Now, here's your host. Create the life you love. Empowerment life coach moira Sutton.
Moira: Welcome to Season Four, Episode 86 Becoming an Unstoppable Force for Good with our guest, founder and CEO, Heart Mind Institute, dr. Fleet Mall. Fleet is a meditation teacher, social entrepreneur, executive coach, and global changemaker. He leads transformational courses and programs and a community of practice focused on empowering you to create possibility, abundance, and authentic relationships in your life. Fleet has been practicing mindfulness awareness for five decades, training in the Tibetan Zen and VIP Hasana Buddhist traditions. He is a fully empowered senior Dharma teacher in both the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditation traditions. While serving 14 years in a federal prison on drug charges, fleet cofounded the first inside prison hospice program anywhere in the world. He launched two national movements the prison hospice through the national prison hospice association and the prison dharma mindfulness movement through the prison Dharma network and prison mindfulness institute. He has trained correctional and law enforcement officers and other public safety professionals, as well as treatment providers, trauma counselors, and prison volunteers all around the world. His mission is to uplift lives and help people transform challenges and suffering into opportunities for positive change. So, without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Fleet Mall.
Welcome, Fleet. Fleet, I would love you to start with you sharing your personal journey and how you ended up standing before a judge and the conviction for smuggling cocaine from South America to the United States. How did that unfold? How did you get yourself into that position?
Fleet: Well, that's a pretty long story, but I'll try to be very succinct about it. Mara. I'm a baby boomer. I came of age in the 1960s and graduated from high school in 1968. Incredibly tumultuous year in us. History with all the assassinations and the Kent State killings and just so many terrible things going on, and there was just so much political upheaval at that point. I had just become so alienated from my own culture. And I grew up in the Midwest and a good Roman Catholic family with good values, but we had alcoholism in the family, and that created some real psychic splitting for me. I had a wonderful mother who periodically drank and then turned into a very scary rage aholic. And so was that kind of Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde situation, and it was never dealt with in a family. It would occur, and then the next morning, there'd be mom making breakfast again, and nobody would ever talk about it. And then coming of age through the civil rights era and then through from 1965 through 1968, there were tremendous racial unrest and what some people may have called protest or uprisings and others would call riots and so forth. But it was happening where I grew up as well as in other cities around the country. And I actually happened to be on family vacation out in California to visit Disneyland and go to the beach and so forth. In the middle of the Watts riots and driving back and forth on the highway to Anaheim, we drive right over the Watts area and seeing it all ablaze below and then seeing all the craziness on TV at night about it when we were back in the little motel we were and to all those influences. I mean, even when John Kennedy was assassinated, I was in high school, maybe 6th or 7th grade. I just remember I really kind of lost faith in everything right then. I just didn't believe what I was being told. So, by the time I graduated from high school I was a kind of a classic angry young man, very alienated, big hole in my gut, looking to fill that with anything I could. And I just went headlong into the counterculture of that era back already in 1966. I'd already been experimenting with LSD and other things. So, I went off to a big state university but really majored in drug, sex and rock and roll. It was really kind of a waste of a tremendous opportunity for education and things just got really confusing. Like a lot of people of my generation, we so rejected the culture and the worldview of our parents, the World War II Depression era generation, that we just kind of rejected the whole thing and throughout the rulebook. So of course, we were making a big mess out of everything. But I just knew I wasn't going to go back to that mindset and worldview and so I just kept pushing forward and made a lot of mistakes along the way. But I'd also always been a spiritual seeker. I don't know why whether that comes from past lives or what have you, if there is such a thing, but I had always had that kind of bent and back early on in my life, my family thought maybe I was going to end up being a priest or something. Actually, years later I ended up being ordained as a Zen priest. So, I guess they were. So, at one point I was just done with being in the US. When Richard Nixon was re-elected. I just kind of had to leave. And I was also just looking for something real. I remember my early childhood feeling very plugged into reality. Things were vivid, real, magical. And then sometime around the time I started school, which could have had to do with starting school, could have had to do with my mother's alcoholism, but everything just went from vivid and real and magical to gray tones. I completely lost that sense of connection and I never made peace with that. I wanted it back and of course found myself chasing it through all kinds of experiences, drugs and sex and alcohol and all the rest of it. And of course, those things did kind of plug into something, but it had kind of a mirage like quality or even the sense there was something genuine there. There was still a lot of baggage, especially if you had a big hole in your gut and kind of an addictive propensity at any rate. And that whole world of the drug scene or the counterculture drug scene went from the heyday of the love and light psychedelic era and into getting pretty dark really. And I ended up doing hard drugs. I became an IV drug. And so I just wanted to escape all and so I took off with a friend to start traveling as a backpacker in Latin America. Had all kinds of amazing experiences and really got away from the drugs, for the most part, for a, you know, lived on a sailboat for almost a year in the western Caribbean off the coast of Belize, and then sold that and a little native fishing sloop that we kind of bought and rebuilt and then sold after we finished our journey and continued down through Central America and on the way to South America. And always know, looking to plug into something real and fascinated with the indigenous cultures and the archaeology of all the ruined sites that we would always visit everywhere we could. And finally ended up in Peru. And I always had this idea of getting to Peru that I'd find something real and magical there and actually did. There was this kind of environmental magic there that you'd wake up every morning completely sober, almost feeling like you'd consume some kind of plant medicine or psychedelic substance or something because it was just so powerful and real and magical. But unfortunately, the first time I left, I ran out of money. I went back to the States to work and earn some money. When I got back, I realized I had not brought that with me. So, it was environmental, right? But eventually I fell into small time drug smuggling just to continue to live outside the system. And I justified that with all this us versus them thinking I was caught up in seeing the world as completely hypocritical and I felt like myself and others like me were actually more honest than the larger world. And even if there is some truth to that, my response certainly wasn't a creative one, all that there would have been much more creative ways I could have responded to the hypocrisies and injustices of the times. But anyway, I justified all that and kind of lived that lifestyle. But I continued seeking a spiritual path and I'd recognized really way back in high school that I was a Buddhist. The first time I read some Buddhist writings in a comparative religion class in a Jesuit high school, I went to that first thing that ever really deeply resonated with me, and I continued to read different things. And I grew up in the Midwest. There wasn't a lot going on, but I pursued my reading. And then in South America, I started meeting fellow travelers who are more interested in such things. And I kind of zeroed in on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. There were only four or five books that have been translated. I mean, there's hundreds, if not thousands now. And so, I was kind of doing that on my own, living way up in the mountains of Peru and working a little farm and trying to learn to meditate on my own. And eventually I heard about the founding of Naropa University. Ben Naropa Institute by the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, CHOGAM Trunk from her. And there was an article some travelers showed up at my place way up in the mountains with a copy of Rolling Stone magazine from the fall of 1974 with a big feature story about that inaugural summer session. They did two summer sessions at Ben Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and expected a couple of hundred people for each session. And they got like 1500 people each session. It was a renowned spiritual happening. It was kind of the Woodstock of spirituality. All kinds of legendary figures. Ram Dass was there teaching, along with Trunk, Brumche, Buckminster Fuller, William Burles, Alan Ginsburg, Anne Waldman, all these Avant Garde poets and dancers and philosophers. It was quite a happening. But anyway, what attracted me was not so much all that. It was trunk perimate. I just saw him, saw his name, and I just zeroed in. I knew I had to go there, so I found a way to get up there the next year and check out this school and looked at their programs, decided I wanted to do what was called a master's degree in Buddhist and Western psychology. Not that I so much wanted to become a psychologist, but it had the most emphasis on meditation practice, and that's what I was looking for. So, it took me another year or two. I married a Peruvian woman, and we came up to the States, and my son was born in Colorado, but he had a heart condition initially, which thankfully he was resolved. So, it took me a while, and I finally enrolled at that school and in that master's program and a profound three year clinical training program, really training us to work with people experiencing severe mental disorders, schizophrenia and the like. And it was deeply grounded in both Western psychology and Buddhist psychology. Today the program is still existent, and now it’s called a Master's in Contemplative Psychotherapy. At any rate. So, I put myself through school with my ill-gotten gains from smuggling, and I would disappear once or twice a year and do that. I continued to get more deeply involved in the Buddhist path, met my teacher and I really spent ten years training deeply in that path. But living this split life where I would spend about half the year either disappearing to do a once or twice a year smuggling run and then kind of being this crazy lifestyle while the drugs were around, and I was getting rid of it. And then the other half of the year, traveling with my teacher, being in retreats, and really intensely and sincerely exploring this deep Buddhist practice path. Of course, I was experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance around these things. I knew that I had to get out of the crazy part of my life, but I self medicated around that cognitive dissonance, and before I managed to extricate myself from it, it caught up with me. I eventually quit, but others continued, and they got caught up with the law and decided to invite me to the party, so to speak. So, I was indicted, and I actually asked my teacher, what should you know? This was the Reagan era drug laws, the Nixon and Reagan drug laws, and the whole war on drugs, and is this something I should just escape from, or is this my own situation I need to deal with, or should I stay? Should I go? And he said that I needed to stay, and I needed to face it. And if I was on the run, I couldn't really continue my path as a student. But even if I went to prison, they were threatening to send me to prison for 30 years. He said, Even if you're in prison for 30 years, you can continue your path. And that's the first time I took anybody's advice, and I never have regretted it. So, I turned myself in. I was terrified of going to prison, but I turned myself in, and I was supposed to get out of bail, but they never gave me bail. So, then I was just in, and I was in for a long time. And I went through trial and sentencing, seven months in a hellhole of a county jail, going through trial and sentencing, and the night before my sentencing, I've been convicted of this so-called kingpin statute, which is the only reason I went to trial is because I didn't feel I was guilty of that. I would have pled guilty to smuggling and the other attendant charges. But at any rate, a lot of people, they draw a circle, and whoever doesn't testify, you become the kingpin, and everybody else testifies. And that's kind of the way it works. And I was never going to cooperate or testify against anyone, not because I was kind of some stand up guy, but just because my Buddhist values I mean, somebody else is going to do my time, somebody else's family is going to suffer. So, it just didn't sit with me. So, I was just never going to go there. So, at any rate, I was facing potential sentence of life in prison, and I was sentenced to 30 years with no parole. That next day and the paper that next day said I'd be 65. I was 35 then, said I'd be 65 before I have any chance of release. And that's what I thought the deal was. And in fact, it wasn't until I got to federal prison was there for several months before I figured out how the good time worked and everything. I realized that fortunately, I was sentenced prior to 1987, that there was a lot of good time, and if I stayed out of trouble with that long of a sentence, I would serve about 18 and a half years on 30 if I stayed out of trouble. If you get in trouble, they start taking it away in chunks and you can do all your time. Eventually, my appeal went through. The courts took about three years, and they knocked off one count of this aggregate sentence of five counts, and my sentence got reduced from 30 to 25. And then I I know knew I'd serve 14 and a half years, which still felt like forever. But anyway, that's kind of how I ended up there. And the journey I went through in prison is kind of a whole other story, but that's where my radical responsibility model really evolved, was the way I dealt with being in prison.
Moira: Wow, quite the story. You made this decision right around that time with your sentencing, that you were deep in your heart, no matter what your sentence was, this sentence of 30 years, you would never give up on your life or your son or yourself. How did you come to that big AHA decision?
Fleet: Yeah, it was a powerful moment, and I'm still grateful for that moment. Obviously. It was that night when I was awaiting sentencing. They had me in a different county jail, and I was tried in a federal court in a major Midwestern city. And most of the time they had me in a county jail about 60 miles south, which kept my lawyer from ever coming down there. But this time I was in a county jail closer to the courts, and they had me in an isolation cell under, I guess maybe like under suicide watch or something. I wasn't suicidal at all. I was highly anxious, but I wasn't suicidal at all. But anyway, all these lights. I couldn't sleep, but I don't think I could have slept. Anyway, shortly before dawn, I just felt so claustrophobic in that cell. And there was one small window up high, and so I got up top of the kind of built-in stainless-steel toilet sink. I climbed up there. I could just barely peer out that window, and I could see the night sky with the stars. And I'm looking out at the night sky and the stars, and something just came over, this wave of something kind of came over me. And I got down and I sat on the side of my bunk, and I just felt this tremendous certainty that I would not give up, as you said, I would not give up on myself, on my son, on my life at all. And I felt that with absolute clarity. And at the same time, I was still incredibly anxious about what I was going to face later that day at sentencing. But that is when that happened.
Moira: So that was a very spiritual moment that you had, would you say?
Fleet: It was? I'd say it was actually a very spiritual moment, yes. And then something arose up from the depth of my being that gave me that kind of certainty and confidence.
Moira: In the study that you have, like the Tibetan Buddhist and your master's at the university, it's just all that behind you that develops a big part of who you are. It's almost like over here fleet, and there's this other fleet, like you said, there's this breaking of the hole. And now you've had this opportunity to come back to a hole. With that being said, you literally developed unshakable confidence when you were in jail. And how did you develop that? And since you're released, you have this unshakable confidence in yourself, in your life because there's a lot of people that aren't confident in themselves, or we're going to get into that, where they're fearful or they blame themselves, or they have negativity or justification, all those things. But you developed this unshakable confidence. How did you develop that? Again? Is this because of your faith?
Fleet: Well, I think there's two parts to it. The most important part, you could say, has to do with faith, or kind of an experiential faith. But the meditation practices of the Buddhist tradition, and particularly of the tradition I was practicing in, allow one to, over time through practice, drop beneath all the noise into the very depth of one's being and where one is even no longer really witnessing that, as if you could observe yourself, but one is just being in that very depth of being. And when you have these experiences, it becomes undeniable that you experience yourself as not broken, that you don't need fixing, you're not missing anything. You experience the clear truth of your own innate goodness, innate wholeness and so forth. And that's a profound experience. And the more you have access to that, it creates this unconditional confidence from which you can live your life because it's not based on anything right now. The other types of confidence that we develop in life, which are also very important, the kind of relative confidence and generally sort of the confidence and the things we can do, the things we're good at, right? And as we grow up as a child and go through school, some of us are good at sports. Some of us are good at language. Some of us are very social and good at making friends. Some of us may be good at math or whatever. And we tend to build our confidence around the things we're good at. And as we go further in life and develop professional skills in our work and so forth, we build our confidence around those things. But all of those things can be undermined, right? Through an accident or an injury or an illness or the economy, the bottom falling out or all kinds of things can happen that can undermine a relationship, a job, a career, an ability, a skill. And then where are we? Right? And so there's nothing wrong with building those kind of relative confidences. They're very important. But if underneath that, if the whole thing is kind of built on quicksand because we haven't really dropped into the depth of our being and resolved that because basically our self structure, we begin building it from we start separating from the mother. We're in this kind of unitary state with the mother a surrogate parent early on and then around four, five, six months we're beginning to separate individuate. And we have to develop some kind of psychological self, some self structure with which to navigate the world. And so, we start building that out of just whatever's around. If we have a fairly stable, loving childhood we develop a fairly functional, stable sense of self. And if we have a childhood that's less so, we have a less stable, functioning self. But regardless of how stable or high functioning we are maybe it's still essentially fear based because what we're experiencing as an infant is the actual groundlessness of life of reality. It is which is completely impermanent and groundless. And so, we actually developed a self structure to ward that off because we're not prepared at that age to experience that kind of groundlessness. And even as an adult, most of the spiritual practice, the inner spiritual practices are about reopening to that groundlessness. But we do it in a very graduated way with a lot of support and practice. But we can't do that when we're infants, obviously, or when we're children. Our cell structures, no matter how well developed and how high functioning are essentially fear based. We've never really gone down there and dealt with the depth of that being, that underlying beingness for us. We sense it or intuitively sense that it's just kind of groundlessness emptiness or annihilation and it's terrifying, right? So we don't go there. And at some point, until we do go there, we're really building the castle or the artifice of our life on quicksand because we've never dealt with that. But when you go down there and make a relationship with the depth of being and you realize that though it is groundless and fluid and empty of any individual self structures, it's actually profound and stable and nurturing. And it's like one good analogy, I think, is if we didn't know how to swim, let's say we're at a pool party and somebody pushes us in the deep end of the pool, we're going to probably panic and freak out. But if we know how to swim, well, we might be irritated that somebody pushed us in the pool, but we'll start splashing around, probably start laughing sooner or later because we're comfortable in the water. So, we can develop that same comfort in the depth of our being through practice and that's what ultimately gives us that unshakable confidence. Now, the other part of that for me in prison was my family had a family business and they had always kind of presented we're different from other people, were owners, small business owners. And this is the way. And that whole big corporate world out there is rootless and groundless and follow this way. And I definitely was not going to follow that. I'd already kind of turned away for so many different reasons. Not that my family weren't good people, it just wasn't my life. But I kind of bought into that idea that the bigger world out there of the corporate world and the professional world was kind of scary. I guess I doubted my own abilities and actually the first thing I realized I was really good at was drug smuggling. I was very good at it. I actually never directly got caught. Other people got caught when I quit and decided to invite me along. But I guess that's still getting caught in the long run. But at any rate, I was good at it, and it gave me a certain confidence. It was something I was good at. Well, in prison I was a schoolteacher. That was my day job. I found out I was a really good teacher. I was a meditation teacher. I was teaching meditation. I was very good and proficient at that. This was a maximum-security federal prison hospital, and we started another inmate myself helped start the first hospice program in a prison anywhere in the world in the heights of the aid epidemic. And we got outside people in to train us and then I managed that training program, did a lot of the training myself and outside people coming in would start to recognize me as a peer even though I was a prisoner. They recognized that I had the same kind of professional abilities they did. And I was constantly studying, I was working on my doctorate and by the time I came out of prison, I felt like a realized professional. I had tremendous confidence in my professional abilities, but it was built now on this deeper foundation of unconditional confidence. So that was kind of an ideal situation which allowed me, and I knew I was going to be almost 50 when I got out. I mean, once I figured the whole thing out and after my appeal and everything that I would serve 14 and a half years and there was a big judgment against me from the IRS of $300,000. So, I was going to get out with a serious criminal record and a big debt at 50 years old, I said, that's not an easy way to start your life. So, I knew I had to really work hard to train myself and prepare. Fortunately, that tax debt was dismissed because they never followed through on it. And there's laws, I can't remember what they call that after seven years it kind of goes away or something because they never followed through on it. So that was a blessing when that blessing. Yeah, I had a brother-in-law who was a lawyer, helped me figure that out just as I was getting out. But at any rate, still, I was 50 years old and serious criminal record, but I've had nothing but opportunity ever since I got out, which is now 23 years ago. And I've been traveling the world before COVID-19 I was traveling all over the world, continually teaching and leading seminars, and I was able to finish my PhD eventually and publish the book. And I've just had nothing but opportunity but their training round. Really, it was like I was in a 14-and-a-half-year advanced educational situation, like my doctoral and postdoc kind of training all in one.
Moira: Wow, you've covered a lot of things I want to dive into. I'm not sure where I want to go with it because I still have lots of areas here. Let's go to this witnessing versus sensing and observing versus feeling in the mindfulness practice. The exercises that you share in your book. What's the difference with that? When we're witnessing something, they talk about when we observe something, how things distort, like they're not exactly what we're seeing.
Fleet: Yeah, well, that's true. Although observing and being able to witness is a very valid part of the practice and path. That's where we begin to use another analogy before we develop some kind of self awareness practice, some kind of mindfulness and awareness practice. It's sort of like we're in this river of sensate experience without a lot of awareness. We all have some or we couldn't function, but we don't have a lot. We're just kind of in our experience and sort of like that age old question, are fish aware of the water? Because the water is so ubiquitous in their life, right? So, it's kind of like ourselves. And then when we start to kind of develop some kind of awareness practice and we step back and can kind of witness our own experience, our own thoughts, emotions, experiences, our sense perceptions, it's kind of like we climb. Out of the river and sit on the bank of the river. And then we can observe the river and we see all the hydrodynamics and the whirlpools and eddies and currents, maybe debris floating by or maybe even small boats. We're able to sit on the bank of the river and observe it. So that's kind of the beginning stage of mindfulness and awareness practice where we're developing this capacity to observe or the witness or what's sometimes called the watcher, very important development because from that witness mind we can choose how we're going to respond to life. So, it's really the beginning of our psychological freedom. So very important development, but it still has this sense of separation so as our practice can mature. And that's why I teach a very deeply embodied approach to mindfulness awareness meditation that makes all of this much easier. Because by developing a deep physicality like we're really tuned into and our body mind synchronized around the deeply, felt physical presence of the body. That helps us shift from neural networks that support a very discursive, distracted mind to neural networks that support attention stabilization, which then gives us access to profound states of awareness. And so, we're learning to kind of self regulate ourselves in that way through posture and the way we're relating our attention and just relating with our breath. We're not manipulating the breath in basic meditation, but still, we're kind of being with the breath. And initially it is having that watch or that witness. But eventually, especially if we have that stable foundation of attention stabilization by synchronizing body and mind with deeply embodied approach to meditation, then we're able to relax that witness, to relax that observer. Let's take the breath for example. Let's say we're kind of observing the breath flowing in and out, right? We can feel the belly rising and falling. Maybe we feel the passage of air to nostrils or parted lips. We feel the chest rising and falling. So, we're observing all that. I know I'm breathing in, I know I'm breathing out, I can feel it. But I'm also kind of observing it. And there's still a sense of a watcher, a separate someone who's observing the breath, right? So eventually I can relax into just feeling the breath directly without the need for a feeler, much less a watcher, right? Just feeling relaxing more into just direct feeling, direct experience. And then I can further relax into just being the breath, just being the breath. And it's just like the breath is breathing itself and the body is breathing itself and you're just part of that and there's really no sense of separation. So that's moving into a more nondual kind of approach to meditation and allows us to drop into the depth of our being more easily. So, there's kind of a trajectory from where we're initially using various techniques to direct the practice and some kind of self regulation. So, it's a doing and then over time, less and less doing less and less or the self regulation becomes more and more subtle until we begin to relax into and tap into this underlying preexisting beingness that's always there this pure presence, this pure beingness which is tangible and it's always there. And we tap into that and then it's more process of autoregulation. We're not having to direct it. The body is autoregulating itself into these profound states of awareness and beingness and pure presence. And so, we're going from doing to being, right? In that way, we drop into the depth of our being and can have these experiences from which we begin to develop that unshakable confidence in our own innate goodness, what my first teacher called basic goodness, unconditional primordial, innate goodness, and wholeness, right? And so that's a very important trajectory. And then I have a model called neurosynaptic mindfulness where it's a neuroscience informed, trauma informed, deeply embodied approach, which is really designed to guide people much more quickly into that because it takes practice. It always takes practice. But many of us, I know early in my meditation path, we're trying to meditate from the shoulders up. Mostly we get distracted, we notice that we bounce back. We're chasing thoughts coming back, chasing thoughts coming back. And we can spend a long time doing that. And maybe eventually, if you sit enough or you sit long sitting, you'll kind of wear out that discursive mind and start to have some meditative experiences. But it's much easier if we actually use the body to anchor us in nowness, right? And then we have some understanding of this kind of subtle journey from directed self regulation into autoregulation into pure beingness. So that's kind of that journey. And I've been practicing meditation for more than 50 years. And during my time in prison, it was a real laboratory for that because I was practicing several hours a day for 14 years and even more on weekends sometimes and practicing late at night when it was quiet at night in my cell. And I continued that very intentional practice the rest of my life. And even right after I got out of prison, I taught at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the same university I had graduated from before I went to prison. And there I taught a lot of different kinds of classes. But I also had a kind of drop-in meditation class which was for me, kind of like a laboratory. And I was always experimenting with all these models for about ten years in that weekly class with the students who came. And that's kind of where I evolved this deeply embodied approach that I now call neurosynaptic mindfulness.
Moira: Wow, full circle. Going back and teaching where you were studying. That's fantastic. Can you tell us what this bottom up and the top-down brain is? And how do people become fully engaged and awake through with their conscious, their heart mind become conscious in their heart mind connections? What is this bottom up, top-down brain you talk about in your you.
Fleet: Know, so many of us have heard of the idea of the Trion brain, Paul McClain's idea, which has been a little know, discredited, but it still has some validity to it. He thought of it like three separate brains which are not the brain is one holistic, completely interconnected, interdependent enterprise. But there's still all these functional areas. People have probably heard of the reptilian brain which is all about survival. There is the midbrain, which is about many things but it's also where the amygdala are and where our fear-based responses get triggered. It's also where memory and language processing, emotional processing is. And then you have the neocortex, the neo-Malian brain which is the smart part of our brain, the objective part of our brain responsible for all of our higher cognitive abilities. But some neuroscientists sometimes talk about instead of the three-part brain they'll talk about just a two-part brain and they'll talk about the top down brain which is really the part of the brain that manages the rest of the brain and also the part that can be conscious where we're actually objectively consciously making decisions, right? And then the bottom-up part of the brain which literally the lower parts of the brain is really like a vast supercomputer and it's highly programmed. It starts getting programmed from birth forward. It's highly programmed. And an interesting kind of analogy here or descriptive to understand that the relationship between the two during the amount of time that it would take the top-down brain to decide what to have for lunch, right? A few minutes, look at a menu, decide what to have for lunch. How many processes can the bottom-up brain do during that same time? Well, you might say hundreds or thousands. It's actually billions. It's a supercomputer. It's literally a supercomputer. And there's all kinds of wonderful programming in there what allows us to walk and talk and function in life. But there's some gnarly programming in there that we picked up along the way as well or the stuff that got passed down through our family lineage that our forebears hadn't quite worked out, they handed on to us and say good luck. Right? And I think that's kind of our destiny in life is to take what we've received, improve on it and hopefully pass on an improved version to those we influence including our children. So that's the distinction between the top-down brain, the kind of conscious brain and the bottom-up brain. But all of that I would still describe as the kind of body brain, the body brain. It's kind of very much the encapsulated skull encapsulated brain which is thoroughly connected to the whole nervous system in the body. And there are other neural networks that we know today in the biome and the guts and also in the heart. But it's still kind of the body brain. It's focused on operating the body on all our sense perceptions, our cognitive abilities and so forth. But then I would say there's a vaster you may not want to call it brain because brain is kind of pointing to physicality and brain and mind are not the same thing. They often get equated. And certainly, the brain is a major vehicle for consciousness in the mind, although that would be an East West argument. Which comes first, consciousness or the physical brain or consciousness? Western science would say most Western science would say that consciousness is simply an epiphany meter of the brain and when you die, the lights go out and that's it. And Eastern sciences would say more. No, there is consciousness independent of the human body. And actually, the human body is simply a manifestation of a deeper consciousness. But at any rate and some Western scientists might try to kind of say it's both end. But at any rate, when you think of our sense of self to begin with, even if we have a not very egotistical self, we've done a lot of work, and we're not really totally married to that individuality in such way. But we all still operate with some sense of self. We couldn't function. And that self really resides in a nested set of relationships. It's not encapsulated in the body. It resides in a nested set of relationships. And one way in which that becomes really clear is when we have serious losses in our life. And I've had quite a few. And the process of grieving can be so deep because really, who we are, the fabric of our self structure has been kind of ripped and torn without this person in my life, who am I? And we have to kind of reweave that sense of who we are in our place in a world. And that takes time. And that's really the process of grieving and integrating a know. You can also think of that in terms of mind. And with the current emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology led by Dan Siegel and others, where they're integrating lots of different scientific disciplines, including neuroscience, but also things like anthropology and linguistics and lots of different disciplines within the humanities and within the hard sciences. There's this idea that we really, even on a mind level, we're really an energetic system that's nested within other energetic systems. Right? Our mind isn't encapsulated even within the skin of the body. The mind is also in this larger energetic field. We have a lot of actually hard science neuroscience to support that these days. And we all know about basic empathy and intuition and how we can sense things and we can feel others and all these kinds of things. So, the mind isn't limited to the encapsulated brain in the skull, right? And some of the qualities of this mind, the way we actualize, the more we're always connected to these larger energy systems that we're part of, these living systems that we're part of, we're always connected with the question, how much awareness do we have around that, right? How much consciousness? And then are we able to engage in a relational way in a very conscious way and have our own in polyvagal terms, have our own social engagement systems online and operate with others in a way that invites them to have their social engagement systems online which creates connection and psychological safety and intimacy and relationship. And so that whole world of the interpersonal beingness, right, what the great Zen teacher Tiktohan called inter being interbeing that is, this larger mind in the Buddhist tradition is sometimes called heart or bodhicitta. That's what I talk about when I talk about the heart mind. It's the more interpersonal mind, the mind of inter.
Moira: In the heart mind. How do we wake up this awareness and to become radically responsible for this inner life? And what are some exercises or an exercise that you could share to enhance our understanding of this way of the being in the world and become more conscious? Is there an exercise that you a short exercise that you could share or just I know you shared a lot here.
Fleet: Yeah, sure. The interesting thing is that anything we can do to become more embodied, more awake and awakening to our innate capacity for interoceptive awareness, right. Interoception is a fancy word that stands for internal perception. We experience the world around us through exteroception, includes touch, external touch on the surface of the skin, sight, sound, smell and taste. External perception, or exteroception. Then we have internal perception. Our entire body is a living organism and sensory all the way down to the bones. Even the hard, white outer layer of the bones, the periosteum, even the marrow of the bones, all containing neuronal cells, all connected to the central nervous system as well as the musculature, the connective tissue, the vital organs, the lymphatic system, the circulatory system, the glands, everything, all sensory. And it's more subtle because those internal perceptions travel to the brain through neural networks that are less myelinated or in some cases, not myelinated, which means they don't travel as fast or efficiently. So those sensations are more subtle. But this is how we experience pain or discomfort. If we're having a headache or we're having indigestion, that's interoception. Unfortunately, absent discomfort, we usually ignore the internal landscape of the body. Right? We focus on exteroception. External touch on the surface actually goes to a highly myelinated network and goes directly to the brain. So, there are different neural pathways in how we experience this. But with practice, we can open to this internal field of sensate, experience interoception, and really over time, become much more embodied, really alive in the body, at home, in our own skin, really feeling the body inside and out from head to toe. And this really grounds us in life. When the current neuroscience shows that enhanced interoceptive awareness heals trauma, deepens our resilience, increases our emotional intelligence and literacy, our capacity for emotion. Regulations are the most important things in terms of being able to navigate life in our relational field successfully. So, the interesting thing is that the same neural networks that are involved in enhanced interoceptive awareness, embodiment and interoceptive awareness are also neural networks that support connecting with others. So, it turns out that the more deeply embodied we are, the more easily we make connections with others and develop safety and intimacy and connection with others. Right. So, it's all kind of the same work. Now, one exercise that I don't really suggest people do on I mean, people could do this on their own, but I lead it in workshops a lot and I've done it online quite a bit since the pandemic started. But it's a lot easier to do in person. But I do a lot of in my workshops, I get people in pairs and do a lot of things triads, pairs, small groups. But in pairs I train them in something I usually call presenting which is first becoming present to one's own body and mind in this deeply internalized way, both external and internal. Developing this deep, embodied presence and learning to navigate that and sense that and be curious about that. And then from there, turning to the relational field using eye gazing with another person sitting right across from another person almost knee to knee and engage in this process of eye gazing which is not staring and it's not blurring out but there's this kind of relaxed, open, receptive gaze. And initially there's some discomfort and some self consciousness but over time it just deepens and deepens but you don't lose track of yourself. You're not merging into a relational field. You're still very much embodied and aware of your own body, heart and mind and you're intentionally, voluntarily entering into this relational field of exchange and connection with another. And people are amazed that with a perfect stranger they develop this profound level of intimacy and connectedness in a matter of minutes. So that's kind of an exercise that's usually more guided, right? That I do. But there are some other exercises in the book, the Radical Responsibility book that can help people with that work.
Moira: That's wonderful. I did an exercise years ago, Fleet, where you sit, like you said, in front of the other person and from your heart and that you're sending through, looking through to their eyes which connected to their soul, but you're sending love, pure love and how people can start crying in that because they can feel it. Like the depth of that.
Fleet: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I direct it in that way, but more often I just let that arise spontaneously because if you give it enough time, it will and then people realize it's this kind of innate connectedness. But either way it can be quite profound, right?
Fleet: We now know a lot more today about how neural networks of the heart are connected to other sense perceptions and the vision. And we're just learning so much more about the inner landscape of the body and mind and how that connects to the external sense fields and then to our relational fields and our connection even to the natural world.
Moira: Let's dive into that neurobiology that you talked about as it's a basis for learning habit formation. The thing about neurons that fire together, wire together, how can we habit? We have good habits, we have bad habits, we have habits we want to break. How do we, first of all breakthrough those patterns that we don't want to have anymore? We want to be conscious. We want to live our life by design, not default because of these habits. Big question. That's my little chunker part of me fleet. Yeah.
Fleet: Well, I think it can be fine to talk about good habits and bad habits, positive habits, negative habits. But there we are really more of the point. There's habits that service and habits that don't.
Moira: Very real.
Fleet: And most of the habits we developed at one time, or another were in some way in service of something often just to keep us safe. Right. But a lot of the habits and program we developed early in childhood which we still rely on, is not really serving us now. Right. So, when we recognize that we have habitual patterns that really aren't working for us, if we understand the science of habit formation, then there's a lot we can do to really change those habits. There's so many wonderful books now, BJ Fogg’s book, tiny Habits, I think, and there's books about what's called habit stacking and there's a lot of one of SJ. Scott's books and I think it's James Clear's books and there's a lot of wonderful books around the science of habit formation and Charles Duhigg wrote, I think, the first book really on the science of habit formation. But the one really simple thing is to understand something called the habit loop. So almost all habits have something that triggers the habit, the stimulus, or the queue. And then there's a behavior and then there's a reward, right, that gets repeated enough and it becomes actually ingrained as a neural pathway in the brain and we tend to just go there automatically. The queue happens. Boom. We go into the behavior, we get the reward. So, one great strategy for changing a habit that is no longer serving us is there's always going to be that queue, whatever it is. If we can replace the behavior that's not leading to a good outcome with a different behavior that will still produce a reward but a better outcome. It can be very easy then with practice just to change that habit to replace it. Now, the old neural networks are never going to go away, which is why you can backslide. But if you really work and the new ones become robust enough, you can depend on them. Now, I'll give you an example. For example, probably most of us have had that experience when we're trying to work, we're trying to read a book we're focusing, maybe we're doing some work in the office or at a computer or something and then suddenly we just kind of hit that wall of fatigue or brain fog. So, what many of us would do then we'd reach for a cup of coffee, or we'd reach for the so-called energy snack which actually may have a lot of sugar in it and we'll then get the reward, right, the brain fog will clear, we'll get the clarity, we can continue working. But the problem is later. Then there's the crash, right, the caffeine crash or the sugar crash and then we're going to be trapped in that cycle and go around and around and maybe drinking more caffeine than is good for us or maybe eating more snacks than are good for us, leading to weight issues and all the rest of it. So, let's say we want to change that, and this is something I've very much personally done, so speaking from experience here, so we experience that kind of fatigue brain fog coming on. Instead of grabbing the coffee again, there's nothing wrong with having a cup. I have my morning coffee or tea, there's nothing wrong with that. But instead of grabbing for more caffeine or for some kind of energy snack, instead what I decided to do was stand up, go get another glass, I drink a lot of water but go get another glass of water, drink a full glass of water, do some deep breathing, and do some stretching. And then I sit back down, my energy is completely renewed, the brain fog is cleared, I'm able to go back to work. Same reward, different behavior, same reward, same cue, same reward, different behavior. And now I don't have the caffeine crash or the sugar crash or the weight issues or any of that, right? So that's just a simple example of how we can change a habit by working with that same habit loop of queue or trigger behavior reward and simply inserting a new behavior. Now some other strategies that some of these books I reference have lots of great things. So, the idea of tiny habits is starting off with really little micro habits, right? They're much easier to establish. So really break it down into tiny micro habits and then the phenomena of even, let's say we want to get in shape and I'm going to get to where I can do 50 push ups, right? Well start off one push up, make a commitment to do one push up a day. Pretty quickly you won't be able to stop at one push up. You'll be doing three and then you'll be doing five, right? But you start small. So tiny habits and then the idea of habit stacking is once we have an anchored habit, whether it's a new one we created or one that was preexisting, we can then add habits to that. In a chain of habits that becomes a routine. So, for example. Maybe every morning we get up and brush our teeth. Well, what's the next thing we do? Maybe there's something new. Maybe we're not much of a flosser. So, from now on then I'm going to floss, right? Or something else. Maybe we get home and we usually come in, we hang up the code or hat, we put the keys in a basket by the door. And then what do we do? Well, maybe we're wanting to get a little more conscious around the quality of our relationship. So, we developed a habit. As soon as we put the keys in the basket, instead of going over and picking up the newspaper or plopping on the couch or turning on the TV, we go over and greet our partner or our spouse and ask them how their day has been, right? So, we take a preexisting habit and add to that another habit. Now I'll give you one more example how you can build up a whole routine. So, I have this whole morning routine I do that I built up over well, it really refined it over a couple of years, but initially built it over several months. So, I wake up and just take a moment to kind of lie there and okay, I'm here, I'm alive, it's a new day. Feel some gratitude for that. And then I go into some physical exercise right there in bed. I do a whole series of crunches and different kinds of crunches and I do spinal twists and then I do some other kinds of stretches. And that whole routine probably takes me about, I don't know, ten or 15 minutes. And then I go into a half bridge pose, and I do this rapid breathing that completely wakes up my system. It's also good for the core. Then I swing my sides over my feet over the side of the bed. I sit on the side of the bed and do some more breathing, some very specific breath work. Then I get up and if I have time sometimes my time varies, but if I have time, I have another kind of module that I do, which is I go get down on the floor and I do another series of yoga stretches and I do push ups and so forth. And then I'll get up and then sometimes do some squats and so forth. Then I head in, do my shower, do the whole bathroom thing and then I head into the meditation room, get some tea, go into the meditation room, meet my wife Sophie in there and generally do an hour to an hour and a half of meditation. Then come down, create a really nutritious breakfast, enjoy that with my wife and then it's time to start my day. So, I have 2 hours there of highly scripted that it's really hard for me to change it. It has such momentum and I built it up one habit at a time till it became a routine now just to be kind of real and human about this. So, my wife and I decided to get a puppy. We both have had dogs before in our life, several dogs. But my last lab died a couple of years ago, and I really missed him. So, we decided to get a puppy, right? And so, we welcomed this brand new being into our life back in March, and it completely disrupted everything. I'm down there sleeping on the kitchen floor on a blow-up bed, keeping the puppy company through the night for the first ten days. And my wife took a few nights and eventually started sleeping through the night. But then early in the morning, getting up to take him out to pee and then a breakfast, it's completely disrupted my wife's routine. My routine just out the window, right? But I realized, okay, we're going to have to surrender to this for a while, and this is a new delight in our lives. And there were several times for a couple of months, my wife and I looked at each other, go, what were we thinking, right? But at the same time, mixed with that was all the love and the joy of this new being in our life and a beautiful, just gorgeous golden doodle that we're completely in love with named Kiku. But I got to get back on the saddle here. So, we just really worked in developing new routines, trading off, figuring out how sometimes we go up to the meditation hall and practice. Sometimes we do it on our own down in the kitchen area, and we don't practice together that much anymore, sometimes on weekends. But we've worked out a routine so both of us can have now gotten back into a rhythm of doing all our health and wellness disciplines and doing our meditation practice, and we've reestablished our routine. It's just taken some work. So, life disruptions happen, and you have to reconfigure it, but you build it up one habit at a time, and then you build these routines that have a lot of momentum, and you can really depend on know, especially I really believe in that morning know, some people talk about it. I think Tony Robbins calls it the hour power, and Robin Sharma talks about it. He has another term for it, and my teacher called it your daily. So, it's a morning ritual regimen ceremony, and it's what you do. And to me, it's foundational to the quality of our day and the quality of our life. So that's the time to do it in the morning, and I really believe in that. And that's the way you build it up is by understanding how habits work. Also, the brain, another important thing to realize is the brain is always economizing. If the brain had to deal with all the input that's coming in and make, all smoke would start coming out of our ears. So the. Brain is always looking for shortcuts. It's always looking for shortcuts. It's always looking to economize. It's always looking for the easiest way through. And so, we need to remember that. So, when we're trying to establish new habits, we need to make it easy, right? We need to make it easy. So, for example, for me, I want to work out now, I have all the routines I do in the morning, but I also want to do other kind of weightlifting exercises and so forth at least three times a week. Well, if I have to drive and go to a gym, it's just there's going to be a million times I'll find that won't work. Or some people it works, but they have a gym close to home, and maybe that goes out of business. Now it's 20 minutes away, and the routine goes out the window. So, I built my own gym at home because then I know I'm going to do it. Or another example is wanting to not look at your cell phone first thing in the morning, right, but you use yourself like I do use your cell phone for alarm clock, right, and you have it up there in the bedroom. Well, it's really tough not to fall into that addictive impulse to go check your email or check social media or wherever it is. Well, if you want to make it easy on yourself, leave the phone downstairs, right? So, when we're trying to create new habits, we need to remember the brain is always economizing, and we need to make it as easy as possible to develop that new habit.
Moira: Okay, well, thank you so much. There's going to be a gift below from you. We'll just put that in surprise from Fleet. And thank you so much, Fleet, from sharing from your heart and soul your wisdom on becoming an unstoppable force for good. Namaste.
Fleet: Namaste. Thank you very much, Moira.
Moira: Thank you.
Fleet: Okay, bye bye.
Outro: Thank you for listening to the heart Soul wisdom podcast with Moira Sutton. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please join our firstname.lastname@example.org and continue the discussion on our Facebook page. Create the life you love. You will be part of a global movement connecting with other heart centered people who are consciously creating the life they love on their own terms. Together, we can raise our consciousness for the greater good of humanity and for our planet.