After 25 years of police and criminal justice work, Cheri Maples co-founded the Center for Mindfulness & Justice to coordinate her work in criminal justice training, organizational consulting, and mindfulness workshops. Cheri has worked as a police officer and detective in Madison, Wisconsin,

Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General, and head of Probation and Parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. In 2008, she was ordained a dharma teacher by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, her long-time spiritual teacher, prolific author, poet, and peace activist.

In the course of my chaotic journey to becoming a “mindful street cop,” about which you can read elsewhere on this web site, I slowly learned several lessons that seem essential to truly mindful living. I think of them as the seven lessons from my own spiritual transformation. In this article, I discuss two of these lessons: developing fierce as well as gentle compassion and learning that violence does not resolve violence.

Whether an act is violent or compassionate in nature depends by the intention behind the action, not the action itself. The action itself can be smooth and gentle, but if the motivation behind it is manipulative, it is still negative and violent. Likewise, fierce actions done with a positive intention are non-violent in nature. Sometimes fierce compassion is required to protect ourselves, to protect others, and to protect our relationships. With real understanding and compassion and a tender heart, we can be both gentle and fierce. We can develop good boundaries and the wisdom to enable us to be firm and kind at the same time in our personal lives, our work, and in community relationships.

Fierce compassion in our personal relationships requires establishing boundaries that are necessary and that we can keep. If we waffle on the boundaries we set, we can destroy the integrity that boundaries may offer to protect and restore the relationship. We see this in organizations a lot when someone is charged with violating an obscure, poorly defined policy. Rules and policies should not be created unless there is firm commitment to them. Fairness and consistency also are essential to enforcing rules and regulations. This applies especially with those we love.

What I’ve found in this area is that less is more. Boundaries should exist not just to avoid exploitation, but also to protect our relationships with others. Without good boundaries, our hearts begin to contract, which limits the future of a relationship. When compassion turns into enabling behavior, Buddhists call it “idiot compassion.” Well maintained boundaries help us understand on a very deep level that when I take care of myself, I take care of you; and when I take care of you, I take care of myself.

The litmus test of any form of spirituality is how it affects your relationship with others. It is very easy to be compassionate when we’re in a cave all by ourselves; a little harder when we’re with other people and our stuff starts to rub up against theirs. Compassion is a very active and important concept to Buddhism and compassion should be in everything we do.

What Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) would say is that sometimes there’s a gentle-faced Bodhisattva of compassion and sometimes there’s a fierce-faced Bodhisattva of compassion. Wisdom is knowing which one is called for, and when. As a cop, if I have a compassionate intention in my heart, if my intention is to really serve and protect and to breathe life into the values that a democracy is built on, and if I have to use some form of force to prevent somebody from hurting somebody else, that is fierce compassion. However, if I’m angry and irritated and I’m sick of doing this stuff and I want to get on to the next call and I respond from that place, that’s violence. So compassion always begins with me, but engaged Buddhism also means recognizing where injustice exists; not making other people the enemy, but compassionately and wisely working for change.

A closely related lesson of spiritual transformation is learning that it is impossible to end violence with violence. Working for peace and justice requires an unwavering personal commitment to nonviolence in our own lives and the environment. Probably the single most important thing that happened to me over time was that even as a cop who carried a gun on a daily basis, I became committed to learning how to be more skillful about not contributing to violence or aggression in any form. Over time, what Thay inspired in me was the strong belief that even something like carrying a gun for a living can be an act of love if one is also armed with fullness in compassion and intention. There were many people on the left who can’t see past the uniform and don’t recognize a potential ally, which was very sad to me.

We all need to be aware of our own judgments, what categories we’re placing people in, and whom we might be missing as a potential ally. The first and most important way to eliminate violence is by skillfully not contributing to any form of aggression ourselves with our actions or speech. In order for each of us to do our part to end violence, we have to recognize its many forms. It doesn’t just show up in obvious ways, such as killing, greed, lust, and war, but in more subtle ways such as righteousness, dogma, criticism, irritation, anger, blame, and how we talk to each other. We often make the mistake of thinking our partners and family members, neighbors or coworkers are responsible for our anger, but mindfulness practice teaches us that anger is first of all, our business and that we are primarily responsible for our anger and all our emotions.

I grew up in a family where the habitual energy of anger was very strong. We tossed grenades at each other. Everybody vented and it was taken for granted that was how things were done. We believed that the hurtful things that were said would be forgotten, and this venting certainly provided some temporary relief. But in the long term by continually venting and expressing anger, we were not getting rid of it. In fact, we were feeding it, watering its seeds, strengthening its roots. In other words, we were rehearsing anger rather than releasing it.

Meditation is a very powerful tool for understanding and paying attention to our assumptions and our judgments, our internal storylines, and the seeds that we water in others and ourselves with our language. Right speech teaches us the art of pausing and refraining by learning to put space between our thoughts and our words. What a novel concept-every thought or feeling I have doesn’t have to be either repressed or expressed. We learn the art of pausing and refraining, and then we learn to apply it to other areas of our lives. For me, right speech is probably the most important piecework that I engage in right now. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and feel and hear who others are. This allows us to be in authentic communication and a respectful relationship with them.

When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression, leading to more violence and pain. Right speech does not mean watering the seeds of peace within others and ourselves at the expense of injustice or exploitation. It is important to examine who will suffer if we do not speak up. If we see injustice, we should avoid complicity, on the one hand, or demonizing and making others the enemy, on the other.


If you are interested in learning more about Cheri Maples views on the seven most important elements of spiritual transformation, you can find them in articles on this web site. We suggest reading them in the order they appear in the table below. Click on the article title in the lefthand column to which you wish to go directly.

Article Title Lessons Location
The Mindful Street Cop Compasion/
Personal Compassion
Purpose and Slowing Down for the Present Moment Purpose and the Present Moment Sustaining Compassion/
Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices
Fierce Compassion Compassion as Fierce or Gentle
& Violences does not Resolve Violence
Personal Compassion
Suffering Can Be the Seeds of your Strength Suffering Can Be the Seeds of your Strength Sustaining Compassion/
Destructive Thoughts and Feelings
Openness to Whatever Arises Openness to Whatever Arises Sustaining Compassion/
Destructive Thoughts and Feelings
Watering the Seeds of Joy Watering the Seeds of Joy Sustaining Compassion/
Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices