Corruption is one of those scary words to me because it conjures intentional dishonesty for personal gain, which goes into the category of never, ever, ever.
At the same time, practicing law can be so intense that it can feel corrosive in & of itself.
Which started me wondering if practicing law is, in some way, corrupting us. And maybe not in such a small way. And that got me wondering whether mindfulness practice could be an antidote.
Now I'm thinking yes, but see what you think.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 338.
Today’s chapter in the Dhamapada is Chapter 18, and the title is Corruption.
When I read the word “Corruption,” I first thought about graft and money laundering. I thought about corrupt systems and how easily the word “corrupt” falls off the tongue when politicians are the subject of my sentence. I thought about corrupting a child.
This chapter isn’t so much about all of that, except in the sense that the kind of corruption the chapter is talking about could maybe lead to that, or maybe does lead to that.
But I think before any of that can happen, what happens is the kind of corruption this chapter is talking about. Which is the corruption we do to ourselves, or allow to happen to ourselves.
Chapter 18 starts us off with a kind of fire and brimstone warning: here we are, “like a yellow leaf…stand(ing) at the door of death, with no provisions for the journey.” Scary moment. And then it tells us what to do about that. “Make an island for yourself,” it says. “Be quick in making effort. Be wise…. As a smith does with silver, the wise person, gradually, bit by bit, moment by moment, removes impurities from herself.”
I don’t think this is a sermon about Original Sin and how we’re born impure and need to “remove impurities from ourselves,” purify ourselves in the Judeo-Christian sense, but I could be wrong. Because I think, from a mindfulness perspective, our true nature is clear and wise and full of love.
But a lot happens in a life – a lot that can amount to corruption, that can result in impurities. In fact, everything that happens in a life can result in impurities: the times we’re born into, like these times: our families when we’re young (and not young); our friends at every step along the way – I can think of a few who maybe contributed to my own impurities; the paths we take as we begin to choose a life – and again I think about college and some of the things I did, yikes. Everything we engage in, everything we take in – all media of every kind including advertising media, social media – all of that can result in impurities.
And for all of us, the legal profession. I think being part of the legal system can result in impurities.
And all of that is happening inside the bigger structures at play – the political and social systems we live in, like white supremacy and the patriarchy; like climate emergency.
All of these things condition us, and sometimes corrupt us. And not just the big things: every moment, conditioning, and sometimes corruption, are happening.
But actually it’s not so much the things. It’s our relationship to them. I grew up in a family with a mom who was mercurial, and mostly anxious and angry. I took on a lot of the anger and spent years and years turning towards that, softening it, letting it go. My brother didn’t take on any of the anger but he did take on the anxiety.
Maybe you fell in with a group of friends at some point in your life and were influenced by them to say or do things you knew were against your better judgment, or better nature. When we got to the law – to law school – we all had choices. Did we choose to find ways of using the law as a tool to advance capitalism? I did that for a long time. Did we use them to help families navigate the world, or accused people find safety as they navigated the criminal justice system? Did we use them to dismantle injustice? Did we use them to go into government or politics? We had choices.
We always have choices.
Chapter 18 names some of the choices we can make, by naming the corrosive elements inherent in those choices. “Bad conduct is corruption in a person,” it says, “stinginess, in a giver. [Ig]norance, the greatest corruption.”
I think I was drawn to the law in part because it has what seems to me to be these very bright-line boundaries. These black and white rules. I don’t think I had a clear sense, when I was 21 and heading into the law, exactly what my own boundaries were, and the law provided me with an easy way to understand those, to create those.
Follow the rules exactly. Tell the truth absolutely. Precision is everything. Timeliness is paramount. Those were some of the ones I took on. Those were the ones that felt like they would keep me from becoming corrupted – keep me from bad conduct, stinginess, ignorance.
The trouble for me was, the rules were so solid and consequential, that I began to live with a deep sense of dread: what if I got something wrong? What if I was late? What if I missed something? I began to feel like every single thing had to be perfect. No matter how much I had on my plate, no matter how embattled I felt, perfection was key. That’s still in there.
But that perpetual sense of dread, of zero room for error, of being under fire: I feel like these things corrupted me. They led to impatience and self-criticism, which rolled out into the way I related to others. They led to stinginess because I was afraid. They reinforced my false sense of separateness because I began to believe in life as a battle, with winning the only acceptable outcome, and forgot we belong to one another.
“Make an island for yourself,” the chapter says. And that makes sense to me, for all humans but especially for us lawyers. “Be quick in making effort,” it says. Or as Pema Chodron says, there no time to lose.
The great news is, conditioning is always happening. We’re never some solid, fixed, person. And not all conditioning is corrosive. For example, mindfulness practice is an anti-corrosive.
Sometimes when I sit on my cushion, I have the thought, “nothing’s happening. What’s so important about this?”
But the practice is conditioning me. It’s conditioning us. This very simple but profound, maybe you could even say revolutionary, practice, of paying attention, moment to moment; of having the courage to turn towards each moment, no matter how painful, how difficult, how intense; and to do that with grace: the grace to slow down, to see things for what they are, to make space for a breath, or two, or three, and in that space, for wisdom, creativity, compassion, kindness, love, self-compassion, self-love, to arise, so that we can take a look at whether corruption is happening, or might happen as a result of something we’re doing, or being asked to do. And then letting that wisdom and that love guide us, again, really moment by moment, even – in the most courageous imagination of our practice as an anti-corruption tool – even taking precedence over the assignment itself, the work we’re being asked to do.
What if we all did that? And we taught that spaciousness to our students? And they – and we – were rewarded in the profession for taking a breath, taking a moment, to take care? To be heedful? To “make an island” for ourselves? If we’re looking for at least some of the roots of corruption in the law, and in this world that’s so deeply influenced by the law and by lawyers, we could start there. And maybe appreciate even more, the importance of our sometimes seemingly inconsequential, but actually very powerful, practice.