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sujatha baliga on Healing Trauma and Restorative Justice

sujatha baliga, MacArthur award winning restorative justice advocate

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sujatha baliga is a restorative justice educator and advocate and a 2019 winner of the MacArthur fellowship. She has served as the director of the restorative justice project at Impact Justice, co-founder of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, and a Soros Justice Fellow at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.

sujatha earned her undergraduate degree at Harvard University and went on to earn her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her life’s work in restorative justice was born of the personal advice she received when she was 24 years old from His Holiness the Dalai Lama on forgiving seemingly unforgivable acts.

[00:01:19] Scott Snibbe: Well, sujatha baliga, I am so happy to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. We’ve been friends for close to 20 years and tag-teaming teaching meditation at Gyuto Foundation. Thank you for joining me in one of our rare in-person interviews.

[00:01:36] sujatha baliga: It’s really wonderful to be here, grateful to be a part of your show, your series, and just to be in your life.

[00:01:44] Scott Snibbe: Thank you. I’ve been very inspired by everything you’ve done and I’m excited to hit the highlights today.

[00:01:50] sujatha baliga: Right on, thank you so much. I’m inspired by you as well, Scott.

Overcoming trauma with the Dalai Lama’s help

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, photo by the Aspen Institute

[00:01:53] Scott Snibbe: That’s very kind of you. Well, to start out, I want to talk to you about a story you’ve probably told more than any other about how you became a Buddhist and how it helped you overcome trauma. I wouldn’t ask a lot of people to repeat their trauma again and again, but it seems the mission of your life to do so. So you’ve been very kind, sharing it with so many people and your story’s inspiring, so I’d love to hear you recount it.

[00:02:22] sujatha baliga: Thanks so much, Scott. And it’s really thoughtful to name that. We know therapeutically that telling the story over and over and over again is actually not beneficial, although we used to think that it was. But the truth is that I’ve reached a place in my own healing journey that I don’t actually feel the negative effects of telling the story anymore. And for the listeners, I won’t be sharing details, I don’t think that’s beneficial for me or for you as listeners or for anyone. So we’ll keep it really high level.

So one of the blessings of having really dedicated so much of my life to working all the way through many of the things that have happened to me is that I can talk about it without the waves of negative feelings arising in me anymore. So with that caveat, I will share that as a child I lived with various different forms of trauma. One is growing up in rural Pennsylvania primarily, where I was experiencing some pretty severe physical violence on the regular because I was the only child of color in my elementary school and only non-Christian for miles and miles and miles, other than my immediate family.

And I was also being sexually abused in my home by my father. So that was a lot to be dealing with as a child. And there were a lot of negative consequences on my body and my being through my early years. The upside of my father, and there were many, which is hard to imagine, I know for many who think of someone causing this much harm within your own family. One of the upsides of my father was that he was an incredibly thoughtful person about oppression, ironically, and he introduced me to a lot of thinking and reading that maybe most Indian American kids didn’t grow up with.

One of the people he introduced me to in thinking and writings was Ambedkar, someone who is credited with many, many things. He is a Dalit activist and incredible scholar who wrote a piece called The Annihilation of Caste, which my father gave to me early in life. And so in my teens I really read it. It was shortly after he passed away. I was trying to make sense of my father who passed away when I was 16. And I read Ambedkar who was calling for the mass conversion of Dalits, and everybody, to Buddhism, to choose a castless religion.

So I think in some ways the first thought to become Buddhist actually came from Ambedkar. Fast forward, I took some courses on Buddhism in college, and then in my early twenties from the time of my father’s passing through like the age of 24, I really turned my life entirely into, let me try to make it a world in which no one lives through what I lived through. So rape crisis, domestic violence shelters, and kind of nonstop sort of workaholism and overachieving my way through my trauma, which was not an effective strategy.

I was really living with a lot of pain and trauma and it was kind of getting worse the more I was engaging in other people’s stuff instead of therapy. And there were a couple things going on, but it really wasn’t getting at the root of my suffering. So I was living in India at this particular moment in my life, I was 24. I had met a traveler who was really irritating to me and he was boasting about his sort of meditative capacities through having gone to multiple Vipassana courses and his ability to be a very calm and cool and collected gem smuggler; he was joking. I’m sure that’s not what they want us to use it for, but he put that word Vipassana in my mind. And he also talked about the generosity of the Tibetans, he was wandering through Dharamsala at one point. And so he put these words and Vipassana in my mind, this person who was really rubbing me the wrong way when I met him.

Dharamsala, india
Dharamsala, India

So I had a complete breakdown when I was back in Mumbai, couldn’t really help or function in any way, and I decided to go traveling and those words Vipassana and Dharamsala had stuck in my mind. So I tried to get into a Vipassana course; they were full. I start yelling at the lady on the phone, the woman who is letting me know that the wait lists are full indefinitely.

And I realized, oh my gosh, I’m yelling at the nice meditation lady. And I literally packed up my bags and just headed for the hills, landed in Dharamsala, and through this incredibly beautiful course of events, met a family who suggested to me in our dialogues about the trauma that they had endured escaping Tibet. I felt so moved by their sharing that I started to open up about my own life.

And they were horrified to hear that I’d been abused by my father. They said, You should ask His Holiness. What would he suggest about this kind of trauma and abuse? I was like, How do you ask the Dalai Lama a question? They’re like, You write him a note, you can drop it off at this second door, the green building behind the monastery. I was like, What? And so a few days later I did; I tore a page out of my travel journal and I wrote a note to His Holiness, and I was still too ashamed to name the abuse that I’d endured, but I said, Anger is killing me, but it motivates my work. How do you work on behalf of abused and oppressed people without anger as the motivating force?

How do you work on behalf of abused and oppressed people without anger as the motivating force?

I specifically wanted to know how does he do it when his people have been decimated by colonialism and the theft of their land. How is he functioning? I am not functioning anymore in my quest, that no one should suffer. So I got a response back and was invited in to meet with His Holiness’s secretary who had—Tenzin Geyche Tethong—and Tenge-la and I had this meeting and at the end of it he offered me an hour with His Holiness.

So in the course of that hour, a week later, I received the most amazing advice about how to heal from child sexual abuse. And His Holiness really encouraged me to be shameless and really helped me understand that what happened was not my fault. I knew this and I’d heard it a million times in therapy but there was something about the dialogue with His Holiness and him squarely placing the blame where it was due, on my father.

But ultimately, through that conversation, helping me become curious about the larger causes and conditions that give rise to that level of harm that people could do to their own children. I also really grilled him for advice about forgiveness. Because I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be as affective and happy as him. And he initially was reticent and kindly asked me this question when I kept pressing him for advice. He said, Do you feel you’ve been angry long enough?

Which was such a perfect question. The Dalai Lama was giving me permission to be angry, especially as a woman and as a woman of color and all of these things. The Dalai Lama was giving me permission to be angry, especially as a woman and as a woman of color and all of these things.

The Dalai Lama was giving me permission to be angry, especially as a woman and as a woman of color and all of these things.

Like, Don’t be so angry, be pleasing, be whatever. So it was really powerful to be given that—no one needs anyone’s permission ultimately—but it was, really moving to be offered that grace and space to just be where I was with my feelings. Ultimately, I decided, after working through a cost-benefit analysis with His Holiness, that anger was not serving me and the work I wanted to do in the world.

But it wasn’t until we really sat with anger’s value for the causes that I was engaged in and that I came to the conclusion that I was ready to be done with this particular level of fury that was bleeding out onto all other aspects of my life and my health and my wellbeing.

He ultimately gave me some very specific advice about forgiveness which I followed in the weeks that followed. And I found myself free of my anger towards my father, which was a great place from which to move forward with my own continued healing and work in the world.

Be angry

[00:10:11] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s an extraordinary story, even though I’ve heard it many times I’m still very moved every time I hear it. I’m sure some people hearing that question or even hearing it right now as they listen to it, might get angry hearing, Are you angry enough? But like, I am definitely not angry enough. What would be your thought?

You’ve told this story many times and you’ve helped many people get over the same issues or at least process them. How do you figure out when you need to keep feeling angry? When angry is serving you or telling you, or you just simply can’t let it go. And then when is the time for healing and getting past it?

[00:10:48] sujatha baliga: Right, there’s two things that for that, Scott. One is the first is that, “Have you been angry long enough?” is a very personal question. And when you ask yourself and the answer comes back, No, I have not been angry long enough, then it’s really important to just hold that answer with compassion and kindness. Just understand there are reasons why you are still angry and there’s some need there that is not yet met. So to spend time attending to the need that is under the anger, instead of blaming yourself for still being angry, feels like a good first step.

Then His Holiness has this little book out there in the world called Be Angry. Just one of my favorites, just the fact that the book exists, it makes me happy. Be Angry by the Dalai Lama. And so what does he say to be angry about? He says to maintain our anger at social injustice until it is resolved, but not to hold that rage towards the individuals causing that. I think that’s a beautiful distinction, right? He says to maintain our anger at social injustice until it is resolved, but not to hold that rage towards the individuals causing that.

He says to maintain our anger at social injustice until it is resolved, but not to hold that rage towards the individuals causing that.

be angry book by dalai lama

So I am absolutely enraged that there are children in cages in the United States that we call like juvenile detention facilities. Like what? No. I am enraged about racialized mass criminalization. I’m enraged about so many things. There’s so many things that I do feel a lot of fire and heat in my being about helping make that stop.

But I don’t harbor specific hatred towards any individuals involved in the production of those systems. Because I have found that has never had any positive outcome. It doesn’t help me move my work forward in the chance that this is a person who might shift in their thinking, coming at them with my hatred of them is not going to move us forward. Maybe this is not a person who’s going to change in this lifetime. And then my hatred of them is truly wasted energy. Like what is it doing to hate this person?

So I’m not saying that comes easily, that does not come easily at all. It’s quite a bit of work to learn how to maintain that, to keep that fire for our issue without having it towards the individuals who perpetuate the problem. So I’m not trying to make it sound easy but it’s doable, it’s possible.

Is anger a delusion?

[00:13:13] Scott Snibbe: So in our tradition, we’re taught about the three poisons: anger, attachment, and ignorance. Now these are translations of Pali and Sanskrit words. So maybe it’s the wrong word. But I certainly found that confusing as I was learning about Buddhism and trying to align it with social justice and family traumas I had, things like that.

So can you talk about that anger as delusion, or is this a mistranslation, or something else?

[00:13:42] sujatha baliga: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. And there is some confusion with regard to the word anger versus hatred. I remember in His Holiness’ book, Healing Anger, there’s a thorough description of the Sanskrit word and how it ended up in Tibetan, and do we mean hatred or do we mean anger? So that can be a little bit confusing, but it does involve a feeling of negativity towards. So I think that it is not delusional to have a negativity towards anything that is negative. But to have that intense negativity towards a being the distinction.

I think that it is not delusional to have a negativity towards anything that is negative. But to have that intense negativity towards a being the distinction.

I just wonder if our words in English aren’t nuanced enough. So generally speaking, if we look at the three poisons and we look at ignorance, one of the ramifications of our fundamental ignorance is a notion of a separateness, a lack of understanding of interdependence. So that makes things very clear for me.

If I hate you, but I want you to be liberated, that’s not going to go together. Because if your liberation from your delusions is what’s going to stop you from doing the terrible things you’re doing to me and the other people I care deeply about. So to have that kind of towards you isn’t going to move us towards the collective goal. And if I eradicate my ignorance about our interdependence then I’m not going to have all this hatred towards you.

So for me, I’ve reached the point where I, from time to time, get to go into prisons and talk with people who are serving time for having sexually abused children. And if I came in there with a pointing fingers … the people who are agreeing to meet with me are open to the fact that someone may have that feeling to them. They have evolved to the point where they’re ready to be scolded. But I don’t really think that that’s the right approach. I want to look at what are the causes and conditions that gave rise to your harming so that we can get at root causes.

I want to look at what are the causes and conditions that gave rise to your harming so that we can get at root causes.

I am in no way excusing what you did. But by my acknowledging our shared humanity I know that it is in our best interest for you to stop doing what you did. There’s no anger in there. That helps me be much more clearheaded about the things. It’s harder when it’s immediate. Like if I’m watching the video of a police officer killing an African American man, there is some horror in my being at the whole thing. And there are definitely feelings of anger towards the person who is causing harm. And especially the bystanders, like, somebody stop him, do something, that comes up in me.

But it is not long lasting because if I stay there I’m going to want to burn it all down. And I don’t think that that’s the way. I think that it’s about loosening knots so that the thing comes apart in a good way instead of trying to burn the whole thing, because we’re in the thing that we’re burning, so how about we don’t burn it?

[00:16:56] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s a very subtle point that I think certainly took me a long time to get. Something people don’t realize about Buddhism is that even highly realized beings, even bodhisattvas they say, feel anger. But the thing is to let it pass through you. So that’s what you’re getting at. You can watch a video like that and feel an enormous amount of anger. In fact, it’s natural, and His Holiness himself would feel that watching that, and he did. In fact, I saw him commenting on it and he was disgusted.

[00:17:24] sujatha baliga: Right, I remember that.

[00:17:25] Scott Snibbe: But the difference is he got over it, probably within a minute and then like if you see him, he’ll be crying and then all of a sudden he’ll be laughing. So I think that’s what you’re getting at, that it’s okay to feel these things, but you can let them pass through you.

[00:17:40] sujatha baliga: My experience of him was exactly like that. The look on his face, and it brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it. He is holding my hands. He was looking into my eyes. He’s like, Your own father. Your own father. I mean, it was such this like force of protective, like that is not okay.

But even when he was saying your own father, there was no disgust towards my father. It was just this intense, like that is not okay. I get stuck there, but he doesn’t. And so within moments he’s goofing with me. He’s playing, he’s squeezing my arm. So he played like two different practical jokes on me in the time that we were together because I was so mired in my messed upness.

And that sounds like I’m blaming myself for my natural response, but I couldn’t get out of it. And he, in his kindness, used his skillful means to get us across to a more positive place.

Buddhist techniques for overcoming anger

girl in white clothes walking through forest in vipassana retreat

[00:18:49] Scott Snibbe: And in Christianity they say the same thing too, right? Hate the sin, love the sinner. Although, what’s amazing about Buddhism is it gives us specific techniques to get there.

So could you talk a little bit more, especially for people who are dealing with these things themselves, what are the Buddhist ways of thinking, philosophy, and also meditation techniques that helped you or that have helped others get over problems like this?

[00:19:15] sujatha baliga: Oh, beautiful question. So first and foremost, I, for years, sat Vipassana and that was really helpful. I think I sat like seven 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats, like not in rapid succession, at least once a year. And my primary issue, Scott, was anger this level of rage, and I was an extremely raging, rageful, negative, unkind, judgmental. I was not always unkind. I should be careful with that one. But I was extremely quick to judge and quick to call out and just slam people and just wasn’t the most pleasant experience. And it wasn’t particularly educational for the people who were on the receiving end of my very quick retort.

The Vipassana really helped me with the primary thing that His Holiness told me when he met me. He said, You have a very bright mind that is completely out of your own control and so first thing you need to do is meditate. You need to reign in your out-of-control very bright mind. This is not useful. That was the first thing was learning how to return to the breath, return to the breath, return to the breath; return to the object of meditation. I spent quite a bit of time doing that early on, and I still do.

I still need to refresh that and habituate myself to it so that now when I am in the middle of meetings where people are screaming at each other or screaming at me or whatever, I get to utilize my breath as the anchor so that I can respond and not react. And so first and foremost, learn to reign in the mind. Use a single object of meditation and make good friends with it. Your breath is such a wonderful friend because there she is, my non-judgmental best friend that has been with me since my very first breath outside the womb and will be with me until the end, and is always relaying really useful information.

Your breath is such a wonderful friend because there she is, my non-judgmental best friend that has been with me since my very first breath outside the womb and will be with me until the end, and is always relaying really useful information.

Like right now, Oh, my belly is tight and I’m like, okay, you could just take a breath right now and listen, what’s the breath telling you? So make friends with your breath. And then other practices that I’ve done. So equanimity practice has been incredibly powerful. Learning to feel that each of us, no matter if they are friend, enemy, or stranger, are all people who equally want happiness and equally don’t want suffering. And working through those equanimity meditations has been really beneficial.

Loving-kindness, after equanimity, just dealing with the basic understanding that we are all the same in our desire. Doesn’t mean I have to actively wish anything happy for you just yet. But I can at least hold that ground that we are all the same in that way. And then from there, moving into loving-kindness. The just like me meditation that Thupten Jinpa has created, I find really beneficial. And getting really specific in it. Like, just like me this person doesn’t want this specific type of suffering.

When you’re sitting in traffic and the people around you are all frustrated, just like me, everyone here does not want to be stuck here. So the equanimity, just like me, and then moving into active, loving-kindness, really actively wishing the friend, the stranger, and the enemy, loving-kindness, compassion.

May you not suffer, may you be happy. And then from there, moving into advanced land, tonglen practice has been really next level healing for me to be able to really want to draw out of my father, the image of my father, the really deluded bad parenting.

[00:22:58] Scott Snibbe: That’s an understatement, bad parenting.

[00:23:01] sujatha baliga: Yeah, because I’m an amazing parent. I am a really good parent. My child may watch this someday and be like, Whoa, she has some areas of improvement. And to wish to my father, wherever his being may be and whatever iteration his being takes, if he were ever to be a parent again, may he have what I have, this capacity to always put my kid and their wellbeing, happiness, flourishing, and joy first.

Breath observation, equanimity, just like me practices, loving-kindness, tonglen, slowly, slowly, slowly. People listening, slowly, gently, do not rush into it. You don’t need to start with tonglen. You don’t need to start with the person who harmed you the most. Practicing this with people who just kind of bug you is bad. I have lots of people just bug me. I’m working on it but it’s good. It’s good to just practice.

Is meditation always helpful?

[00:23:58] Scott Snibbe: Now you and I are obviously big on meditation. It’s a huge part of our lives and we’re meditation teachers but are there times meditation isn’t that good of an idea when you’re dealing with trauma. There have been some studies even that show certain cases where meditation can be  harmful if it’s done you know in the wrong ways, the wrong times.

[00:24:17] sujatha baliga: Yeah, I struggle with those studies because again, it is really like western notions of meditation. So I know you and I, Scott, lead meditation in ways. We’re always covering each other when each other’s out of town, so we don’t get to really enjoy each other’s meditations as much as we might.

[00:24:35] Scott Snibbe: Well, you need a night off sometimes, but I have watched you on Zoom during Covid and they were very good. I like your meditations.

[00:24:40] sujatha baliga: Thank you. Yeah, I’ve seen you lead meditation in other contexts as well. So what I can say is we ground people in what is our intention in doing this is. And you close out with rejoicing and dedicating the merits and you’re guiding people in a very particular way, and you’re giving people options in the meditation.

I think that in that it’s really important to do so if we are just meditating for the purpose of being better at our jobs or whatever, the intensity of the focus that you can learn without the grounding in, I’m doing this for myself and others. And to feel that deep connection to our interdependent nature; all of these things that we do at the outset of meditation.

If you do it without those things, I can see how just like focusing on an object when you have certain mental health issues, or whatever, could actually exacerbate those problems. But to my mind, when we secularize ancient traditions in a way that strips it down to something that works as a tool for a particular outcome, you are always running the risk of tweaking it in a way that actually could cause harm.

But to my mind, when we secularize ancient traditions in a way that strips it down to something that works as a tool for a particular outcome, you are always running the risk of tweaking it in a way that actually could cause harm.

So I mean, the same way that you could do that with any sort of natural substance in the world and then reduce it to a thing that is toxic. By mechanizing it or reducing it to its chemical level instead of it letting it be the whole plant.

We might be doing the same thing in these westernized notions of mindfulness so you can be better at your job killing people or whatever. It’s not good stuff. So I’m skeptical of those studies. I’m always skeptical of those studies. I’m like, Well what were you guys doing and how were you doing it? And who was teaching you? And how much did you strip away from what has been tried and true for 2,500 years, and longer? Because most of these practices actually come from ancient India, long before the time of the Buddha.

[00:26:44] Scott Snibbe: That’s good. I like hearing your answer because I try to respect science and it’s results. So when I saw those, I took them seriously. But I did ask a couple of scientists who’d been studying meditation their whole life and they had exactly the same reaction where they said, Well, what exactly were they doing? I’d like to see the meditation script.

But you explained it much more clearly because in our tradition, which is Mahayana tradition, you always have to begin with that gateway of this is for the benefit of all beings, including myself.  And end it in that way. May I make the world a little bit better place and my mind a little bit better. So I like your take that if you go into it and out of it the right way, with the right motivation, then it’s pretty unlikely it would be harmful.

Lessons from Vipassana

[00:27:27] sujatha baliga: Yeah, I think too when we’re talking about those longer 10-day sits or whatever, Goenkaji talks about two things. One of the things that I find very moving, that Goenkaji talks about, is how he asked Sayagyi U Ba Khin, his teacher, many, many times to teach him. And the teacher kept saying, Why? He’s like, because I want to get rid of my migraines. And he’d be like, Go away. And he kept coming back, But I want to be free from the suffering. He’s like, This suffering? Okay, go away.

And then when he finally came back, he was like, Okay, I want to be free of all suffering. He was like, Okay, now come to the course. So what we are doing it for can really be a setup for disappointment. Also, it’s not the right motivation. So that, I think that’s a piece of it too.

[00:28:09] Scott Snibbe: One of the kind of vows or precepts in our tradition is you’re not supposed to proselytize. So I’ve never, even though we’re talking about Buddhism all the time, it’s really only by invitation. A long-time friend asked me finally, Well, what is meditation exactly? Why are you doing this?

And I said, Well, people are very mistaken about meditation; I’ll tell you the purpose of meditation, it’s to bring out your best qualities. And he said, What? Really? He’s like, I thought it was to focus. I was like, Yeah, that’s what a lot of people think, but I think to get to those spiritual roots of meditation is really important. If you approach it like that it’s probably not going to make you ruminate more about your problems.

[00:28:49] sujatha baliga: That’s right. That’s beautiful. I love that. Yeah, it’s like dieting, it’s like anything that we’re doing for this reason instead of changing the way we engage with our bodies more holistically. Be healthy.

What is restorative justice?

restorative justice, two hands holdiing eachother helping out

[00:29:03] Scott Snibbe: I want to switch to asking you about something you’ve dedicated another big chunk of your career to, which is restorative justice. Can you just explain what that is?

[00:29:12] sujatha baliga: Absolutely, for the scientists who listen in, I think a nice way to think about it is in terms of paradigm shift. And so it calls us to a paradigm shift in the way in which we think about harm and crime and wrongdoing in the world. The paradigm shift is like how we think today with our current criminal legal system is asking the questions, what law was broken, or what rule was broken, who broke it, and how should they be punished?

Restorative justice asks a very different set of questions. It asks who was harmed and what do they need, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

Restorative justice asks a very different set of questions. It asks who was harmed and what do they need, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs? So if we just ask those first two questions, they are great therapeutic questions; and questions we should ask anyone that we love when something bad has happened whether it’s by someone or just in general; what happened to you and what do you need now?

But when we add that third question, who’s obligated to correct this? Who’s obligated to make this right? That’s what brings it into a justice paradigm or an approach to justice. So from my side what answers those questions best is face-to-face dialogue in which those who’ve caused harm are held directly accountable by their family and community to the self-identified needs of the person who’s experienced the harm.

So it is in those dialogues that we get to really hear like, what was the impact of this, where did this behavior come from, and what are the kinds of things that we need to do in order to make sure that this person is made as right as possible. So that the person who’s caused the harm has had their needs attended to in a way so that they can never do this again.

So it’s a community process; it’s a family and community process with both “sides” coming together. But what I find really interesting is that often the interests are aligned with people. When we move things out of a punitive model, we think about what it is that people need.

When we move things out of a punitive model, we think about what it is that people need.

I’ve done countless workshops across the globe where I ask questions or we just sit and recollect a time in which we’ve experienced a harm. And we write what were our needs then, and what are our needs now, on these post-it notes and we put them on a wall and we start to clump them, and then we go back and we do it again based on thinking about a time which we caused harm. With a different color, post-it, and we put those on the wall and we find the word that’s exactly the same as yours.

And the needs of people who caused harm and the needs of people who experienced the harm are often identical. To apologize, to be apologized to. What did you need at the time you caused this harm? I needed somebody to rein me in. I needed that person to be stopped. These are the things that the needs align. So when we come together to solve these problems, we find that there’s actually a lot more in common than you would suspect.

[00:31:56] Scott Snibbe: And so practically, when you did this, you’d get a municipality or something to give this option to people to opt out of the criminal justice system and use your process instead?

[00:32:06] sujatha baliga: That’s one of the ways that I did it, but I do it pre-charge so that we never even hit the courthouse door. So there are several jurisdictions in the country now where district attorneys would agree to divert the cases before they even charged. So people who had burglarized a home, or carjacked somebody, or robbed someone, even some sexual assaults, and all serious cases, would then be diverted to a community-based organization that had been trained in facilitating these dialogues.

Then they would reach out to the crime survivor and prepare both sides and bring everyone together with their families, communities, to come up with a plan to repair the harm. When that plan is completed, no charges are ever filed. And the data was pretty impressive. Two, three studies at this point have been done and we showed a 44% reduction in re-offense and a 91% satisfaction rate by the people who’d experienced the harm. So, pretty good stuff.

My work now is more in intimate partner in sexual violence. And so this is my heart’s work because of my own life. In this work, we don’t engage with the system at all because 50% of survivors of particularly domestic violence and probably even higher with sexual violence, never contact the system at all. Never tell anyone what happened.

But they need someone to go to. And so there are some community-based organizations I’m starting to train where people can come to those community-based organizations directly and say, this happened to me, and I want your restorative justice instead of nothing. Because they weren’t going to do something with the state anyway.

[00:33:37] Scott Snibbe: And also, there’s often a one-on one situation where you may not have sufficient evidence to even prosecute the crime, I assume.

[00:33:49] sujatha baliga: It’s interesting, particularly with certain types of sexual harm. I mean, the conviction rate is abysmally low, sometimes 2%, 6%. And it’s really hard to get a jury to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. There’s a story like believe survivors, and then our system isn’t really set up to do that.

And it’s also somewhat tautological. We’re asking juries to give somebody, beyond a reasonable doubt, but you’re supposed to simultaneously believe survivors. Like the two cannot possibly go together. It doesn’t make sense, right? So how do we make space in which we can believe survivors? And how do we make space in which people who have caused those kinds of harms can actually tell the truth about what they did?

And how do we make space in which people who have caused those kinds of harms can actually tell the truth about what they did?

So one of the most necessary parts when I’m working with the system is to have the system agree that nothing that’s said in restorative justice processes can be used against anyone in a of law. And that is how we get folks who caused harm to say, this is exactly what I did. that is really healing for survivors to have the whole truth come out, which rarely, if ever happens in a courtroom.

The grand vision of success

[00:34:55] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, because they’re so afraid of the consequences. Could you paint a picture of what the world or what the United States would look like if you implemented this a hundred percent? Our legal system, our prison system, we often are so focused on the negative. But what’s the vision? What’s the, the grand vision of success?

[00:35:20] sujatha baliga: The grand vision of success would be that the minute anyone did anything really messed up they could immediately admit that they did so. If you are habituated to a world in which your grossest and worst errors are going to mean people are going to circle around you to say, we got you and we’re going to work with you to make this thing right, and we’ll never shame and punish you. Instead we’ll support you to change the circumstances and to make things good.

Like that the grand vision would be like instant, I wouldn’t call them confession, like instant admission, I don’t know. There’d have to be better words for all of these things, right? Instant coming clean about what we did, wanting to come clean, coming clean on one side and on the other side.

Equally so survivors wouldn’t be ashamed, survivors wouldn’t be blaming themselves. And so all that shame and secrecy that goes along with so much of the harms that happened in this world would also disappear because we would be habituated to talking about it. I know that as a child, I knew to keep my mouth shut about what was happening to me. I knew that it would ruin everything, including my future and my life.

So I imagine that a world in which talking, coming forward, and being able to say, “This happened” having positive outcomes will make things really different. Therefore, ultimately the secrecy and shame and silence that is required for certain types of these harms to even thrive and exist would also be dissipated.

I don’t think restorative justice is the panacea. I think that a lot of harms occur because of need, desperation, other options, and whatever. So in my dream world, we’d also have universal basic income and universal basic services.

[00:37:18] Scott Snibbe: Healthcare, food, housing.

[00:37:20] sujatha baliga: All of that. If we had that which we could have for the cost of our criminal legal system and maybe a little portion of our military. Like, we could actually have the world I’m imagining, the resources are more than enough there to make that world happen.

My kid lives in that house, if he does something, if something didn’t go right, he can come straight to me. He’s not hiding stuff. He doesn’t have to because he knows that punishment is not the way we do things. So it’s pretty good. It feels really good.

Public shaming, cancel culture, and the alternatives

cancel culture, public shaming

[00:37:59] Scott Snibbe: This intersects with something I find very painful in today’s culture, which is the public shaming, which is not limited to any political party. It’s the progressives, conservatives; it’s a weapon that’s wielded more and more today against people for seemingly just reasons and sometimes unjust reasons.

But it seems to have grown in recent times and so it’s so nice to hear you saying that because I think this is a bipartisan issue to be against public shaming and to allow people to make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons lessons I’ve learned in my life have been from making a mistake.

As a child, as an adult in relationships, it’s so powerful when you can admit something and someone forgives you.

As a child, as an adult in relationships, it’s so powerful when you can admit something and someone forgives you. Someone forgiving you is the thing really does it because you realize like, I’m not that thing, I’m not that horrible thing I just did, or annoying thing I just did.

So how do we get past shaming? This is an active problem in our culture today.

[00:39:05] sujatha baliga: It’s a hard one, Scott. I mean, I think that on the one hand, people are finally starting to say that is not okay, and you are not allowed to say that about about me. That is not okay and you are not allowed to do that.

[00:39:19] Scott Snibbe: Standing up for dignity, right?

[00:39:21] sujatha baliga: There are people who are learning to stand up for their dignity or they are finally freed to, we’re finally giving their standing up for their dignity some airtime. So that’s good, that piece is good. I like this distinction between calling in versus calling out.

I like this distinction between calling in versus calling out.

But even in the calling in people are saying those words, but then somehow there’s this mass shaming that is still happening. And so, to me, we still lack the infrastructure for doing this well. But if there were always available people to facilitate conversations where you could have the conversation privately and then the public stories could be signposts of triumph when they are chosen collectively by everyone involved. So there are people who I have facilitated dialogues with where they have agreed to me telling their stories in the media.

There’s a gorgeous piece in the New York Times from 2011 called Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice? A young man killed his fiancé and we had a dialogue. Now he’s making PSAs from inside prison and helping other teenagers and teen dating violence, he’s become a beacon of “Don’t do what I did.” And it is because we all loved on him and said, Tell us everything that happened and let’s work together to come up with a plea deal for you.

And again, in my dream world, we don’t even have the prisons, but in the present moment, we do. So let’s come up with a plea deal that allows you to be fully responsible for what you did. We called Connor in, and I’m allowed to say his name because he’s chosen to be this kind of beacon in the world.

 So for me, the public nature of things just pushes us. On the left, I see sometimes punitiveness in our hearts. We can say we’re opposed to the criminal legal system, but then we’re still blasting on media, this person did these horrible things and they need to withdraw from society and they need to not do X and Y and Z, everybody boycott them.

I’m not saying that some of those requests might not be necessary. Until this person learns to take responsibility maybe they shouldn’t be in this public space or they shouldn’t be. But the heart needs to not be so punitive, the calling in, can we have a conversation where we talk about what happened?

And can we talk about what needs to happen to repair this? And can we talk about what needs to happen so that you never do this again? Those things feel really hard to do on a public stage.

[00:42:02] Scott Snibbe: So your answer is to have these private forums with skilled facilitators open to everybody. That’s obviously an enormous undertaking but a really good answer. People do need help, how are they going to do it themselves?How are people going to do this themselves? We give people help with lots of other things, and we punish them too. We have so many individuals on the opposite side in enforcement. So I like that answer. I’d never heard that.

[00:42:32] sujatha baliga: This is what, when we talk about defund the police, how much money do we spend on those mechanisms that could be diverted to countless peacemakers across the country? And people willing to hold those kinds of spaces. Yeah, that feels really important.

[00:42:51] Scott Snibbe: Or retrain the police to be that. I always, once I learned about the bodhisattva ideal, the idea that you live your life to benefit others, then I thought, that’s who should be the soldiers. That’s who should be the police men and women, the people who are willing to die to help someone, not the people who are willing to kill, to help somebody. And it probably is a matter of training since it’s so systemic. The problems we face right now.

[00:43:18] sujatha baliga: Yeah, and I think too, we should be careful about repurposing people are already in positions.

[00:43:22] Scott Snibbe: Oh yeah, I’m not necessarily saying it’s the same people. You could have us the same name potentially still. I don’t know what police actually means, and I know about its roots in racism and slavery and so on.

[00:43:38] sujatha baliga: Yeah, I do think it’s best to kind of start from scratch and scratch, really. Let’s imagine a world in which we had peacemakers just out in these streets all day, every day. I love this thing in Eugene, Oregon, thing called cahoots. And you could call the cops, or you could call cahoots instead.

And cahoots is like this roving mental health van thing that when there’s a mental health issue, you know, they’re de-escalators who are trained in mental health that show up, not the police, but the cahoots show up instead. We’re not asking the police to do something they’re utterly untrained to do, and they only have been given a hammer. And just makes everything worse. Cahoots stands for something, I don’t remember what.

[00:44:22] Scott Snibbe: Well, your term peacemaker is really good. Sadly, we’ve named a missile, a peacemaker or something like that. But peacemaker would be a very nice title. Thubten Jinpa gave a talk a long time ago, I think it was six, five or six years ago now, and he talked about our western, the Western Enlightenment, not Buddhist enlightenment, and how wonderful so many of those innovations are, democracy, human rights, the rule of the law, and so on.

But he also gently, but firmly, said that there’s a problem because in the current society, and obviously I’m paraphrasing, but in the current society, ethics is more or less optional. That’s what he says.

We created the system where many unethical things are legal.

We created the system where many unethical things are legal. And especially on your own private property and in your own home and your own land, that really, it’s just these gross forms of harm that are disallowed in our current legal system. And you don’t really have to be a good person. Like it’s okay. And maybe it’s even default to be a kind of selfish and even doing harmful things to yourself and others. So this is another crazy big question.

[00:45:32] sujatha baliga: I like your crazy big questions.

Should ethics be compulsory?

metaphor for ethics, life ring

[00:45:33] Scott Snibbe: I’ve been thinking about it a lot since my teacher, Venerable René, sent me that video, and it’s made me think about it a lot, like, so much of what you’re talking about is hyper optional.

It’s like you’re opting into all these amazing, beautiful things. What about the other side where it’s not optional, it’s actually embedded in our civilization, our society, maybe even our laws. Like, does that make sense? Is there a path to that? Should ethics be compulsory?

[00:45:59] sujatha baliga: Yeah, by whom is always a great question. So in my family unit there are many things that are non-optional. We sit down for dinner when we say it’s time for dinner. You do your homework. Until you get your own license this is the pickup time. And no, you can’t take a bus from there to here at that hour, or I will not sleep. Like we are a unit, and your behavior impacts me.

And in the same way, it is not optional for me to continue to be unhealthy. Like I have to get fit and well to live for a long time and my family has let me know that it is not an option for me to not go to the gym. But what’s the enforcement? It’s going to make me . . . I’m super emotional today for some reason. The enforcement is love.

I love them. And they love me and we love each other. And so that is why I want to be well, and live for a really long time. That is why my son doesn’t want me up worrying about where he is. Like either spend the night there and I know where you are or you’re coming home; and he knows, he cares about how his behavior lands on me.

And he knows that the homework is not optional thing because we want to see him do well and there’s a “we” in this. And so in a country that is so wedded to individual rights, it’s hard to imagine what a positive enforcement will be that is not hierarchical and abusive. So what we need to grow is our being in love with each other. And that becomes the enforcement in a sense.

This is not who we are. This is not how we are to one another. Like these kinds of things feel really important and what I try to teach my kid. So that’s a bit of my answer. There’s not a very concrete answer. I remember being horrified when I was in law school and I learned—I’m like literally seeing the seat I was in—we were reading through the part of the case book that said that there is no duty to save someone’s life.

If you see someone drowning and there is a life vest on a rope that you could throw to them that would put you in zero danger. You have no responsibility, no legal responsibility to save that person. But if you throw it out there and then you screw it up, somehow the family of the deceased can sue you. I was like, what are we talking about? This is evil.

But okay. So then what is the flip side of that? If we made it that you did have a duty to rescue, then who is enforcing that now? And I think about this a lot in terms of mandated reporting. I think at some point in this latest craze of trying to figure out what to do about our genuine pandemic of child sexual abuse in this country and the world. Certain states made every single human over 18 a mandated reporter about any sexual abuse that they find out about.

And it doesn’t matter if the person who caused the harm is dead. Like somehow that is in it too. This is so dumb that I kind of want to do a little test on this and go back to Pennsylvania with a megaphone walking down the streets announcing that my now deceased father sexually abused me. Just to point out the absurdity of the law, like every single person hearing that is now somehow criminally liable for not calling somebody to report this. I don’t want us to become that kind of society. I would rather us learn how to change our hearts and minds and fall so deeply in love with each other that, you know that we would never want to watch anybody drown.

I would rather us learn how to change our hearts and minds and fall so deeply in love with each other that, you know that we would never want to watch anybody drown.

Like, how could you not do something when you’re seeing someone drowning? But that to me isn’t an illegal question. It’s a moral question.

[00:50:04] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so much of it comes down to our leaders. I’ve noticed, I’ve worked at a couple of companies, and so much of the company’s culture comes down to the person at the top. When that is replaced, it’s amazing how instantly the culture can change too. So we need that in our leaders.

Occasionally, we do have this leaders who exude love. Who is the woman? She was this Course on Miracles person, Marianne Williamson. It was kind of amazing seeing her debating on the stage with all those other candidates because she just started gushing about love and forgiveness.

[00:50:43] sujatha baliga: She’s beautiful in that way, absolutely.

[00:50:46] Scott Snibbe: But it would be nice if that weren’t the exception.

[00:50:48] sujatha baliga: And became a laughing stock for many people. So sad; I’m not suggesting that she’s the right candidate, but at the same time why can’t we always have the love candidate up there? That would be me. I’d be the one being like, Can we love everybody?

[00:51:05] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, you have agreed to lead a meditation for us and we’ll hear in the next episode, but can you talk a little bit about what that is?

[00:51:14] sujatha baliga: Yeah, absolutely, a lot of my meditations are drawn from things that I’ve learned from Thupten Jinpa and his compassion cultivation training course, and things I’ve sort of rift on from that or drawn from that. But this is a meditation that is specific—we’re not going to go into thinking about our past trauma specifically, or having to like really go into that—but just noticing in our body where we hold discomfort and tension and where do these things maybe live in us? It doesn’t have to be like the exact spot where a thing happened.

Like we had some skiing accident and it was really traumatic and it still sort of lingers, like you don’t have to think that specifically about it, but rather just scanning our body to notice where we’re holding things and learning to breathe some space into those things. And then we’re going to do it on a physical level, but then we’re also going to do it on a mental level. Like, where do we hold these stories? Literally in our brains.

We were just talking about the hippocampus and those memories of those. And yeah, we don’t have to use the specific words of the amygdala, hippocampus, but there’s a little limbic hijack that can occur. So just some visualizations around releasing those, letting those sort of float away and untie those knots. So we’ll be doing a little bit of that in our meditation.

[00:52:30] Scott Snibbe: Well, thank you so much, Sujata. It’s amazing having you in this conversation. And there’s a few things you said that’ll stick with me my whole life. You know, even though we talk quite often there’s things you said in this conversation, especially about how to treat the whole country of the whole world with some of these solutions that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

[00:52:52] sujatha baliga: Oh, thank you, Scott. I love the intentionality with which you do this podcast and the questions that you were so thoughtful in putting together and there’s something just special about having an intentional—I obviously believe there’s something special about having intentional conversations. So thank you for inviting me into this one.

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