“You cannot hate . . . if you meditate.”
This optimistic aphorism comes from Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s first African American borough president, former state senator, retired cop, and democratic nominee for New York City mayor in 2021.
Adams discovered meditation after he retired as a New York City Police Department captain, finding that the practice helped him process the things he’d experienced as a law enforcement officer. A longtime opponent of police brutality, Adams has in recent years merged his calls for police reform with his advocacy for training in meditation and mindfulness. In 2019, he established a grant to train Department of Education staff in yoga and mindfulness, and urged the mayor and police commissioner to offer meditation training to officers.
Adams spoke with Tricycle about his experiences in law enforcement and meditation, and his views on the path to a racially just future.
What can meditation do to help address racial injustice at the hands of law enforcement? I think meditation and mindfulness can play a crucial role in how we redefine policing. We are on the precipice of change in what public safety and law enforcement mean for us as Americans. For far too many years, in many communities, we walked around with a toolbox full of different tools to use, but the only one we implemented was a hammer. And when you only have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail. But now we need to supply our offices with the tools of mindfulness and meditation.
This applies not only to how police forces deal with the public but also to how they deal with themselves. How do they deescalate their own actions or their partners’ actions? This type of tool could be used not only while on patrol, but also in personal life. Police officers have some of the highest levels of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide.
I believe at the start of every tour officers should meditate. And then at the end of the tour, they should take an opportunity to meditate again to re-center themselves.
You have said that meditation saved your life after 22 years of NYPD service. What do you mean by that? After years of experiencing the impact of law enforcement and the everyday interaction with some of the most horrific things men can do to men in a city like New York, without knowing it you experience PTSD. The body does not know the difference between actually going through an experience or thinking about one.
How did you find your practice? I started reading about self-care and how one could turn off the noise from the things one had experienced. I did not really believe it was possible, but I was surprised to learn that there was this powerful tool called meditation.
How do you apply your meditation practice to your role as a civic leader? Were there moments during your career as a police officer when meditation could have helped you act more skillfully? Yes, without a doubt.
My days as borough president can be extremely stressful because there are so many things happening at once. There’s a constant pulling. It is so powerful to be able to acknowledge that there is a great deal of anxiety around you but still be able to focus on your breathing to slow down your thinking and your reactions. I do it with a level of calmness and understanding that everything is alright.
When I was policing, there were many times when I allowed myself to get hooked on the anxiety of the moment. My response could have been much better if I hadn’t gotten caught up in that fight-or-flight mode. If I were able to rein myself back in, to recenter myself, I would have handled many occasions differently.
In 2019 you advocated for meditation training to be implemented in the NYPD. What’s the status of that training today? This call was made due to the high level of police suicides we experienced that year. The PBA (Police Benevolent Association) and the New York City police union joined us and called for the implementation of meditation for their members. We’re hoping that the police academy and the commissioner embrace our call and implement this in their officers’ basic training, as well as in what’s called in-service training, when officers are retaught how to discharge their firearms and other tactics.
Surely meditation alone can’t solve the entire issue that we’re grappling with today. What other measures do you call for to combat racism? When we talk about police reform, there’s a lot of conversation about “defund the police.” I share the belief that we should reuse police agencies’ budgets. In the last few years, our budget went up by more than a billion dollars. We can use that money to be more proactive in identifying what causes crime in the first place instead of just responding to it.
If we invest in the early identification of and resources for learning disabilities such as dyslexia, we will decrease the Rikers Island (jail complex) population. If we do something as simple as take $50 million of the police budget and put it into Fair Futures [a coalition of welfare agencies, nonprofits, and organizations working for our youth], we could give foster children life coaches until the age of 26 instead of them aging out at 21. It would give those children an opportunity to graduate from high school, attend college, and not become the victim of criminal behavior.
What are you doing to bring meditation to the communities, not just the police forces, that you serve? In 2019 I did a program called Black Men Meditate in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. All men were invited, but I really wanted to focus on Black men because if you look at the demographics of people who meditate, you see that theirs is the least likely to.