Career Changer: From stressed-out cop to Buddhist monk

Photo: Saverio TrugliaPhoto: Saverio TrugliaBy Susan Hauser

For Cheri Maples, enlightenment began in a chiropractor's office. It was 1991, and the Madison, Wisconsin, policewoman needed treatment for a back injury-she'd been hoisting a stolen moped out of a car trunk; in the waiting room, Maples flipped through a copy of Being Peace, by the Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh. "It was so simple, so no-nonsense," she recalls. "He described what mindfulness and meditation actually look like in day-to-day life. It gave me the desire to know more."


Seventeen years later, Maples had traded her crisp police blues for earth-toned robes when Nhat Hanh ordained her as a Buddhist dharma teacher. As head of the Center for Mindfulness & Justice, founded in 2009 and based out of her Madison home, Maples travels the continent leading workshops and retreats for cops and others in the criminal justice system-where she spent 25 years variously serving as a police captain, head of probation, and assistant attorney general.

RELATED: Who Are You Meant to Be?

"A cop's life is hard," she says. "There's a lot of stress, trauma, and emotional shutting down. People turn to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, infidelity-anything to cope." (Maples herself has been clean and sober for 21 years.) "The workshops give cops the tools to examine their own intentions and biases-to approach their job not with anger and cynicism but love and fierce compassion."

RELATED: 25 Smartest Pieces of Advice from Women Who Started Their Own Businesses

Maples, the mother of two grown sons, has faced skepticism from what she calls "the biggest of the boys' clubs." "Some cops think I'm asking them to drink the Kool-Aid, so I use my own experience as a blueprint," she says. "At my first-ever retreat, I had a chip on my shoulder. I said, 'I can't do mindfulness training-I'm a cop. I carry a gun!' But then a teacher asked me, 'Who better to carry a gun than someone who does so mindfully?'"

RELATED: How to Start Something Big

To date, Maples has trained more than 1,000 criminal justice personnel in mindfulness techniques. "It's amazing to watch a guy taking off his bulletproof vest before he meditates," she says. "Police are peacemakers. And you can't bring peace anywhere unless you have it inside your own heart."

RELATED: What Do You Really Want to Do with Your Life?

More from O, The Oprah Magazine:

Like O, The Oprah Magazine on Facebook