Sustaining Spiritual Leadership


Ten years ago this month we launched a School for Contemplative Living. Our mission began as simply “living in stillness, serving in joy.” Over time it evolved into “creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and compassionate service with the world.” Our little motto has been: “Let Love Rule.” An initial vision during a small post-Hurricane Katrina centering prayer group of spreading contemplative living as a lifestyle, evolved into the many weekly classes and groups, monthly workshops, annual retreats, and an annual contemplative conference which we support today.

This weekend we were led in a “Yoga and Contemplative Prayer Retreat” called “In Your Presence is Fulness of Joy” by Rev. Ani Vidrine at our Ecoutez! Retreat home on a cypress swamp in South Louisiana. The experience was typical of our monthly experiences of gathering whoever feels drawn this month to go deeper into the center of our beings, into the Presence within, in community.

This year I will be launching out into other places, like a contemplative missionary, to create or support contemplative communities in other places. And part of that work will involve teaching the Compassion Cultivation Training created at Stanford University by the Dalai Lama’s translator, Dr. Thupten Jinpa. Thanks be to God we are continuing our expanding mission as we begin our eleventh year.

Recently, several young adult women who serve as spiritual leaders asked how one goes about sustaining spiritual leadership. In part they meant financially. But what welled up in me started with some contemplative leadership principles which have slowly formed through experience. Because what arose seemed to speak to the Catholic nun, Protestant spiritual director, and Buddhist priest, I thought it might be of service to share it here.

     Some principles of contemplative leadership first:
1. Do not look for traditional employment with institutions. They always have other agendas that will pull you away from your mission to serve the institution, like, “By the way, we need you to give Sundays and many weekends to unrelated church events where staff are expected to ‘come help,’ i.e. do the set up, run it, and clean up.” There goes your energy and open space for aligning with Spirit’s own intentions.
2. Let go of needing people in authority, or sometimes even family, to understand or agree with your calling. Almost no one will grasp it, except perhaps a few with the same kind of calling. Look to them for support. Keep listening within. Spirit will reveal Her desires for you.
3. Let yourself be converted, again and again, as your first priority. Your inner transformation and alignment with Spirit is what radiates the Great Love out into the world. Seekers will be drawn to you, or to Who is at work in you.
4. That means your daily spiritual practice of Sourcing is more important than any acts of service. Get that backwards and you will fill with resentment, even toward those you seek to serve.
5. Do not waste energy fighting against systems or institutions trying to change them. Love individuals inside those places and transmit Who is in you to them. You will find one or two who can see or support your vision. Make friends with them. “Fighting against” is not our path. The world has enough of that.
6. Keep listening down in your inner sanctuary, day to day, for your own personal guidance of where you are led next.
Bon courage!
Now for what you really asked about practical sustainability, probably meaning, “Where’s the money for this?”
1. Your clarity of vision, (The world you feel led to create), succinctness of mission, (Exactly how you feel led to create that world), and ability to articulate those to the world who needs you will draw the financial support you need. How?
2. My own spiritual director led me where I did not want to go years ago before we had a School, by discerning this, “William, you are being led to carry a monk’s begging bowl.” I resisted big time. But in the end I had to start asking for what I needed, and I still do every day. Our version is to ask for suggested donations, with openness to whatever people can afford, at all workshops and trainings. We created an annual conference with well known speakers who draw a crowd paying $75-100 for a weekend. That raised  anywhere from $5000-100,000 when Richard Rohr came. I also ask specific people of means to help support such events, and several of them donate $500-5000 occasionally.
The point is: be willing to keep asking for what you need, and do not underestimate what you need. You are not asking for a Mercedes, you are asking people to sustain a ministry created by the Spirit of God through you. You matter, your service matters, so you need income to keep serving. Ask.
3. Look to a variety of sources of financial support. I receive income through a small salary in our School, which goes up or down according to what comes to us. I also am paid for private counseling and spiritual direction, and retreat leadership. I occasionally teach at Loyola University, though schools always underpay adjuncts. I spent a year receiving a certification to teach Compassion Cultivation Training. If I teach locally the donations go to our School, which helps support my salary. If I teach out of town, the income comes to me.
4. How much? I ask for $100/hour of leadership at retreats, which is what our School pays each workshop leader. So we ask participants to make suggested donations to attend. That way church groups do not say “we have no budget for this but come do it for free.” Churches are notorious for underpaying everyone except some white male pastors. They also think everything should be free. I don’t do free, because I need to eat too. So sometimes I must say “no” to things I would have enjoyed leading, and some groups say “no we can’t pay you.”
5. How do people learn about what I offer? Write. Blog posts, Instagram and Facebook posts, and articles or books you write help people keep up with what you are offering. Some of them will attend what you lead. Some might support what you offer financially. Create a Go Fund Me or such for a special project, set a real goal and deadline, and do not give up. This helps people see what you are offering and associate money with the service, even when they do not give at that time.
6. Word of mouth is the best way people learn what you offer, so ask friends to help publicize your events in a wide range of settings across spiritual traditions.
7. Interfaith gatherings simply reach a broader range of people than events for only one church, synagogue, or temple, and that also helps more potential supporters know or participate in what you offer. Plus, Spirit loves and wants to embrace all peoples, and so do you. Do not limit your scope to a small group.

I hope these initial thoughts help you know you are on the right path, and sustaining spiritual leadership is what Spirit has in mind, through you.

William Thiele, PhD, founding spiritual director
The School for Contemplative Living
Video: “Monks in the World”
author: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture
“A Contemplative Path” podcast on iTunes and blog on
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Back inside prison

Angola photo

The men keep teaching me, whether those inside Angola State Prison, or those in the reentry program. This week some amazing men on the inside, who I first met in the summer of 2017, and some new men I had never met before, and the men on the outside all taught me about character, resilience, faith, caring for each other, and the joy of recognizing each other’s inherent dignity and worth.

Several of the men on the inside are actually anticipating release after decades inside Angola. And they are fine men. We judged them for decades based on their worst day in their adolescence. They used the time to grow in character, develop or deepen their faith, receive education or ministerial training, and become mentors to other men.

One of the guys, (I’ll protect names), spoke at the Day of Compassion Wednesday about what it is like “when compassion seeks to marry justice.” He spoke with great wisdom, and I told him so afterwards. One of the guys talked briefly about serving as a volunteer hospice worker for over a decade, in addition to serving as a daily AA sponsor for up to 10 men a day. He inspires me and I told him so. We share big hugs of mutual appreciation when I get to return and see these guys again.

Other guys talked about preparing for reentry in the next six months. One of them wrote a manual on being a good father while incarcerated, which has been shared in over 250 U.S. prisons. He mailed me a copy and it is full of hard-won wisdom. So I brought him a copy of my own book, finally, after promising to do so a year ago. As I told him, it was embarrassing that he managed to accomplish that from prison before I exchanged my book with him from the outside. I hope I get to meet up with him once he is back out in the free world.

One after another, incarcerated men made my heart happy as we greeted each other like long-lost friends, even though we have only had a few conversations in the past 18 months. My little contributions to the day included leading a few moments of guided meditation for the group of 150 people gathered there by Lara Naughton, certified Compassion Cultivation Training teacher, and offering my sincere joy in connecting with the men.

Wednesday was a beautiful day, a day when free people from the outside learned from men on the inside, and together we built another bridge toward inner freedom for all of us.

The evening before that was fascinating too. I was facilitating the Tuesday reentry group with the returning citizens. These men work all day, and then they attend the weekly meeting in support of their own reentry into society, in addition to meeting with their probation officer and judge each week, attending AA or NA meetings, and showing up for random drug screens. Their consequences are not over just because they are outside Angola. And their struggles are daily.

This week I was challenging the men to take a deep dive by asking an unusually blunt question, in hopes of helping us all keep cultivating our compassion for each other. The request was for them to share a response, if they chose to, which began with: “I suffered when….” The role for the rest of the group was to listen with compassion and answer the sharing with: “May you be free of suffering.”

I modeled by sharing first, and told some of the harsh details of going through the breast cancer journey with my wife. They responded with the group blessing: “May you be free of suffering.”

The guy next to me spoke next, and briefly said, “I am suffering right now. I am really wrestling with my demons and it feels like they are winning. That’s all I have to say about that.” We all shared the group blessing.

The next man spoke of his frustration over having limited income to help provide for his kids. He said he felt bad after years of being inside where he couldn’t contribute to the family at all. And now he faces the many costs of daily life, and of the reentry program, with the result of having to tell the kids “No” to some of their requests. He said, “I hate having to tell them ‘no.'” We offered the group blessing.

Then most of the men started passing on the sharing as my singing bowl moved from one man to another. The intention was to sound the singing bowl when each man finished. But seven men in a row passed. I started to wonder if the resistance was going to upend the rest of the hour together. The room felt like it got cold. I felt anxious about what might happen if they all resorted to a stone cold silence. One of the guys who had already shared asked the question that they all might have been wondering: “What are we doing this for anyway?”

One guarantee in the group of returning citizens, they always keep it real. They do not play nice or pull any punches. They say what they really think and often challenge me. So I responded: “This is just an exercise to practice caring about each other.” He retorted, “We spent years together on the inside. We already care about each other.” I responded with trepidation, knowing I am still an outsider in their tight-knit group: “Yes, and we are just continuing to cultivate compassion for each other. We all know their is enough hatred in the world. We can all use some practice.”

The room stayed quiet for a moment.

Then the youngest man took the singing bowl and launched into a detailed story. “I am suffering now with my old man. I still live in his house and he decided to raise my monthly rent by 50%. He questions me about what I do with the money I earn. I tell him to mind his own business. Then he tells me my daughter can’t spend the night there anymore. It’s like he keeps looking for new ways to frustrate me and make life harder.”

At that point several of the men jumped in with their advice of ways he might handle all of that. I let them go for a few minutes and then interrupted: “Let’s try just listening to what he has to say and caring for him in these struggles. Anyone can give advice, so let’s really hear him.”

That was too much confrontation for the unofficial “voice of the people” to take. The former drug dealer, who tends to resist whatever I offer, challenged me: “How can it be wrong to offer our input when we see our brother struggling. That is caring.” I said, “Okay, tell me more about that.”

“We get what he is going through. We’ve been there before. This is what we do to show we care. We tell him what he can’t see and how he could handle this.” The unofficial leader was making sense. I started seeing that their challenges and confrontive advice were the best way they knew to care.

So he interpreted what he thought the dad was doing: “He’s trying to push you out. He wants you to become a man. Hell, I was out on my own at sixteen.” Another guy said, “Yeah, when I was eighteen I was already buying a house and supporting myself and my old lady.” The “leader” carried on: “Your dad probably cares about you but he wants you to learn how to stand on your own. And that’s what you need, to be a man. He’s gonna keep pushing on you ’till you get out on your own. And you’ll thank him for it later. Then you can do what you want.”

The discussion and challenges invited the man, who had started his sharing with anger, to admit he could see their point. Several more guys got on that bandwagon until he seemed through with his story. I invited them to speak our group blessing one more time: “May you be free of suffering.”

Two men jumped up, checked the time, and said, “We’re done.” Then they all got up and, in fact, we were done. As I said, they don’t “play nice.” These guys don’t follow the rules of polite society. Their lives are too hard. And they lost their freedom and felt controlled by others, often white prison guards, for way too long. Now they can do what they want. So when they are done, they are done.

It’s weird, but I am pretty sure I am going there to learn how to practice compassion cultivation inside their difficult world. So it seems funky that I still have an ego that can feel offended inside with each week’s confrontations, challenges, and resistances. I guess I am just human that way.

But at the same time, I like the challenge. I like having to face my fears and learn to go with the resistance. And this week I learned that I could be wrong. Maybe advice is not always wrong. Maybe, probably, for these guys it might be the most caring way they know.

Being back inside prison, and working with men as they come out, it is so clear again this week that these men are becoming some of my best teachers. May we all be free of our suffering as we take our own baby steps into cultivating compassion.

*Compassion Cultivation Training classes begin soon in New Orleans. I am taking registrations now from the general public and starting the eight weeks of classes on January 2 from 5:30-7:30 pm, or January 3 from 12-2 pm. You can register through the website of The School for Contemplative Living at Come help me keep learning how this works!

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Fresh out of prison

Shadow Man photo

This week I began exploring compassion cultivation with a second group of men who are described as “fresh out” by the men referred to as “veterans” in our original group. Being a “veteran” simply means they have been a returning citizen for several months. The new men have been out for two weeks.

Transition from prison back into the “free world” is a giant challenge. The men do not want to go back, but they are just beginning to learn some skills needed to negotiate the stresses of life on the outside. “One day at a time” might seem a cliché, but for these men that is a desperate truth. They really have to find better ways to cope with life fast, or they will ruin this chance at freedom.

So how do men learn compassion for self and others fast? We all know it doesn’t work that way. And each week we only have an hour to begin baby steps in this life-long work. We have to trust that if we give them a chance, the men who are ready will continue to develop character and skills to cope with challenges to their character.

Two of the “fresh out” men attended Compassion Cultivation Training classes with Lara Naughton while inside Angola prison. So I asked them to share with the rest of the guys what they could remember learning. One of the guys spoke first with a question he remembered from the training: “How is your heart today?” He told how the men divided into pairs, looked each other in the face, and responded to the question.

As he described the process, the veteran next to him said, “Wait. What?” He was shocked at the idea of two tough men facing each other and speaking in that way of the heart. He couldn’t really believe men in Angola are learning to do that. Another peer made fun of him and called him a “homophobe.” He said, “No it’s not that. In the streets men don’t stare each other in the face unless they are threatening each other.”

The “fresh out” man explained that the class members had in fact had the courage to simply see each other and speak their truth with things like: “My heart is sad today because I haven’t seen my kids in over a year.” I affirmed what he said and told about the first time I did the exercise with a man inside Angola. I had shared how entering the gates made my heart feel a hint of the despair that men on the inside often feel, even though I knew I would be free to leave a few hours later.

Once again, as the compassion cultivation training continued, then men who were ready responded to the question of the day and spoke their truth. They responded with very honest and vulnerable answers to the question of the night: “Who were you? Who are you now? Who are you becoming?” Once again I was amazed that men kept leaping off into the abyss of confessing who they had been in great detail. And once again they tried to find words for who they are and are becoming.

Their sharing is like men finding words they have never spoken for experiences that are brand new in this very moment. They are literally fresh. They are just tasting skills of honesty and truth-telling they might have never tried before. Many of them are attending 12-step recovery meetings each week. They are practicing truths from those meetings for the first time, like: “This is HOW this program works – Honesty, Openness, and Willingness.” In our room too, they are doing the work that can set men free, really free.

Thanks be to God that men who were in prison mentally/emotionally/relationally even before they entered Angola, and then spent years on the inside, are now becoming “fresh” in their experience of inner freedom – “One day at a time.”

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Living the mission: radiating compassion

William 2
Opportunities are abounding to share what I learned from the Compassion Institute’s teacher training program in the curriculum for Compassion Cultivation Training, (CCT), created at Stanford University by Thupten Jinpa, PhD, and the five wonderful women who serve as the founding faculty: Drs. Margaret Cullen, Monica Hansen, Kelly McGonigal, Erika Rosenberg, and Leah Weiss.
Here are some hints of the opportunities: Meeting this week with law school professors from the Tulane and Loyola law schools about teaching CCT for law students next semester; Sharing “Cultivating Self-Compassion” with staff at Ochsner Hospital for Spiritual Care Week, then with their Chaplain Residents next week; Planning details for a Spring “Compassion Now!” workshop and then a national conference with the Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
In the midst of living this mission, I also know there is danger in saying “yes” to so many opportunities that we end up talking of things we are not living.
From the earliest beginnings of the Quaker movement among Christians in the 1600s, the founder George Fox went around England challenging Anglican priests for being “nothing but a notionist, and not in possession of what [they] talked of.” For people of faith everywhere, including Quakers like me, there is a danger in becoming so busy in our doing that we end up only sharing “notions,” rather than practicing the Presence in direct experience first, from which we are then radiating compassion.
In contrast to becoming so busy we are empty within, and then speaking “notions” out of that emptiness, Fox called for another way of life where “…your growth in the Seed [Inner Teacher] is in the silence, where ye may find a feeding of the bread of life…and there is innocence and simplicity of heart and spirit is lived in and the life is fed on.”
May we each heed the call to live the life first, today, now, and only then speak what we experience. Or better yet, may we even radiate compassion without many words. May you and I so live.
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Returning Citizens are not like we thought.

Shadow Man photo

This week I learned that formerly incarcerated men who are participating in the reentry to society program are referred to as Returning Citizens. I really like that title. It has dignity in it. It focuses on what is happening now, not before. It puts them in the same boat with the rest of us. The question for all of us is not just, “Who were you?” The greater truth/question is about “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?”*

This week the program manager was not there to lead the check-in group, so it was just me and fourteen Returning Citizens. Now I have to say that made me nervous. My fears were that the men might take advantage of her absence and act up a bit, decline to stay on topic, be disrespectful, ignore whatever I offered, or just walk out. Like most fears, they were all unreal.

The real insecurities were within me. What do I have to offer them? Can I relate to them, since our life circumstances have been so different? Can I handle the group, (asking this reeks of wanting control)? Can I lead them to something meaningful that doesn’t waste their time?

Then there was the practical reality that I had already learned not to try to lead some pre-designed exercise. And in my last group a deepening question had proven meaningful. So what question might take them into the journey of self-exploration and personal growth?

I spent the afternoon practicing a Quaker way of opening ourselves to what we call “vocal ministry” in a meeting for worship. In worship, which is silent meditation, we listen to the Inner Teacher for guidance in our personal lives. And sometimes there is this nudge that says whatever is being spoken within us might be of help to the larger community. If clarity arises about that, we might briefly speak a few phrases of vocal ministry out loud for the good of the group, and then we fall back into silence.

During the afternoon, I was asking for such guidance from the Inner Teacher about a question to ask: something simple and heartfelt that could bring us toward wisdom for living. Finally, I remembered how Lara Naughton once asked the men inside Angola to pair up and respond to the following question: “How is your heart today?” I had been surprised by how sincerely the men had been able to speak from the heart in vulnerable ways.

But the question rotated in my mind and turned into this: “Who is in your heart?”

That evening the guys filed into the group room, mostly on time, and began re-connecting after a week away from each other. There was a lot of joking around, catching up, telling stories, etc. They obviously enjoy being with each other.

When the time came for me to call the group to order, we started with my meeting the newest member of the group who had just become a Returning Citizen. I asked the men to start off by telling me something about him. Several told funny stories about him from the days on the inside.

Then I told them the program manager wasn’t in town, that it would just be me with them for the evening, and I shared a brief introduction to the subject for the group: “Most people in society might think guys who have been to prison don’t care about anyone but themselves. They might presume you are heartless. So here’s what I want to know tonight: ‘Who is in your heart?'”

The guys didn’t have to think long before __________ spoke up, “These guys right here are in my heart,” and he laughed, then directed the response to them, “You guys are all in my heart.” I said, “That’s amazing. Tell me about that.” He said, “We all shared a lot through the years inside,” and he gave an example of a funny thing that had happened with one of the guys, (which I won’t share to protect their confidence).

Another man spoke up: “Yeah, I have a few of these guys in my heart too.” So I asked, “Who else is in your heart?” He answered, “My family.” I asked who his family was. He named his mom, sisters, an uncle, and some cousins. I thanked him for sharing that.

As though things were getting a little too sincere for him, one of the guys who hasn’t been outside for long turned things upside down: “I’ll tell you who isn’t in my heart.” Then he launched into a story about a prison guard who he still hated for being so mean on the inside, and another incarcerated man who was always playing practical jokes to get him in trouble. Then the man who had just come to us from inside jumped into a story about the same guy being violent toward a prison guard.

I had already let things go too far and had to speak up: “How did we go so far off track that now we are sharing who isn’t inside our hearts?” They laughed. “Can we get back to who is in your heart?”

Several men tried to speak at once, so I had to pick one to share and asked the other guys to hold it. ____________ said he was letting some kids from the neighborhood into his heart. “There was a time when they all saw me for what I was, a drug dealer. They knew what I was about. So I want them to see me for who I am now. I was leading them the wrong way. I am changing that by volunteering to help with the soccer team. I don’t know ____ about soccer, but I can be there for them, buy everyone a drink after practice, and try to lead them toward the right path.”

I said, “That’s pretty cool that you would pick the very kids you were hurting in your old life to help now.”

Then it was like popcorn. One man after another gave examples of who is in their heart. When the hour was nearly over, I had to ask a few of the men who had not spoken to check in if they wanted to.

One guy who always seems reluctant to speak took the challenge: “I became a Christian on the inside.” (He seemed a bit sheepish to say that out loud, so I admired his courage). “I learned I had to let God into my heart. And now I’m trying to let others in too. I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy. And I don’t let everyone in. It’s still not easy with my mom. But I am tryin’. I affirmed him for that.

I asked them all, “Can I tell you one quick example of who is in my heart?” They agreed, as long as I made it quick. I told them about one of my favorite moments when my grandson had awakened me about six a.m. with a little kiss on the cheek saying, “Let’s play Papa.” I simply told them, “My grandson Sam is in my heart.”

Then we closed. I breathed a sigh of relief that things had gone pretty well with their sharing. I think it was meaningful. And as they left the group room I realized that what I secretly wanted was for them to accept me. My real relief was that the guys seemed to be letting me into their circle, (which I am realizing is a kind of wisdom circle), even if I wasn’t on the inside of Angola with them.

There it is. I need acceptance and belonging as much as they do. And even if the reentry group isn’t about me, I still want to be accepted into the circle. Maybe that is one of our most human traits. We want to know we are worthy of love and belonging, even if we are in unusual places like a group for Returning Citizens.


*(I learned this sequence of questions from Lara Naughton as she asked men inside Angola State Penitentiary).


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A lawyer in compassion class sniffed enlightenment

He said he had just had a “weird, crazy” vision. But it wasn’t weird or crazy. He had just sniffed enlightenment. And even though the class was ending, he really needed to share his vision. It was like the reality and power of his discovery would disappear if he didn’t tell it right then.

We spent the evening covering the theme of our shared common humanity during week five of the Compassion Cultivation Training program, (originally created by Dr. Thupten Jinpa in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University). Our class was delving into a subterranean adventure, looking for the inner layer of our existence where we are interconnected with all humans, speaking out the many ways others are “just like me,” and sharing examples of how our lives depend completely on millions of others.

The class members had taken turns sharing deeply and playfully that evening in a kind of fill-in-the-blank game of how “Just like me, other people are…addicted to negative news on their cell phones, yet wanting to be free of suffering…meditating for inner peace, and yet resisting taking the time to meditate…playing guitar and other instruments to experience beauty…making art…seeking purpose in life…wanting to be happy.” Once we had begun to share, the examples of ways we are just like each other flowed freely.

Then we practiced connecting with each other in pairs through an exercise of bringing deep presence to hearing each other’s stories. We all closed our eyes, practiced breathing to center ourselves in the moment, opened our eyes to really take in our partner, and then one person shared a time of difficulty or suffering while the other listened intently without speaking. After a time of speaking/listening, we paused, closed our eyes, centered ourselves again, felt what we had just experienced, and switched so the other partner could share/listen. They could substitute sharing a response to the question, “How is your heart today?” They could also fill in the blank to the questions of, “Who was I? Who am I? Who am I becoming?”*

Class members described their experiences as “touching, beautiful, difficult to listen without speaking, connecting, creating a sense of immediate friendship,” and more.

Then we spoke our examples of ways our lives completely depend on others, like: “I depend on the garbage men who take away all the trash that would make my whole house and life a mess without them, so sometimes I run out to them with a bottle of water to say, ‘thank you;’ I was with a family member for dinner who prayed for the farmer who grew our vegetables, the truckers who drove the food to the store, the stockers who put it on the shelves, the cashiers who checked me out, the people who created the gas for my car to drive the vegetables home, the people who assembled the car itself, the people who made the pots I cooked in, and the family gathered to enjoy the meal; I went to meet the local woman farmer who grew the vegetables I cook in my restaurant; I depend on others to drive me in the city because the crazy drivers scare me too much; I depend on my husband to love me no matter what; I depend on our weekly guided meditations to help me cultivate compassion.”

Their examples were highly personal, detailed according to their own circumstances, and yet they spoke things which we could all relate to. It was obvious we could have gone on all night and barely scratched the surface of the ways our lives completely depend on others.

We moved into a guided meditation to cultivate the embracing of our common humanity. It included cultivating a Compassionate Image which could help us broaden our compassion, sending compassion to a loved one, opening our hearts to ourselves from a time we had suffered, and then moving to the challenge for the night. Participants were invited to remember a stranger they had encountered, to see their face, to wonder what their life was like, to picture them being loved, to imagine their difficulties, and to send them a blessing.

Then they were challenged to picture a difficult person, without getting lost in the story of what made them difficult, and to wonder about the life behind that face. They were asked to picture them as a child, someone who had been loved by others, and someone who had suffered. They were asked to see them “with the eyes of the heart,” to wish them well and to say, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

Finally, they were asked to see all three people in front of them: loved one, stranger, and difficult person. They were asked to use their eye of the heart to see them and wish them freedom from suffering. They were reminded that “Just like me,” they all want happiness and freedom from suffering, even if they all seek those things in very different ways. And they were invited to let themselves abide in the awareness of how interconnected we are with all beings everywhere.

The evening was drawing to a close as I reviewed suggestions for homework during the week to come. Our time was up. But that’s when the lawyer spoke up. He asked if he could please keep us a minute longer so he could share his “weird, crazy” vision. We said, “Sure.”

His vision was not weird or crazy. His vision was a sniff of enlightenment.

He said during the guided meditation he imagined the car he had driven in to our class. He saw how the tires were made by someone, the car parts assembled by others, the car trucked to the dealer by someone else, the car sold by someone, and then he saw the people who worked on street repair. Then he imagined those who built the sidewalk up to the house where we were meeting, and the housebuilders a hundred years ago, and the painters, and the furniture makers for the chairs we were sitting in.

He said, “It’s like I am seeing every single detail of this life as interconnected, interwoven, and all the people everywhere as part of the whole thing. It’s mind-blowing to see layers upon layers of people over time, for thousands of years now, all being part of each other.” Then he paused, “Weird huh?”

I responded, “I challenge you to drop the negative judgments of your vision like calling that ‘weird’ or ‘crazy.’ I think you just started seeing the real layer of life, beneath the surface. You know the Dalai Lama was once asked if he had experienced enlightenment. He immediately protested, ‘Oh no. But I think I sniffed it once,’ then His Holiness laughed his deep belly laugh. __________, I think you just sniffed enlightenment. May we all be so blessed.”


Amy and Lenda Faye*Those alternative questions were created by Lara Naughton, creator of the Compassion Program at Angola Prison, a certified CCT teacher, an author, and a writing instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

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Just out of prison, these men taught me,

with unexpected depth and clarity, about hard-won faith.

I was invited to offer a first baby-step of mindfulness training with a group of formerly incarcerated men from the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. I was a little nervous that they would not relate. So I briefly explained that guys like them who face the stress of daily life back on the streets, and who don’t want to become reactive or relapse with addictions under the pressure, might need some practices to help them cope with stress. They were invited to tell me straight up whether it was helpful or not, after we finished. Then I launched into what I thought would be about fifteen minutes of a mindfulness meditation exercise involving silent meditation and relaxation.

First came my usual instruction to sit up with dignity, head high on the neck and shoulders relaxed, eyes closed or eyes open with the gaze dropped to the floor. They were challenged to not look around to see how their neighbor was reacting, but to turn their attention within. About ninety seconds into the introduction one of the guys stopped us abruptly.

“This sitting in silence isn’t doing anything for me,” he said.

My emotions popped. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, and disappointment began to rise immediately. But words flowed out of my mouth, “Okay, tell me about that.” And he explained that just sitting there was not what he needed to keep him from going back to prison. Still feeling upset with a sense of failure, I asked him, “So what does help you?”

He looked me in the eyes across the silent group room and said, “Every morning when I wake up I don’t want to get out of bed to go to work. But then I think of Angola prison, and that’s all the motivation I need. I am NOT going back there. So I get my butt out of bed and go to work.”

Another guy sitting closer to me jumped into the conversation saying, “Yeah, when I am stressed I can’t just sit there. I have to get up and go take a walk, or go see my women.” (He said that toward the other guys with a smirk that communicated. “No brag, just fact.”)

I decided to skip over the brag and said, “So I call that walking meditation. That’s a great way to relieve stress when sitting still doesn’t work.” I was still emotionally flustered and feeling like my exercise had failed, but my mouth kept moving.

This was live. And they were “keeping it real.” There was no time to sit back and ponder how to respond. It felt like I was tripping through the spontaneous conversation, trying to get a grip on what was happening, with my emotions going one way while the gist of what was actually happening was going another.

Then a third guy spoke up. His personality is usually jovial and playful, but he had something very serious he clearly needed to share. He said, “Here’s what happened to me this week. I was at my apartment, minding my own business, when the cops showed up saying someone had reported me for stealing cases of alcohol, a riding lawn mower, and some other [stuff]. They rifled through the place and of course found nothing, while I texted my PO (Probation Officer) to let him know what was happening. But they took me to jail anyway. First they interrogated me, trying to pressure me to admit I had stolen that stuff, even though it was obviously not there.

I told them, ‘Do you think I am crazy. I don’t even drink alcohol. I am on probation. Do you think I would risk going back to prison just for that stupid stuff?’ Then they put me in Central Lock-up for three more hours until my PO finally showed up and got me released.” His face showed the anger of righteous indignation, and yet powerlessness to do anything about such injustice.

“I have no idea how I would’ve responded to that craziness. How in the world did you keep from cursing them or hitting them?” I asked.

He said, “There’s no way I am letting them have the satisfaction of sending me back to prison. I did my time.” I responded, “That’s amazing __________, when you had every reason to blow up at them, you didn’t become so reactive as to lose it and hurt yourself in the process. That’s exactly what mindfulness does. It helps us have our emotions without being controlled by them.”

Then Lenda Faye intervened with a deeply insightful question, which is one of her special gifts as the facilitator of the Reentry Program: “So are you in prison now, or are you free?” (Since they were all clearly outside of the physical prison now, it was clear she meant free or imprisoned at a deeper level).

A great discussion ensued, with most men saying they are free and explaining what that means to them. One guy admitted he still felt like he was in prison because of all the rules of society and the probation program he has to keep.

As I walked away from the group that evening and out onto the street, one of the guys pulled up in his truck and rolled down the window. “Don’t give up on the guys, they’ll come around,” he said, and drove off smiling. I told him, “Thanks,” and kept walking. My feelings were saying the experiment had failed, and I was wondering if I should give up on the whole idea of introducing mindfulness and then compassion training. But another voice in me knew better. It was sensing that what had unfolded was exactly what needed to happen, just vastly different from what I had imagined. His encouragement really helped.

After a week of trying to listen within to what was needed for my work with the guys, I returned to the group. When Lenda Faye asked me to take the lead, a new guy had just entered late. He had gone straight from prison into a drug rehab program and was just seeing his friends from the Reentry Program for the first time since his release. His arms had sleeves of tattoos that rode up onto his neck. He was still very muscular from his daily workouts in prison, and the guys commented on that. They were all clearly glad to see each other.

He turned to me and asked, “So you don’t look like the rest of us. What are you doing here?” They all laughed. I said, “I do belong here. __________ over there, (the guy who had first interrupted the silent meditation), asked me to come lead you all in thirty minutes of silent meditation.” They all laughed again.

Then I asked the question that had come to me for a next step: “Here’s what I want to know: What sustains you when you have lost everything?” The room went quiet.

____________ was sitting on my left, and he spoke first, immediately becoming my teacher, “God is what sustained me, straight up! I never was much of a pray-er before I went to prison. But when I got there I wasn’t sure I would walk out. I was scared. So I just started asking for help. That got me through those years and it’s what’s helping me now.”

All I could say was, “Wow.”

______________, the same guy who had boasted about his women before, said the same thing: “I know I might not act like it sometimes but I pray too.”

Much to my surprise, the tattooed guy to my right, who had questioned why I was there, quietly joined in. His demeanor softened a bit. His tone was less boastful: “I turned to the Lord too. What else could I do? Doing things my way hadn’t worked. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try praying. That’s keeping me going.”

Several other guys jumped in with stories of what had been sustaining them. That’s when things came together in my heart/mind and I realized these guys don’t need me to teach them new coping skills, at least not now. They already have some amazing skills for handling stress. They developed their skills in one of the worst places in the country and they found what worked for them: faith. Maybe they didn’t all land there. But they did find something within that sustained them when all else had fallen away.

So maybe I am there to learn from them, to ask questions, to see with them what is already in them. Just out of prison, these men taught me, with unexpected depth and clarity, about hard-won faith. So what sustains you when all else falls away?

May we all find such a Source of hidden power.


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