I was in prison today with 25 men and one woman, at Angola to be exact. All around Louisiana there are mothers crying because the sons they raised made a terrible decision in their youth and landed in Angola for the rest of their lives. Today I became friends with some of them.
From the moment we walked through the iron bars and into the classroom filled with men, the day was amazing! Lara Naughton led us in a session of Compassion Cultivation Training, focusing on our common humanity. Preconceptions dissolved, the myth of differences fell away, and the imagination of our separateness transformed into a felt sense of oneness.
I know even more clearly how literally true it is that the gate of heaven is everywhere. Because I now know that a gate of heaven can open at Angola prison, with men who committed felony crimes decades ago. And I know better than ever how that gate opens: by holding space in our hearts for sacred moments to appear.
Keeping our hearts open to each other as humans is a life-long challenge, and a fundamental human practice. And this world will be drowned by the undertow of polarizing hostilities if we do not adopt open-hearted compassion as our first priority, soon.
I am still in a bit of a daze from this trip to prison, one day after spending the past week on a silent retreat. In some ways this transition was a culture shock, but only to the story I had created about what today might be like. Because we really did experience our common humanity in that classroom deep inside a prison, just like others of us did as we gathered for silent meditation at the Rosaryville Spirit Life Center.
What a contrast of environments, and yet, the gate of heaven opened in both places, and we experienced communion in both places, and we felt our common humanity in both places. The inner experience of oneness as we meditated together was the same at Angola and Rosaryville. Explain that!
Here is what I know from these back-to-back experiences: when human beings open our hearts to Spirit, to compassion, to each other, and to the spirit of life and love within each other–we are transformed into our best selves. We are connected by a Power Greater than any of us could muster on our own. And the spirit of love is set free to knead us like dough and bake us into something wonderful.
The beings at Rosaryville and the beings at Angola practiced meditation together. We sat in silence, and felt the breath, and opened our hearts. The length of time meditating together each day at Rosaryville was longer, and the length of time sharing our common humanity at Angola today was longer. But in both completely different environments I say a gate of heaven opened.
That opening is easy to understand in the serene setting of Rosaryville, but how did that happen in the harsh setting of Angola, with iron bars, and razor wire, and tiny cells? The opening of a gate of heaven happened today because of the opening of our lives to each other. We answered challenging questions with one or two other men like: “Who were you? Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?” We shared childhood joys and sorrows, and even our first favorite snack. And it all began with sitting in silence together, settling into the center of being, together.
That is how strangers became friends today.
That is how a gate of heaven opened in a prison today.
That is how I challenge you and me to spend tomorrow: silently sitting together at the center of being, and then opening our hearts to our common humanity.
Let’s save the world from drowning. I think we know how!