…and I watched a tear drop onto his chocolate cheek, as Mr. A told the story of his transformation from who he was, decades ago when he took a life as a teenager, to who he is now, and to who he is becoming. The tear dropped when he said he was becoming a writer, and by God’s grace he has written a curriculum for incarcerated fathers which has spread to 246 prisons and five countries. Astounding!
Mr. A’s story unfolded through an exercise of looking each other in the face, one-on-one, for an extended period of time, (not exactly the usual way of men, especially in a prison), and taking turns asking the other person, “Who are you?” about ten times. Then we asked, “Who were you?” about ten times.” And finally we asked, “Who are you becoming?” about ten times. After each answer we said, “Thank you,” and asked again. So the answers tended to go deeper and deeper.
The whole thing is part of week five in the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course which Lara Naughton is leading there at Angola State prison. This is the week of exploring our common humanity, so men like me from outside the prison join the exploration with men inside the prison. There is no doubt the program is helping to change lives. When I am there it is helping to change mine.
How, you might ask, does talking with men in a state prison change my life?
First, I have listened to people’s life stories for my whole career. But this year is the first time I have listened to men in prison, men who have changed so radically from who they were. In listening, I can palpably feel the character which has grown up inside the men. There is no pretending, no advantage to creating false personas. “Lifers” do not get brownie points for participating in this program. They enter for a chance to continue their transformation from hopeless drop-outs of society to hopeful men on a mission.
So when Mr. A asked me those same questions over and over, it seemed only right that I speak truth about myself too. I looked him in the eye and told him many slivers of who I am, was, and am becoming. We could have gone on for hours. And when he heard that I am a writer too, he asked me about my book, and asked me to mail him a copy of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. I will do that. It is the least I can do for a man who had the courage to look me in the eye and tell me who he was, is, and is becoming. Today we became friends, across all the imagined boundaries between our lives.
That is part of what compassion cultivation does. Imagined boundaries, fences, separations, and walls fall away. Connections, caring, and experiencing our oneness are ignited. Our common humanity becomes clear. And in a mind-blowing way, both our projections about “those people” dissolve into realizing a “stranger’s” life matters to me!
One other story of many I could tell from today is wanting to be shared.
Mr. B talked with me during lunch as he finished off a cheeseburger and I tackled a large plate of baked chicken. He said he is a poet and he likes to learn about people’s experiences which are not like his own. After fifteen years inside the state prison, he is hungry for contact with the outside world.
He peppered me with questions about why I now teach meditation practices, what they do for me, how they work, etc. He wanted to know about dealing with the flood of thoughts which always come and if that was really normal. When I mentioned that my practices have helped me through decades of health problems with my wife, he wanted to know specifics. Part of the story was how my wife’s sister donated a kidney to my wife 23 years ago. He couldn’t understand how someone could be that “selfless.”
When I told him my wife and I were both raised in families that would do anything they could for us, from the time we were born through today, he was dumbfounded. By his quizzical face it was clear he really couldn’t imagine being cared for with unconditional love.
Mr. B said all he ever knew was having to fend for himself. Sharing was out of the question when he never knew if there would be food the next day. (When I had offered him half of my baked chicken meal because there was too much there, he had the weirdest expression, as though it was some kind of trick). Life had been all about survival and being on his own. That was heartbreaking to me, to realize how completely different our early lives had been and to know that each of our lives would have been so different if we were born into the other’s family.
I went on to say a bit more about family love, in response to his questions, including how I still loved my wife in our 40th year of marriage. That barely computed to Mr. B. But then he said something amazing.
Mr. B. said hearing my stories of family love, of unconditional love, and of finding a place of wholeness beneath all my life’s brokenness through the meditation practices, was giving him a feeling of hope. He said it was almost like he was feeling what I had felt, and it was astounding. He thanked me repeatedly for telling him what I had experienced. Some of that life-long family love seemed to be transmitted from my story into him.
How unbelievable is that? Instead of demoralizing him, or making him feel like we were totally different people who couldn’t relate to each other, he somehow used my story to fill himself with a bit of what I had received. Until today, I never knew that loving-kindness and compassion can flow from one family into a “stranger” through the simple act of hearing. I didn’t know the Great Love can go that far, can reach a man in a state prison through a simple story of another man’s life.
In a way I can’t explain, Mr. B became part of our family today, became my brother. The Great Love somehow let him know that he can experience real love too.
It’s like the Great Love will go to any lengths to get the message to Her/His children, wherever they are, no matter what! Even inside a state prison.
Tonight I really pray that Mr. A and Mr. B will be filled with the Great Love in a way that only Spirit can perform: on their bunks, inside a prison, through their memories of today and dreams in the night. I pray they will both know in the deepest places, where spirit and bone meet, that they are children of God and beloved children at that.
May we all be so blessed again this night and into tomorrow.