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.