i'm about to write my first letter, but i'm not quite sure what to say? should i give some information about who i am and what my dharma practice is? also, are they looking for a spiritual friend, or more for someone to give advice and instruction (or both)? any advice on how to get this started would be appreciated.
I filled out an application to be a prison dharma mentor and was accepted, and now I'm nervous/fearful. And I am curious about this fear, this trepidation that comes up when I think about writing a prisoner. So clearly, I am busy compartmentalizing and I need to challenge the artificial boundaries between "us:" and "them". I'm embarassed to say this. I know it's conditioning and it is suprising how strong this fear is. And I think the fear is a good thing, it means I'm close to "something" although I'm not sure what yet. I'll sit with this fear, and let it have space, and let the knots of it untangle and by not feeding it, it will dissolve, I trust that. I guess I'm doubting my own worth, what do I have to offer, the need is SO great, who am I to do this blah, blah, blah. Story after story after story. Which of course, feeds the fear. My interest in prison dharma comes from wanting to connect more deeply with what my practice really means and share my own journey a bit with someone who is open to the dharma. I can't pretend this experience won't feed me too, by writing to my pen-pal I know I'm also writing to myself. And by receiving HER letters...well if I'm already feeling things/sensations, and I haven't even written a letter!....there is clearly juice/learning/growth here....and I'll sit with whatever arises and I will put my faith in the Dharma and trust it to carry us both forward on our path, beyond labels, beyond good and bad, beyond personalities...
I so appreciate the great wisdom and practical suggestions I'm finding on the site...and I haven't even written my first letter yet! Thank you Alexis and all of you for your thoughts on this "starting" business.
My pen pal was touched by Paramahansa Yoganananda, hardly Tibetan Buddhism. His is Kriya Yoga which is a combination of Theraveda and Mahayana. My practice is Dzogchen--more to the essence.
A quote from PY is as follows: "Self-realization is the knowing—in body, mind, and soul—that we are one with the omnipresence of God; that we do not have to pray that it come to us, that we are not merely near it at all times, but that God's omnipresence is our omnipresence; that we are just as much a part of Him now as we ever will be. All we have to do is improve our knowing." This comes close to how I can turn it around to focus on improving one's knowing.
The concept of a personal god is not one I'm comfortable with, and I am sure my pen pall does believe in a personal god. This is going to be the challenge of her self-realization. My pen pal wants to be self-realized. This will have to be my pen pal's self-discovery. May my pen pal find in her life time the Master who will introduce my pen pal to the nature of mind.
What's interesting is that I cam to Tibetan Buddhism via Paramahansa Yogananda. First his book, The Autobiography of a Yogi, to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Something I have quickly realized is that I am not going to discuss religious beliefs almost at all. Rather, I want to talk about mindfulness from a non-institutional point of view: meditation, centering, walking meditations, breathing, small mantras, compassion and metta practice. Maybe Tong-Glen if it goes there. Beliefs! That's where I always get into muddles.
Yup. Same here. I have been pen-pals with three guys for a few years now. All of us find enough to talk about in terms of learning life's lessons, our daily successes and failures.
I coach them in whatever forms of meditation they use. One is a committed Buddhist, one is schizophrenic, the third has never mentioned religion. Very different guys.
Mostly these guys all need to hear from me that they have worth, that they are not forgotten - that someone knows that they exist, and someone is listening. I don't ever actually say "You have worth" or anything like that. I just talk about life - the dog catching a skunk, the kid with the purple hair at Walmart who told the jokes, fixing the truck, again... A glimpse of "normal life." I try to include a joke. Some of the letters from my psychotic pen-pal are just word salads - no sense at all, but he always thanks me for being his only friend.
They all *love* when I send pictures - horses, other donkeys, sunsets, waterfalls, Buddha statues, the dogs, the truck. (Gotta be careful about the mail rules - each prison system has different rules for how many pictures you may send.)
Onegaishimasu. I have been corresponding with a prisoner for years, and how I got started was: I just did it. I did not venture much personal information at all except my personal thoughts about my life experiences. I am very grateful for coming across the book: "Only Don't Know" by the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn in the early 1980s', and I loved very much his style of beginning all of correspondence with the question: How are you? I adopted this writing style for my own correspondence, and it does at least get any personal letter I write up and out of bed and awake to the possible flow of thoughts and feelings that arise in an endless stream as thoughts and feelings do anyway in the course of every day life. See, all you need to do to begin is begin. I hope these thoughts give you some confidence.
Thanks for sharing your insight Tamon Mark! The "Only don't know" reminds me of one of the Zen Peacemaker tenets. I think it's a great place to work from when mentoring, or anything for that matter. Taken from http://www.zenpeacemakers.org/about/three_tenets.htm:
THE THREE TENETS
Entering the stream of Socially Engaged Spirituality, I vow to live a life of:
* Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
* Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world
* Loving actions towards ourselves and others
The Three Tenets serve as the foundation for the Zen Peacemakers’ work and practice. Using the Three Tenets as an orientation transforms service into spiritual practice. Specifically, these practices suspend separation and hierarchy, and open direct encounter between equals as the spirit and style of the services offered through Zen Houses.
Not-knowing drops our conceptual framework from very personal biases and assumptions to such concepts as "in and out" "good and bad" "name and form," "coming and going." Not-knowing is a state of open presence without separation.
In this state we can Bear Witness, the second Tenet, merging or joining with an individual, situation or environment, deeply imbibing their essence. From this intimate "knowing," we can then choose an appropriate response to the person or situation, described as "taking loving actions," our third Tenet. This gives rise to the holistic, integrated, wrap-around style of service projects inspired by Bernie's vision.
In speaking about the Three Tenets as separate practices and phases of consciousness, we are making deference to the discriminating mind. They are actually a continual flow, each containing and giving rise to the others.
I have written my third letter to a new penpal (through PDN) a woman who had waited months for anyone to respond, perhaps because of the way she phrased her interests, whereas it turns out she is open to any assistance with meditative practices that will help her turn her life around and be prepared for leaving prison.
After my second letter, she wrote that she read it at night in bed: "I just cried. I don't know where you came from but you are so sweet and kind and it's been so long since someone has treated me like that, that I was just overcome." I don't quote that because I think I did anything special. I quote it because that's the abandonment, the loss and impersonality, that isolate so many emprisoned people. I am an adherent to the philosophy of the Human Kindness Foundation (giving the prisoner's name and address to the HKF newsletter is also a kindness): echoing the Dalai Lama, the belief is that, at root, we are trying to learn to be a little kinder. I want to write to prisoner/s because it's such a little thing to me, but a letter is a lifeline, a breathing tube, to kindness and care for a lonely locked-up human being.
I am going to start uploading my son's prison writings to my Blog, I think. Or anyone can read some of them at his myspace page. Just ask me for the site.
RE security fears. I think it's justified not to use a physical home address until and unless you're very clear that you are ready to have the prisoner visit you. A post-office box might be wise. But families with loved ones in prison (have to) put a home address on their letters, and they don't worry some other person might "get hold of it."
I would like to read some of your son's writings, if you would email me the site. I did A LOT of journaling during my jail time; I have quite the "writer's bump" on one of my fingers! :)
May I ask why families "have to" use a home address. I've started correspondence with several people in jail and prison, and though I use my own address now, I may not for long if my correspondence begins to include many whom I do not know personally. As it stands, the ten or so people I've written I either met while incarcerated, or knew personally before they became incarcerated. The more people I eventually end up writing whom I do not know, the more need for privacy/security. I planned on getting a PO Box, but your message made me think perhaps inmates cannot get regular mail with a PO Box return address? Perhaps I am misunderstanding.
I, too, am familiar with HKF. I think they are absolutely WONDERFUL, and played an integral part in my recovery while incarcerated. <3
I am using a PO Box with the woman I am corresponding with. There are no problems to this point. I also don't use my full last name, I put "Beth B-K" in the return address as another measure of security and have had no problems with it either.
I am learning so much from this process and finding her practice is inspiring my own, what a gift!
Aaron, I miswrote: I meant that prisoner families usually do not have access to institutional-cover return addresses, and thus use their own "real" addresses. Certainly post office boxes are acceptable returns to prison mailrooms. I personally never had a moment's hesitation using my street address as a return to my son. There is reasonable caution, and there is an unreasonable amount of fear around the world "prisoner." Differentiating between the two can only be done in each individual case, I suppose.