Remembering Where I Am
As I reflect on the nearly year and a half of witnessing the personal transformation I see happening among the men at San Quentin, I need to force myself to remember that this is all taking place in a PRISON. Last night after my household went to sleep I watched a few minutes of “Lockup-San Quentin” on TV. The focus was on the tiers, the loudness, the weapons, the tattoos- things that do not make it into the GRIP or meditation classes.
Even the most hardened guy has shown deep emotion during the sharings of the prisoners about their realizations at how they have changed. This level of intimacy makes it so easy to feel a heart connection with the process-not so much the guys as individuals-I am careful about that-but about the process of spiritual evolution we are all capable of. When I meet an inmate in class, I see them as who they are. Little by little I hear stories about who they were in the past. Their narratives are told as if they are describing someone who has acted and felt so foreign to who they are now; they can hardly believe that person was them.
In Buddhism we are taught that the nature of mind is basically empty. All the thoughts and actions we have and do in our life come from some idea of self, of “me, mine” that mandates owning these thoughts and actions as our own. As a practitioner and student of Buddhism for 2/3rds of my life, I find this to be true. In the context of working with the prisoners, it is a conundrum to me that so many of them have transcended who they were but are still seen and treated by the system as who they were. I understand having to live with the consequences of our past actions-but in terms of the scope of human experience, it seems that the community on the outside would want to take joy in and embrace the deep transformation these guys have gone through towards becoming better people.
One way the outside world could do this is to validate and create loving and compassionate communities on the outside that would support the people who have done their time, done their own personal restorative justice, and come out ready to be a servant of good in the community. One of the inmates the other day said flat out that part of what got him back in prison was that he could not find a supportive community anywhere on the outside. He was stigmatized everywhere he went. He wanted to return to the brotherhood of support he had within the prison walls.
I am sure there is more to this story, but it brings up a good point. Wrong happens, violence happens, individuals are harmed by the oppression of communities, and communities are harmed by the oppression of individuals. Where are we as a species if we can’t learn to embrace and work with those who want to take responsibility for their actions and restore their communities?
Each Friday I sit within the walls of the classroom or the Chapel at San Quentin I am transformed by the men’s honest and intimate sharings of self-discovery. I try to contain my own expanding awareness of the human condition by gazing at Mary in the Chapel, or the bird outside the window who can hop through the maze of the razor wire and not get harmed.
Can I embrace it all in my metaphysical arms, with Mary’s help?
Can I be the bird, knowing how to find the smooth surfaces,
while being surrounded with razor wire?
Aren’t all these guys who have begun the journey of healing, these birds also?
I am reminded of the story about heaven and hell both being places where people sit in front of tables heaped with food but their hands are chained together. The only difference is that in heaven, the people feed each other. I certainly see this happening in the classes I’ve attended.