(This is long, I’m not going to divide this up like I usually would into small sections. I’m going to give you what I’ve written as I write it. It will be here a while so you can take your time and come back to it in sections if you wish.)
How about you and I agreeing to an important ground rule as we develop our plan for practicing in your prison. I’d like to start with setting aside any conversation that begins with “If only…” as being unhealthy, unskillful, and not beneficial. I know that may be difficult for you, heck it is hard for most of society. We all know, at least I suspect that deep down you do, that if only a fair trial had been conducted, or if only so and so hadn’t done what they did, or if only the prison system were different, and over 123 other possible if only statements. I ask you, what value it is to dwell in the past and if only, when the only reality that exists for you and I is this moment and what we do with it. So can we agree that, “if only” will get us nowhere?
Next ground rule is that whatever crime you were convicted of doing is to a large degree less important than what you were feeling at the moment or those moments of the crime. We’ll spend some more time on this later, so perhaps you will need to trust me on this. In conjunction with this is the futility of complaints about the fairness of the judicial system that has placed you where you are. There is a time and place for this too, however not here not now. Will that be all right with you? I’d like to keep our relationship, as strange as it is me not knowing you, as free and as focused on Buddhism and your practice of the Lotus Sutra.
At this time I would like to assure you that I am well aware of the injustice of the justice system in America. I am also aware there are many other models in the world many of which are more successful and productive than our own. I get that, I understand that, so perhaps we are on the same side here. Yet, let’s not let that interfere with the work we have ahead of us. I am also very much aware that the philosophy of our judicial system is often more focused on revenge and not so much on rehabilitation. We both know that, and you live it with your life every day. And I am sure you are also very much aware that as it stands right now there is no motivation in society to tackle this issue, especially not when prisons have become a money making operation.
Given this what shall we do? Well, I suggest that now might be a good time to begin at the beginning. Here I am inviting you to join with me in holding up the First of the Four Nobel Truths as a place to begin our work. That’s where the Buddha began and so to me it suggests that perhaps we too should start there.
It sucks. Sometimes it sucks really really bad. Sometimes it sucks so bad you could scream, or worse yet harm someone, something, or even harm yourself. And that sucks too. So let’s get to work and start at the beginning of Buddhism.
I think, though you may not agree at first, that in some ways the First Nobel Truth is about “if only”. If only we didn’t have problems, or if only my mom hadn’t died when I was born. How about if only my dad had hung around, if only I had the resources that the guy in the next desk in school had. If only I had had good influences in my life and not the crowd in my neighborhood. There are an infinite number of if only possibilities.
Let me tell you a little about myself, and how I have come to understand the First Nobel Truth in the light of “if only”. First a little history, if I may. I’ll try not to bore you, and please understand I am not trying to in any way diminish or devalue your own life experiences. Nor am I in any way implying that my story is worse or equal to your own. Your own story is something that over the course of this book I hope you will develop a different relationship to and understanding of. We’ll talk more about the idea of life story. For now I am offering my story simply as an example.
When I was young, first and second grade, I was bullied. Constantly I was harassed, teased, called names, you get the idea. I lived in fear, real or imagined I was constantly afraid to be anywhere in school alone, such as the bathroom. One day the worst happened and some of the boys got a hold of a rope and hung me by the neck from a tree on the school playground. I lived as I am guessing you could tell. At that time I did not have the necessary tools to fully understand or process the event. Complicated as that was my parents actually blamed me for it happening and for the bullying I was subjected to. Alright, that’s event number one, and we can talk more about what I did in response to that and how response is different than react.
Number two event happened many years later when I was raped. Some of you may know either first hand or through other’s experiences, and yes I am aware that some of you may have actually raped someone. Rape happens, though few even to this day are willing to admit that men can be rapped. I was in the Marine Corps at the time. I knew that I could not tell anyone about it because men don’t get rapped, and if you were rapped you must have asked for it or deserved it and so you must be gay. Now what the hell am I supposed to do with that, how in any way is that helpful when there is no one you can even ask for help?
Ok, I’ve brought up several realities you live with every day. One reality is almost anything that happens around you will more than likely be blamed on you, or someone may contrive to have you blamed. Another reality is trust is rare and always suspicious, so expecting help can be futile if not impossible. Another reality is no one, or very few are interested in either your safety, your convenience, or your well being; you’re on your own.
So we will spend some time on how you might consider moving forward and how might some alternate ways of processing things that happen might be possible. Also, and this is very important we are going to do some work on developing, understanding, and reframing your story. I am guessing you may be curious what I am talking about when I refer to your story and how that is different from your history.
The examples, both true by the way, I gave are examples of history. They are events, they happened, they can not be changed no matter how much I might wish. I have no power to change the history, I do however have the power to understand the events in context with my whole life. I also have the sole power to at any moment in time change my relationship to those events. This is really big so I hope you will suspend any thoughts of disagreement, and stay with me.
You may or may not know that I work primarily as a Chaplain in several hospitals in Charlotte, NC. I have worked with sick and dying folks since the early 1980’s, though in those days it was primarily providing primitive medical care. Let’s right here and now put some investment in trust. I’m going to trust you with an important piece of information about myself. I trust that even if you disagree with me or don’t like what I am about to say, you will know that I am still on your side and your enlightenment is important to me. I also trust that you will respect my difference just as I respect you as a human. I am gay. So the medical care I provided was to sick and dying young men. Men that the rest of society had tossed aside, much as society has tossed you aside. I sat with men whose friends and family had completely abandoned and didn’t care if they died alone or how painful it might be. I changed nasty puss filled dressings that some in the medical community at the time would have nothing to do with. These men were not all people I actually knew, they were people others had told me about and asked that I might look in on them since no one else was.
Now I’ll tell you straight up here, to me that sucks even worse than anything that has happened to me. It sucked over and over and over again. There were times when I wished it would all go away. Now here is something also very important, a lesson or a gift many of those young men gave me. There were some who were heavy drug or alcohol users, and you know what many of them wanted? They wanted to die clean or sober. Now you or I might excuse them if they had wanted to die high as a kite. You or I might say, sure why not, what else do they have to live for. For many though that wasn’t good enough. It was important to them to die differently, to die with dignity, to die and to have lived with meaning.
No matter what you have done, no matter where you are in your life right now, you have a choice and this is something no one can take away or give. You have a choice in how you will live your life even if you have no choice in the outcome. You have choice on how your story is told even if you have no choice on the recounting of the history of your life. Those young men had a choice about how they would die, they had no choice about the death sentence they faced. Most of those young men only lived a couple of weeks perhaps a month longer by the time I was told about them.
So yes, I get that life sucks. The Buddha got it too and that is why he taught about the First Nobel Truth. These men could also say life sucks, and they did in many cases. However they went to the next question, the question I believe the Buddha invites us to ask. That question is, so what are we going to do about it? How will we proceed with our lives? How will we either react to or respond to that really awful event?
The turning point in your life may just be when you can transition from staying stuck in the history of your life towards the meaning of your life.
All right first exercise, and this may be difficult, perhaps even painful. I encourage you to be as gentle with yourself as you can possibly be. I know this may hurt, and if I could be there to help I would do my best. So perhaps it might be helpful if you imagine that as you do this you have the most supportive person you can possibly imagine. Even if you feel you have never had anyone that truly supports you, imagine what that person would have bene like.
After you have that firmly in your mind and can smile every time you think about it then it will be alright to move on. Let’s pause here for a moment. I am guessing you may be like many people, and will be eager to move right on along here. That is the normal way we read a book. Let’s remember that this is part book and part work book, so only move on when you are ready. If you need to put this book down or reread a part, give yourself permission to do so. Some of you may be working independently and some of you may be working in group. For the independents I strongly encourage you to take this book in sections perhaps one section or one activity per week. I’ll let you decide, the important thing is not to rush.
For those working together in an organized sangha type environment I realize that some discussions may be difficult or even strange. For our purposes here perhaps as a group you might begin to define what a supportive person my look like, what might their characteristics be, what would you look for. Perhaps for those who feel safe you might share about people you have found supportive in your life. This is beneficial because unless you know what you are looking for you may not know you have found it. Also helpful is the lessons it may teach you about how you can be supportive to your fellow sangha members or others in your prison community. You can be a model of support.
Now that you have spent some time on this it is time to get into some real self work, some deeper Buddhist reflection. We will start with perhaps your first exploration into the meaning of your life to this point. How would you define the meaning of your experiences? How would you describe the meaning of your existence in society? Be gentle, and be honest. Learning to be honest with yourself is I believe a key practice in Buddhism.
I’ll give you some hints here since I realize for some this may be the first time you’ve thought about this.
I visit patients in the hospital, some who are there to have elective surgery, some there to have necessary but not life threatening surgery, some there to cure a sudden unexpected illness, some are there due to a life threatening illness. There are many reasons why a person might be in the hospital. When I visit a patient I am visiting a unique person, a person whose story I may know nothing about. All I frequently know is their illness or their disease. The disease is not the person nor is the person the disease. You are not the criminal and the criminal is not you. The crime does not define you, your present situation in life does not define you, the label society has given you does not define you. Only you can define you, unless you allow all of those other things define you. You’re in charge here, and you have the ultimate control.
Start with how would you like to be defined. If you were to die tomorrow what would you want people to know that they might not know because of how others have defined you. What would you really want the newspaper to print in your obituary? What would you like to say about your life that you haven’t said before? What lies in the deepest places of your heart? What are the things that are important to you that really wish you could have people hear? These are some places where you might begin. Talk not just in terms of what you’ve done, or what did or did not happen in you life. Learn to talk about what makes you tick. Learn to honor and cherish the values you think are important. Don’t get stuck in how others may talk about you. Liberate yourself from the story others may have given you and learn to know your story as you would wish it told. Here begins a life long journey and an important step in healing and self work. So begin when you are truly ready. Take it slow, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come out easy or smooth. You’ll get better the more you practice this, and your story will change over time.
I am hoping that you will remember this moment as time goes by. It may or may not be safe for you to keep written notes. Perhaps you might already have developed a system of journalling where in you use personal code words to disguise your writing. I do hope though you can recall this experience, because later on when we do it again I am hoping you will see a difference.
***As I have been writing and thinking more about the book and what I hope it will be I have decided it will be two different books. My thinking on this is book one, this one, will be about self. Here I’ll be addressing a single person, even though that person may also be in an institution where there are other Buddhists practicing. This book will provide specific activities and practices geared to you individual work on your own enlightenment. The activities may be done in community, but community is not always available and so I am suggesting things which can be done solo. Book Two will be about community and working as a Sangha developing a study plan a practice plan and ideas of how to work with the fact that people come and people go. Here are some reasons for me doing it this way. The individual books will be cheaper, so Book One on Self would be easy to donate or provide to prisoners. Book Two could be donated one per Sangha if cost was a factor. Also by breaking it into smaller books Book One will be available long before a combined book would. In the prison where I visit inmates I can provide them no unbound printed material. Unless it is a book I can’t get it to them. Also it can take and has taken three months to get a donated book approved to be placed in the library. By the way, when you see something that is set off by these little asterisk marks it means this won’t be in the finished book, this is simply part of my exploring and thinking. As I am working on this, since I am inviting comments I would like people to have an idea of what’s going on and why. ****
Let me recap what I hope you are doing as part of your Buddhist journey at this point. I have not gotten into specific Dharma practice, I will next. For now, going at your own pace, I hope you will take seriously the activity of learning your story. Events happened and….
A brief example from my life, again trying to keep it real. I was bullied and hung by the neck and by the next year of school I claimed my name. All summer long I practiced and repeated endlessly the taunts, jeers, and the name calling on myself. I could say them just as well as any bully. At the new school I was attending I claim my First name and not my middle name which was the name used by the bullies. This new year, every time someone tried to go down the path of teasing or making fun, I was right there with them, I sang along with them. They quickly stopped, and life went on. Now this isn’t the whole story nor was it the end of the story. For years even though I had now claimed victor instead of victim I was still haunted by that memory in many ways. It has only been in the past couple of years that I have a new and different interpretation of those events, a new way of looking a those fixed events that further liberates me. I am not defined by the bullies nor by the bullying, I am not defined by being weak, I am not defined by being a victim in a dysfunctional system. I am who I am today BECAUSE those things happened and I CHOSE to write my own story.
You know I wish I was there to answer any questions. Perhaps you might be able to find a counselor or advisor within your institution. Ideally you would be able to work along with a priest. I don’t know what you’ve got so I’m trying to write for the worst possible situation.
Next up will be your daily practice and some ideas about how you might structure it, some of the difficulties some of you face and some possible solutions. Even if my suggestions don’t fit your situation perhaps something I say will inspire in you a unique creative solution.
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