I’m sitting in front of my computer, listening for words that could give adequate voice to the life changing experience of visiting San Quentin. It’s been over half a year since I walked through the prison’s five security gates to enter the world “inside”, a world that unexpectedly opened my mind to understanding true freedom, a reality that took me inside my most prejudiced thoughts to meet the depths of my heart.
It was really my heart that called me to go to San Quentin in the first place. I was listening to Katie describe the Prison Project to a group of people and suddenly, something in my heart just moved me to volunteer if help was needed.
Love takes me to the most amazing places, and I’m learning to trust its lead completely.
What can I possibly say that would accurately describe the insights that continue to surface, the changes that take place still after sharing The Work with men in maximum security, on The Hill, and those living in the H block? I can tell you that their searching eyes and earnest, inquiring minds stay with me, inspiring me every day. Their dedication to seeing the truth and willingness to share honestly give me courage to do the same, no matter what the circumstances.
After a morning session in which Katie did The Work with incarcerated veterans living in maximum security, we all sat with one another for about twenty minutes.
The man next to me had lived on The Hill for sixteen years. I experienced him as a shy man, seemingly a dedicated worker by day at his job in prison, and artist by night while locked in his cell.
He looked deeply into my eyes as he quietly told me he had killed his brother in law, all those many years ago, and why. He told me how he could begin to see, for the first time, that the actions he had taken, though drastic, were directly caused by believing the thought that he was doing the right thing to protect his sister. He told me of how, for the first five years in jail, he felt as though he was in a nightmare, and couldn’t wake up; he couldn’t believe how everything had changed so radically and that he had actually killed someone.
Over many more years, he lived remorsefully with the realization that the action he thought was going to bring more peace to his family actually brought loss and generated even more confusion. Retrospectively, he saw that there were many other ways he might have been of help to his sister that didn’t require violence. After practicing just one morning of The Work, this man said that he couldn’t claim to know what was right for anyone else, ever again.
He spoke of how, whenever a possibility of parole came up, his nephew would angrily argue against it, saying that his uncle was a murderer and should pay the price, should stay safely locked up in jail. This insightful man told me that he could understand his nephew. He said, “He’s just doing what I used to do. He’s just like I used to be.”
We sat then for a while in silence, just taking each other in. In those moments, something opened beyond my knowing to fully embrace our equality; it was subtle yet profound. It was as if I’d been humbled by his plain honesty and was left with only a sense of empty humility as a greater understanding of my own ignorance and innocence dawned. How often had unquestioned beliefs led me to reflexively take action based on fear? How many times had this confused mind justified drastic reactions in its search for security and happiness?
Suddenly, aversion toward people I had judged as scary or harmful melted away as I received a clearer understanding of projection and saw the futility of protection:
Any projection = reflection = possible “self” observation = an opening for introspection = connection = unification = love.
Protection = separation = defense against fear of imagined loss or harm = action to secure against loss or harm = conflict and opposition = suffering.
It was as if some tense and hidden little place within my mind took a deep breath and made space for a new world; instead of self protection and other projection, sitting face to face there, I felt only quiet love.
Then I shared how for many years, after having had four abortions, I carried the heavy burden of believing I was a murderer. In my mind, I had myself made out to be some kind of serial killer, even though doctors had told me the babies might be deformed or that I could lose my own life if I carried those pregnancies to term. I admitted how I had incarcerated myself with guilt and shame, how I hid my painful secret from the world and lived as though I deserved to be locked up and punished for the rest of my life. I was living a nightmare where life became more and more frightening as each new horrible thing that happened was proof of guilt in my mind. I was a fugitive on the run believing I was doomed to suffer and pay the price for the rest of my days.
There was more silence and an unfathomable sense of connection as we sat there, unmasked, our painful mistrust of life nakedly exposed between us. We shared a tender smile. Inside, it felt like such a relief to recognize and release the ancient illusion of control, to surrender the story of a past and plans for a better future, to love.
How can life know? How does love create the perfect circumstances and opportunities that allow me to see reality ever more clearly? How can the universe be so unfailingly kind? I needed to visit maximum security to find the one who could help me see beyond security, to maximum freedom.
What I really want to say is thank you. Some mornings, these days, tears just flow out of the gratitude that fills this heart. Thank you, Katie, and thank you to all kind souls who are, even at this moment, graciously, lovingly holding the space open for us to see through answering four questions, and turning our lives around.
I bow down…
A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which he has obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)