Yesterday I woke up before sunrise to drive to the middle of nowhere. This is where Stafford Creek Corrections Center is built, a prison in Washington State that houses 1,936 men. I was going to celebrate the graduation of ten men from Yoga Behind Bars’ first ever Yoga Teacher Training for prisoners. They had all been working towards this day for the past six months.
Most of the ten graduates will never get out of prison, they will die there. They have what is called a “life sentence” or “life without parole”…here they call it “serving life”.
To me the prisons we build for “criminals” are just a mirror of the prisons we build in our hearts and minds. A microcosm for the larger problems we are facing.
The way most people know my students is from the newspaper articles about their court cases, about the things they did that landed them in prison: murder, robbery, kidnapping. Some people might say that these guys are “monsters” and don’t deserve another chance or even any sort of love, respect, connection.
Yet, what I saw yesterday, and every time I go to prison, were beautiful human beings. Hurt human beings. Vulnerable yet strong human beings. Throughout the program, several of the men had spoken about how pain and disconnection was all they knew, from the moment they were born. But now, after just six months of healing the heart and body, of discovering something else inside of them, they started to see a different possibility. They rediscovered their own humanity and through that, the humanity of others. One of them said something like: “Until now I had never seen myself as a human being. From the moment I was born I never once felt that I was worth anything. And now, I see my essence as something radiant, something good.”
I know within my heart that these men could never commit the same acts they committed many years ago. I know that what all of us need is more love, more compassion, more gentleness….and that that requires a tremendous amount of strength and courage. Not the brute strength of weapons and force, but the strength of expanding our circle of compassion to include all creatures, all beings, all life… Even the ones that at first impression seem unloveable. They are crying out for love, to be seen, to contribute in a meaningful way.
Sometimes, going into prison and feeling the full weight of all the suffering is almost too much to carry. I think about the suffering of everyone and how it all interlocks and connects. The prisoners and their loved ones, and of course the people that were harmed by the prisoners and their families and communities. And finally, the kind of society that thinks it is right to lock other human beings up in tiny cells and believes that it can heal and solve the root of the problem that way…
And yet the human heart is capable of overcoming all of this even in prison. I see it every time I walk through the gates and the metal doors. We are still capable of love surrounded by concrete walls, barbed wire, and artificial light.
Let’s coax love from its hiding place. Let’s give “serving life” a different meaning. Let’s bring a light in every cell, in every nook and cranny. Let it in and crack open our hearts and take down the walls brick by brick. I know we can, in fact, it’s the only way forward.