When I was seven years old, Anna Cox became my best friend. We looked alike, our families were alike, our natures were similar. Our teacher sometimes couldn't tell us apart. Now, at 70 we are still dear friends. About 25 years ago, each of us found our life purpose, I with developing right use of power as the heart of ethics, Anna in working with offering Buddhist meditation and teachings to prisoners, through her organization: Compassion Works for All. (www.compassionworksforall.org).
Recently, Compassion Works for All was the recipient of much-needed funds of ____ through a fundraising drive called Arkansas Gives. As significant prison reform issues rise to national attention these days, I want to use this RUPI issue to give special honor to Anna for her years and years of compassionate, skillful, and effective service to prisoners through her newsletters and teachings. Her website is a rich source of stories and video teachings for both children and adults. Here's a very touching story about a gratefulness meditation that Anna did with some prisoners in Little Rock.
Welcome to another meditation session down at the prison this month. Many of us, the other 'free world' folks and I, and our Compassion Works for All members, had been all caught up in politics this month. Our state legislature is in session. We have all been advocating for numerous bills but most specifically those for prison reform. As we talk to those in decision-making positions, our efforts have been to 'humanize' the people in prison. We want to impress on those with power that those we advocate for are people. I tell them that you are people trying to grow and heal. I stress that you are quite remarkable. You have become the change agents from within the prisons, helping each other, and especially helping the young gang members who need to grow up and who need mentors and father figures. It is the inmates who have found healing that offer the most effective rehabilitation in prison. I want you to be seen as valued community members. Instead, with all of our efforts, you are often swept down a black hole and disposed of without a thought.
While I have often pondered about how difficult it is to impress on those with power that these lives in prison matter, I wondered if the men themselves think that their lives have value. How do they see themselves? Do they know themselves as remarkable beings with great gifts?
Perhaps, it would be helpful to look at themselves through the mirror of their friends perceptions of them. So, we started with a meditation on gratefulness.
Together, we remembered that the state of gratefulness brings us into harmony and balance and healing. I asked them to be grateful for who they are. To remember where they have come from, who they have become, and to feel grateful for who they are becoming. We rested in gratefulness for their unique gifts, their strengths, their skillfulness, and their resilience in growing beyond many very difficult life challenges. I asked them to experience a knowing of who they are today.
Then, I took each man individually by his hands and escorted him around the circle to have each member tell him personally of their gratefulness in having him in their life. Each person shared something felt in that moment, or something they experienced in the past or reflected on a quality. One by one, each person heard the appreciations of all the others for him.
As the men went around, those in the circle responded by standing up and hugging the one before them while they shared, or reaching out and taking his hands, or sharing and then giving him a hug. Nothing was scripted but each interaction was warm and tender and seriously offered. Sometimes they would crack jokes, followed by their loving offering. One man said to another, "I appreciate that you are the only one who eats as many food trays as I do." Or another, "If it were not for you, I would be the shortest guy in the room." But the teasing was with warmth.
Here are some of the other very touching connections that were shared.
"You took me fishing for the first time when we were little boys." This was said by a man who was locked up at age 16.
"We were in elementary school together. We have known each other all our lives and I love you. You are my rock."
And another: "You were the first person to speak to me when I came to prison."
And: "When I was having such a hard time the other day, you were there for me and really helped me out of a bad time."
Often, they said to one another, "I am grateful that you are my brother. I love you."
One white man who is a devoted Christian said as he hugged an African American man who is Muslim, "You are my brother from another mother."
Another said, "We were in jail together when we were kids and you came back to find me and help me."
Near the end, one black man stood up when a white man making his way around reached out and took his hands. The black man said, "I appreciate you have always been kind to me. I killed your best friend. That is why I am here. But you have always been kind."
The other man said, "Yes, I know." The 'grateful' man said, "You never held it against me. I am grateful for that." And the first man said, "I forgive you. You are my friend. They hugged for a long time.
And one more: One man had completed making his way around the circle with many heartfelt appreciations shared and then he turned to the others before sitting back down. He said to the group, "When I first came to prison, I had been the ultimate red-neck. I only hung out with those that were like me. Now, I look at this circle of brothers and I am touched by how close I am to all of you. I am in a room with Muslims and Christians and Buddhists, black and white, gay and straight, and I love you all. I am proud to call all of you my brothers. I am grateful that all of you are in my life."
Compassion Works. As they sat down after their round of gratitude, each person was a little misty eyed and in an altered state. They sat still, taking in the comments. I kept saying, feel what was given to you. And they did, deeply. They saw that their lives do matter.