[Note: Per the author’s request, this piece was slightly edited for publication.]
Greetings, with the utmost love I send my love to all of you. Here is the story of how the Dharma has helped with my journey in life… Once again thank you so much for constantly giving us a voice. The work you guys do is the reason the world is less dark.
I am 38 years old, and I have been incarcerated since I was 16. I believe like many others (who were) incarcerated at such a young age and face a lifelong condemnation, we tend to fall into delusional, erroneous mind traps. While in prison, not only did I carry my ignorant and escapist thinking patterns, but I was also ruled by my extreme emotions, especially my base emotions of fear and desire.
It is sad to say, but for about 15 years in prison my consciousness was infested with anxiety, impulsivity, depression, instant criminal gratification, and aggression. Those factors had me clinging to my past perception about myself, had me grasping for better experiences, and had me full of aversion for my present emotions. Combine that with numbing, avoiding and repressing, and that led to suffering, ignorance and my addiction.
In due time though I was finally humbled by the anguishing experiences that were deteriorating my soul. In a way I ran out of breath, exhausted from running away from my shadow. Once my shadow did catch up to me, I was invited to witness and accept myself so I could be transcendent in an exuberant joy. My shadow spirit will be my liberator to my suffering. There was a catch though. I had to be intimate and form a communion with my spirit. Now that task was going to be difficult because the whispers in my head are full of accusations. That critical voice internalized my shame and placed me in the mud of self-limitations.
Five years ago, the perfect weather (or conditions) came together for me to bloom. It was around that time when I stumbled into a Sangha because I was trying to honor my victim and his family, who were Buddhist practitioners (so I attended Buddhist Services out of respect for them). Once in the Sangha, I was gracefully introduced to the Dharma. In time I was able to sit with humility, and I started to prostrate myself to the path of purification. The path of enlightenment became my way of life. As Pema Chodron noted, I was standing in fields of wildflowers, but I had a black hood over my face.
When I finally opened my eyes and tapped into the lotus within, I found proof that even with my imperfections, I was worthy to be one with the beauty of humanity. Being human is to be mindful of my breath. The breath extracts the treasures of gentleness, tenderness, and compassion. When these are cultivated, I have solidarity with my starkest wound. This was when I was able to be absorbed in my awakened heart.
The Dharma taught me that to practice mindfulness was to cleanse the mind. Mindfulness and awareness have me feeling lighter because I have less resistance within. Being a Buddhist practitioner in prison is teaching me how to talk and form a covenant with my fear, sadness, shame, and disgust. I avoided all emotions in an unhealthy manner for most of my life. This behavior led to my perception of myself as a flawed human, capable of taking a celebrated life.
Now though I use all of my emotions to enhance life. To be one with my emotions I can foster generosity, the fastest road to awakening. Plus the highest form of generosity is to invest my life to ease the suffering of others. Due to understanding the causes of my own suffering, I believe I have the needed skills to become a wounded healer. Being vulnerable and constantly showing my wound, and (acknowledging) the people I wounded, is how I water the ‘good karma tree.’ I hope that one day this tree can outgrow the ‘bad karma tree’ I kept feeding before.
Also, the other way the practice has helped me is the clarity of how my mind functions (today). My meditation transforms me into a hawk that watches how my thoughts process things. Awareness to the mind helps me fill the gap between my thoughts and deeds with loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. I want to note that I was an addict with substances and the criminal lifestyle. Knowing the destructive patterns I used to live by, I must be mindful to manage my lapsed thoughts and choices. If I don’t observe my thoughts, there is a chance my old habits and conditioning might surface again. That is why I use Jack Kornfield’s book The Wise Heart and its advice for coping with harsh experiences. That advice is to use RAIN (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Non-Identify) when I get triggered to activate the old automatic responses. RAIN is a good coping tool to extend (or extinguish) the fuse from my thoughts to my deeds.
So who am I as a Buddhist practitioner? I am a meaningful man that sees the wildflowers, hears the songs of the birds, and can stand in a barren, scorching desert and still let my heart lecture me… As a Buddhist, even my silence speaks volumes… Walking the path, I have started to know the purity of pure despair, and I am grateful for all of the lessons I learned from it.
Finally, finding refuge in the Dharma comforts the anxiety of my inner thoughts. I believe the comfort of being myself without judgment is the bridge from earth to heaven. That personal belief is because the gentleness within was what released me from my bondage of shame. One thing I wish could have happened when I was young (was to understand) that just taking a deep breath would have connected me with the world I longed to connect with. One breath would have had me feeling as if I were enough. One breath would have changed the dreadful ballad tune in my head. One soulful breath would have opened my eyes and let me be seen. All I ever wanted was that—to be enough (and) to be seen and (to feel) connected. One mindful breath.