Good Works

July 15, 2019

“How is Your Heart Today?”
Compassion at Angola Prison

By Dr. Chris Germer
CMSC Co-Founder

Lara Naughton and I arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as “Angola Prison”) around 8:15 a.m. anticipating a lengthy security check to enter. Fortunately, Lara’s colleague at Angola had arranged for a visitor pass and we sailed right through.

I understand the need for prisons, but I don’t like them. Three nights before we arrived, I had a nightmare of being stuck in Angola for life. Driving through the gates, however, the white wooden fences along the fields reminded me of horse farms in Massachusetts. I started to relax a bit.

Angola is a complicated place. It is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the United States, covering more ground than Manhattan. The prison holds more than 5,000 incarcerated men, some of whom are on death row. It is named after a plantation that existed before the Civil War, and Angola is a country in Africa from which many of the slaves had come.

Angola still carries a fearsome reputation for violence, despair, and human suffering, although conditions have improved markedly over the past decades.

Still, it is a prison in which approximately 75% of the inmates are African-American and 70% are serving life sentences.

Lara and I waited about an hour for the 150 men who were scheduled to show up for my talk on self-compassion. Only 75 men eventually came due to transportation difficulties from the various “camps” that are scattered throughout the property. As we waited, I noticed clusters of men chatting amiably with one another, or just sitting quietly. No cell phones. Groups of men talking together seemed like a fond and distant memory to me and I felt strangely comforted by it. Lara went off to talk with some others in the room—all of the men in the room were graduates of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program she has taught at Angola over the past 3 years.

While I was sitting there taking it all in, one man came up to me and said, “I see you sitting here and don’t want you to feel all alone.” His kind gesture touched me, almost uncomfortably so, as my defenses relaxed still further.

When we finally started our program, an hour late, Lara read a beautiful poem that spoke about common humanity and then invited everyone to pair up and ask one another, “How is your heart today?” She and several of the men developed this practice, and they use it at the beginning of every gathering. My plan was to visit Angola, deliver a talk on self-compassion, chat with some people, and then get back to the French Quarter in New Orleans in time for dinner.

Yet here I was, sitting opposite an incarcerated man with a ton of compassion in his eyes, answering his question, “How is your heart today?” I explained about my nightmare and he softly said, “I’m so sorry.”

It wasn’t the best talk of my life. Lara had told me that these men had already been introduced to some of the research on self-compassion, and have begun to develop both a learned and practiced sense of what self-compassion is and isn’t. Many of them had been practicing compassion for themselves and others for a couple years after taking the CCT course, and some were even CCT teaching assistants. Others had attended the Angola Bible College and were pastors and had their own congregations consisting of other incarcerated men. A few of the men just had their dreams of parole eligibility dashed by a court ruling that week; another had just been granted parole that morning and would be leaving Angola after being convicted as a juvenile more than 25 years ago—he had never been out of Angola his entire adult life. What could I possibly say to these guys as a married, upper middle class, white, PhD psychologist and author?

The men were genuinely interested, polite, and generously volunteered answers to my questions, such as “Is there a difference between how you treat yourself and how you treat others?” They definitely perked up when I mentioned the word “shame” and how self-compassion is an antidote to shame.

Shame is a deep river that runs through their lives. There is the shame of committing a grievous crime, the shame that comes with systemic oppression of people of color, the shame of not being able to care for one’s family, the shame of being incarcerated—the list is long and deep.

The CCT teaching assistants had lunch with Lara and me after the talk. Lara paid for it from her grant sponsored by the Compassion Institute and it was catered by men in the Re-entry Club—a group associated with Angola’s Re-entry program, which is run by mentors with life sentences who help other incarcerated men prepare for life outside Angola. Lara always orders a couple extra meals so she can invite additional people to join, or so men can take an extra back to their dorms and share it with their friends. At lunch and through the afternoon, the guys asked very personal questions, such as whether I think the mother of the person he killed could ever forgive him, or what to do about trauma flashbacks. I was blown away by the urgency of their questions, and their candor. A group of guys asked later on, “Do you ever swear?” I explained that I was from New Jersey and that we love to drop the F-bomb in every sentence, but I was controlling myself in public. We also had a lot of laughs together.

Lara said that she needs the 2 ½ hour drive home to New Orleans to digest what happens during the day at Angola. I realized what she meant when my new friends at Angola could not pass through the gates when we left, and maybe never in this lifetime. Lara has never gotten used to that. Lara also predicted that I would probably get more out of the day at Angola than I could give, which is also Lara’s experience even after 3 years.

That was a comfort because I was blown away by the immense suffering I experienced, but even more so by the depth of caring and authentic brotherhood that I was invited to share in. Those interactions seemed strangely healthier than most interactions I have outside the gates.

Still, I felt a little nauseous over the subsequent days when I reflected on the pain those men experienced in their lives, including the pain they caused to others and are likely to relive every day. It could hear Helen Keller’s words in my head, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the alleviation of it.”

Where do we go from here?

The work that Lara and her assistants are doing at Angola is deeply inspiring and I’m drawn to support it. This fits well with the commitment by the CCT and MSC organizations to collaborate on projects to can bring more compassion into the world, especially to underserved populations. The self-compassion component seems to be particularly helpful for those living in a prison environment.

What originally brought me to Angola was a dear friend, Jenny Phillips, who was making a documentary on the compassion work at Angola. She is the same person who directed the amazing film on teaching mindfulness meditation at an Alabama prison, The Dhamma Brothers. Her passion was criminal justice reform and, sadly, she passed away last year in a swimming accident. I had the privilege of meeting several of the remarkable men who are featured in Jenny’s film. Her colleagues are determined to complete the film, so please stay tuned for that.

December 21, 2018

Gifts of Service They Won't Forget

By Aimee Eckhardt

In the Mindful Self-Compassion program, we learn that love reveals anything unlike itself. During the holidays, this can be especially apparent for those whose dominant experience of the season includes anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, or a heightened sense of “not enough.”

One way to work with these difficult feelings is to offer acts of embodied service to those on our gift list. As we turn our attention toward others’ needs, space can naturally emerge between us and our own difficulties. We aren’t quite as swept up in them. And from this place, we create opportunities for connection and joy, within ourselves and with others. We are reminded of our part in the interconnected web of life.

Pope Francis invites us to “live the revolution of tenderness” through compassion and service. What would that look like in your life during the holiday season?

Give this short exercise a try:

  • Come to stillness. Greet yourself with a warm “hello” and settle in.
  • Call to mind a person for whom you’d like to provide a gift of service. Imagine their face as clearly as you can. Enjoy their company for a moment. Noticing, perhaps, a warmth of attention that arises.
  • From that place of connected presence, silently ask:

How can I make your life a little more ease-ful right now?

What do you need help with that I have the capacity to offer?

What have I heard you ask for, whether in words or action?

  • Notice any answers that arise. Give them time and patience to show themselves. Let your ideas be silly. Boring. Outrageous. Practical. Jot them down as you go. Gather them like jewels. All have value because they have arisen from loving, connected presence.
  • If a particularly enticing idea arises, do a reality check: Is this gift of your time/attention something that might create connection, ease, joy, delight? Does it arise from your really seeing this person?
  • Do this until just the right gift of service reveals itself. And if it doesn’t, let go of the exercise for now, knowing that ideas can be shy and often need to simmer in the background of your daily life to come to full fruition. Keep playing with it. Trust yourself and your good heart to land on just the right gift.

Ideas for gifts of service or loving attention: 

  • Cook a meal for someone who is over-busy with caring for others and deliver it to their home.
  • Organization: Clean a closet. Haul away recycling. Take old clothes to the thrift store.
  • Administration: Does someone you love need help filing their taxes? Organizing hospital bills? Researching a business venture? Offer a few hours of support.
  • Teach a skill: knitting, crocheting, bookbinding, basic carpentry.
  • Offer an hour of your time to fix someone’s computer.
  • Invite someone over for a meal who may not have frequent outings.
  • Have a book-reading date with a beloved, taking turns reading to one another and enjoying a selection of delicious tea or snacks.
  • For a young child you live with, how about a hot chocolate and story night?
  • Organize and host a game night.
  • For seniors or those with physical disabilities, offer a couple of hours of your time to change lightbulbs, clean out neglected gutters, put fresh batteries in fire detectors, or make other small home repairs.
  • If you know someone who would appreciate company as they pursue a stalled goal, (train for an athletic event, finish writing a book, lose weight, etc.), organize a system of shared support and positive accountability.
  • Simply offer time. Build something together. Compose music together. Perhaps bring over adult coloring books and markers and color together! For children, take them on a museum outing, to the beach, to a sports event, or ice skating.
  • For busy parents who need a night on their own, offer an evening of babysitting.
  • Gift an IOU for pet- or house-sitting for pet-owners on your list who like to travel.
  • For someone you live with, offer to do one of their least-favorite chores for a week (for instance, laundry or emptying the trash).