Inclusion and Diversity

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.

June 20, 2019

MSC and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

By Dr. Chris Germer
CMSC Co-Founder

Over the past year, I have had the privilege of conversing with MSC teachers who are deeply committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). I have also had a series of painful experiences teaching MSC in large groups where a few courageous participants of color and other minority identities have spoken up, publicly and privately, about how uncomfortable they feel coming into a roomful of people who look different than they do. Similar experiences have led me and others at the Center for MSC to expand our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in every aspect of the organization. Kristin and I have also made efforts to weave cultural sensitivity and humility into the fabric of the MSC curriculum. This is an ongoing effort, personally and professionally, about which I would like to share some more here.

Whenever I have spoken with experts in the field of diversity, they have directed me again and again to an examination of my own whiteness and privilege as a prelude to understanding the experience of others. I thought this was rather annoying at first, as my mind was focused on organizational change rather than personal introspection, but when I decided to focus on my own experience as a white, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, older guy, I began to see the wisdom of that approach. It became clear to me how each of my identities has made my life easier, relatively speaking, within the dominant culture of the United States. For example, as a white man, I am rarely pulled over by traffic cops, with an education I don’t worry so much about money, being straight and married means I can talk about my personal life without carefully assessing the prejudices of the listener, and being older, which does have its disadvantages, is empowering in my professional life as a therapist.

More to the point, when I can see my own identities in the context of the dominant culture, without apology or shame, it evokes a space of inner humility and openness to the experience of others.

Furthermore, being aware of my old cultural experience, especially as it unfolds during the day, often feels as connected and grounding as anchoring attention in the body.

I think exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion is the most important thing I have done in the past year, besides self-compassion practice itself, to enhance my ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion is intensely personal. It includes recognizing and feeling the immediate experience of another person. Since so much of our self-worth is determined by cultural forces, being oblivious to this aspect of a person’s life (which is easy to do when we belong to the dominant culture) significantly narrows our ability to connect with those who have a different experience. Hence, I think that diversity, equity and inclusion work is an integral part of compassion work.

Exploring my own privilege has not been easy. At first, I felt responsible for the oppression of others because of my white identity. When I began to see it as the system in which we are all embedded, my guilt and shame subsided, but that opened the floodgates to immense grief about how large numbers of people with whom I interact on a daily basis are subject to slights and injury, if not outright hatred and physical danger. This pain is hard to bear and I have shed many tears over it. I now see in a personal, visceral way how much the oppression of others causes pain even to those identify with the dominant majority.

The heart can take only so much pain, and the pain that we cannot see is easier to block out as we go about our busy lives. But the pain of oppression is still absorbed in our bodies and if we don’t open to it, it comes with a cost, which is our capacity for compassion. Our humanity is subtly wounded without even knowing it.

As our world becomes increasingly globalized and we live cheek to jowl with people quite different from ourselves, especially people with different views and values, our need for compassion will only increase if our planet is to survive.

DEI training may appear to be simply the latest American obsession, but, in my view, it will soon become a global imperative. Regardless of the culture, there are always vast numbers of people who are suffering due to systemic oppression (unconscious bias, marginalization, or discrimination) of individual and collective differences. For example, in just about every culture, this is currently the case for most girls and women.

When there is one person in the MSC classroom who feels they do not fit in because of their identity or identities, even if teachers cannot understand the person’s experience, they can still make a meaningful connection by honoring that their experience is different, by expressing genuine willingness to learn, and by appreciation of the person’s strengths and resilience. Toward that end, MSC teachers Sydney Spears and Catherine Crisp, both of whom are also social work professors who have spent many years teaching about DEI issues, are putting together an online DEI training for MSC teachers which starts by situating our own identities in our cultural context.

Honoring diversity is also included in the ethical guidelines for MSC teachers and is integrated throughout the latest MSC curriculum (found in the forthcoming MSC professional textbook). The impact of cultural bias or discrimination is also part of the updated MSC curriculum in the form of yang, or fierce compassion, when the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves and others is to speak out against social injustice. Through these efforts, we want to create a “brave space” (Arao & Clemens, 2013) in the MSC course where everyone can feel safe and welcome just as we are.


References:

Arao, B, & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” Lisa M. Landreman (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2019) Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

October 9, 2018

Privilege, Power and a Pair of Plastic Earrings: The Inner Capacity of Self-Compassion

By Dr. Steve Hickman
CMSC Executive Director

 
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I rode into the Casabranca Favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro knowing full well that, in an hour or so, I could ride right back out and slip into the tidy stream of life outside of poverty and danger. I felt a little apprehension at getting my hands dirty like this, but I could humor my hosts and find out how people live here and what the healthcare providers who work here face on a regular basis. I was literally “slumming” for the first time in my privileged life.

And of course, it was messy, stark, meandering and daunting as the living spaces, piled on top of each other, extended as far up the hillside as I could see. But there was a kind of spirit here that I saw in the eyes of the people. The children playing in the street, the women toiling in their living spaces and the hard-working healthcare workers in their bright white uniforms and their playful smiles and cheerful attitudes. My physician colleagues back home in the US struggle to help their privileged (by contrast) patients stay healthy and alive. I could just imagine what it’s like to do the same for people who may not always have fresh water, enough healthy food or even vaccinations for infectious diseases that we get routinely at home.

And then we sat. I joined a tiny weekly mindfulness group led by Berenice, a psychologist who is part of the “collaborative care” team in this small primary care clinic in Casabranca. Three young women and the 10-year-old son of one of those women gathered in a small consultation office, closed their eyes and dropped their awareness onto their breath. After a few minutes, we moved on to the quintessential mindfulness exercise: the raisin. One woman, who had not done the exercise before was dismayed that she was only given a few raisins in the bottom of a cup. “This isn’t enough to eat!” she said laughing. The others nodded knowingly and smiled.fullsizeoutput_2051

We explored the raisins together and then we explored the experience. The group went on to share how they are noticing mindfulness unfolding in their lives (all have been coming for some time to this weekly group with Berenice).

They shared brief stories of noticing their old patterns and being able to shift course and choose options that work better for them.

One woman with the tendency to get angry at her husband reported that she could begin to see the anger arising and take a breath to shift her old pattern of expressing the anger impulsively and hurtfully. She was clearly excited at this new development, and there was a softness to her realization that warmed the very obvious deep inner strength that she possesses naturally. It was a winning combination and unexpected in a place where I expected not to encounter hope, joy or resolve for something better.The little boy said he used to get bullied more but now he is able to not react as much when he is upset and walk away from situations.

His face lit up when he reported quite proudly that, because he is staying out of trouble more, he gets to actually speak at church on Sundays. His beaming face filled me with love and compassion and made me think of my own son at that age and how tender and full of love our hearts can be, even in the lap of poverty and in the shadow of privilege.

And then there was the woman with the plastic earrings. I didn’t catch her name, but her earrings caught my eye. Neon bright green lacy discs about three inches in diameter dangled from each ear. My first thought was that you could probably buy a pair for a dollar at home. My privileged mind wanted to scoff at the gaudy, cheesy, cheap decorations, but it couldn’t. She told a story of a problem with “nerves” (a syndrome in some Latin cultures that roughly equates to anxiety).

She showed numerous scars on the inside of her forearms where she had scratched or cut herself over the years. She didn’t say a lot. She didn’t have to. None of the marks were fresh and there was a kind of solid self-confidence to her that intrigued me.

I kept looking at those earrings and realizing she wore them with pride and a kind of commitment to her own worth as a human being. She had made an effort to make herself attractive, not for the world around her, but for her and who she sees inside. I saw her smile warmly at the little boy telling his story and I could see her love for humanity in that look.

And those earrings looked perfect on her. The radiance, the lack of self-consciousness, the spirit of a Carioca (a resident of Rio) all shone through because she could embrace her true nature as a glorious, lively, perfectly imperfect human being who simply wants to be happy and free from suffering.

Mindfulness is a powerful and transformative practice. I have known that for as long as I have been practicing and teaching it, but even more than that, I could see quite clearly that what emerged from each of these people, including Berenice herself, was a clear and growing inner strength that came from loving themselves just a little bit more, and by extension, standing strong and resilient in the face of conditions that have crushed many others. It is the little triumphs, in the moments of awareness, that foster our sense of friendliness toward who we are that allows us to shake the bonds of shame and self-criticism, commit to doing right by ourselves and our fellow human beings, and put on our own version of those dayglo earrings as an act of kindness and a manifestation of our deep connection to the good of ourselves and humanity as a whole.This is what Kristin Neff and Chris Germer refer to as the “yang” of self-compassion. It is the active, motivating, protecting, providing aspect of self-compassion that says “no!” to injustice and opens us to move through the world with purpose and intention. It allows us care for ourselves as we would for our loved ones, and to proudly don those plastic earrings.
The comforting, soothing and nurturing “yan” side of self-compassion is there too, to support us through our suffering and to soften our touch, but the active side often is overlooked.

This is the unique and ultimate human privilege that every one of us possesses. The capacity to simply include ourselves in the circle of compassion and to see that our struggles, our challenges and our deepest fears about ourselves actually bind us together with every human being on the planet. When we feel bad, flawed, irreparably broken and unlovable, it hurts, but it stems from this deep desire within us to BE loved.

I want to be loved as much as those people in the group and as much as you do, and we all want to be free from suffering. We share the privilege of being able to honor that in ourselves no matter what we own, where we live, or what our history held.

In this short venture into the favela, my privilege, as a white, middle-aged, financially comfortable man actually afforded me the opportunity to see how those with the least privilege can teach us all a lesson about the most important privilege: to be able to give ourselves compassion whenever we suffer, to love who we are as individuals and as human beings, and to proudly wear our own version of those plastic earrings. I am grateful to all my teachers for this realization, especially those four people in that little room.
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I am inspired by my new friends here in Rio who provide healthcare to the residents of all the favelas in Rio and they are hungry for self-compassion training to help them weather the overwhelming challenges of their work and how it can benefit their beloved patients. With economic conditions the way they are in Brazil, this is quite a challenge. My dream is to find funding from around the world to underwrite more self-compassion training here and ultimately to bring MSC teacher training to Brazil to support this amazing work. If you know of people or organizations who might fund this work, I would be thrilled to be connected to them. Please simply email me directly at steve@centerformsc and I will happily follow up. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if YOU would like to donate to the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, go here to do so.