Special Populations

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 17, 2019

Fierce Self-Compassion

By Dr. Kristin Neff
CMSC Co-Founder

As a woman in a society in which unequal pay, sexual harassment and abuse are still rampant, I have become more and more interested in how all people — but women in particular — can cultivate inner strength and make needed changes in this world. It’s not enough to work toward personal growth and healing; we also need to try to change the systems of oppression that are causing so much pain. I believe that the skill of fierce self-compassion is needed to become empowered, whole, and work toward social justice.

Compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering — that of others or ourselves — and can be ferocious as well as tender. These two poles are represented by the dialectic of yin and yang. In traditional Chinese philosophy, these two seemingly opposite qualities– soft and hard, passive and active, feminine and masculine – are integrated in a non-dual manner, with the understanding that all people contain both essential energies. A metaphor for yin self-compassion is a mother tenderly comforting her crying child. We hold ourselves with love so we can be with our pain without being consumed by it. The converse metaphor for yang self-compassion is that of a momma bear defending her cubs. When we tap into this fierce energy it gives us the strength and power needed to stand up and speak our truth.

When most people think of self-compassion, they imagine its tender yin form. Yin self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in a compassionate way. We comfort and soothe ourselves when in pain just we might do for a friend who is struggling. We give ourselves our own kind attention and care rather than cutting ourselves down with self-criticism. And we validate our pain, acknowledging that our suffering is worthy of attention. Most of us are experts at doing this for others, and research shows we can also learn to do it for ourselves, greatly enhancing our mental and emotional wellbeing as a result.

Compassion also requires action: protecting, providing, and motivating change to alleviate suffering. It’s easy to see when we think of how we compassionately act to help others: courageously stopping a bully from picking on someone vulnerable, working three jobs to put food on the table for our kids, or inspiring the students we teach in the wrong part of town to go to college and pull themselves out of poverty.

Fierce self-compassion similarly requires action to alleviate our own suffering. It means saying “no” to others who are hurting us — drawing our boundaries firmly. Or saying no to our own harmful behaviors so that we can be safe and healthy. It means giving ourselves what we genuinely need mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually without subordinating our needs to those of others so we can be authentic and fulfilled. Sometimes it means working hard to reach our goals or make a change, whether it’s leaving a job or relationship, exercising more, going back to school, or having the grit to persist in the face of challenge.

According to my theoretical model, the three essential components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. We first need to be mindfully aware that we’re suffering, then we need to respond to our pain with the same kindness we would show to a good friend we cared about, and finally we need to remember that suffering is part of the shared human condition — that no one is perfect or leads a perfect life. These elements feel different depending on how they are being used to alleviate suffering. With yin self-compassion they are felt as loving, connected presence. Self-kindness means we tenderly care for ourselves when in pain. Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open, accepting manner. When we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal.

When self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, however, its yang form feels quite different; it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. Self-kindness means we get angry and protect ourselves. We stand up and say, “NO! You cannot harm me in this way. It’s not okay to harass me, abuse me, treat me unfairly.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone. We don’t need to hang our heads in shame. We can stand together with our brothers and sisters in the experience of being harmed and be empowered as a result. And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth. We no longer choose to avoid acknowledging the harm being done to us because we’re afraid of rocking the boat. When we hold our pain in fierce, empowered clarity, we speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed. In many ways the #MeToo movement can be seen as the collective arising of the female yang.

In order to be truly self-compassionate, however, in order to be whole, we need to integrate both yin and yang. If we are yin without yang, we may be silenced, disregarded and disempowered. If we are yang without yin, however, we are at risk of becoming hostile and self-righteous, of forgetting the humanity of others, of perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Like a tree with a solid trunk and flexible branches, we need to stand strong while still embracing others as part of an interdependent whole. We need love in our hearts so we don’t become hateful, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path. It is challenging to hold loving, connected presence together with fierce, empowered truth because their energies feel so different, but we have to do so if we are going to effectively stand up to patriarchy, racism, and the people in power who are destroying our planet. As advocated by great leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we need both simultaneously.

Learn more at an upcoming
Fierce Self-Compassion Workshop with Kristin Neff:

Greater Good Science Center – November 22, 2019 | ▸ Register