“I love you Bro, you’re gonna get through this …” Lessons in Self-Compassion From a U.S. Prison
So three of us (Gilda Sheppard, Blair Carleton and myself) drove the five hours from Seattle to Clallam Bay high-security male prison, to facilitate a two-day workshop on Mindful Self-Compassion to a group of lifers, most of whom had no hope of parole.
We’d been invited by Andre Parker and Kimonte Carter, leaders of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, (BPC,) a prisoner-initiated, forty-year organization in five Washington State prisons. The BPC understands the value and importance of educational and learning opportunities for inmates to improve their lives. Given what we were proposing to teach at this high-security prison, it was questionable how we would be received by a general population of men who, we guessed, had been hardened through serving life in prison, trauma from childhood, and tough experiences steeped in violence.
We were aided in our efforts by our colleague Gilda Sheppard, who is making a documentary, Since I Been Down, about the triumph of the human spirit in the toughest place possible: prison. It was through Gilda’s influence that we were able to get the prison’s permission to run the workshop.
We were restricted by number to 20 participants who in fact became an incredibly engaged group of students, but we could have filled more classes; apparently, many more of the guys from the prison were curious about joining in, too.
There was a real sense of anticipation in the room when the students arrived prepared with their notebooks. We were reminded of our physical and procedural restraints as we observed them distributing small, sharpened pencils amongst themselves, to be collected at the end of the class. We started by asking why each person chose to attend the workshop.
Reasons for taking the class were varied. Some were simply intrigued by concepts of mindfulness and compassion, since they have heard these terms now commonly accepted as part of current language such as “Be mindful of this or that.” and therefore wanted to better understand what “being mindful” really means.
Other participants shared that they were here to support their friend Andre who had requested the class, while another admitted that he is soon up for clemency and that taking this class would look good on his appeal papers. A couple of others said they liked the colorful flier advertising the class and were curious.
When questioned about having an ongoing meditation or mindfulness practice, most said that this was not something they had as part of their lives, although two of the inmates were Buddhists using prayers as a form of meditation.
The prison staff divided our time for the workshop into three sections of roughly 2.5 hours each. Our first session right after lunch introduced the concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion experientially, through an exploration of the question: “How do you treat a friend?”
We then looked at the science behind compassion, had an exciting discussion about the brain, the causes of stress (the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems with their associated modes of operation), and ideas with which these students were very familiar: the fight or flight response. They were less familiar with “tend and befriend” concepts, and we challenged them further by working with difficult emotions by asking the key question, “Why do we criticize ourselves?” In the final session, we introduced the idea of “embracing life” via a mindful eating exercise, as well as an exploration of gratitude and self-appreciation.
The prison environment is different than any other group environments in which we teach, and we couldn’t help but notice that each time the students entered or left the classroom, they went through a routine pat-down body search. And of course, behind the window to the class, you could see the faces of the officers watching us. It was therefore obvious that the creation of a confidential and safe place in such a short time span in this strongly monitored environment was a challenge. I believe we were able to accomplish this simply through the embodiment of our mindfulness and compassion practices more than the explicit teaching of these practices.
We were curious to notice the various reactions to the hand gesture exercise of self-compassion, which we call the “holding tight fists” exercise (which often represents holding on to stress). The inquiry process following this exercise brought to light many different associations such as:
“I am ready!”
This exciting inquiry, while evoking thought-provoking discussions, validated their experience through empathy, by eliciting how tiring it must feel to be always “holding tight.”
An ensuing discussion on our common humanity was humbling too. The men demonstrated the depth of their interest in each others’ experiences.
They showed a marked curiosity for their fellows’ family history through the generations and what that meant for their own individual family legacy. They were then able to acknowledge our common basic human needs for love, belonging, being seen, and being understood. One of the men came to the insight thoughtfully: “I guess that’s why I joined a gang.”
One of the many misgivings that came up repeatedly was that mindfulness and self-compassion are often seen as stereotypically “feminine.” So we also explored the delicate balance between taking care of one’s own needs and responding to a friend’s needs, with the guys raising important questions about the differences between self-compassion and being selfish, and since many of us were raised to always put others first, the idea of being compassionate to yourself can seem alien.
Insightful questions were also raised about the difference between compassion and empathy, and whether these are the same, which led to some interesting dialogue about the nature of attachment and whether this is the same as the Buddhist concept of “no attachment” as the basis for no suffering.
One idea that attracted a great deal of enthusiasm was that of neuroplasticity. We described how through lifelong repetition of unhelpful behaviors patterns, we create “grooves” in the brain, which are difficult, but not impossible to change, to which one student responded: “Those aren’t grooves, those are deep trenches!”
However, it wasn’t until we started to explore the idea of how we treat a friend versus how we treat ourselves that many in the group had quite a radical experience, discovering how vastly differently they would treat a friend in need in contrast to how they treat themselves when in need. The students realized the importance of gaining a better understanding of the critical voice inside their head, including what possible purpose this voice might have as well as how it can be hurtful. Furthermore, these tough men were brave enough to experiment with finding a kinder, more encouraging voice. When we explored this exercise, one of the guys shared with the group that his compassionate voice told him loud and clear, “I love you, Bro, and you’re gonna get through this!”
This was obviously a moving experience for all of us in the room and testament to the safety and common humanity that had been created. However, it wasn’t all just a feel-good factor. A few others within the group raised concerns.
This is, in fact, an evolutionary blueprint from our ancient animal heritage and of crucial importance to our survival as a species. This man remembered that he was often regarded as a “troubled child” and therefore punished for his behavior cruelly and insensitively. The only voice he could trust was his own critical voice, which saved him back then. Our subsequent group inquiry further examined and acknowledged the value of his critical voice, noticing how important they were once in protecting us, but how sometimes later this harsh voice can also attack us. We then discussed and explored the importance of tone of voice, gentle touch, warmth, and the use of a soft gaze in relation to ourselves and others.
The mindful eating exercise had the group fully engaged, eliciting curiosity and a full inquiry afterward. A few from the group shared how sad they felt for the seasonal fruit workers, and how compassionate they realized they felt when they reflected on the raisin’s long journey from farm to table. We were also able to tease out the paradoxes of how compassion can make us feel sad, since most in the group had thought that compassion was usually a happy sentiment. We were then able to explore the role of compassion in alleviating suffering and in supporting well-being amongst us all.
In a demonstration of the application of self-compassion skills, one student reported how just taking a pause helped him when he got into an argument with a friend. “Usually,” he said “just sitting there stewing in my anger, the table in front of me shakes, but I was able this time to just breathe into it.”
Given that all of these men are in prison, some for life without parole, you could be forgiven for thinking that they would have little to be grateful for. However, one of the most moving experiences was hearing about their gratitude and what they appreciate about themselves. However, it was clear that small things counted very much, and participants didn’t hesitate to count their blessings.
“…that I didn’t get killed on the street”
“My willingness to change.”
“I am a problem-solver.”
“I am good and loyal friend.”
“ I find a way out of no way.”
“… my adaptability”
“Being positive, my smile.”
“Good teacher and good student.”
“Caring about being a better human being.”
We, in our turn, felt very a much a part of this group, despite our obvious background differences. After they took turns in sharing their gratitude list, Kimonti looked directly into our eyes and in his graceful but strong voice asked us to join them: “We would like to hear from you what you are grateful for.”
We gladly shared.
We expressed that in spite of the fact that there was an important Seattle Seahawks (American football) game that night, we were grateful that all of them showed up to the class, acknowledging their “suffering in missing the game,” but acknowledging the self-compassionate choice to nurture their own well-being by attending class.
As a footnote, one of the most gratifying things to come out of this adventure of teaching self-compassion and mindfulness in this unique environment is that when we left after just two days, these men were asking if we could come again and offer the full, eight-week MSC course.
We are very touched and grateful to Andre and Kimonte and to the rest of this courageous group to have been part of this process. As Van Jones said in the recent documentary, The 13th: “The opposite of criminology is humanity”