|rainbow at dawn, St. Benedict's Monastery, Winnipeg, Canada|
My first question to my correspondants has to do with what got them into prison in the first place. I figure, if they'll tell me honestly about this, there's a smaller chance that they'll hide from who they are. For me, becoming a student of the Way entails developing a ruthless honesty about all the parts of ourselves -- our shames and secrets as well as our more benign qualities.
The answers to these questions, when they eventually arrive, are sobering and heart-breaking. Each person has a tale to tell, and each story is a mirrored reflection of the great suffering that fills the world. Parental abuse, sexual trauma, drug and alcohol use, petty crimes escalating into major crimes -- theft, rape, violence of all kinds against all kinds of people. Two of the letter-writers are serving life sentences for murder.
Some are in denial, of a sort -- they protest their innocence. Some abuse meditation as they abused drugs and alcohol, as a way to hide from the reality of their remorse and their deep, almost unfathomable sorrow for the harm they've done, to others and to themselves. But one prisoner, in particular, has impressed me with his devotion to meditation as a gate-way to waking up, to all that he's done and who he has been in the world. He practices "just sitting" and recognizes that everything that he experiences, terrible thoughts and emotions, the reliability of the breath and the body, the utter despair that arises often, are all a part of the awakened mind. He has, somehow or other, through other dharma correspondants and visitors, through books, and through the power of the practice itself, discovered something -- how to be awake even in hell. I admire him and bow to him. My own petty moods and disturbances seem so minor in comparison, and I feel so arbitrarily lucky for all the causes and conditions that have brought me to this current life as a person practicing being present to this surprising life.