People who have the hardest time believing in the transformation of others, are people who aren’t doing the work of healing and growth themselves. One must change in order to believe that others can change, too.
We see through the lens of who we feel we are. Our sense of worth or worthlessness will inevitably influence how we treat humanity. Healing and change might be the hardest experiences we have to engage in because they are often the things we are most resistant to. We must toil in the grief and wounds of our hearts in order to heal. But when we are doing the work, when we actually go all in, we see that it is possible to come out whole on the other side. We see that change is a magical process of renewal and rebirth; and we become the greatest version of ourselves, one we could have never imagined. It takes one to know one. If you are constantly growing and evolving, than you will see the great potential that exists when people are nurtured and supported in their healing process. If you are stuck in pain and fear, you will create environments that stagnate and even regress people’s healing and growth. I spent the beginning of spring in the desert – the most seemingly inhospitable place on earth. And I observed some of the most beautiful flowers bloom, some of the most resilient plants grow and some of the most spectacular sunsets heal.
A healer does not heal you.
Is someone who
Holds space for
You while you awaken
Your inner healer,
So that you may heal yourself.
In prison, a place most perceive as brutal, violent, spiritless and heartless, I have seen the most beautiful and profound healing work take place. I have seen men open their hearts and speak healing words that melt away the frozen, hardened places the other inmates hold. I have seen men who have gone to therapy for years, finally able to release deep buried pain, moved by the collective healing spirit of all the inmates.
Each of us was born with a gift for healing. Some have the playful capacity to make us laugh. Others tell stories that help us release the pain we’ve been holding for so long. Some storytellers inspire us to reimagine the circumstances of our lives. Some people are great listeners and hold space for us, so that we may have the courage to speak our truth. Others have the gift of nurturing our wounds in a way that allows us to learn to love ourselves. Some have a way of believing in us and inspiring us to go beyond what we deemed possible. Some people light up a room wherever they go. Some people use the wisdom of the plants and ancestors to guide us through our healing. Others use music and poetry to awaken our souls. Animals provide us healing through their unconditional love and guidance if we observe deeply. The sky, the ocean, the mountains, the forests, the deserts – they are healers, too, bringing us closer to ourselves and to Spirit. There is healing in all. And we need all types of healers. Sometimes we need to cry to heal. Sometimes we need to sit in silence. Sometimes we need to laugh. Other times we need to go within. We need each other to heal. Nowhere has this lesson been more profound that in my experiences in prison when I have the honor to facilitate healing workshops.
Musical Malik’s mother was murdered when he was 12 years old. For many years all he could think of was avenging his mother’s murder. He replayed, over and over again, what would happen when he finally came face-to-face with his mother’s murderer. Subconsciously, Malik began to carve the path that would ultimately land him in prison. He began to have run-ins with the law as he raged and seethed for revenge for his mother’s murder, the only person who he felt had loved him unconditionally. True to his plan, six years into his prison sentence, his mother’s murderer would be transferred to the yard he was in. Malik prepared a shank to kill him, replaying over and over again the moment of confrontation. He prepared the shank before he realized he couldn’t go through with. Something in him had changed; something had shifted from the first time he participated in the Alternative to Violence healing workshop. His heart had opened. He had sat with other men that had been vulnerable enough to show their pain and transform their darkness. So when the moment Malik had been waiting for all those years came, he didn’t have the heart to murder the man that had taken his mother’s life. Or rather, he had too much heart to do so.
I witnessed Jovial Jessie cry when, in a single moment, he was able to recognize how much his ex-wife had loved him. Jessie’s ex-wife used to plea that he leave the gang-banging life. She’d try to get him to understand how much she needed him – how much his children needed him. She desperately tried to get him to understand the consequences of the life style he was consumed by. Once he furiously responded to her, “If I don’t do it for my own mother, what makes you think I would do it for you.” He sobbed as he remembered her supplications. And he was sorry he didn’t love her enough. He was sorry he didn’t love himself enough to leave the gang life. The transparency and vulnerability with which the other inmates spoke, allowed Jessie, after twenty-seven years in prison, to release this guilt and shame that had weighed heavy in him.
Diamond D, a sixty one year old man, who had spent almost forty years in prison sat with a detached and stoic disposition, passing each time it came for him to speak and participate. He was like an impenetrable wall hiding secrets of abuse, lovelessness, and humiliation. Locked up in prison for almost 40 years, he learned to also keep his heart locked away. Though he seemed lackluster and apathetic, in his eyes, I could see untold stories of pain, disappointment and fear. Still, he wouldn’t speak. He’d sit back in his chair with a careless look on his face. We were engaging in an activity about active listening that really probed us to experience what it means to hold space for each other. He spoke very little throughout the activity, rarely showing any interest in what was being shared. Their was a moment during the debrief that I chose to share that holding space for someone also meant being able to sit comfortably through the silence when the person talking to has nothing to say. Sometimes people are trying to find the right words or decipher their feelings, and holding space means respecting the time they need to do this. I referred to Diamond D as someone who needed to be given the time and space to share. I ended by stating we all have different experiences, and for some sharing those experiences is sometimes too painful. He looked at me and slightly smiled.
As the workshop evolved to much more profound discussions and sharing, he seemed to soften and open more. He wasn’t sharing much, but he was listening; watching the men lay their truth and pain on the line. On the last day we shared the lessons we were taking with us and the pain we were releasing. Diamond D spoke. He told every man in the healing circle he loved them. “Even if I can’t show it, I love you and I feel your pain,” he said with tears in his eyes. He got up from his chair and walked to specific people who had moved him through their stories or their healing process. He acknowledged what their presence had done for him and to him that weekend. He then came to me and told me he thought I was special and began to cry profusely like the child inside of him was yearning to cry for so many years. I held his hand and when he was done speaking, I kissed his forehead and the top of his bald head. Diamond D, who was able to chisel away at the rock and expose the brilliance of his soul.
Melissa, Magical Melissa, as the adjective she selected indicated, felt her stepfather’s rejection for most of her childhood. The only memories she held were ones in which she was being ridiculed, scorned and judged by her step dad. Mariah, a transgender woman who wants so badly to love herself; to feel loved and accepted was supported and encouraged so lovingly by the inmates during the healing workshop. Her last encounter with her step dad was in the middle of the street. All she remembers is that her mother took her step dad’s side. She was kicked out of the house shortly after this incident, and ultimately, to survive in the streets, began to prostitute herself. Mariah’s step dad is now in the hospital fighting for his life, and she’d like to make amends with him before he dies. Mariah wants to be magical – “worthy of love, and hugs, and tender kisses.” Mariah, who wants so desperately to find the greatest love a woman can find – falling in love with herself. For the first time in prison and in her life, she felt safe to be herself and to share the most vulnerable and hurtful parts of herself.
Eva, a transgender woman abused by her sister so badly, she was taken away by social services and moved back and forth between group homes and foster homes for many years where she suffered more abuse. She dreams of living in the bottom of the ocean where she imagines there is solitude and so much quiet. “I wish I could learn to breathe underwater and stay in the deepest part of the ocean for the rest of my life.” Eva, whose dark brown eyes are deeply set and framed by beautiful long eyelashes and sparkling silver eye shadow. Eva who winks her eyes constantly from anxiety and discomfort. Eva, whose eyes are as captivating as the deep mysterious ocean, felt safe and accepted enough to speak of her abuse for the first time. The men in the healing circle became her ocean, creating the space she longs for at the bottom of the ocean. And for the first time, she floated without the shame of secrets anchoring her down.
The best gift we can ever give to someone is the empowerment to feel safe in their own skin. To feel worthy. To feel like they are enough. That is what a healer does. That is what each of the men and women in prison who participate in these healing workshops do for each other, and for me. As they heal, they unconsciously give each other the permission and courage to heal. The healer’s gif is their own wound. It’s the source of their empathy and compassion. Only when we are willing to be vulnerable enough and alive enough to feel our pain, can we have the capacity to feel someone else’s pain. The wounds that we nurture within teach us to love another’s pain the way we learn to love our own. There is something magical about seeing another being’s pain as part of our own, it reveals to us our infinite ability to love and extraordinary strength to heal.
We are all healers.
We are born with an innate
capacity to heal ourselves
and each other.
We just need to learn
how to access our