We Are All Healers

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.

A healer

Is someone who

Holds space for

You while you awaken

Your inner healer,

So that you may heal yourself.

-Maryam Hasnaa

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.

A sixty one year old man, who had spent many decades 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 many 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 the inmate 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. The inmate 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 began to cry profusely like the child inside of him was yearning to cry for so many years.

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

healing powers.

 

 

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To Know Forgiveness

I have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate forgiveness and restorative practice workshops through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and learn from various groups of middle school students for a year now.  While I am greatly impacted by all the students I get to work with, this past session, a young man who I will refer to as Omar, had a very profound impact on my work and me.  From the onset of the workshops, Omar was resistant to the idea of non-violence and using restorative practices.  He pushed me to analyze and think more deeply about what it means to be committed to non-violence, not just in the ideological sense, but in the everyday world filled with violences, oppression, and injustice that we live in.  He said his father taught him that if someone came at him, he was not only to defend himself, but give the person a “beat down”; it would teach that person not to ever mess with Omar again.

“Effective non-violence is not about putting the right person in power, but awakening the right kind of power in people.” -Metta Center for Non-Violence 

I remembered my grandmother telling me about a group of girls who bullied my mom when she was in upper elementary school.  These girls were always ambushing my  mom in the bathroom taking her lunch money, her lunch or whatever they could take from her.  My grandmother brought the issue up in school to no avail.  Finally after weeks of attending school in fear, my grandmother had my mother meet up with the girls who were bullying her, and in very forward terms told my mother she either had to kick their ass or my grandmother would kick my mother’s ass.   So, against a fence near the school, my mother, as terrifying as it might have been, fought those girls with my grandmother cheering her on.  Those girls never bullied my mother again.  My grandmother had survived two abusive marriages, and fighting back was one of the ways she learned to defend herself when she was the target of violence, especially during a time and culture in which police very seldomly protected a woman from an abusive husband.

Omar was speaking a philosophy that had been spoken and taught in my family.  I also understood that in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, gangs, drugs, and all sorts of other violence there was a different code for survival, especially in the streets.  Who was I to dismiss his father; to dismiss what Omar had learned from his father and his own experiences to survive.  I grew up in neighborhoods where understanding and abiding by the law of the streets was what kept me safe.  I didn’t know what Omar’s environment was like nor what he had to do to ensure his safety and survival.  Restorative practice takes community effort and while an individual can commit to this kind of work, it is only within a committed community that the work can sustainably change behavior and thought patterns entrenched in violence.  Omar was being guided by his father’s own experiences of safety and survival and whether I agreed with his perspective or not, I had to tread lightly for I wasn’t their to diminish the bond that existed between Omar and his father; the minute it sounded like I was saying his father was wrong, that is exactly what Omar would perceive.

My approach with Omar wasn’t to tell him that the only option was non-violent action, so instead it was about looking at consequences and ripple effects of violence.  It was about teaching him problem-solving skills and what it meant to be intentional and mindful about his actions.  In this context, whatever action he chose to take in the future, he would do so understanding the potential consequences, stand with conviction, and take responsibility rather than feel ashamed or dishonored.  In other words, I was teaching him how to act and behave with dignity.  Our decisions should be made with conviction rather than simply from a place of reaction, which allows us to have ownership over the decisions we make in our lives, leaving us feeling empowered rather than helpless.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim-letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
―C.R. Strahan 

Toward the second half of the workshop series, I started to notice a shift in Omar.  He began to describe scenarios and ask what would restorative practices look like in those situations.  On one particular day, when we were discussing forgiveness, he asked what would happen if he forgave someone who kept doing the same harm over and over again? I responded that forgiveness was a process for him to let go of the pain and anger that enslaved him to the person that caused the violence & harm, but it did not mean he was accepting the person’s behavior, and it certainly didn’t mean he had to have a relationship with the person nor accept him/her in his life.  We can forgive someone and still choose to never engage that person ever again.  He also stated in a questioning manner, “But if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will think they can keep messing with you.” I told him that he was absolutely right.  I went on to give him examples of people around the world that had and were using non-violent resistance to fight for their rights and dignity.  The reality is we aren’t always going to engage with people who are interested in restorative practices or justice, though that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily revert to violence. I also explained that we weren’t always going to engage with people who were sorry for the harm they caused us, but in order to be liberated from our pain we would have to find a way to forgive.

It takes a greater commitment to resist and fight back without violence.  I also exposed very complex historical examples of folks like Martin Luther King whose work was based on a philosophy of non-violence, but who had body guards who carried guns for protection. Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence, especially after his home was bombed, though many experts say that by the 1960s he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense.  I also talked about Harriet Tubman who carried a gun for protection and told the very slaves she was helping to escape that she would kill them before allowing them to go back.  She knew if they went back, they would be tortured and would compromise the work of the Underground Railroad.

Another students then responded, “yeah, but how are we supposed to be non-violent when everyone around us is violent,” to which Omar nodded his head.  In a world in which achievement, performance, competition and acquisition take precedence over integrity, honesty, compassion, collaboration and community the worst is brought out in all of us, unless we are taught to intentionally approach life in a different way. When all around us exploitation and dominance of our labor, bodies and minds is occurring, we grow up angry, and we grow up thinking “I’m going to get you before you get me.” The how becomes one of the most important questions to ask and continue to ask  ourselves as we embark on and commit to non-violence as a way of life.

“So how do I fix myself,” Omar asked hesitantly.  I knew how difficult and courageous this moment was for him; he was breaking away from the philosophy his father, the man he looked up to and admired,  had instilled in him and taken the first step to explore what forgiveness and restorative practice might look like in his life.  Of course, the first thing I told him was how important it was not to see himself as needing to be fixed, for he wasn’t broken, and there were so many beautiful things to celebrate about him.  When we feel better, we do better, and this is why we use our strengths to overcome our challenges.  I ultimately wanted him and the rest of the students to understand that none of this is easy, and that we are all bound to make mistakes and be backed into circumstances where violence might feel like the only choice. However, learning alternative ways to violence through skills and strategies and working with a community of people committed to non-violence empowers us to continue to explore and discover restorative practices that lead to forgiveness and healing.  And so, the second half of the workshop series we spent a lot of time focusing on skills, tools, and strategies.

Forgiveness can be a very difficult and complicated process, especially when the violence and harm are connected to deep systemic trajectories of dehumanization. Forgiveness is a process, and though there is so much I have learned about this process, I know, within the broader spectrum of society’s ills, I have so much more to learn. The students, though young, had some very profound discussions and never ceased to move me and challenge me to go deeper into my understanding of it, especially as I embark in understanding how to embrace forgiveness and restorative, non-violent practices in the work of resisting and confronting destructive power.

Watching these students discuss, reflect on, and own the process of forgiveness within the context of their own lives and experiences was a beautiful opportunity. While concepts of compassion, nonviolence, and restorative practice and justice become messy when the violence that is perpetrated is so horrific and generational, and when the perpetrators do not acknowledge the violence and harm, it is my hope that the strategies and skills the students have learned will allow them to be more aware of how to deal with conflict, navigate the pain, and ultimate take ownership of their healing.

“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence. ”  -Mahatma Gandhi 

The students will continue to do work both in their school and community as peacemakers and facilitators of restorative practices. If they engage in the work now, they will be prepared for the difficult work when they become adults. Practicing forgiveness not only changes the karmic path of one’s life, but it also has tremendous neurological and biological benefits for those who are able to release the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the violence. If we engage our children at an early age to practice forgiveness and restorative processes, we are giving them a greater chance of peace.

“Giving and forgiving are matters of the heart. The more magnanimity we evolve in our hearts, the easier it is for us to give and forgive. The more we give and forgive, the more enriched our lives become, widening our circles to include not only those who we give, but also those who we forgive

Giving includes not just charitable gifts or material objects, or donating food and clothing. It is giving when we give of ourselves, our time, our service, our knowledge, even our organs; expanding our love and friendship in the spirit of advancing our humanity. Giving need not be a response of pity or sympathy, of helping the “poor” or the “needy.” It can be an exercise in building empathy and gratitude, opening our hearts, supporting a cause – a journey toward self-fulfilment and joy.

Forgiving or seeking forgiveness, though related to giving, is a much more challenging task than giving. It requires giving of one’s anger and ego so as to accept and embrace those we think have harmed us in some way. It is an exercise in utmost humility that enables us to seek forgiveness of any intended or unintended mistakes in any form. It is a process not based on forgetting the wrong or the harm done, but rather on remembering it so as to learn from it to not repeat it. Like giving, forgiveness too is ultimately good for the self.”

From the Ahimsa Center, Non-Violence in Thought and Action.

 

 

It’s Okay If All You Did Today Was Survive

In the wake of

Non-stop violent tragedies

I ask myself,

What do we need to do

To save our world?

 

I desperately gasp

for a sense of freedom,

like air,

to alleviate

the asphyxiating

constriction

in my chest.

 

Not enough

to breathe

with ease.

 

I run my fingers

along the asperous

edges of my heart,

eroded by

constant sorrow and

disillusionment.

 

Does God make

mistakes?

Does he give

someone more than

they can handle

at times?

This is not

God’s work

to blame.

 

Am I up to

the magnitude

of this pain?

 

What do I do

with this?

 

Numb it

until I can no

longer feel

myself?

 

Stuff it

down so deep

it becomes

dense with

pressure?

 

Let it flow

through me?

Like the river, use my breath

to remove toxins,

impurities

and debris?

 

I’m afraid of

drowning under

its current, not being

able to come up,

catch my breath;

being crushed

by a cataract of

suffering.

 

Today, I allow

myself to feel

uneasy

uncomfortable

restless

tired

heavy

broken

battered

scared

 

I have enough

courage to

loosen the grip,

let go,

just a little, of

the constriction

and allow the pain

to flow.

 

With

each cry,

each tear,

each gasp,

the pain becomes

less overpowering.

I see

I’m okay.

It didn’t

break me.

It hurt, but

It didn’t

break me.

 

My first lesson

from pain:

I am whole

when I don’t

betray myself,

when I accept

my goodness,

when I don’t

need to be

perfect,

when I realize

I have everything

I need

to heal.

 

Tomorrow

I will endure

a little more.

 

Tomorrow

my next lesson awaits.

 

Tomorrow

I will have

more strength than

today.

Dedicated to my daughter and all those learning to heal, grow, and transform through their own wisdom and courage.

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