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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The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I

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What is a sensible prison sentence when prisoners who have committed a crime, even a violent crime, are no longer a threat to society?

As I entered through the gates of  the Correctional Facility, the irony of the word “correctional” didn’t go past me. I felt a sense of loss, a vacuum of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a sort of erasing of everything that feels soulful, alive. Replaced by metal fences, circular barbed wire, concrete walls, and barren landscapes, the only thing that seemed to remind me of my humanity were the surrounding mountains and the chirping and chitter of birds that found shelter in the few cacti scattered around the perimeter and entrance. The sky was blue, the sun a little too warm, but still inviting. It’s October, the time of the season when Santa Ana winds give way to hot dry weather, often the hottest time of the year. As I enter through several gates, I am reminded that I am walking into a cage.

In a chapel, twenty-two men in baggy blue denim pants and light blue scrub-like shirts provided by the prison start to trickle in, sitting in a circle as they await for the start of the workshop. They seem to be in good spirits, shaking each other’s hands, some introducing themselves for the first time. They are handed an ice-breaker activity, which they immediately seem to engage in, enthusiastically, with each other. The chapel is sterile – white brick walls, a podium, a few bookcases with religious and spiritual literature and stackable chairs organized in a circle – with an unpleasant smell that reminds me of a combination of latex paint, locker room sweat, and hospital rooms.

prison_008_tx700In this facility, inmates have the opportunity to work and attend education programs that include Adult Basic Education, college courses, GED programs, Career Technical Education (carpentry, welding, electronics, building maintenance), Inmate Work Labor and an ample offering of programs that afford the inmates opportunities for self-improvement such as the Alternative to Violence conflict resolution workshop, Project PAINT: The Prison ArtsINitiative, Playwrights Project, and the Pooch Program in which inmates train puppies to become service dogs.

There are lots of opportunities for the men to learn and grow. The men, in fact, sometimes find themselves forgetting the limits to their freedom, even if just for a short period of time. However, one is quickly reminded of this fallacy when you see the guards, rigid and distant in a militant-like stance, in the yards they patrol, in the towers from which they watch over everyone, or when they come in to round up inmates for cell count. It is to be reminded that this is a place in which one is not entitled to their time, space, or body. “A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Many volunteers come and go, but once the volunteers leave, the men are left to survive in a brutal, corrupt, and sometimes animalistic environment. Their participation in these programs is sometimes an escape from the violence and hopelessness that they often feel in prison. It’s the little bit of hope that feeds their determination to survive.

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I spent three days in this cage with men who are locked up and forgotten; left to rot under the fist of repression, oppression, cruelty, and dehumanization. Many of the men are serving life sentences, some without the possibility of parole, for murder, drug related charges, robbery, etc. Many are serving disproportionate sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. And for a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.

Immigrants in Our Own Land
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
.
“Immigrants in Our Own Land” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land