Wisdom in Practice

In this issue’s offering, a student residing in Oregon’s only women’s correctional facility writes to one of her Vedanta mentors.  As spiritual aspirants, we all struggle with seeing God in others.  For most of us this struggle takes place in our family and work place.  For others, this struggle takes place in the prison community, sometimes under dire circumstances. 

I live with someone who is….well…a bit different?  It is crazy.  Six years ago there would not be anyone who could force me to share a cell with this person. A lot of times I get frustrated with where I “think” I am spiritually, and where I actually am at.  I feel as though I have not grown.  I want a spiritual breakthrough.  I get irritated with sitting for meditation as I struggle to get 45 minutes in, let alone an hour.  Or eight!  I experience much chitta (restless thoughts).  I have wanted to know what it is like to “see” through the eyes of the Divine.

Living with this person has brought me some subtle confirmation.  I found in my own experience that spiritual breakthroughs are not one-time occurrences, and will come in many different forms.  But all are “my own.”  No one else can tell me about them.  Only my Self knows.  It is such a freeing feeling to “know.”  I know these are all “just” an inkling or a taste, but I have come a ways from where I was some ten years ago.

One word I remember you told me once in one of your letters – “perseverance.”  In all honesty, it is a practice I do not always care for.  I do, however, work at it.  I’ll tell you a story.  True story.

About 5 – 6 years ago, a little boy went “missing.” This little guy was about 4-1/2 years old and looked and reminded me of my own son.  When I first saw him on the news, he had a little plastic shovel and pail set.  He was in a sandy area with his little pair of shorts on and no shirt, no shoes.  He was playing around, just as happy as ever. Cute little boy.  Like I said, the little fellow reminded me of my baby.  So it was no longer a distant crime possibility “out there” because my perception was now based around my own offspring.

Sure enough, the step-grandmother whacked him in the head and sent him on his way out of this world.  This totally broke my heart all to hell and back, plus enraged me on top of it all.  It is just horrific as to where it took me. Now what?  I would make a baby-killer miserable once she arrived here at the prison.  I knew it would not be too long before “granny” would get here, and I was determined to give this person a hell that would last her until her last breath!

Well, the first time I saw her in person, I got nauseated.  I got sick to my stomach.  I had a lot of anxiety.  Just awful.  So much so, I could not give her a piece of my mind.

However, this would ease in time enough to taunt her and get my point across.  And I did.  Then the time came when she became an orderly here on my unit!  This meant she would live here!  She would breathe the same air I did.  That was my attitude.  And I would hate every minute of it.  This also meant that at chow time she would now serve us our tray.  Well, not me.  I’d rather starve.  There was no way in a hell of starvation I would ever eat out of her hand.  So I determined.

I have always been known around here, (especially on this unit) to be a real bitch around Child Crimes.  But this one in particular took a whole new turn.

Your teaching around “persevere” had yet to come.  I do not even recall if I had met you yet.  One thing a Buddhist religious volunteer told me about “baby killers” that stuck with me was, “There are no ‘baby killers.’  There are those who ‘killed’ a baby.  There are no ‘child molesters,’ there are those who have molested a child.  There are no thieves, but those who committed a theft.  There are no kidnappers, just those who kidnapped someone else, etc.”  At first, I really needed some kind of clarification.  To separate the crime from the offender seemed almost impossible.  At any rate, I have an intense history with the person who killed that little boy.  

That same Buddhist teacher once gave me some “homework.”  At first I thought, “Okay. Homework is not too bad.” Ha!  She told me I was to start taking my meal tray from this woman.  I was to report to my teacher as to what my experience was.  I had a week.  So, a week comes around, and so did the Buddhist teacher.  However, I had nothing to report because I did not do it.  Next week comes.  No report.  Didn’t do it.  It was well over a month before I finally took it.  But I did not eat from it.  Instead I set it on my table for my peers and returned to my cell.  Next homework assignment was “worse.”  I was to say thanks to this woman.  Well…No! Never did it.  

To shorten the story a bit, she got a job elsewhere and I went to another unit.  I would see her on occasion.  Along the years I worked on simply saying nothing at all to those who killed or molested a child.  Then eventually I got to where I would say, “hi,” when they did, but I just did not really associate with them.

I would often wonder what could possess anyone to hurt a child?  Likewise, my own guilt often kicked in because of my neglecting my own or being so hard on them.  To this day I live my own hell, due to my lack of parenting skills, and the hell I put them through.  And so I struggle with forgiving myself.

I heard Babaji repeatedly telling me to see God in everyone.  To think of them as God.  I recall the Buddhist teacher saying, “People who hurt another living being are people who themselves are suffering.” All these teachings I took into account, even if at one point I did not “get it.”  

At one point, I upped my nerve to simply respond with “hi” to the person who killed that boy.  Her name is “S.” Lots of times I wonder what pain they must endure themselves.  Well, I oftentimes got so irritated because I felt that I was not growing spiritually.  I was about to face my spiritual breakthrough once I moved to another unit.  Here it is….

When I was moved, I was told I would be coming to live with “T.” “No,” I said, “I’ll rather go to the hole (segregation).  So roll me up yourselves.  I won’t go.”  Well, to my surprise, the officer had some compassion.  She did not want to see me go to segregation.  So she made some calls and then I was in awe/amazement when I was told I would be in the cell with “S,” herself, the little boy’s killer.  My jaw dropped.

So, now what?  I sat for a minute and thought, “Okay.  There is a definite spiritual reason for this.  How dare I fail the lesson entrusted to me?”  So, I started my way to this cell.  Here I am.  Living with her.  The teachings now make sense in more degrees than one.  It is such a freeing feeling to see her through the eyes of compassion, rather than total hatred.  To separate the crime from the offender has come, but I think it came when I least expected it, because when I am expecting it, it is like trying to force it to happen.
I recognize so much of her pain.  She has got one heavy “cross” crashing down on her.  Now, mind you, she’s in no way trying to minimize what she did, even though it was during one of her schizophrenic episodes.  She has no problem accepting that she will die in here as a result of it.

Her childhood’s full of agony.  And she honestly now believes she will die and go to hell, forever.  Her family is a line of suicides, so she really believes it is okay to do just that, being that she is already condemned herself.  What a cycle.  So, what do you say to someone such as her?