Healing is Why I Do It

Billy TiangWhat is the part of our California narrative on health and wellness when it comes to formerly incarcerated people?  Those are the folks who are coming home from prison, back to community, having paid their debt to society, and searching for ways to re-enter communities and families, in a different way than when they left.  The answer:  A lot of healing comes from medicine that is readily available within.

Here is part of the conversation that took place between the Mirror Project and a former lifer who was released after 22 years of incarceration in California’s prison system.  (And then, within 24 hours of freedom, he was detained for 6 months by ICE until being released on bond.)

I asked what part of the narrative on health, wellness, and well-being comes from his experience as someone who is a former prisoner having served more than two decades inside. After 22 years in state prison, he had clarity and firmness in his reply.  The crime was both serious and violent – kidnapping, armed robbery of international tourists traveling to Las Vegas on a bus.  He and his co-conspirators held up about 15 people and created a terrifying experience for the victims.  No one was injured.  No one was killed.

The defense had to try the case because there were no reasonable offers, even for those with no criminal history, a past that included being a part of the national guard reserves, and college education that was unfinished. 

“When did you start to meditate?”

He replied, “I think it was about 5 years before I was released.  I was going to a Buddhism/meditation class inside; the guy leading the class wanted us to take refuge and I didn’t feel right about making that kind of commitment inside there.  I just went (and there were very few who attended) because it was a quiet space.”

“Why did you stay with it for years?”

After a slight chuckle, he said, “The other guys thought it was sort of weird in the beginning – but I kept doing it because it seemed to calm me down and give me more clarity about what I had done.   The meditation is really healing.  I think the main point is HEALING.  I used to sit facing my locker so I wouldn’t be distracted by the action around me.  At first, it was challenging.  But then after a while, I noticed something.  The guys would quiet down when I was doing my meditation and I thought to myself, ‘Wow.  They’re showing me consideration.’  And that was really something.  It was like, ‘Hey, they are being human.’ “

“Did other people ask or join you in our meditation?”

He said, “Nah, but they left me alone and I also noticed after a while, that the area around me got calmer, too.  So I think when you meditate, you can affect other people and the space. At least, that’s what I experienced and that was cool.  I think the practice is something that is very individual.  You either get it, or you don’t.  And it’s not easy to do, even though it looks like you’re just sitting there.  But when you do it – a lot of things are going on inside your head and you have to confront things that you can easily ignore when you’re just living your regular routine.”

“How was it when you came out – was there a difference in the meditation experience?  And why do you keep on meditating now?”

He thought for a minute and then replied, “You know, when I think about it – it’s weird. Inside you are constantly thinking about freedom, and being able to do whatever when you get out.  And when you get released, it’s kinda frantic because you have to look for a place to live, work, re-establish relationships with family,  and all that stuff is really stressful.  Freedom is not an easy thing.  So when I came out, I knew I had to keep my practice because I experienced how much it helped to keep me stable and clear when I was in prison.  It doesn’t cost anything, it’s something you can do no matter where you are, and the effect seemed to be the same. “

As life would have it, when this former prisoner re-engaged with family and community after being released, he had the support of a re-entry program that was culturally sensitive and accessible in southern California.  He also found the regular sitting with Gift of Compassion – a weekly connection to communities and people, beyond the formerly incarcerated.  And, over time, with consistency and commitment to the practice and self, another community was discovered.  That is a community that uplifts humanity, the spirit, and struggle as a part of living.

He continues to face life with courage,  knowing struggle is a constant companion.  Yes, he is “free” – but anti-immigrant sentiment bleeds over to refugees, refugees have no pathway to citizenship, work requires an education or opportunity to come into view.   The heart and spirit are strong.  His material circumstances are equally tough.

He has an aging mother to care for because his older brother is on the streets, homeless and drug-addicted.  Younger  brother (by a different dad) has his own family to take care of and is constantly traveling for work.  And his extended family (all refugees) can barely make room for his mother to survive by providing a small apartment for her to live. 

After gaining freedom, he realizes, “I am it.  And because I took so much from my mom, from now on I will make sure to take care of her.  My goal is to get an education and work with young people to prevent them from making dumb mistakes that can take away the good years of your life.  I want to study sociology.  I also will apply to get into an apprenticeship program to become an electrician.  I was in line for this but then got detained by ICE so lost my place and then, because of a deportation order, I could not get a work permit.”

And here’s the end of this chapter of  his story:

Governor Jerry Brown, in his last week in office, granted this man a full pardon for the crimes he committed as a youth.  The effect:  no more criminal history, ability to lift the deportation order, and life continues….as a refugee from Cambodia.

Not bad, so far. Life, for now, is good. 

Meditation continues to heal.