I have been facilitating workshops in prison for a of couple years now. Up until now it had been at a medium security prison in upstate New York. This past weekend the stakes were raised. I went to Sing Sing prison for the first time. Sing Sing is a maximum security prison that has loomed over the Hudson river since 1825. The terms “up the river” and “the big house” refer to it. There are 30-foot high stone and concrete walls with armed guard towers and barbed wire as far as the eye can see.
Entering prison, one of the first things I always feel is a kind of perspective overload. How can this be? How has it come to this? What did these men do to get themselves into this hellish situation? How were they raised? How is their life bearable? How do the corrections officers keep their humanity? How weird is it when it’s a beautiful sunny day and yet you are in this ugly place? And over the course of the weekends, fifteen minutes doesn’t go by without another perspective hit happening.
My mind reels with all the evidence of an overdone masculinity. The men are guarded by guards and they also have to guard themselves. Wearing a mask of toughness is a necessity. Homophobia is overt. There are no normal distractions like the Internet, booze, or vacations. Just the day-to-day. A moment of overblown masculinity might have landed them here many years before, and they may not have had any clue of a healthy masculine before that.
Yet, when the workshops begin, the masks gradually come down. The men are starved to be able to feel and connect on a real level.
One of the guiding principles of these workshops is to see the best in the other participants. We even call each other by our “adjective names,” your first name preceded by a positive attribute that you stand for.
When Macho Mex said that he was only 26 years old, 41-year-old Brave Brandon blurted out, “Man, when I was 26 I was in the box at Southport for 4 years.” The box is solitary, and Southport is another maximum security prison. I mention this because the 41 year old was now a man of high quality. His demeanor, temperament and bearing projected dignity, grace and strength. How does this happen? How can certain people transform into high functioning leaders in such a profoundly horrible environment? Does solitary confinement act as a de facto cave for these men that forces them into a monk-like existence and contemplation? I don’t know. But whatever darkness Brave Brandon was in on the worst day of his life didn’t seem to be with him now.
And every workshop I go to has several Brave Brandons. Men who have done horrible things… gone through many stages of remorse and healing… and have emerged as purposeful men… leaders.
And every workshop I go to fills me with hope that if transformation is possible in those conditions, it is possible everywhere.
The founder of the Mankind Project Bill Kauth writes:
“I make a clear distinction between spirit and soul. Spirit is about assent, going up, looking for the light, the right answer, perfection and cosmic truth. Soul is about descent, going down into the mystery — the not knowing, confusion, darkness, material. I got this distinction from Thomas Moore and Richard Rohr, who suggest we as a culture are drowning in spirit and desperately hungry for soul.”
I interpret this as; while yoga studios, meditation centers, Kripalu, Omega, Eselen, and the Chopra Center are getting more and more popular, the darker places like ghettos and prisons (as well as our own shadows) are kept out of site and out of mind. Most people would much rather have their spiritual path be shiny and happy than gritty and real.
Evidently there is a lot of learning and soul to be found in the darkness.