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Angels of Darkness, Angels of Light

by Paul Shippee

    All sentient beings are alike
In that they want to be happy and
Do not wish to experience suffering.

-- Buddha


A tall, round white guard tower looms over the main entrance at the 130-year-old Colorado state prison in Buena Vista. As I walk across the parking lot I see steel fences and razor-barbed wire topped with tiers of lethal electrical wire rising fifteen feet above the clipped lawn.

Approaching this carefully walled palace of authority I feel small, and a creepy sense of fear, in the presence of so much force and control. I understand that the rigid structure is required by the containment and correctional duties of the staff and guards. What is being contained is an unpredictable mixture of violence and suffering. Fights do break out and the staff maintains emergency readiness around the clock. The prison is officially known as a “correctional facility” and the prisoners are referred to as “offenders.”

I volunteer here to offer a deeper touch of heart to these men. Once a month I present a weekend-long training in the teachings and practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC, also known as Compassionate Communication) developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Each month I meet with a new group of about a dozen men. Sometime during my recently completed first year of service I began to feel different when approaching the prison. Now as I pass through the clankety old iron gate I feel joy in my heart –joy at the prospect of connecting with the souls of men whose developmental wounds and life trauma may have hardened deep inside. They are locked into a place by uniformed guards who have complete control over them.

Somehow I noticed, in a strange ironic twist that, assuming an absence of downright meanness, such a citadel of authoritarianism can have a calming effect on the offenders, at least on the surface. Like a monastery it has the potential to wear down ego, due to the structure alone. In other words, with their light green pajama suits and regular meals the offenders may choose between a healing opportunity and a hateful period of incarceration and blame. They need help and I know I can help them. I want to help them. And with my professional and personal training and experience in NVC, psychology, group facilitation and restorative justice, I know how to help them.

Within the overall framework of our weekend training I let them know that they can dissolve the walls of this captive prison when they take down the walls they maintain inside themselves. That’s what we work on. When I ask them at the outset why they opted to sign up for this workshop offering in Nonviolent Communication they say they wish to better themselves. They say they want to learn how to communicate better with their families and loved ones. They say they want freedom. I believe them. It seems the perennial question of how to free oneself, how to liberate yourself from suffering is as alive in this state prison as in the wide world.

It seems what these men need is some effective encouragement, a role model, education and some skillful communication tools, all offered in an engaged atmosphere of trust. In my work I attempt to drop a few hints, plant some seeds, introduce language and insights they’ve likely never heard before, and offer encouragement.

My approach, tempered by prudent advice from two trusted Buddhist friends (Andrew and Tamar), is to not see people in terms of what they have done. This brings us into the present moment. I do not judge them, not even a sliver of evaluation. Under these conditions we work together to transform personal darkness into light. It has a true alchemy feel to it.

The first few weekends I spent training the men, showing them the basic principles of NVC, I felt bewildered and slightly scared. Soon I began to realize that these men, no matter how tough, really want to learn communication skills, that they, each of them, do indeed have a tender heart. And they are more than willing to be open, transparent and sincere –but only after they assessed that they could trust me.

How was that going that happen? They told me they wanted to know who I am and why I do this volunteer service. They taught me what they needed to trust me. It was not enough to say that I felt a need to make a contribution to society; they needed to know who I am. I told them that I am just like them -no separation, no difference- and have done many of the things they have done. I acknowledged my dark side including a few details. I want them to know I have street smarts, that I am also a longtime Buddhist meditator, that I am not merely some white boy from suburbia with a psychology degree.

Through my sincerity I was able to get across the idea that I want to help them, but not as an alienating do-gooder. I could feel the energy in the room shift, changing into real learning, openness and warmth. As I began to adjust so did they. With humor and humbleness we built mutual respect and trust and the men moved from resistance toward engagement.

Then they were open to learn. To see, for example, that hurt so often lies hidden beneath anger. Or that sometimes anger lies buried beneath hurt. When the truth is presented in the right way it makes sense to them. Still, I wondered how far I could go in discussing vulnerable emotions like hurt and fear.

I began to see how early childhood trauma and neglect is so deeply wounding. Traumatized people do not want to jump into living with vulnerability, even as they long to be free of pain and trouble.  I like to persuade them that their new life task is self-awareness and especially emotional awareness –a life skill that remains largely absent from mainstream culture.

We begin each class session with ten minutes of formless meditation. Follow your breath, be aware of the space around you, stay still, be alert to inner and outer sensations. In NVC training we work specifically and directly with awareness of present-moment feelings and needs, a new language for most people, especially people who find themselves imprisoned.

I ask them provocative questions such as: look inside, see if you can touch or become intimate with the root of your suffering –then tell us what you found. In another session I might ask: what need were you trying to meet when you did your crime? Another time I’ll ask: who did you feel safe with growing up? When did you feel loved, by whom? With these direct questions and with my presence I engage them eye-to-eye, heart to heart. In this way they feel seen, met and loved. They begin to open up, become real and share their truth.

Vulnerability begins to surface and is palpably felt, seen and shared around the group. This never happens elsewhere in the prison. The men experience the power of vulnerability, the honesty of looking inside without shame. Shame, a major obstacle to vulnerability, is the secret belief that we are unworthy of love and belonging. What I’ve learned at the prison is that crime seems to be a human weakness; a shame-based behavior with roots deep in the learned habits of invulnerability and fear. I suggest that habitual crime is, therefore, an illness much like other addictions. When I view it like that and experience and engage the men with a compassionate attitude, the sun of healing begins to shine through the clouds.

I am honored to help and guide these men as they touch, warm and crack the frozen sea within. A helpful verse about gratitude in an 8th century Buddhist text by Shantideva says, “The work of bringing benefit to beings will not, then, make me proud and self-admiring. The happiness of others is itself my satisfaction; I do not expect another recompense.”

The guard tower overlooks the main prison entrance.