synthesis – part 1

credit - tyrant wave

credit – tyrant wave

Last week we ended our June series on mindfulness with the theme of ‘synthesis.’ Opening with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Making a Mosaic, we moved into writing and art-making by examining how we pull together our respective parts to create a unified whole. Our whole self, if you will. 

The writing that emerged took many shapes: letters to helpers on the journey; rants; love stories; wistful memories of good and bad times; reflections on the difficulties of breaking a habit. Two of these follow. Next week we’ll share some of the artwork that followed the writing.

I have titled what holds me back. I have named it. I have cursed it. I have despised and hated it. It’s a thief of dreamers. A thief of hope. It does not play fair, and always kept me on my toes. ut I stook up for myself one day. I thought to myself, no guts, no glory. I went all in. I let go of what was grounding me, bridling me. Had me like a puppet on a string. And just like that, it was all in my control to let something go that had so much power like that. But I did it. The battle didn’t end there. It haunted me like a ghost. It snuck up on me when I least expected, inviting me back for one more taste. I hesitate. I start to believe the lie. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it will be different. But come on, we’ve been through this before. We know how it ends. The void it leaves will never be filled. Yet the emptiness is better than having a monkey on your back. 
–  MGa

Some people begin at the center, examining themselves from the inside out, trying to be a peace with everything in this life, their past, their memories, who they once were and who’ve they become. They are in an endless search for inner peace. But what’s that really feel like? And does anyone ever really find it?

Some look up at the night sky. Others escape the chaos of humanity and find themselves at peace in nature with nothing but a steady stream and a towering pine. Some live out their entire lives in complete solitude, just the silent chatter of their random thoughts and the distant sound of their own heartbeat to keep them company, content to sit for hours watching the simple things of this life. Finding peace …

What a treasure it is, to be alone with ourselves and not be made crazy. At times, some catch glimpses of it; at others, it’s flowing through them like an endless river. We all find ours in different places, in different ways; but our need for it is always the same. When wondering where to begin in your journey to find yours, always start where we all need it the most. At the center. – PP

the stories inside

black and white lotus flower

In Asian languages, the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.Jon Kabat-Zinn

We sit together each week sharing the stories at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. In one of our agreements, we state that we “do not promote writing that is emotionally violent, that is attacking of self or others.” This creates a necessary boundary between the emotional reality of each writer’s experience and the challenging truths in our stories. Most of the time, we have no idea what each writer is in for beyond what a writer tells us. We also don’t know the specifics of any trauma endured or great triumphs they’ve experienced. Whether we are inmates, facilitators, volunteers, mentors, we speak, we write in big abstracts: addiction, obsession, depression, hope, truth, peace, hate, death, abuse but we almost never hear or use details. This is intentional. We focus our time on the development of voice and writing skill, speaking in larger lessons and messages of hope. 

But there are other story telling spaces in the prison. All day, there are women coming together in informal circles chatting, regaling, laughing, crying, dreaming. This means the mundane, the celebratory, the tragic, the traumatic. It is as true inside as it is outside. Inevitably, there are things we don’t want to hear, stories so sad or cruel that we can’t imagine the path that led to it or the path we must all walk away from it. Once we hear a story, it is a part of us, a part of the world we carry on our backs like Atlas, heavier and heavier over time. We cultivate the strength through writing and other practices but sometimes it is too much and we ask ourselves, what do we do? Or how and why? We want to set it down, our own loads heavy enough.

The question then becomes, how can we hold the truth of the world? How can knowing the truth be an asset, build strength and compassion rather than breaking us further down? Both in and out of our writing circle, we grapple with this. We attempt to create a mindful practice where these stories can be both told and heard, and that these skills can be carried into all our conversations. Below is one woman’s experience with these questions.

Dragging Days

Everyday I see or hear
something that more or less kills me inside.
These days drag by like honey dripping from a jar.
I wonder will it ever end?
It’s hard to think I’m trapped in a place I can’t
be free.
To hear horror stories of others,
I instruct myself over and over, to pray.
This life is not for me, my mom and dad did not
raise me this way.
To hear a story of a mom first injecting
their daughter for the first time hit hard.
Why, I ask why??
To be given away to DCF custody at such a young
age, or not being able to love on my babies.
I know now my mom and dad raised me now:
sheltered, sheltered from the truth of this cruel,
cruel world.
Truth that evil things take place and sadness does happen
in very dramatic ways.
Addiction is a sick sickness. I’m blessed not to have an
addiction to drugs or alcohol. I thank my parents
for that.
How does this end I cry?
It doesn’t. It is the truth.
Everyday I see or hear something that more
or less kills me inside.


cutting paths

path in woods

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. – Thich Nhat Hanh

In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go.
Jack Kornfield


Making change looks a lot like cutting paths. There are paths, trenches, river beds well worn and established that our minds run over and over, re-inscribing. These are cognitive landscapes that are well-explored and often sweet places to live or the only places to live, at least for a little while. If they weren’t, we would never have made them.

After a while these paths become dead ends, cul-de-sacs, you get the idea. You get stuck in the same old places, patterns, sometimes without knowing it. And, it is a lot easier to get stuck when you are forced to literally stay in one place. We started a mindfulness unit this month with the intent of expanding that repetitive space in the mind and between the walls. Continue reading

present-moments in hell

Tree of Half LifeI presented a steep challenge to the incarcerated women writers this week.

Write about a moment, an activity, or an interaction with someone ‘inside’ – where you were mindful; in the present moment; all senses engaged; and forgot about your worries briefly.

We utilized Mary Oliver’s poem Mindful as a springboard.

As I explained the writing prompts to the 18 women gathered though, I began to be overcome by doubts. My own looping mental thoughts went something like this: these women are wracked with worries galore – some can barely sit still in their seats due to anxiety – how are they going to identify a moment where they ‘lost themselves’ in this joyless, hell-forsaken place?

Not to worry. The writers delivered as they always do.  Continue reading

mindfully drumming

My latest project at the Chittenden Correctional Facility is designing a drumming & mindfulness pilot program for the incarcerated women.

Drum line by taddzilla/Flickr

Drum line by taddzilla/Flickr

Ask me if I knew A THING about the difference between a snare or tenor drum when we began in January, or even how to hold a pair of hickory drumsticks?  The answer then was a resounding, NO!”

Yet under the skilled mentorship of Berklee College of Music-trained drummer Sue Schmidt, of Burlington, we are halfway through an 8-week program, learning how to play our individual parts while simultaneously becoming a unified drumline. (Sounds like an important metaphor for life, huh?!)

The 16 women participants were identified by correctional officers for this innovative Vermont Works for Women program.

The program, called “Flying Sticks: Drumming and Stress Reduction,” aims to provide a healthy avenue for women (who struggle with aggressive behavior) to burn off stress and anxiety through drumming, as well as to engage in healthy communal activity with other inmates. Continue reading