Orange Is The New Orange

In the TV series “Orange Is The New Black” we see the lives of women behind bars for so many different crimes, and the drama has me on the edge of my seat.

In my work as a spirituality teacher at the County Jail it’s no different. In the last seven years, I have heard thousands of stories from women; why they committed the crimes, what they will do differently when they are released, and their realization of some of the hindrances that might throw them off the path and back in jail. What I noticed is that their story’s are no different that our stories around the root cause of suffering, and skillful or unskillful management of fear, stress and pain that leads to a potential crime or simply bad choices.

Most of these inmates are victims of abuse and don’t have the economic means to get their basic needs met, let alone dream about future opportunities. A lot of them have lost everything, including faith of getting back on their feet and surviving in a world that they describe as very scary. I share their experience here to point out that human resilience is a powerful thing, and our innate ability to dream, heal, and make a difference, even in the midst of stormy weather, is what makes us human.

Quiet, Prison meditation

During my visits to the jail, I follow the same basic format that I do in my other workshops. After a brief meditation to get the participants to connect with their body, breath, and heart so that they can identify what is real in the moment, I have them feel into and dream about their own unique gifts. What would they like to offer the world if there were no limitations, no risk of failure? Even in the harsh environment of prison, where many of them have hit bottom, the response and joy toward these questions is astounding. Most say, “Well, I have lost everything, and I have nothing else to lose, so why not dream big?”

They describe gray clouds lifting, the sun starting to shine, and a joy and pleasure inside that they remember only from their childhoods. When they became adults, they became scared and lost their hopes and dreams. In their relaxed, safe state of meditation, they are able to once again imagine a more peaceful state of mind and a sense of community and of being supported and uplifted by one another. They also discover a synergetic realignment with their core essence that knows where hope still lives.

Sometimes, regardless of how much money we have, it’s easy to get stuck and feel like a prisoner to our own pain. I think it’s enlightening to learn a few things from people who have hit bottom. The wisdom that is still alive underneath their pain and suffering is incredibly deep.

One female prisoner expressed a desire to work with the elderly because she felt they are so often ignored and forgotten in society. Another described how good it would feel to be a fashion designer, and the following week, showed the class fifty or so her clothing designs. One prisoner wanted to study acting, another open a pet grooming center, and several of the women started talking about forming a partnership when they were released. They shared numerous dreams and had the opportunity to feel joy and to savor the delicious sensations they experienced while brainstorming.

Butterflies in prisonI always remind my students in the jail of how so many great people in history had it just as hard as they do, but rose above their circumstances. Oprah Winfrey, getting past severe childhood abuse, realized her dream and gift to the world. Nelson Mandela, locked up for twenty-seven years in a tiny jail cell in Robben Island prison off Capetown. My own single mother, who came to this country with three children, very little money, and no language skills. She eventually became a successful entrepreneur. For most of us, we are fortunate to hold the keys to our happiness.

We may not be able to change or control what is going on in and around us, but we can respond more skillfully, mindfully and compassionately rather than reacting with fear, anger or what ever other strategy that you use to control a painful situation.

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