Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Redemption, Salvation, and the Road to Healing on the Spiritual Path

I was visiting my parents' home this last weekend for Mother's Day among other reasons, and I happened to pick up Yoga Journal magazine. I think it's one of the few times in the last 6 months that I've picked up a magazine. With so much information online, I have less and less interest in periodicals, but I digress. The article that I read had to do with a yoga program in California at a penitentiary. It's a pretty powerful article, and it talks about the effects of yoga for prison inmates in a penitentiary that's more than two times over-populated. The inmates who go to yoga discover more peace of mind and begin to have a coping mechanism to deal with the insanity of the place.

The Corrections System Needs Correcting
As a spiritual teacher, none of this is particularly surprising to me. Yoga is one of many great tools to develop ourselves on the spiritual path. It has physical, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits, and I think that adding in programs like this can actually make the corrections system a system that does really "correct" and rehabilitate people instead of punishing them.

Because that's what this system should be about. Right now, it's really not much more than Hammurabi's Code. For those of you looking for a history lesson, Hammurabi's Code was a code of ethics and laws set down in 1700 B.C. or so that said things like:

  • "If a man puts out the eye of an equal, his eye shall be put out."

This is the basis for the eye-for-an-eye mentality. So, jails and prisons cloister together tons of people who have committed crimes in suffocatingly close quarters, and they don't offer many ways to re-train these people so that they can change their lives. It creates a self-perpetuating cycle, and whether you pity or condemn them, you have to remember one thing above all else: they're just like you.

Grossly Distorted Egos and the Spiritual Path
It doesn't matter how twisted the ego is, if a person truly desires to change, it's possible. There is nothing that the divine cannot heal. This is a lesson that we all need to remember wherever we are on the spiritual path. In a spiritual awakening, many of us come to face a whole load of issues that we thought we'd repressed or forgotten. It may seem insurmountable, but that's the ego's belief system. The ego is always about limits and boundaries; it can't think beyond what it knows. And most of that is based on fear, anger, hate, and sadness.

So it's no wonder that "criminals" primarily continue to perpetuate their crimes. They almost all grow up in bad situations where stealing, lying, and fist-fights rule the day. Throw them in with a bunch of other people who know the same, and what kind of new lessons or behaviors do you actually think they're going to learn? Yoga classes are a great step one. I remember there was a movie out not too long ago called the Dhamma Brothers--it was about two brothers in jail in Georgia, I believe. They get into Buddhism, and it changes their lives. It is amazing what can happen when "hardened criminals" get a chance to learn new ways of being, re-programming their egos with new behaviors.

Force-Feeding Spirituality Not the Way
But you don't force-feed people spirituality. There's been enough of that with religions. You don't scare people into following Jesus or the Buddha. You put the tools there. I'm not involved in the corrections system, but there are plenty of people who are and who are passionate about rehabilitating people into healthier individuals. To them I'd say, that there are plenty of tools now available to offer in the prison system. As the Yoga Journal article noted, this is a great way to help inmates reduce stress and therefore reduce fights and other altercations. It can become a basis for helping someone find new communities to connect to when they get out (for those where that is still possible). Keep in mind, that most people end up going right back to their old world after getting out of a prison. Those social circles were where they learned a lot of behaviors in the first place and got them into trouble with the law. Many of them would never have even thought to look for a yoga class, and now, they might.

Yoga, meditation, qi gong, chanting, classes on mindfulness, and so many more tools really can make a huge difference because no one is beyond redemption, salvation, or healing. No one is beyond help.


Awakening to Your Own Darkness
I'm writing about this because in so many ways, jails are the forgotten places of our social consciousness. It's where we cram away the darkness of our collective consciousness and try to forget that we've got some serious issues. Overcrowding in jails is pandemic, and if throwing people in prison stopped crime, we'd be nearing a Utopia, I should think. Obviously, we're not. It's like cutting off a hand that doesn't work right; it just leaves our society handless.

Now, I'm not a dreamy idealist. Just letting out all the people who've committed crimes into the world is not an answer. I'm all about accountable compassion. A murderer has to pay for his or her crimes against society. But a murderer is still not beyond help or hope. The spiritual path offers much to that person, and if s/he is finally ready to make a change, then the opportunity to do so should be there. We can't assume that they know what opportunities are available. Think of most criminals as scared little children that are dangerous, and they have no idea what they really need or want or how to get it appropriately. If they'd been taught otherwise, they probably wouldn't be where they are now.

While there are always edge cases, I always move from a space of compassion around such things. Hate and ostracism have never resolved anything except to make it easier for some of us to ignore how we're linked to the problems that others have. So the more we provide spiritual, emotional, and social tools to people who really have none, the more we all will benefit in a more peaceful society.

Clouds Descend: The Path Gets Murkier
Stirring up the waters will make things muddy, and we all have to remember that we're all in this together. The more that you face your own darkness, the easier it is to be with others who are in their darkness. For most people, you avoid uncomfortable situations because it activates those old issues and pains in you. The more you face and release those fears and insecurities, the more calm you will have around others in pain. It's not necessarily easy, and the true spiritual path takes us through all the pain and barriers we've created for ourselves. It can seem insurmountable to get to all this healing, but that's an illusion. Just let it go. Let the light of you come in. Let the light in you come forth. Let inside and outside dissolve so that there is no other, no enemy, no criminal, and you will know peace.

How to Start Your Spiritual Journey

Special thanks to Arran Edmonstone for today's picture. You can see more of his photography on this Flickr link.
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