‘We must remember that trying to solve the world’s problems through a primarily external focus is not very effective, either. The world is full of people attempting to find solutions to community and planetary problems with little success and much struggle, because they are not fully confronting deeper levels of the issues. As well-meaning as we may be, if we try to ‘fix’ things outside ourselves without healing the underlying causes of the problem in our own consciousness, we simply perpetuate the problem.’ – Shakti Gawain, from ‘The Path of Transformation’
Many years ago, I worked in the prison service as a pagan minister, a post which involved talking to and leading rituals for prisoners of pagan faith. As a priestess of an ancient Goddess tradition, it was my quest to bring long forgotten Goddess archetypes into the grey, male-dominated prison environments for the purpose of healing and transformation. The Universe, known for its terrific sense of humour in all situations, took my mission seriously, because it placed me in a sex offender’s prison and made sure I wasn’t aware of this fact until I had accepted the position. Needless to say, I was quite shaken when I found out. Me, a feminist priestess, working with rapists and paedophiles?! What?! I hadn’t bargained for that!
Most people I talked to told me to stop working there at once. There was concern for my safety, as well as criticism and judgement, even from some of my friends. The general consensus seemed to be that these men were monsters who’d committed the most despicable crimes and thus didn’t deserve attention or spiritual guidance. How could I even entertain the thought of working with them? After some serious soul searching, I decided to stay in the job and give it my best. Something inside me told me that it was the right thing for me to do, and that the reasons would become clear later on. And so it was. I worked in this particular prison for two years, and my time there turned out to be one of the most rewarding and enriching periods of my life. What I experienced during that phase, no book or degree would have been able to teach me; and I learned just as much, if not more, from the men I worked with as they might have learned from me. Through my interactions in the prison, I learned how to listen with my heart and understood that there is always a reason for why people act in the way they do.
It is so easy, and also quite natural, to judge ‘the rapist’, ‘the criminal’ or even ‘the other’ without understanding the big picture. Definitely, rape is one of the most horrendous crimes, in particular where children are involved. I think we probably all agree on that. However, the point I am trying to make is that we have to try and understand why these things happen, and what occurred in the person’s life that caused him/her to act in such violent ways. To seek answers to these questions, I began to read the case histories of the men I worked with. Many of them were filled with the most unimaginable childhood abuse, and upon reading the files, I wasn’t really surprised any longer that the men became violent in turn. Violence appeared to be a way for their wounded, raging unconscious to take control like others had seized control of them when they were children. Pain, powerlessness and violence were what these men had known since birth, and the hatred and abuse they had experienced turned into hatred and abuse for others. Again, I repeat: I am not trying to condone or excuse acts of violence by any means. Not everyone who had an abusive childhood becomes a criminal, and many complex individual and societal factors contribute to why a person becomes violent. What I am saying though is that we have to try and understand the root causes if we want to find an effective way of eliminating a problem.
For society, the problem of crime may appear solved if criminals are locked up. But, my years of working in prisons have shown me that being in the association of other criminals in a punitive environment rarely works. The people I have seen change are the ones who had an inner transformation, be this through religion, spirituality, art or education, and, perhaps most importantly, who had a mentor or contact person that respected them as a fellow human being. A single human contact with somebody seeking to understand rather than judge often had the power to help a person to start respecting himself again, regardless of what he had done.
Something we all seem to do in this externally-focused world is to seek the root causes for our problems outside of ourselves. But the outer is always a reflection of the inner, and vice versa. We start to see that when, through our spiritual practice, judgment begins to fall away and we get glimpses of the big picture. We have an ‘aha’ moment and recognize that not everything is as it seems on the surface. Rather than thinking with our minds that holds conditioned concepts of what is right and wrong, we begin to see with the heart and try to understand why.
We all have a potential rapist and murderer inside of us. We are all capable of violence and aggression, given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances, and this is what many of us, especially if we believe ourselves to be spiritual, try to deny. Shakti Gawain puts this aptly in her book ‘The Path of Transformation’: ‘If we are identified with love, light and peaceful energies, and we project our disowned aggression onto others, then our attempts to create world peace, or even peaceful lives of our own, will most likely fail.’ We need to recognize that we are all a composite of dark and light, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities, and only when we have come to peace with that can our lives start to transform and become truly holistic.
We have to accept all of our thoughts and emotions, including our feelings of revenge, anger, jealousy, rage and sadness, without censoring and judging anything. We have to feel it all if we want to be free, and channel this energy in productive ways. When we do this, we no longer need to judge others ‘out there’ –we can then come from a place of compassion, permissiveness and understanding that can transform ourselves and those around us. And the beauty of spiritual practice is that by accepting and integrating them fully, we eventually transcend our negative emotions.
What then, is the answer to the world’s problems? I believe it’s inner growth, first and foremost, which can then flower into wholesome action. Meditation has the power to melt our filters and conditionings into understanding, compassion and love. This is why I think it’s wonderful that Vipassana meditation (a very effective 10 day silent meditation course) is available for free in some prisons. The film ‘Doing Time, Doing Vipassana’ illustrates this perfectly by showing what happened when Vipassana meditation was conducted in some of India’s largest prisons. The result is very moving: hardened criminals broke down in tears after the course and embraced their jailers, because they had finally started to see the root cause of their actions. It is only when we see why we do something that we can understand what to do about it. Most importantly, this shift from the unconscious to the conscious gives us the power of choice and the key to a truly liberated way of life.
‘There is a simple universal principle: Everything in the universe wants to be accepted. All aspects of creation want to be loved and appreciated and included.’ – Shakti Gawain
How can we learn to listen with our hearts more? Here are some tips:
- Meditate, meditate, meditate 🙂
- Travel and/or expose yourself to different cultures and religions. Travelling as well as having relationships with people from different cultures has really helped me to appreciate the differences as well as the commonalities we all share.
- Spend time with people whose views you find difficult to understand or accept. Instead of judging, keep an open mind and keep asking ‘why’. Allow others to express themselves so that you can begin to see where they are coming from.
- Practice empathic listening – listening with intent to understand. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the other person; it means that you fully, deeply, try to understand that person, instead of projecting your own autobiography, opinions and assumptions onto them. Focus on receiving the deep communication of another human soul, rather than on having to be right.
- Read the book ‘The Path of Transformation’ by Shakti Gawain, which talks more about how healing ourselves can change the world.
- Read ‘Flight’ by Sherman Alexie, a novel with some great spiritual truths about what we’re all capable of hidden in its pages
If you enjoy my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now.