You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level. — Eckhart Tolle
There’s a caged fan blowing hard behind me, tossing white homework papers around as the students turn them in across the table. Its wind pushes strands of hair into the corner of my mouth. The air conditioner broke and you can’t open up a window to let the breeze through because there aren’t any windows in prison.
It’s Thursday morning, we’re six-weeks into a twelve-week class.
The women have settled into their seats and the chatter tapers off when Kat clears her throat.
“Ms. K,” she says, running her tattooed fingers through her brown crew cut hair, “There’s something I need to read to our class today but I don’t think I can do it,” then she lets out a long exhale like she’s blowing out cigarette smoke.
Twelve of us sit around two long plastic rectangular tables pushed together. Daffodils and tulips I brought in wilt in the center from the Southern Virginia heat. The women don’t seem affected though. Everyone turns their eyes toward Kat, waiting.
She’s a big woman, muscular. She just turned thirty-three last week. Her orange short-sleeved jumpsuit squeezes her biceps as she heaves herself back into her chair.
I’ll admit I was a little nervous the first time she walked into the classroom. She has a booming presence even when silent. The staff warned me, pointed out the location of the panic button more than once, said she’d probably never make it to class as she wouldn’t be able to go that long on ‘Good Behavior.’ Which meant not fighting, and staying out of solitary confinement, amongst other things.
Kat later told me she sometimes likes solitary because she has time to write in her head without distractions, but not for more than three days because after that the walls tend to appear like they’re moving when you know logically they aren’t. And she hates the meds they make her take.
Word is she really wanted to be in my class—a class of spiritual discovery through writing, a discussion that could offer a whole new way of seeing life. Word got out that class was a good place to be and there was an official waitlist now, and an unofficial waitlist the inmates made.
Kat heaved forward, bracing her head in her hands and said it was really hard for her, but she had to try to read.
The other women sat patiently waiting for Kat to speak—not because she was a powerful presence in the larger quad, or had a reputation for violence, not because they were scared of her, but because, I sensed, they understood her.
Kat sucked in her breath and said something like, “Can we play that music-making game first?”
Latisha looked at me for the head nod then started drumming a beat out on the table, across from Kat. Jen joined in, humming a simple melodic loop with her honeysuckle sweet voice. Bridgette added more percussion using the back of her metal chair. We went around the room joining in until each one had woven themselves into the whole. Pretty soon the room had become a rocking sound machine with our spontaneous song.
The guards used to get upset when we got noisy but now they’re used to us, they don’t bother to look anymore.
Kat stands up, shakes her shoulders like a wet dog getting water off, tells us to keep beating, she’s going to read what she’s written. For a minute or two she just stands there, eyes shut, feeling into it, beginning to relax. The song quiets down to a near-whisper.
Kat begins reading.
It’s the first chapter of her memoir, something she’d been working on secretly since class started.
It’s raw. Honest. The words cut into us, and there’s that sensation of someone putting ice down the back of your shirt, the chills and the burning from the cold evaporating on your warm skin.
Her words feel almost unbelievable—you don’t want to accept one person could treat another living thing the way she was treated.
It’s also hopeful. Showing just how strong we humans are, how resilient we are, bobbing back up to the surface again and again and again. You can hear it in her voice, not that overpowering bully, but a deeper voice that says: I can’t be hurt on the deepest level by anything.
She finishes. It’s quiet, just the noise of the fan humming and blowing.
Then there’s a communal sigh, like no one wants to speak as it might reduce the enormity of what’s been shared.
After a minute or two we start shifting in our seats. One of the students says: That was the best thing I’ve ever heard, followed by a lot of, Um, hums.
Kat tells us she always loved to write. When she was a child she’d fill up pages with stories. When she ran out of paper she’d write on gas receipts, the back of old books her mom used to prop up a table, even the wall behind her bed.
But one of her mom’s boyfriends told her she wasn’t a writer. No matter how hard she tried no one with a brain would want to read her writing. He beat her for writing on the wall.
Kat stands still, smiling.
When she looks up there’s the out-breath, our collective heart starting to beat again.
Then they start clapping for her, then whooping, pounding on the tables, rattling pens on the metal chair frames, asking for more, more, more …
She sits down and reads one more chapter to us.
The Power of Our Thoughts
It looks to me like Kat read her writing to us because she stopped thinking she couldn’t. She read it because she suddenly knew that “you’ll never be a writer” was merely a thought. Not a fact and not even one of her own thoughts.
Jack Pransky in his book, Somebody Should Have Told Us, Simple Truths for Living Well puts it like this:
We are at the mercy of our thinking—until we see and realize how it works to create our experience of life … Thought is the greatest power we have. It is our creative power – the power to create anything with our own thinking … When we truly realize everything we experience, our perceptions, our feelings, our problems, whatever we call “reality”, is really only a product of our own thinking, everything then changes for us. Our experience of life changes. The outside world can never make us feel anything. Only our own thinking can make us feel things.
Kat experienced her true self beyond her thoughts, that she was not the thoughts but rather the timeless being behind the thoughts. That that cannot be hurt or influenced: Her irrepressible, intact spirit.
The fear and the idea that she couldn’t possibly be a good writer or have anything worth sharing, blew out the window of her mind. Just gone, in one micro-mini-second.
She was free in that moment when she clearly saw who she truly is.
Expressing Who We Truly Are
On the last day of class, I always ask the students to write reflections, another student wrote:
I realized that I can be free wherever I am, even in prison.
The only true prison I can be in is inside me.
That’s my peace.
Always there inside of me just waiting for me to come home.
I don’t know what happened to Kat and the other students after class was over. I’m not allowed to keep in touch or inquire, but somehow, wherever she is, whoever she’s with, whatever she’s doing, I have a feeling that she’s just fine.
Kat and the other women taught me so much, mostly not to be stopped by my own fear. To be brave. To speak up, even when it makes my heart pound. To listen to the small voice within that knows the limitlessness beyond my wildest imagination. Two months after Kat shared her memoir with us I had made eight paintings. Just like that. I’d put down my passion for painting for years. Some call it wisdom. Just one person following their wisdom seems to give permission for others to follow theirs.
I often wonder what the world will look like when each one of us listens to that inner voice and follows our passions, our own knowing, our wisdom. If it’s a smile. A painting. A song. A simple act of kindness. Maybe sitting with a stranger at a café on a sunny day. Building a new school. How large, how small, doesn’t seem to matter, as we come together to express and live fully who we already truly are.
We’d love to hear your stories of that one voice, that one person who gave you permission to be who you truly are. Please share in the comments below. Who knows? Perhaps your sharing might be the very permission that some blossoming being needs to hear right now.
The Freedom Institute, a project of the UPLIFT Foundation, facilitates classes for people across the spectrum: from college and high school students to parents and educators, to people who are incarcerated. While each class has a specific focus, classes universally point participants toward getting in touch with their own highest nature while gaining an understanding of how their experience of life is created.