Letter to a Prisoner

Recently I visited a man in prison. The length of his sentence meant that in all probability by the time he was eligible for parole his children would have grown up and his parents unlikely to still be alive.PrisonBarsLight

This is only part of the stark reality of a long prison sentence. The other fact is that your freedom is taken away. Every aspect of life in prison is controlled. The prisoner has no choice when to get up or go to bed, when to go outside for sunlight and fresh air. Every where the prisoner goes, involves walking through a locked door that he must wait for someone else to open. Simple everyday things we all take for granted are not available to the inmate.

There is a possibility that this man was wrongly convicted. I am not a legal expert and I was not there to advise him on how to proceed with his appeal.

Here is the letter I wrote to him:

Dear H…

I was glad to meet you last week. I hope that our encounter was in some way helpful for you. I am writing this letter to you now as a reminder of some of what we talked about.

It’s important to repeat that whatever the merits of your case might be, the fact is you have been given a long prison sentence. And whatever might happen regarding your appeals, the question remains as to how you live on the inside. By this I mean both inside the prison itself with all its structures and rules, and inside ‘you’.

You told me that your aim is to still be smiling when you are finally released. I admire this. At the same time you asked me how you could live without becoming increasingly angry with thoughts of seeking revenge. I believe the answer to this lies in how you choose to live in the present; how you *are* in each moment. My experience is that to only concentrate on the future is an impossible task that makes one hard and often increasingly bitter. The truth is we can only *be* in this present moment. After all, you never did anything in the future! And the past is something that exists in our memories… which we are continually updating in a present moment.

So, what to do? I would say that your suffering needs to be respected. You cannot ignore the hurt because it is real. But, rather than let the hurt harden you, let it soften you. The hurt can open you rather than close you. As you have already discovered, one outcome of your incarceration has been an awareness of your love for your parents and realization of how much they love you. So let the hurt continue to send you looking for those who accept you.

Can you hold in the same moment the inconsistency of continuing to seek to clear your name while at the same time seek acceptance of the reality of your situation as it exists at this time? It seems to me therein lies your freedom.

Some feelings, like anger and resentment, are not comfortable; but they are natural feelings that arise in response to the thought of having been mistreated and not understood. Most people, most of the time will do almost anything to avoid such feelings by trying to ‘think’ their way out of the feeling, seeking a solution or fix which usually means asserting being ‘right’ and ascribing blame. The truth still remains that being ‘right’ does nothing to alleviate the pain.

However, when we give space for these feelings, by simply ‘having’ them without suppressing or acting them out, without giving them any energy, they will burn off cleanly. The emotion acts on the body; it does whatever it is there to do and, when you do not give it energy, it will eventually pass through much like a cloud floats by in the sky. What we are left with is space, a feeling of expansion. This is a profound way to find acceptance and let go.

Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way … <snip>… Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
(from, Man’s Search for Meaning)

I wish you peace.

And, as I said when we parted, if you would like a further meeting, I am sure we can make arrangements to do so next year when I am again in the area.

Best wishes,


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Half Full? Half Empty?

There is a glass of water sitting on the table. Looking at it I ask myself a familiar question, “Is this glass half full or half empty?” Sometimes I am sure the glass is half full, at other times I am quite sure it is half empty. Undoubtedly there is a connection between how I’m feeling and this thought process. Usually we are not aware of how intimately our feeling state is connected with our thought processes. What you think has a physiological response in the body… and, conversely, what you feel in your body has a corresponding thought pattern. The body and mind are linked in a biological feedback system.

waterglassI look at this glass of water and I have the thought that it is half empty. I am sure that only yesterday I would have thought it was half full! Yesterday I felt full of energy, perhaps the result of my beloved making me some delicious and very potent ‘bulletproof’ coffee*. Today I feel listless. Yesterday feeling full of energy that glass was clearly half full; today the same glass of water appears distinctly half empty.

I’m not sure which came first, my feeling state or my thought processes? Taking a moment to consider this, I become aware that whatever my answer I will simply be reinforcing whatever thought processes and/ or belief I have. It’s a small step to deduce that because I considered the glass half empty I must be feeling ‘negative’ and from that to think that I ‘should’ be positive. This thought creates pressure. It is a stressful thought.

Stressful thinking has a distinct pattern: it is circular in nature. We turn the same thought around in our minds like a hamster on a wheel. We might think we’re having different thoughts on the matter but if we could record that stream of mostly unconscious thinking, we would likely discover the same thought coming around over and over again. The more you think about it the more anxious you become.

A psychologist working with stress management holds up a glass of water to her audience. Everyone expects her to ask the ‘half full/ half empty’ question, but she doesn’t. Instead she asks, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Participants call out answers that range from 200 to 500 grams.

The psychologist responds, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So… remember to put the glass down. Whatever stress might be occurring in your life, whatever burden you might be carrying; a simple awareness of the internal feedback loop between thoughts and emotions can give you a little space. And from that space another perspective: the glass is neither half full nor half empty (it might be both!). The greatest stress is the stressful thought; that stressful thought carries more weight than whatever might actually be happening.

I’m thirsty. That glass of water looks invitingly refreshing.

* For coffee afficionados, Bulletproof coffee is based on Tibetan yak tea: for a recipe see here

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Heart Connection Meditation

(Photo composite by Sandra Jensen)

Connect through your heart to a heart that is greater than yours alone.

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Meditation for the new year

(Photo composite by Sandra Jensen)
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Why do we feel separate?

A short talk with David Crean.

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Interview: Body Resonance

A short film about Body Resonance.

With thanks to the participants and the film makers.

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Did you make new year resolutions for yourself this year?

It’s become something of a tradition to dream a self we would like to be and then set goals to achieve that. We wish to improve ourselves, become better… or at least different… than how we are. We vow to stop smoking, or get fitter, lose weight, learn how to play an instrument, spend more time with the kids. In short, we promise to be better.

Yet the beginning of February yields a litter of abandoned resolutions. And what do we do? We beat ourselves up for not being better. We yearn for some future state of success and happiness which is predicated on the presumption that who we are now is not good enough. You might have noticed yourself thinking, “if I can just get it right, if I can be the ‘right’ way, then I’ll be alright and everything will be ok.” Or conversely, “I’ve tried everything and still it’s not working!”

Trying harder is a typical response to failure; we resolve to try harder and then punish ourselves with the thought that we didn’t have enough willpower. And if we’re not busy pushing ourselves to be better, then we’re occupied with wanting others to be different so that we can feel better.

We live in a culture that is relentlessly demanding, a performance culture that insists we improve – growth being the measurement of wealth and therefore success. It’s overwhelming and easy to get worn down by this pressure and its mirage of success, easy even to trade our health and well-being in the pursuit of goal-oriented achievement.

If you recognize this scenario, ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to achieve?’

Before I began writing this piece, I unconsciously set myself the task to write something uplifting. When I sat down to write, I didn’t feel very uplifted. I found it difficult to write anything at all until I became aware that I had set myself an impossible task: to be the bringer of an uplifting message… even when I have no idea what you might find uplifting!

Put like that it sounds silly, doesn’t it? And yet isn’t that what we do when we set out to *be* better somehow, when we lose track of that depth that exists within each one of us? When we stop listening to the truth of what our heart is telling us.

This is the power of a thought: I couldn’t begin to write until I had  let go of my debilitating idea and accept that these words might not resonate with anyone.

A few days ago I was walking home. There was puddlejumpweba cold wind blowing and it was raining. I found myself holding my coat closed with my hands jammed into my pockets, my body hunched against the rain. I noticed my face had set into a grimace. I could feel tension rising in my body. I seemed to be protecting myself. “Against what?” I thought, “What is it that I am trying to bear? Why am I walking in this way, a man burdened by his life?”

I stood up straighter, felt my shoulders relax. Suddenly the rain felt bracing to me, even pleasant, instead of something to be fought against. The cool raindrops on my face became enjoyable sensations. My hunched posture then seemed absurd to me; it certainly wasn’t keeping me any dryer. I noticed a woman across the road, no doubt rushing home, all hunched over in much the same way I had been. A small boy trotted along beside her. He was all buttoned up in a shiny yellow mac, hood up. Mother and son splashed through the rain. The boy stepped into a puddle, then looked across at me with a smile that radiated his sheer joy of splashing puddles.

Many people think that joy and playfulness come after they have better relationships, more money – or whatever else you might imagine success to be – as a precondition. That boy hadn’t yet learned these things; he simply experienced his delight and was happy to share it with anyone who might witness.

I felt grateful to him for his uncomplicated pleasure. Happiness is not something we can actively seek; rather happiness ensues when we’re simply engaged with what is present without thought of trying to *be* anything.

My experience is that once you experience joy and feel light and playful, ease and abundance also follow. We all need to make space in our lives for a little puddle-jumping, doing something for no reason at all except for the fun of it.

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