Extending the Circle of Compassion

We imagine a circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
— Greg Boyle

On Monday, I co-led a meditation retreat in Oshkosh prison. Our mindfulness group met for extended practice, all members staying the whole 2.5 hours, deepening their awareness, feeling vulnerable yet safe, and practicing peace.

Over 3 years, I’ve witnessed inspiring changes within the prisoners, and I’ve heard deep wisdom and compassion. P, who arrived scattered, self-centered, and “had to be busy,” now exudes a sense of calm. He speaks about his interactions with guards: he pictures his daughter’s face on the guard, which immediately softens his reaction. He chooses compassion. He also speaks differently about getting out: he’s not looking for an important job; he’s looking to give back to society, to serve.

G is anxious every time he comes to group. (A side effect of being told he’s “no good” and being passed through the foster system.) He gets nervous speaking in front of others. He’s scared of facing his own mind with such honesty. Still, he shows up every single week. Fear arises, but it doesn’t stop him. He wants to learn, grow, and change (and he is!). He’s a quiet leader whose words are powerful.

J completely shifted his life view. Since he was 8—and told by his mom that he must deal drugs to support the family—he’s only known violence as a solution. Now he sees the internal suffering caused by anger and violent thoughts. He pauses. He creates space. And in that space, he chooses to act differently, which typically means not acting and not speaking unkindly.

The prison meditation circle knows I write their stories and people on the “streets” are inspired. The inmates are amazed that anyone is interested in their wisdom or transformation. Our society hides them in prisons, tucked away from public view, and publishes worst-case examples, which generate fear and distrust. I’m grateful to share some best-case examples. It’s important for us all to hear.

Given that these prisoners don’t believe anyone could be inspired by their stories, I have a request of you, my readers: What would you like my prison meditation circle to know? What wish do you have for them? What have you learned from them? What pieces of their stories inspire you?

Next time I visit, I want to read encouraging messages from “the outside.” I want them to hear your words and take them into their hearts. If you follow my prison posts, I ask for your help: Write in the comments—or contact me—with any thoughts, wishes, or reflections that I can share with the inmates (your name won't be included). I’d like this connection to go both ways. Don’t worry about writing something beautiful or elegant. Write from your heart: be real, brave, vulnerable, messy, and human. Let's spread kindness and inspiration as far as it will reach.