I sit in a prison meditation circle with women, most of whom are incarcerated for drug use. One of these women, typically quiet, chose to share at the end of group: "This is our chance, in this crappy place, to really know ourselves. When I first got here, I had no idea what I liked and enjoyed. All I cared about was using drugs. Now I care about knowing and understanding myself. Prison is our chance to make new choices." This was a powerful statement.
In my prison sangha, there are a variety of men—young and old; tough and tender; expressive and quiet. One of our quiet leaders is a burly guy with a shaved head. No one messes with him. Yet I know he’s a kind soul who had an amazingly difficult childhood. He practices meditation diligently. His heart continues to open in new ways. He shows up every week and sits in the circle.
Over the years, I've interacted with diverse groups of people: accomplished academics, endurance athletes, prison inmates, college students, service workers, recovering addicts, and meditation teachers. Within all these groups—within me—there's a core wound: an underlying feeling of "not good enough." Our mental narratives come in different flavors, but the wound is similar. It's a soft spot of vulnerability; a place where we wonder: "If people see this part of me, will they still love me?"
While in academia, fresh after tenure, I remember walking with my dad and asking the question, "What is a mid-life crisis, really? What's it about?" He responded that as people reach middle age it's natural to reflect on life; to notice if their lives are meaningful and fulfilling. I paused, then blurted: "But if your career and your values are inline, then everything should be okay, right?" In hindsight, I felt defensive when I spoke these words, as if making the case to myself. Indeed, my core values—then and now—are to teach, express, connect, learn, grow, help, and serve. Ostensibly, my career and values were inline.
"A solid rock cannot be moved by the wind, the wise are not shaken by praise or blame." The Buddha spoke these words 2500 years ago. And they're still relevant today. We seek praise and resist blame. We're shaken, not unmoved. I find it interesting when we receive both praise and blame for the same action. This dissonance—when we're "wise"—tells us to take everything with a grain of salt. We grow from feedback, positive or negative, but it doesn't define who we are.