Less than two weeks ago, we went to the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) and offered kirtan to a group of men imprisoned there. In many respects, it was one of the most profound practices I’ve ever had as I travel down this path, and I find myself struggling to put the experience into context.
When we arrived at the gate to the prison, it was immediately clear that we were not making our offering in anything remotely resembling our usual yoga studio/sacred space venues. The towers with the armed guards, the layers of fences with stacks of the most formidable-looking barbed wire I’ve seen, and the unswervingly serious demeanor of the guards served as constant reminders of just where it was we were going.
I learned many things even as we entered the complex – one example of which was how our audio and power cords could be used as tools to facilitate an escape. Apparently they were some of the most desired objects around for would-be escapees – not something that I usually consider as I set up our sound rig. We had to do a very thorough inventory of all such items on the way in and on the way out.
As we entered the compound, traversing layer after layer of gates, guards, iron bars and cement, we eventually came into the main hallway of the facility – the most sterile, forbidding landscape I have ever seen, with seemingly endless concrete walls, painfully harsh fluorescent lighting, and a sharp, hard-edged reverberation that impinged mercilessly on the ears.
We made our way down to the chapel, which took my breath away as we entered. The contrast could not have been more stark – here was a deeply rooted sacred space in the midst of what felt like a living Hell. The collective energy of people in the harshest of circumstances focusing on the Divine was utterly palpable, and these vibrations supported every moment of our offerings there.
Perhaps the best way to summarize my experience is that I recognized that, at the core, these men were absolutely my brothers. The small group that came to our kirtan included Shawn, who had written to me some time ago, thanking me for the “Soul of the Esraj” CD, as it had given him a means to transcend the onerous fact of his long-term incarceration. In my conversations with Shawn, who started his twenty-year sentence at the age of 18, I saw and felt the reflection of the Divine, and recognized a man who had clearly been using his time in prison to fully confront his demons at a deep level – in a way many of us on the outside may never do. In a very real way (as one of the Siddha Yoga teachers who volunteered at OSCI pointed out) he had recast his life as an inmate into that of a sadhaka in an ashram. I can easily imagine how we might have forged a deep friendship if we both lived on the outside.
Many times Heather and I have experienced the profundity of the silence right after a chant – particularly when we’re in the company of a group that is focused on transformation, such as a yoga retreat or meditation intensive. Such a silence has a depth and intentionality that is unmistakable. I don’t think I was prepared for the power of the silence among the group of inmates – it was almost overwhelming.
Particularly at the end of our closing chant (“Baba Hanuman”), I was barely able to fight a stream of tears welling up inside me. And these tears were a curious amalgam of joyful and sorrowful – joy that sprang from the depth of the devotion and practice, and a deep sadness when I remembered where I actually was.
Here was a group of men giving themselves to the practice with a resolve and surrender that is extraordinarily rare, inspiring tears of joy. Juxtaposed with that was the pall of heartbreak and the realization that we were in the midst of a group that society had written off … and written them off for criminal acts that any of us could have committed under certain circumstances. Here was a collection of lives that had come to this place and time through a series of poor choices or tragically life-altering moments – each of these men had given in to emotion, to greed, possibly to just a split second of misalignment and were now paying the price with the most precious gift of all – with their all-too-short time in this life.
Nowhere was the irony of this made more clear than in my conversations with a young inmate who had served 18 months in Iraq. At first he seemed distant, hard to reach, uninterested … until he heard the sound of the esraj. After our kirtan, he told me of how he had heard the poignant sound of an instrument very much like the esraj numerous times while he was out on patrol. His first response to the sound had been fear, but as the nights turned in to weeks and months on patrol, the instrument he heard in Iraq came to be a soothing balm and familiar friend in a world rife with lurking unexpected dangers and explosions of violence.
It is frightening to recognize that he was jailed for exactly the kinds of actions that he had been trained for as a soldier. In one case, violent and destructive acts are honored as brave, patriotic, and selfless. In another set of circumstances, it is cause for lifelong incarceration. It raised timeless questions in my heart about the crazy ways we will justify the horrendous acts of war, how we will take murder, violence and destruction and glorify them contextually even as we throw individuals into a marginalized trash heap or execute them for committing precisely the same actions.
One of the obvious but more prosaic differences between this kirtan at OSCI and our usual experience is that the participants were almost all men – the only exceptions were the chaplain and the other volunteers in the prison who had joined us.
We met a number of men with bright presence, a rare degree of vulnerability, and a clear desire to truly engage with us: one man arrived very early and told us both of his love of music and his Lakota ancestry, another inmate made it very clear that he wanted to get an esraj more than anything he could recall, and yet another young man plied us for information about our local schedule so that he could make sure that his sister on the outside could know about our events around Portland.
One conceptual phenomenon that has intrigued me from very early in my life is that of thresholds. What, for example, is the line which separates genius or insight from insanity? Or what is it that will allow one of us to spontaneously and irretrievably commit some horrendous act that, if we’re honest with ourselves, nearly all of us have contemplated at some time?
Yet another threshold involves how we would classify ourselves on some kind of spiritual continuum, where different systems of religious belief present a clear and seemingly irreconcilable chasm between theological vantage points: Do we start from the assumption that we are consciously evolved and intimately connected to the Divine - yet humanly flawed – or are we inherently evil, shackled to Original Sin, with only tantalizing flashes of goodness, kindness, or divinely inspired awareness?
Coming into the unmistakably black-and-white world thrusts these kinds of questions in my face in the same stark way that the cruel fluorescent lights filled the bleak halls of this Oregon prison. I realized that I had taken in just enough of the American pop cultural notion of prison that I was not prepared to feel such a sense of connection with the men serving time here. I expected total hardness, mistrust, even animosity. Yet I can’t say that I have ever felt more gratitude for our musical offerings anywhere, and the vulnerability and self-disclosure I observed blew away my preconceptions …quietly, gently, inexorably.
I can’t wait to come back.