The Wisdom of Cherishing Sentient Beings Everywhere

Photo: greyerbaby via Morguefile.com

Jacques Verduin is a subject matter expert on mindfulness, restorative justice, emotional intelligence, and transforming violence. A father, community organizer, and teacher, he directs "Insight-Out" which helps prisoners and challenged youth create the personal and systemic change to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing. Last week, in the first of two posts, Jacques shared insights about the roots of violence in our culture. In this second post, he suggests surprisingly basic ways we can begin to address the causes of violence.

What is all this violence trying to wake us up to? What’s that pain about, the pain underneath the violence? A prisoner well-known to the community in San Quentin committed suicide several years ago. As a response to the shock we felt about how that could have happened, we helped develop a program called Brothers’ Keepers: a way the men can check in with the wellbeing of others in the community. Among other things, they are taught crisis intervention, including how to read the early warning signals of mental disorder and suicide. They are like the canaries in the coal mine with the intention of spotting suffering before it leads to self-destruction.

Imagine, next to having a police force, having Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers stationed in our own communities, having allies who are available to check on us and express concern, care, and kindness?

When the men leave prison after sometimes 30 or more years, we frequently create a Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA), to assist them in stepping out of their time capsule. They pick several people to be on it, such as a family member, an AA sponsor, a friend, a clergy person. The guys meet with their circle once a week, knowing that they can share their truth and you can call on any member 24/7 for unconditional support. What if our communities had COSA’s? Wouldn’t you like one of those circles to support you?

For us, by us, about us…
Perhaps too many of our solutions are channeled singularly through nonprofit projects. Sometimes I jokingly call us “the nonprofit industrial complex.” At times, the nonprofit efforts fail to empower the community as much as they could because work is focused on doing to us and not for us, by us, about us. So what if you went to some of these neighborhoods, or your own for that matter, and started a “listening initiative” to truly hear from the people living in your neighborhood by asking “What are the real issues in your life? What are your real needs? What can you offer? How are you part of the solution? All of us yearn to feel that our gifts are seen and recognized and that we are needed for those gifts. Feeling that we are contributing gives us meaning.

Who will document the oral histories of our elders? What if seniors came together, pooled their resources, organized how they could stay in their homes, and how to employ folks in the ‘hood to help? Who grows a garden in their backyard? If there’s three, four of you on the block, how can we get you together? Who wants to be on the team to clean up the little park that’s full of dog shit and drug pushers and take it back? Who’s interested in sharing a meal once in a while?

Instead of looking at TV shows like The Voice and these dance competitions, why don’t we look at the gifts in our own neighborhoods and create some celebration or talent shows around expressing that, and lift up young people to share their gifts?

Can you see that the possibilities are endless and that there is so much meaning to gain this way? Every time a kid spits his/her destructive impulses into a poem, it makes that anguish sing, teaches others, and the community wins. Every time a victim feels their pain honored by a heartfelt apology, we all stand a little taller. Every time a prisoner returns to his or her community as a safe and contributing person, it reaffirms the life of that community.

What if, like the Department of Defense that spends hundreds of billions of dollars bombing other countries, we created a Department of the Common Good with local chapters that would help organize initiatives to serve the common good? How is it that we have handed our authority and our wealth to these power structures? The whole notion of being a member of a nation right now has lost its compelling narrative. It seems right now that being a member of the nation of the United States of America is not calling many of us to reach out to one another in community. We have to find that connection again, and I think we can only find it by serving each other, like in the old days, when neighbors came to help you build your barn and you theirs. Let’s start with our blocks and our neighborhoods and let that light up and inspire the greater meaning of being part of a nation. The alternative nationalist sentiment is to identify an enemy and rally around a terrorism threat and come together in a militant way. History shows, over and over again, how costly a mistake that is.

The inherent capacity of the body for wisdom
The main question about violence is will we as a species evolve beyond the fallacy of the us-and-them paradigm? What can help us do that? Our ability to “otherize” allows us to do violence. We can drop bombs on those in foreign nations because we deem they are sufficiently “other” than us.

The current notion of us and them is a result of mind over sentience; that is, mind over feeling awareness.

This justifies the use of violence—it, in fact, is violence. Mind over sentience allows us to pollute the planet for short-term gain; to rationalize going to war; to discriminate; to rank human life; and to threathen the existence of other species. But what if it is actually meant to be the other way around and our mind was meant to serve sentience? How would that change the way we live our lives? That order would inform how we live and how we respect one another as living creatures.

What if we understood violence to be that which offends and does damage to sentience, to what we call “common sense” in the true meaning of those words? It would definitely be a productive entry into undoing the fallacy of us and them. It would redefine our understanding of what true justice means. Consider this: the evolution of our species might stand or fall on our ability to deconstruct the delusion of us and them. There’s some awareness about that actually, an awareness that if I burn my coal plant here, it’s going to melt the ice caps over there. But there’s a ways to go to truly live from that realization in every aspect of our lives, most certainly in the field of criminal justice, even though the term “doing justice” might be the best way to describe the honoring of the mind serving sentience.

The word “sentient” has a Latin root, sentire, to perceive or feel. I would add that it refers to our embodied aspect, that we share everything, that all living beings are joined in their predicaments and their co-existence with each other.

We humans are self-regulating organisms that are on a journey in which we get to discover that we do not just each have a nervous system but rather that we share a larger one.

There’s an inherent capacity for wisdom in the body that we can tap into if we learn how to do so. The act of learning to listen to that wisdom has everything to do with learning that we are indeed not separate entities. Moreover, scientifically speaking, we are transactions; we are in constant connection, on all levels, with life in all its forms. To give just one example: while breathing, I breathe out carbon dioxide to all the green plants and trees, which they need to inhale and survive. They in turn breathe out oxygen, so I too can live. Attuning to, for example, this basic aspect of being connected, orients me and instructs me in respecting the plant kingdom. This shared wisdom, this “common sense” is intuited, not analyzed, and it takes practice to listen in such a way that you become attuned to it as knowledge.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant,” begins a thought attributed to Albert Einstein. “We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Martin Heidegger said that deep listening is the truest form of worship. I believe that we can learn how to listen deeply to how our sentience reveals these connections and that this skill can release the tremendous potential of living according to our shared wisdom. Right now, mindfulness only scratches the surface.

Being successfully human
When we start the program in the prison, the guys sign a pledge as a way to express what we call “being successfully human.” We work hard for it not to be moralistic but, instead, aim to create a practical tool that can instruct us on how to live skillfully. Engaging that document has proven to be useful. We take all year to learn those skills as well as we can and then when we graduate, we sign it in front of the community as a lifetime commitment, as our gift to them. It was born from a simple effort to create intention, really, but it has become quite inspirational for us. This type of practice comes with gifts. For example, we have learned that love is not just a feeling; that it is a way of being present. We learned that we can choose to look at how every situation and every person we encounter is our teacher and that saying thank you a lot helps us in finding our true place in the scheme of things.

Learning to serve the greater good…in prison
There’s probably no other place or institution in the culture (like a prison) where you meet such a plethora of difference, creed-wise, race-wise, religion-wise. It’s all there and it’s for you to interact with regardless of your skin color or your tax bracket or your geography. For me to connect with all of that has been very formative, and extremely constructive spiritually.

It’s like the collective unconscious has thrown all these people in prison as a way to not have to deal with suffering. I’m not romantic about it. I’m not saying that we don’t need prisons, I just think there’s a way to do it—and our current approach isn’t it. I am aware that there’s a certain amount of denial, a good amount of underbelly and shadow that we don’t have to look at as a society if we just lock people away. To begin to interact with that is very completing too, in an odd way.

To ask what can we learn together, how can there be healing—and to avoid judgment—has created a deep sense of community, one that lights up that projected shadow, but this time from the inside.

Anytime we have visitors, they’re sort of stunned that this much authenticity can happen inside a prison because it’s hard to even experience it on the outside. Sometimes visitors are overcome, not because they’re so touched by a prisoners’ work, but because their own stuff comes up as a result of witnessing the prisoners do this deep work.

Basically a group of men who felt they were misfits have learned how to sit in a circle, how to be truthful together, and let the healing come from that. We have learned how to be present for each other and how to serve the greater good together—that’s all. We have succeeded in doing this in one of the more unlikely places to do so. In 19 years of working inside, I have witnessed unspeakable suffering by victims and prisoners. Yet we’ve also learned how being transparent guides us and what becomes possible when we actually serve that process with an open heart. It allows us to overcome the limits of belonging to enemy gangs, different races, and religious backgrounds. It allows us to be human together. This practice has different names and takes on many guises. I don’t use the word love a lot to describe the way we practice being present together because it’s so loaded, but there are also times when there’s nothing else to call it. 

As founder and director of “Insight-Out,“ organizer of initiatives for prisoners and challenged youth that seek to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing, Jacques Verduin and his work have been a great inspiration to us. He has written several articles for our blog, and introduced us to Fateen Jackson, a trainee-facilitator of the Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program in San Quentin and spoken word artist featured on our blog. Read more articles by Jacques on our blog, including Guiding Rage into Power: On Leaving Prison Before You Get Out, Violence: A Tragic Expression of an Unmet Need, Forgiveness Gets a Serious Dose of Reality in Amman.  

© Jacques Verduin. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.