In last week’s prison garden class, our provocative question for the day was: “What does it mean to be free?” Aside from the obvious – that most people in prison want to get out – some interesting answers emerged, including: “uncluttered (mind), choices, peace, protecting our country, willingness to help others no matter what, and my heart is right when I lay down at night.
The Insight Prison Project has a great tagline, “Leaving prison before you get out.” In other words, with some hard work, reflection, meditation, and a slew of personal development tools, we can find a space within ourselves that is abundant and light. Finding our true selves, where we are most authentic. When we can find ways to free ourselves from our stories, and gently explore triggers and traumas, our light can emerge from a place deep inside.
Our garden program is designed to help set people free from within – by connecting them to the natural world. Since nature doesn’t care about our egos, people “get real” in the garden amazingly fast. And in our class, there’s really no hiding. The people who aren’t ready for the deeper work usually weed themselves out, so to speak.
Men in the garden tune in instead of check out, become interested the simple joy of smelling a rose or mentoring new gardeners. Where traditionally prisoners self-segregate on a prison yard, all races comfortably work together in our garden without fear of retribution. And what we’ve found is that reconnecting with nature results in connecting with self, community, and care for the natural world.
Having worked with almost 1,000 prisoners over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the guys’ internal seeds sprout through the process of gardening and community care. For instance, when Big Al started our class a few years ago, he said he was “numb.” A year later, he delightedly announced “I’m happy today” (and he really meant it). The shift not only comes in words, but in actions. It is a discovery of the heart, and that feeling our feelings is actually OK since it’s usually our thinking that gets in the way. So when we can cultivate the goodness within and heal through feeling, hearts are freed.
The Buddha said something akin to “finding freedom is ability to release that which binds us.” Whether it’s prison walls, the shackles of injustice, or just too much thinking, freedom starts from within. I imagine Dr. King would agree.
Our minds and hearts are made of ideas and emotions; walls cannot contain these things.
The prison you describe is a physical reality for the inmates, and a mental reality for many people outside. By first learning how to free their minds and hearts from prison, inmates upon release may find themselves “free-er” than much of society around them.