For more than 20 years, I have been speaking with people from all walks of life: good people, bad people, enlightened people, unenlightened people. I speak to people who have the privilege of freedom and relative control over their lives, and I speak to people in prison. One life is a kind of heaven and the other a kind of hell. And yet both in heaven and hell — the extremes of our experience — there are the same questions: Who am I? What are we here for? Where is grace?
I recall one particular visit to Folsom Prison several years ago. The men I spoke with had not lived privileged lives. Most often they had lived hard early lives and perpetuated that hardness into adulthood. In prison they had come to a place of disillusionment, where they were willing to look at something they had not understood before. Essentially, they were willing to stop living their lives the way they had lived them.
Prison is a very hard place to live. You might think it absurd to go into a place like Folsom Prison and talk to the men about vulnerability and opening, but that is what they hungered to hear. There were 45 men present that day. In a prison population of about 3,000 that is a small percentage. But this small percentage really wanted the truth, and they were absolutely capable of hearing the truth regardless of what they had done or how they had lived. Because of their willingness to deeply inquire, they could find the freedom and peace that had never left them. They could hear the call of their innocent hearts. They, like you, were not only capable of hearing the call of the heart, but of surrendering to it.
How has it affected their lives? I don’t know. I know for sure there were several who heard and experienced the living truth of conscious peace, at least for a moment. They saw themselves and were seen as who they truly are, not by what they had done or how they had identified themselves. That is profound relief. That is the taste of freedom. It is an experience of love.
We all experience certain kinds of prisons. Our prison may not be as materially rough as that of the men living in Folsom Prison, but given the nature of the human mind, there can be wrenching suffering even if you aren’t in a physical prison. Without demeaning or glorifying your own particular prison, you can inquire directly into the experience of suffering and discover freshly what lives in the core.
Maybe it is easier for those in prison than it is for many of us. It is so obvious to them that their lives have failed. However they thought they would succeed, they failed. However much you think you have failed, in significant ways your life has been a success. The very fact that you are free in this moment means that you have succeeded, and success itself can give rise to bondage. The trap of success is in identifying with privilege and entitlement.
In success, you can go to sleep and dream yourself to be special, or you can take advantage of your time and privilege and really inquire into the deepest part of yourself. You can open your mind to see what is here inside you, just as the men in Folsom Prison did.
The prisoners in Folsom hadn’t been taught what they would find in inquiry. They weren’t prejudiced. They didn’t know that they would find peace and love and oneness. They were innocently surprised and amazed. Several of them cried.
My dilemma in speaking to those who are not in prison is that often they already know too much. It is the trap of the spiritual adept — the successful seeker. So let us suspend what we know. Let us not know the correct answer. With a willingness to investigate in an open way, for the first time, we can freshly discover that grace is here.
We can each discover what lives freely, both inside and outside. We can recognize what is at peace, regardless of particular circumstances. We can find ourselves in all.
Gangaji has recorded a CD, Questions from the Inside, which is being distributed freely to prisoners throughout the US. In conversation with interviewer Chris Mohr, Gangaji answers heartfelt questions from prisoners in county jails, state prisons, federal facilities and even those on death row. All proceeds from the CD support the Gangaji Foundation’s Prison Program.