Life is not an error, even when it is – Christian Wiman
I am a pediatrician who was convicted of felony child endangerment and imprisoned for two and one half years at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, Delaware. At age 58, in a split second of anger, I betrayed all that I stood for, my oath as a physician to do no harm, all that I had accomplished as a healer, a father, a husband and a good citizen. I destroyed my family. I let down a young teenager, my stepdaughter, who had previously been abused, who was vulnerable and fragile, and who had the right to feel safe and protected in my care.
Yet in that same split second, I learned that I am human, capable of terrible mistakes. I found myself on a path of re-connection and transformation. I learned of a place, deep within my psyche, a concealed dimension the existence of which I had not even suspected, a source of wisdom and unconditional compassion. I discovered my inner connection to the Divine while sharing meditative techniques and spiritual understandings with murderers, junkies, drug dealers, perpetrators of violent assaults and robberies, sex offenders and other felons with whom I was incarcerated.
Surprised? I certainly was. I expected criminals to act like, well, criminals. Instead I was the recipient of dozens of small acts of kindness and nonjudgmental compassion. I witnessed men who had committed truly heinous crimes creating a community based on honor and respect, nurturing each other in a thousand tiny ways, for no other reason than “just because.” These men shared with me spiritual truths as profound as anything written by the sages and prophets who founded the world’s great philosophies and religions. These truths were not born of the dialogue of sterile academic classrooms or remote monasteries. They are realized by men who committed crimes, often men who lived criminal lifestyles. Many of these men suffered horribly and in turn caused others to suffer. “Hurt people hurt people” as we learned in the prison’s Victim’s Impact class.
Of course many people grow up in difficult circumstances and lead healthy crime-free lives. Criminals may well be the product of dysfunctional families and a broken economic system, but is equally true that each person is responsible for his or her behavior. These truths make these men’s stories all the more remarkable and their spiritual understandings that much more compelling. These men frequently did not simply have “dysfunctional families.” Many of the men have gruesome horrific stories. A father murders a mother before a four-year-old child’s eyes. A mother introduces a son to crack cocaine at age twelve. A young boy comes home from school and runs to see his grandpa, races up the stairs into his grandpa’s room just in time to see his grandpa blow his head off with a shotgun. Of the seventy men on the first Tier I was housed in, 31 had suffered gunshot wounds, 48 grew up without any father or male father figure in their lives. No football coach, no basketball coach, no guidance counselor, few male teachers, with most of them without GEDs or completing high school. They certainly had little or no spiritual training.
I hardly thought that this would be the environment where I would finally actually learn my lessons of love, where I would learn to love and to accept the love that others have for me. For twenty years of my professional career, I studied the experiences that children have while dying, or being resuscitated from certain death. They told strikingly similar stories of floating out of their physical bodies at the point of death, seeing the frantic resuscitative efforts to save their lives, meeting a greeter or helper who traveled with them, often down a tunnel, and into a brilliant loving light. This light was commonly understood as being God, or Jesus, or “a rainbow who told me who I was and where I was to go,” depending of the preexisting religious beliefs of the child. They were usually sent back with a firm clear message that “life is for living and the light is for later.” They typically believe that their lives have purpose and meaning and that purpose is to learn specific lessons of unconditional compassion and love.
I wrote books about these experiences. I lectured at children’s hospitals, hospices, and to groups of grieving parents, showing them the extraordinary pictures these children drew of their experiences. These pictures are filled with tunnels, rainbows and hearts as being the essence of the dying experience. I strongly believed that I had a responsibility to share these children’s experiences with grieving parents, as the children were typically patients that my own team of physicians and nurses at Seattle Children’s Hospital had resuscitated so I personally knew that they encountered certain death. I had a perspective that very few near death researches in the world have, as these were either my team’s patients or those of the hospital’s and I could directly examine their medical records. For example, on child suffered a near fatal cardiac arrhythmia. After we resuscitated him, he opened his eyes and said to us, “That was weird; you guys just sucked me back into my body.”
I documented in long-term research studies that their lives were transformed by their experiences. But as for me, it was all just words in my head, books and lectures, which fed my own ego. Hundreds of grieving parents wrote to me telling of the comfort these experiences gave them. Others wrote to me about how learning that the children have these experiences transformed their own lives. Yet I was not transformed. I learned nothing. I failed my own lessons of love.
For the first 50 years of my life I was a great success by the world’s standards. My patients knew me as a kind, sensitive pediatrician, a pediatrician’s pediatrician, voted by my peers as one of America’s Best Doctors for nearly a decade. My medical students knew me as an academic, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, publishing articles on near death experiences in the American Medical Association’s Pediatric journal. My children, all adopted and two of them African American, knew me as a good father. My wife and I were married for twenty years, much of that time living on a small horse farm in Maple Valley, Washington.
For the next decade of my life, until I was incarcerated at age 60, I destroyed all that I achieved and caused considerable suffering to all who knew me. My wife and I were divorced. I became angry and inflexible, unable to forgive. We soon became mired in a high conflict divorce with no winners and the children being the losers. I alienated my colleagues who told me, “We love your ideas, but we can’t work with you.” I promptly married a woman twenty years younger than I. I essentially abandoned my teenage and young adult children, failing even to remember their birthdays or call them on holidays. It is amazing to me now to remember how strongly I felt that everyone else was at fault. I harassed my own brothers and sisters with blistering angry emails. At one point I became convinced that my sister was responsible for one of my adult son’s becoming homeless and addicted to meth. I wrote to all her neighbors warning them about my sister. My own mother became very concerned about me, and all I thought was, “Even my own mother is against me, can you believe that?” Just as successful as I had been with my best selling books and awards and honors, I was just as spectacular in failing every lesson of love.
My anger and chaotic mental state took a terrible toll on my body. I had to retire from the practice of Pediatrics because of complications of hepatitis C, which I had contracted during my service as a critical care physician. I took Interferon and Ribavirin for three years, both of which have serious psychiatric side effects. I developed cancer of the prostate gland and thyroid cancer. Pre-malignant polyps were found and removed from my intestines. I was a living example of how our mental state and spirituality or lack of spiritual well-being can profoundly affect the body.
The media had a field day when I was arrested. Within days I was tried and convicted in the world’s press. Tabloids in England ran headlines about the waterboarding Pediatrician who tortured his stepdaughter. CNN, broadcast throughout Europe, South America and the United States, referred to my charges as waterboarding. The story went viral on the Internet. Wikipedia repeated speculations that I was performing near death experiments on the girl, and that story again went viral.
A year and a half later, I went to trial, on seven felony counts. I was convicted of one. No evidence or testimony was presented of CIA-type waterboarding torture or near death experimentation. The felony I was convicted of was that of angrily plunging the young lady into a tub of water after she threw up on herself. In her own testimony, she never said anything remotely like CIA-type torture or experimentation. However, her testimony did pierce my armor of denial that I had so lovingly constructed to protect myself from admitting how abusive I had been to her. I realized with sickening certainty that I had terrified and was emotionally abusive to a fragile young lady who was vulnerable and needed my love, who needed to feel safe and protected. I realized that I had irrationally taken out my anger and frustration at so many losses and a floundering second marriage on her, for a prolonged period of time.
When I entered prison, handcuffed and shackled, and heard the metal gate clang behind me, as I walked down the grim concrete and steel corridors, I thought that I had lost everything. Even the most selfless thing I had done, to share with grieving parents the stories children told me about what it was like to die, now seemed fraudulent, my own behavior seemed to make my research into a lie. I felt certain that all those parents who once believed me now would lose hope and suffer even more.
Instead, by losing everything, I found what I had been searching for my entire life, unconditional love and grace. Before I was arrested I believed that I had only one or two friends. Within months of being incarcerated I learned that I had eight friends on the outside who loved me unconditionally. One woman, who I knew from elementary school wrote to me and told me that we are all connected. She wrote, “I don’t know if you committed these crimes and I don’t care, as anything that you have done, I am part of, I am directly connected to it too.” She is a Sufi, the mystical Muslim sect, and clearly walks her spiritual talk. My brother, who I had angrily pushed away for years, attended every day of my trial, visited me monthly in prison, and unflaggingly supported me in dozens of minor and major ways.
I am so grateful for my incarceration. I would never have learned of the love that others have for me without the Universe taking a two by four and hitting me upside the head resulting in my going to prison.
My worst fears were realized when a kind and compassionate woman told a good friend of mine that she was shocked and cried tears of sadness after reading the media accounts of my waterboarding a child. She felt strongly that she could not possibly learn anything of a spiritual nature from me.
I was also sickened and ashamed of myself when I came to prison. I was ashamed of all I had lost, what I had become, and of being incarcerated. I was horrified [of myself], regardless of my anguish at the unfairness of the media portrayal of me as either a Frankenstein-like mad scientist or a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde torture of children. The truth, as bad as it was, lacked the mythical appeal to our worst archetypal fears which led to so many people believing the worst about me.
It was only after I personally witnessed the spiritual growth of men who are also considered by society to have no value, men who are warehoused in prisons at a cost of $35,000 a year per man, that I accepted that I too have the potential to experience grace and am a worthwhile human being. I learned that it is often when we lose everything and suffer greatly that we have a great opportunity for spiritual growth. As
Bo Lozoff, founder of the Prison Ashram project wrote, “If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonoring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before he became St. Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Hindu text The Ramayana was a highwayman and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Buddhist sages, killed 37 people before he became a saint. We must remember that even the worst of us can change.”
I certainly felt like the worst of us as I entered prison. I was blind to all the good that had happened to me since I had been arrested. For example, I spent the year waiting for trial spending time with and caring for my mother, who eventually died of Alzheimer’s disease. I played to her on the guitar. I sat at her bedside when she was critically ill and comatose. She suddenly opened her eyes, stared up and me, and said with wonder, “Incredible.” She then lapsed back into unconsciousness. I would never have had that magical year with my mom had I not been arrested.
I was jolted out of an extremely dysfunctional lifestyle, directly leading to the successful treatment of both of my cancers. Yet the gratitude I would eventually feel at my incarceration did not occur until after a long drawn out trench warfare with bitterness and despair. I won my battle against bitterness, inch by painful inch.
I came to prison as a physician and author of books on spirituality. I assumed that I would be on a higher moral and spiritual plane than the criminals that I would be housed with. I soon learned that I was no different than them. Not because I was the scum of the earth as I assumed they were. I learned from them that we are all capable of finding within ourselves a profound spiritual connection to the Divine. It is at this level of unconditional love and wisdom that we are all equal. This is a dimension of reality which can be reached through meditation. It is precisely the same as the state of consciousness that we enter into when we die, as told to us by those who have experienced it as part of their near death experience. It has the power to transform and heal. It is a fountain of emotional well-being, empathy and wisdom, “that was not made by the hands of men.” Numerous studies, such as one done by Dr. Ralph Hood at the University of Tennessee, found that people who enter into this state of consciousness are more emotionally stable, have more creativity and are more tolerant and socially adept than control populations. All agree that it is the loss of the ego, the washing away of the ego self that is necessary to enter into this realm of consciousness. It should not therefore be surprising that so many prisoners, who have often lost everything and are riddled with shame and poor self-esteem, find it easy to enter into profound meditative states.
Albert Einstein said of this realm, “The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical, it is the sower of all true science. It is in this state that we wonder and stand with rapt awe. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty, this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religion.”
I am struck that for most of my career I learned spirituality from children. At the end of my career I leaned spirituality from criminals.
When I was first incarcerated, I was housed in a general population tier, that consisted of a huge concrete room with thin narrow windows that light poorly diffused through. There were rows and rows of metal bunk beds, most in a loft above the main floor, each spaced four to six feet apart. A total of 70 men were houses there. On the lower floor there was an open area with stainless steel tables where we ate, played cards, and talked. The showers and toilets were in an open alcove, in clear sight of the large room. We showered in boxer shorts to preserve some sense of privacy and dignity.
The fighting among the men, the mindless screaming, and the staccato machine gun-like bursts of obscenities didn’t die down until well after midnight. We were only permitted to leave the tier for one hour a day for exercise in the yard.
I had the same opinion as the kind compassionate woman friend who felt she had nothing to learn of spirituality from the perpetrator of a heinous crime, a criminal. After being incarcerated for a few weeks, I noticed a slight rat-faced man who had the exact pear-shaped profile of Alfred Hitchcock who seemed to meditate every day. Before my incarceration, I gave lectures on meditation and its effect on the body’s immune system. I could quote numerous sages on the benefits of meditation. Yet I rarely attempted to meditate myself. This man lost himself in a slow breathing trance, sitting with perfect posture, several times a day. He was harassed and hated by the other inmates as he was a sex offender. One day, he opened his eyes, and made eye contact with me, and said with awe and wonder, “No more victims.” He had the same look in his eyes as my mother had when she had come out of a coma and said, “Incredible.” It reminded me of the experience of St. Catherine of Genoa who, after her mystical conversion, simply said, “No more sins.” He continued to meditate but carried himself differently. He soon became well liked on the tier.
My first bunk-mate was a 350 pound Black Muslim named Stymie. I told him that I was Jewish. He flashed me a slow easy grin and said, “Hey, we all people of the Book.” When the tier bully came around and stole my precious and difficult-to-replace ink pen, Stymie picked him up like a rag doll and threw him against the wall. The bully returned my pen.
My bunk-mate was otherwise a calm gentle intellectual man. We spent many hours discussing religion, spirituality and forgiveness. He was fifteen years into a 30-year sentence for attempted murder and armed robbery. He told me that the greatest sin was anger. “I am here to learn patience, to calm my mind, to understand my anger. All the laughter and teachings I have given my children, gone because of two minutes of anger. I almost killed a man because I was angry. Two minutes out of the tens of thousands of minutes of my life, my prayers, my time at the Center (his mosque) the good work that I have done, all gone in two minutes. My wife of so many years, we grew up together, we were the ones who escaped the streets and made something of our lives, we were the success story; now my children grow up as I did, without a father, all because of two minutes of anger.”
Stymie’s words reminded me of the words of Shantideva, a Buddhist sage who lived in India over a thousand years ago. He wrote:
All good works gathered in a thousand years,
a single flash of anger shatters them.
Stymie said, “I cannot ask forgiveness of the man I paralyzed, that is not my place. I can regret it, yet cannot expect forgiveness. I can only learn to forgive myself, so that someday I can move on, and be a good father and husband again.”
When Shantideva started his journey to learn compassion, he too did not ask forgiveness but said, “I acknowledge the evil I have done, and promise to not do it again.”
As the months passed, and I struggled to learn to meditate, I often thought of my first bunk-mate. He took the time to pray 40 minutes a day, at a minimum. His example inspired me to meditate at least that much a day. I wondered what this world would be like if we all took the time to pray or meditate. I began to wonder what I would be like if I meditated each day. I was on the edge of a black hole of bitterness and anger. My brother realized it, and sent me the lyrics to a John Prine song which discussed that a heart stained with anger grows weak and grows bitter. I had two cancers which were not yet treated and had lost everything important to me. I was angry and bitter.
In talking with Stymie, however, I realized that I had eight people who loved me. I had children who were depending on me surviving this experience and becoming a kinder more loving Dad. I had the as yet unused tools of meditation. Although it caused me great despair, I was acknowledging the suffering I had caused others, a step taken by my fellow prisoners and the great sages such as the Shantideva. If Shantideva could acknowledge that he had done evil and caused suffering, then I could as well. My brother had sent me dozens of books on spirituality, meditation, Buddhist philosophy, and the writings of the great sages spanning the ages and across the distances from Greek philosophy to the Christian mystics. This was my comfort zone, intellectual knowledge. For my first months in prison I immersed myself in it, often not talking to my fellow inmates, neglecting to shave, and I avoided showering. I mostly kept to myself, assuming that no one would be interested in what I was studying. And let’s face it, I also thought that these men with their eighth-grade educations, couldn’t read the books I was reading.
After all, just like my friend’s compassionate friend thought of me, “How could I ever learn anything spiritual from a man like him?” I thought this of my fellow inmates. Junkies? Men who stuck a needle in their arms to get high? Who woke up with maggots in their hair, in rooms with no heat or water on mattresses filthy with rat feces, only to do it again? I heard all the stories swirling around me.
Until Sam, a 23-year-old junkie, approached me and said, “Doc, I got to sit you down and talk to you.” He brushed his shoulder length, jet-black hair away from his face. His body was tall and lean. He had a beautiful face and a sparkle in his eyes. As thin as he was, I had heard him say that he gained 40 pounds in prison. His prison whites hardly stayed up on his slim hips.
“I know what you are going through,” he said. “But would you treat yourself this way on the street? You have to shower and shave every day. Hey, you got good people on the outside. Not everyone does. You could help out someone on this tier and give them a package of tuna fish a week and he will wash your clothes and iron them for you. Because, remember, the way we think is who we are.”
Sam ran back to his bunk. He brought me a thick tome written by the English philosopher James Allen. He flipped through the dog-eared pages and found the essay, “As a Man Thinketh.” He read it out loud to me, giving me his own commentary as he read it.
“You got to understand Doc,” he said, “everything starts with how you think. I know all about your case. We all watched it on TV. I know you are thinking you got the shaft, and most of us think you did too. But you got to start thinking differently. It was your thoughts that somehow made all this happen. And it is your thoughts that will get you through it. Our thoughts create our reality. All we have is our thoughts, they are what is real for us.”
He held up the book to me. “I learned it all from this book. I know it’s true. You’ve never used heroin, so you don’t know, but once you are an addict, you always crave the drug. I did a three-year bit and I wanted to get high just as much on my last day as my first. But guess what? I am clean now. Not because there is no heroin here, “and he waved his am all around. “It is because I no longer crave it. I thought about how I was thinking. I changed the way I was thinking. I created a new reality for myself. Now I am working on my GED and I have already lined up a good job as a plumber’s helper on the outside.” “Doc,” he said, “each and every thought is important. It makes you who you are. And who you are shapes and creates everything around you, just as it says in As a Man Thinketh. We are not victims of circumstance. Our thoughts create our circumstances.”
Sam pulled me back from the abyss that day. He humbled me. Stymie further humbled me as I learned that he was reading the Riyad Us Saliheen, a two-volume tome on how Muslims can properly follow the law. Stymie arranged for me to get two brand new sets of prison whites, in exchange for ten dollars’ worth of Top Ramen soups. I shaved and showered every day, learning to stare at the ceiling so I didn’t have to watch men having a bowel movement as I showered. Most importantly, I learned that I was surrounded by teachers who also wanted to learn the book knowledge I had to share with them. I soon was no longer surprised when an inmate wanted to borrow my book on Tibetan mind training, written 700 to 1400 AD and then spend the night discussing it.
I learned the transformational power of meditation first hand from Justin, a 29-year-old man how had used and dealt drugs since age twelve. He was raised in a profoundly religious home and went to church four times a week. Yet he felt that God did not love him, as he was physically abused “in every way” from an early age. “I lived in fear of being at home, and in fear that I would never be able to be a kid, to have fun or laugh. From a very young age anything that a kid dreaded to go through I experienced. Then at age nine I was sexually abused by my wrestling coach. I rejected the idea that there was a God that loved me and that I could pray to, as how could a God allow this to happen to me?”
Justin learned to meditate at the prison class Alternatives to Violence, and then in the Greentree Program. Here is what he says about it: “I would sit quietly in a chair, taking deep breaths and relaxing every muscle in my body. This gave me the same kind of relief and relaxation as praying. Then I met Doc, and we talked about different types of meditation, and he lent me books to learn more about it myself.”
“It took me learning to meditate to sit back and realize that I wasn’t just taking away from myself or hurting myself. My family was suffering, all my victims that I sold drugs to, or broke into their homes, the women I treated as items, I caused this suffering all because I was hurt and suffering. I began to talk about my past hurt and let my pain out.”
I was astonished to see the transformation in Justin. Although he had rejected the external God who was a punishing interventionist God, he discovered “a god inside, a god who loved me.” He says, “As I look back I realize that he answered my every prayer, I just wasn’t patient enough to see it. I went through struggles and horrible times but I am now stronger, I have a testimony. What I saw as a curse I now see as a blessing.”
Justin and I initially bonded oddly enough because he was a victim of abuse, and I was convicted of child abuse. I learned from him what it was like to be a victim of abuse. He learned from me what was happening in my life .
Justin showed me a letter he wrote to his mother: “I have met a man, Doc, who I would never have thought of talking to before. We had nothing in common. Just as I cast judgement on him, he was casting judgement of all us prisoners as this is his first time. We began to talk more and more and time allowed us to see how much we have in common, or should I say I looked up to him for all his knowledge and accomplishments and me being able to show him that not all the people in these walls are heartless and ignorant, we both learn from each other and grow spiritually.”
Knowing that I could help another human being, a man who was so similar yet so different from me, again brought me back from the abyss. Yet is would be another man, very similar to me, who had also faced and fought his own battle with the abyss, a man who had to pull the barrel of a gun out of his mouth as part of his struggle, who placed me solidly back on the path, the way of the spiritual journey.
Mr. P is very similar to me in that we are both white middle-aged professionals with solid middle-class backgrounds and values, in a young mostly black men’s world that is an echo of the ‘hood. Like [others in prison], he did something that seems unforgivable, something that clearly betrayed all he stood for and the moral values he lives by. He is an engineer, working in the aircraft industry on a level at which he has top-secret government clearances. One night he drank too much and killed an elderly woman: vehicular homicide.
One question I am often asked is how can a pediatrician live with [what happened to me]. How did it happen? I often ask myself the same question and wonder how I will learn to live with it.
Mr. P is at peace with his crime. He has forgiven himself. Even more telling is that just as the ancient Buddhist sages instruct us, he does not expect forgiveness from others for his crime. He credits his lifelong practice of meditation with his being able to pull back from his abyss to take the gun out of his mouth that he had placed there with the intent of killing himself, and to describe himself as transformed. He says, “I can achieve something greater than I have ever done with my life, than I have ever felt.”
This self-forgiveness is not some sort of easily accomplished “get out of jail free” card. It involves a process very similar to the life review of the near death experience. In that life review, we actually experience and relive the suffering we cause others, through their perspective. Mr. P describes a process of personal cleansing and a detailed personal inventory. He went through a personal trial of deep shame.
Yet there came a point, with the help of meditation, where he finally concluded that he no longer had to live that way. He embraced his crime as part of his spiritual journey.
I understand that this is a breathtaking understand of a profound spiritual nature. I asked him how he would feel if it was his mother who died, and the driver of the car told him that, “Well, hey, it was part of my spiritual journey!” I tried to image what I would say to those who have read of my crime described as waterboarding a child and I responded by saying it was part of my spiritual journey.
Mr. P’s answer came right out of my texts on the path to being a compassionate person, written by those Buddhist monks long ago halfway across the world from us, in very different cultures. It shows how meditation causes us to arrive at fundamental human truths that apply to all of us. He replied that each person has their own spiritual journey. Of course he must confront the suffering that he has caused others, yet we have to believe in ourselves. We cannot be defined by our crimes, by the evil we do. After he went through his cleansing, he experienced an intense feeling of knowledge and euphoria that he connected with something within him that he does not call “God” but is clearly linked to something divine.
Earlier in the day I had heard some of the men derisively comment about Mr. P, that he was the man “who killed that old lady.” I know that when I am released and return to the public eye, I will also hear people derisively refer to me as the man who waterboarded that little girl.
I asked Mr. P hat to do about this, how he handled this. Once again, he surprised me with his answer. He said, “Doc, you have to be you. You can’t be anyone else. You have no control over them and what they will say. Each one of them has their own journey. Be compassionate to them. I know that the friends and family of the woman I killed think horrible things about me. I don’t blame them. Don’t blame the people who will think horribly of you, those thoughts are part of their journey, their struggle, not yours.”
Once again, Mr. P’s comments were right out of the manual, the text I was reading titled, “How to transform adversity into joy.” Actually I was reading two manuals, the other being by Shantideva titled The Way to Be a Compassionate Person. The first text was a commentary on a text written by a 14th century Tibetan monk named Gyalse Thogme. Again, words from across time and culture precisely mirroring the same words from a middle-aged engineer from Newark, Delaware. Thogme wrote: “People who harm you are the victims of their own emotions. If you cannot yet feel love and compassion for (them) your mind is not yet fully transformed.”
A young man was listening raptly to all Mr. P and I had to say. He was 20, with a solid background from the ‘hood. He told me that he carried a gun with him at all times prior to being locked up. I have never even seen a gun other than pictures or in the media. Yet he had the same advice. “Yeah, Doc,” he said as he smiled at me, “Just keep being you. I learn a lot from you, you have a lot of knowledge, every time we talk I learn something, and you got dat Gucci dialogue with all that information.”
In my first weeks in prison I learned how to live my lessons of love. I once lectured but did not listen. Now I listened. During my trial, I vigorously protested my innocence. Yet as I listened to those who testified against me, I learned that I was not aware of how others felt, or how my actions impacted their emotions and feelings. While incarcerated I embraced two manuals, written over a thousand years ago, on how to become a compassionate person. My prison was to become my ashram, my fellow inmate my teachers.
Already I learned that there is only one path, one way to find the compassionate heart within. The path is the goal, the journey is all there is. It is at the heart of the world’s great religions and philosophies. Modern theologian’s state that when Jesus said he was the Way, he meant that there is only one way, be you a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. It starts with confession and vigilant introspection. Often suffering is needed, as great sorrow can drive out pride and destroy the ego. It ends with an understanding that the very fabric of the universe consists of radiant fields of energy and unconditional compassion.
This book is my journey, not yours. I cannot pretend that anyone will learn from what I have to share with you. I am human, far from perfect. I have caused great suffering in others. Certainly whatever I share with you are sacred treasures that I learned from someone else, perhaps a child, perhaps a murderer, perhaps a junkie or a thief.
As Shantideva wrote over a thousand years ago, when he started on this same path:
I pray you, guides and guardians of the world,
To take me as I am, a sinful man.
And all these actions, evil as they are,
I promise I will never do again.
This path ends in a dimension of reality known by the Buddhists as Ultimate Reality, called by a young boy who glimpsed it when he briefly died as “realer than real.” It is beyond thought. Time and space do not exist. Theoretical physicists claim that it is in fact the very basis of the ordinary reality that we all share and interact in to learn our lessons of love.
My path, my journey led me to the edge of all I knew, then I stepped out into the bright abyss.
I feel from grace, I fell into grace.
I pray to God that those I have harmed receive any blessings intended for me,
For I am grateful for all I have lost, and all I have gained.
This is my story.
Melvin Morse, MD