Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
Reality and Human Nature
At this point it is necessary for me to clarify the rationale in theory that informs this work. I wanted to present an outline of the actual work first to give you a sense of how it functions. I did not want to present any theory to begin with, because such abstractions tend to provoke our personal belief systems and lead to disputation and argument. Keeping in mind that this work does indeed function better than any other models now in use, I ask your indulgence now and pray you may keep an open mind to the worldview that, in my humble opinion, underlies the success of this program.
In referring to the circle, I have already said that respect is the key. Throughout the indigenous world we find a common agreement on this fundamental teaching. For one thing, we cannot control our tastes or our affections very easily. We cannot order ourselves to love someone. No one can tell us to like something we do not like. But respect is completely subject to our will. If I tell people the basis of the circle is respect, and to be in this circle you must agree to that, it is something people can do, if they are willing.
Our people noticed long ago that the circle is the basic form of Creation. The seasons and the cycles of life are circular. The circle, circular forms, including ellipses, globes and spirals, are the fundamental structures of all things. The universe itself appears to be in some way circular: galaxies, where they are not fragmented, appear to be circular, as are stars and planetary systems, as are the paths of satellites and comets. In the microcosmic world the circles continue in cells, molecules, atoms, and in DNA, the fundamental building block of life.
At some point our scientific understanding becomes spiritual. That is, the accumulation of verifiable fact carries into realms beyond concept, where concept fails us, into realms of wonder and mystery, as Einstein indicated. Science itself instructs us that there is more to reality than its measures and tabulations.
It is important to understand that we are not speaking of religion here. Most indigenous peoples have this understanding, no matter what their form of worship. A person's religion, or way of worshipping, is thought to be personal to them and respected fully. So every member of the circle has his own way and time of worshipping or not. They are many kinds of Christian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist in our circles, and also Jewish, Muslim, Druidic, Wiccan, Buddhist or Hindu, or many forms of American native such as Lakota, Cree, Anishnabe, Houdenausaunee, Wabanaki, Wampanoag, or none at all, atheist or agnostic. The word spiritual as I use it refers not to any particular religious tradition or idea of existence, but only that "more" that includes all of existence, since existence is more than all our facts, more than all our imagination, more than all our concepts, more than we can possibly conceive.
Wisdom is that part of human understanding that makes sense in all times and all places and shows us how to live day by day, practically, in a good way. My good friend Sun Bear used to say: "If your philosophy won't grow corn, I don't want to hear about it." Wisdom means not only understanding, but living well. If we are going to heal our society of its violence and crime, we are going to have to find ways to communicate that we can all relate to and accept so that we can put our minds together on this common problem.
So it is that the spiritual wisdom of our native traditions holds that all things are part of a oneness we call the Creation, that everything is related, has its own integrity, and is a necessary part of the whole. Therefore, this wisdom affirms, everything is sacred and must be respected as an equal and necessary part, as a relative. The word sacred may be difficult for some, others may have different concepts of it, but if we say respect, this is a concept that people in all cultures can understand and accept. The value of respect is understood all over the world.
The prisoners understand respect also. But in the code they were taught, respect has to be earned. Often in their experience it is only earned through violence or the threat of violence. Respect is given to the one who has the greater fire-power. It is a new thought to them that respect does not have to be earned, that they, and everyone else, deserve respect only by virtue of being alive. To be in the circle they must agree to this. Once in the circle they begin to understand how it works, that it is necessary for our learning, our understanding, for creating good relationships and a better life for all.
This teaching of respect is spiritual wisdom to our people, because we have found over the ages that it functions and makes our lives work, makes them better, and when we depart from this wisdom at any time we make mistakes and regret it. Therefore we are taught to respect the Earth, as our own mother, to respect all things in Creation, all forms of life, and all other human beings regardless of their age, sex, color, nationality, or belief. This is why we insist on respect as the fundamental rule of the circle. We have found that when the rule of respect is strictly adhered to the circle works in marvelous ways, but when respect is forgotten the circle falls apart.
In the circle all are equal. There is no top or bottom, first or last, better or worse in a circle. It is true that some people may be designated as chiefs, or medicine people, or clan mothers, or elders, and by custom these may speak first, but their words are not necessarily more important or more to be heeded than anyone else's words. These elders understand their roles to bring people together and give the gift of their experience and teaching, but they always insist on their equality, and they respect and pay close attention to the thoughts and feelings of every one. They say, as Slow Turtle often tells our prisoners:
"You are special. Each one of you has an important place in the Creation. Each one of you have special and unique gifts. No one was ever like you in all the universe, and there will never be another one lie you again. Therefore only you have your special gift, and you are the only one who can give it away. You will not feel right, will not fulfill your purpose until you give it away. The rest of us need to receive your gift and hear your story."
In referring to the circle, we do not use the word religion, because of its association with the established churches. The prisons have these separate categories - religious, cultural, educational, political, therapeutic, and so on. They get confused when we tell them for us spiritual is all of these, it's all of human experience, it's science, the known and the unknown - it's just Reality. We have to remember that what they call religion, culture, education, therapy, sociology, are just concepts, constructs of pseudo-reality.
We teach the prisoners that Reality, which has seemed in their lives to be hostile and even vicious, is actually Benign. Reality is what we can experience in the natural world, in an untouched wilderness, where we see that everything is in harmony and in balance. It works. If all the human beings were to depart for another planet, this planet would heal itself and continue in balance and beauty. But when we go down into our cities and our concentrations of civilization, we see that very little is working well. We see violence and crime, greed, loneliness, domestic strife, apathy and despair. This is not according to our Original Instructions. This is a pseudo-reality, constructed by us out of our wounds, our hurts and confusions.
The Original Instructions are natural law, and when that is fully understood we can learn how to live a life that is harmonious and in balance. We notice that things tend to want to heal, to come to balance, to become better, and that human beings want in fact to learn, to become more aware, more conscious, and to make things better. So we see there is an upward trend in Creation.
We teach that when a human being is born he is totally good. There is no evil in him. The Original Instructions have no plan for making bad things, but they can be hurt. We have created hurtful systems and these systems begin to hurt us all from the time we are very young.
We teach that a human baby is born lovable. Most everyone has enough experience of newborns to know they are all adorable little "bundles of joy". You can't look at a tiny baby and think, that one is going to be a dope fiend, that one will be a rapist, a murderer, or a bank robber. You have the highest hopes for this little creature, and wish for him happiness and the best of lives. Because they are so cute and cuddly we want to hold and fondle them, and they respond to that happily, and as they grow they want to give back the affection they receive. So love and affection is at the very core of our being. It is part of our very essence, our humanness.
Then we see that a baby is very alert and alive from the beginning, and responds energetically to its environment. It wants to play with everything, with whatever it can get hold of, and is delighted with it all -except when distressed by hunger, needing a clean diaper, or frustrated by something it can't do or have. We also see that babies learn things very quickly and are endlessly curious, so we may say that to be human is also to exercise intelligence. With that intelligence and that sense of play, we soon find that human beings are also naturally creative. All children like to build and pretend and fantasize and make new and interesting things.
So these are the things that we can say about what it is to be a human being: to be human is to be loving (and lovable), joyful and playful, curious and intelligent, and creative. Loving, joyful, intelligent and creative. That's what we are, all of us, no exceptions. That's how every one of these prisoners began, these criminals, these men with shattered lives who may have shattered others' lives.
But it takes a dozen years for a baby to grow to an adult, unlike other species. During that time the child must be protected, cared for, shown affection and love, played with, given stimulation for his mind, had his creativity encouraged and supported. This was the case with no prisoner I have ever met. Occasionally their outward circumstances may have seemed unremarkable: father, mother, family intact, no great material hardship. But beneath these superficial facts there is a darker inner history. Always.
To be hurt is inevitable to all of us. It's not possible to grow up without misadventure, without loss, anxiety, or frustration. So sorrow, fear and anger are natural parts of living. In a loving, supportive, close family a child learns to deal with these. When as a small child we have someone we can reliably go to in distress, who allows us to express ourselves, to feel our fears, express our rage and grief, who will comfort us, tell us we are all right, not bad or crazy for having our feelings, then we pass through these feelings quickly and go back to our natural energetic, playful, curious, caring human selves.
The men in the prisons have not had those resources growing up. They have long ago buried their feelings of rage and terror and grief. They have tried to survive in a hostile, harsh world without guidance or support. Most of them have not had families in reality, they have passed from foster home to foster home, from institution to institution. Sometimes foster homes can be very loving and nurturing, but not the homes that these men were typically sent to. They were usually already very distressed, belligerent, rebellious, lying, hiding, stealing, when they were taken in, and most families are not ready to deal with that level of distress. Institutions even less so.
When these criminals have grown up in one home, their own home, it has pretty generally been a broken home, and if not, it is most likely to have been a violent, abusive, probably alcoholic environment. Every prisoner I have listened to has suffered some level of abuse in those tender, vulnerable early years of childhood - physical abuse very often, sexual abuse, or just terrifying emotional abuse by one or more adult care-giver, coupled with some level of isolation and abandonment.
When they get a little older, most of these children discover alcohol and drugs as a way to dull the gnawing repressed feelings inside, and they learn to live by the rules of the street, or by secret codes they teach themselves in their isolation from human society. When they spend any time in an institution, an orphanage, a juvenile home, a detention center or a jail, they learn the codes of criminal society. That is reality to them, and the straight world, the world that hurt them, is to be scorned, the people in it either ignorant and unhelpful or selfish and uncaring.
What they don't know, what no one has ever shown them, is that inside each one, under the toughness and bravado, under the rage and the feelings of betrayal, under the cleverness and the terror, there lives a hopeful, playful, bright and caring little boy, the child he once was, which was not destroyed, only buried under a mountain of distress. (I use a more pungent and familiar word when I explain this to them.)
At no point in their lives before now have they been given the resource to even believe a choice was possible for them, that they were good enough or smart enough to take advantage of a choice if given to them, or valuable enough to put any effort into saving. But now some elders come, some driving a hundred miles, just to be with them, to tell them that life is not what they have been leading and reality is not what they have been led to believe it is, to tell them that they are good and valuable human beings who fell into some unknown traps, went down some terrible roads, and were just as much victims as the people which they may have victimized. It doesn't mean that they shouldn't take responsibility for past misdeeds and shouldn't apologize and try to make amends in some way to those they have victimized. They should. For their own sake as much as for the other victims.
Now here come these elders telling them they were born good and were not responsible for the conditions which hurt them, that they can learn from their mistakes and become full and fulfilled human beings. The elders tell them their feelings are understandable and it's good to express them. They tell them they are worthy of respect and attention.
Thus every person in the circle is regarded as sacred, a good and wonderful person to whom terrible things have happened which has made him have to hide behind heavy armor and isolating walls. In the circle each person is given respect and the safety to peek out just a little from behind the armor and the walls. Each person is given complete attention while he holds the talking stick - this is his time, to use as he chooses. No one will interrupt or contradict him, people will only try to understand and support him.
As he hears the others speak, a man will begin to empathize. He will begin to realize he is not alone, not unusual, not even the bad man he has been told by everyone that he is. Because he sees these others are not bad either. He can feel the vulnerable, hurting, longing child cry out from each one. Out of respect comes understanding, and appreciation, and support. Out of a circle of men hidden behind their patterns comes a family of brothers with common grief, common despair, common desire, common fear, and common hope.
Some men get this very quickly - ones whose hurts are not so severe. Others take months, or sometimes years, if they keep leaving the circle and returning. But if they stay with it long enough it will get to them. The old-timers will take the new ones under their wings and set them straight.
When they get it their whole lives will start to be affected. They will see their family relationships differently. They will begin to look at everyone, parents, siblings, wives, children, friends, enemies, as human beings that once were innocent children but got loaded with distress with no support to deal with it, and developed the patterns that now make them so difficult to relate to. As their attitude changes they feel better, and generally the relationships begin to improve as well. They see other inmates and especially some of the difficult guards in this way too. They become less confrontational, sometimes downright sympathetic, and report great changes in those encounters as well.
When a crisis occurs, these men will now bring their feelings to the circle, and as they release the feelings and are accepted, they usually find the power to think clearly and handle the situation in a good way. In those prisons where we have the sweat lodge in place, they know they will have an outlet for all the feelings which may arise.
In my way of leading a sweat purification ceremony, I use four rounds, or sections, one for each direction, in which I focus on healing the body, the mind, the heart, and the spirit. Starting with the body, breathing the strong hot steam into the lungs has a cleansing effect on the whole body. At the same time we will pray for the healing of loved ones and friends, of the earth and all life forms, all our relatives. In the mental round, I will ask them to release their problems, to empty their thoughts and come to a still and peaceful mind, and in that state to be open for answers and visions to come to them. In the third round I will ask them to open their hearts and let out the feelings which have been bothering them. This can be a very noisy round, as I encourage them to weep, howl, rage and generally make a lot of racket like hurt animals to force out these feelings with some energy. The final round is more silent, as we each in our way seek to make a connection with what is real, the inner spirit of all things, our own inner spirit, that of others, and that of the spirit of all Creation.
When we had the co-counseling class as an adjunct to these, we had the opportunity to take more time with each individual, to hear his whole life story, to let him explore his feelings and his thinking in making new decisions for his life. The class also gave them tools to help others, the techniques of good listening and support, the understanding of oppression and creative and empowering ways of liberation, as well as understanding relationships and good parenting. As you can imagine, the addition of the class gave them much more resource to deal with their lives than most everyone they knew on the outside, so that they felt as though they could become a good resource for their families and friends when they got out.