A Fuller Sense of Aliveness

from Tuesdays in Jail by Tina Welling

Posted 10/11/22 | Updated 2/20/23

I conduct weekly journaling workshops with the inmates of my county jail. For the inmates, the journaling workshop stands out from their usual routine of predawn rising, abrupt room searches, empty hours between tasteless meals, and nightly bed checks. It offers relief from the shame and guilt and aimless caught-in-the-web sense of self so many inmates experience. It's a time when they can find and express their authentic selves.

For much of the day inmates are switching between trying to stand their ground with the other inmates and acting submissively with the officers in charge. During this one hour every week, I invite them to tell me what they really think, feel, hope for, and fear. And I urge them to keep in touch with that authentic self by writing in their journals.

For me this hour pulls me out of my usual way of thinking about my life and sets me into thinking instead about life itself. The real beneath the routine. Each week my awareness widens, my heart opens, my intuition awakens. I try to be that ocean that Dogen, thirteenth-century Buddhist philosopher, wrote about, suggesting we can allow all to enter us and all to flow through us. It's a rare opportunity to experience as vast a vulnerability as I can crack myself open to hold. To be willing to meet whatever occurs with whomever comes into my circle of energy.

Since very little preparation is possible, this is the only way I know how to be there. Not knowing who will attend the workshop, what miseries or insights or stories are moving through the individual men, I can't do much to ready myself. I can only be as open as possible. I read the latest research and memoirs about addiction. I read spiritual books to stretch and strengthen myself. And then I put it all in a big salad bowl and douse it with lemon juice and honey, see how that tastes when faced with the actual beings struggling with it all.

My goal with the inmates is to remind them of that spirit spark — as an early beloved spiritual teacher of mine called it — that lies within them. Twelfth-century poet Hafiz said it well: "I wish that I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being."

I start there. I listen. I respond with whatever occurs to me to let the men know I see their astonishing light. I speak to that. Ask journaling questions intended to guide us all there.

Though we are separated either by a metal grate or, in the tower, by a circling armed guard, I think everyone gets that we're all in this thing called life together. That we're all imprisoned by something, and that most often it's our own narrow vision. I discuss that too with the inmates, those qualities within us that limit our awareness: anger, resentment, harsh self-talk, low self-esteem, addiction, sense of failure. I enjoy the company of these fellow explorers who are always eager to discuss what they have never or rarely put into language before.

Often the inmates have trouble with the concept of spirituality due to abusive or abandoning parents. They desire a connection with a guiding and loving force and yet flounder around in a field of resentment and longing. No wonder. When we are vulnerable toddlers looking up several feet into the face of our caretakers for food, emotional sustenance, shelter, and safety, we are looking into the faces of our gods. We adore them and want to become them and go to them to fulfill every need. If they ignore us, we feel unworthy of being seen. If they swipe an angry hand at us, we feel shame at not measuring up. In this unstable union we are without ground, have no certain point in which to find our bearings or from which to push off for our personal growth.

Our parents or caretakers, as our first gods, are our introductions to forces greater than ourselves. This is how we learn spirituality, how to have a relationship with the god of our world, whatever name it goes by: the Force, the Universe, Allah, the Greater Intelligence.

Jail can be a place for finding one's spiritual center. It's the solitude, the hitting bottom, the claiming of the past, and the fear and hope about what's next. Yet so many inmates have trouble here. They've rejected whatever religion or spiritual teachings loomed in their background, yet they still long for evidence of some greater being that will help usher in the best of them.

In our workshops I talk about the spiritual part of life without ever using the word God or other religious terms. I think about Zeke, who was clearly yearning and just as clearly turned off by anything that hinted of the unseen. He believed he was alone and that he alone would have to deal with whatever came his way.

I said, "Zeke, you're wearing cotton pants, but I see you wearing a cloud. And when I look further, I see rubber trees in South America."

Zeke joked, "Nope. Just pants. But I'll have some of whatever you've smoked."

We all laughed.

I said, "Take a thread from your pant cuff, and you can trace it all around the world. Recognize the fruits and vegetables grown in every part of the planet to feed the workers while they were farming and harvesting the cotton. The cotton plants were loaded onto trucks, the engines made of metals mined in Africa, and driven on tires made from rubber trees in the Amazon, taken to factories where it was created into cloth, then shipped again to outlets and finally here.

Think how you are connected to the sun and the rain clouds needed for the cotton to grow in the fields and for the foods to grow in gardens to feed the workers. You are not alone here; you can trace your connection to every other thing on the planet by a single thread."

Jim said, "I want to believe in God. I really want that. And when my Aunt Nancy comes to visit and prays with me, I feel it. I'm enlarged by it. But then being here where nothing is beautiful or inspiring, I lose it. It's like these cement walls sponge it up."

We talk about the word God and how it holds so much negative energy for some. I suggest we exchange the word for Life, capital L. In many ways, we can't not talk about God or Life or sacred energy; we are It, and It is all around us, of us, in us.

That's what Ken was speaking about when he and I met alone one night in the grated locked-down room. He said, "There's a little black spider in my cell. When I scrub my floor, I'm careful not to disturb it. Sometimes it lives under the sink. Before coming to the workshop I watched it go down the floor drain. It does that sometimes. I don't know what it's got going down there. I left it two crumbs. One of hamburger and, in case it's a vegetarian, one of cornbread." He laughed at himself but clearly recognized he was engaged in a sacred exchange with Life.

In so many ways throughout our days, we are connecting to that astonishing light within us that Hafiz spoke of. Yet in just as many ways we spend our days unconscious of it. Bringing awareness of the sacred, the connectedness, the mysterious into our consciousness enhances our sense of aliveness. And, bottom line, that is what we all really want: a fuller sense of aliveness.

And so the inmates and I meet on Tuesday nights to remind each other to clear the way and to reach for that. End

©2022 by Tina Welling. All rights reserved.

Tina WellingTina Welling is the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council writing fellowship, she has been conducting her Writing Wild workshops for ten years. ...

Tuesdays in Jail

An excerpt from Tuesdays in Jail: What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates. ©2022 by by Tina Welling. Published with with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.