THE JUDGMENT CARD, PART ONE

In the Rider-Waite tarot tradition, the twentieth card in the major arcana (the portion of the deck representing archetypal themes) stands for Judgment.

It’s a heavy word, isn’t it? Even spoken, a product of breath and vibration, those two syllables seem weightier than others. Judgment. Some of us carry it on our backs, some of us bear it in our arms. Some of us, like Sisyphus, push it perpetually uphill. The tarot card, however, represents forgiveness, renewal, rebirth. Judgment in that tradition is also penultimate to the card of integration and fulfillment, the final card in the Fool’s journey, and is meaningful as such.

While the birds were concluding their dawn chorus today, I made one of my rare visits to the town’s Episcopal church. I guessed the theme, given the day, would be resurrection, and that’s a potent word for me, as I near the end of an exceptionally long four-year process. How will I emerge? What will I find when I do? I thought the sermon might stimulate my thoughts. The salt-of-the-earth rector’s talks rarely disappoint; he brings boyish enthusiasm to the experience of awe. This morning he said that most of us live as though resurrection is a concept of the past, a subject for historical discussion, or a concept of the future, a fate that awaits. But no, he said—it is present, it is with us, it is active. “Not a spectator sport,” he said. The action of resurrection is love and forgiveness.

I thought about the ramifications of such an attitude for my personal life and in relation to the broader world. I thought about the value of co-construction.

Restorative justice is a model of judgment that incorporates the concept of renewal, and as I paused on the front walk of the building where I live, to examine the tight red buds tipping the trees, my thoughts turned to the county jail. Late last summer and into the fall, I led a ten-part “skills of mindfulness” course there, with two different groups, one of men, one of women. Roughly halfway through, I asked all participants to write two letters: one to a loved one, living or dead, explaining the concept of mindfulness; and one to me, in which they were to evaluate their progress in the class. This letter is shared with permission.

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Hi EA,

There are definite pluses and minuses to incorporating mindfulness into a convict’s daily life, as I’m discovering. On one hand I have a routine every day. It’s always the same and as such, I am able to choose a time for meditation that best fits. For me, just after lunch works. I’m awake and there’s ample time before the noon lockdown to get into the correct state of mind. And if it falls through I have time to plan and execute another.

On the other hand, interruptions are a way of life here. Just today, as I meditated, I had three visitors come in the room and twice they wanted to talk. I usually have earplugs in to lessen the effects of shouting, TV, showers, toilets, intercoms and all other such matters of distraction. I imagine it’s the same on the outside. Sometimes it works better than others.

But I’m also trying to work mindfulness into regular living, accepting that this is where I am now and how things are. I’ve been trying to be less judgmental for the past year in response to my legal situations. I realized that I needed to change for the positive, that a lifetime of being negative and bottling things up, as is expected of males in our society, did not lead to a happy, fulfilling life. And I hope mindfulness can bring some good changes. It definitely seems to relieve tension, even in this not so perfect climate. I have yet to see if mindfulness is something I will be able to continue in regular life (on the outside), but I will try.

My girlfriend actually started me on mindfulness and meditation before I was incarcerated and day to day living seemed to throw things at me that made me forget about the daily practice.

But I consider it a marathon, not a sprint, and a journey, not a destination, so hopefully it will become more integral to my life as the months and years pass.

Thank you for your part in my journey.

SWEET WATER

I was once in a band of two. Having no ear for music, I was the frustrated lyricist, dependent on my bandmate’s gift for composition. There was one song we sang together, however, that was wholly mine. It had but four lyrics, repeated: Clemency. Softness. Sweetness. Mercy. I see that now as an inadvertent loving-kindness meditation.

The tradition of loving-kindness meditation is a long one and takes many forms. The one I use, said to be Tibetan, looks like this: “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Susan Kaiser-Greenland, in her good work, uses the term “friendly wishes” and encourages children to invent their own; she writes about that in her book The Mindful Child.

Loving-kindness as a practice involves directing positive intentions first toward ourselves, then toward those we care about, followed by those for whom our feelings are relatively neutral, and finally toward those against whom we harbor ill will.

This can be a slow progression; words like “first,” “then,” and “followed by” misleadingly elide the steps, which are meant not only to be sequential but to represent increasing mastery, gained over time. For myself, I tend to think the practice is lifelong and nonlinear. Love of self isn’t necessarily the easiest step, despite being the first.

In my mindfulness groups at the county jail, I chose not to introduce the whole concept of loving-kindness at the start, wanting to establish purity of focus and prevent bias or resistance. (The notion of wishing that good fortune might befall an enemy is easier to swallow when one’s own life has been sweetened.) As I was explaining the first phase—sitting mostly with addicts, who tend to struggle with self-esteem—a picture flashed into my mind. I described it thus:

Imagine that you’re looking into a well, and the water in this well is pure and sweet, but there’s no bucket or ladder to help you access it. There are stones on the ground, however—smooth, clean stones that you can drop in one by one to raise the level. At last, you can bend, cup your hands, and drink. Loving-kindness is like that. Each intention is a smooth stone that, eventually, can help you quench your thirst. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.

PILLOW MARKS

The first woman to arrive walked through the door at 8:15, with red pillow marks creasing the right side of her face. She had woken suddenly, she explained, fearing she’d missed the class. For several days preceding, she had been “in the hole” and had worried, there, that she wouldn’t make it back by Sunday to the unit where we meet. Her abrupt waking that morning, I inferred, was ignited by the fuel of the whole week.

This past Sunday morning was my third spent facilitating mindfulness groups at the jail. It was not so easy for me, either, to wake and rise, with earth’s tilt and spin holding the dark in place longer—a striking change, in just one week, that raised my consciousness of the season the way goose-pimpled skin raises hairs in their follicles. Fall is coming, and winter right behind.

It seemed perhaps this shift was felt throughout the jail. When I arrived at the women’s unit, the cafeteria space was sparsely populated, and the bunk beds beyond were full. I organized the photocopies I’d brought while I waited for the group to gather. As I waited, I had the chance to reflect on how I was feeling about the waiting—the quietly rising stress of not having time to get through the day’s agenda, and the discomfort of knowing that group members would need to be woken in order to join me. (The fact that the stress rose quietly represents progress I’ve made.)

My self-noticing was buttressed by a scrap of conversation I’d caught en route to the jail, between On Being’s Krista Tippett and her guest, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As I drove along the tree-lined highway, beneath a sky cleared by the night’s rain, he commented on how his performance is affected not just by the instrument he’s using, but also by the space he’s playing in, which he considers another instrument. The environment is part of what happens—it has to be. “If you’re going to perform someplace,” he said, “please don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed.”

My plans for the day involved a discussion of “fight, flight, or freeze” and the maladaptive role that our evolutionary stress response can play in situations that are not actually a matter of life or death. I was looking forward to hearing the inmates’ perspectives and also to communicating my enthusiasm for the power of the brain as demonstrated by Dr. Ellen Langer’s research, gathered in Counterclockwise, and V.S. Ramachandran’s work with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome, as profiled some years back in The New Yorker.

(When I discuss such concepts, I like to ask first if the inmates in my group are familiar with them; if they are, I invite them to share what they know with any others who require explanation—a tried-and-true approach to increasing involvement in the class and also one that demonstrates respect for inmates’ experience and learning, the richness of which many times flies in the face of common assumptions about jails and those who end up there. One young man in a group I guest-led in August, for example, knew about the Ramachandran discovery using mirrors to “restore” the missing limb of an amputee. I loved hearing him tell it and knew I could always restate things if I saw the need, or fill in any gaps after he had finished speaking.)

All this is to say that I had plans, and I thought they were good ones. Our period of discussion was intended to lead into a body scan activity, followed by one involving progressive muscle relaxation, after which I would share handouts for them to keep, detailing the two exercises. I was nervous to bear the responsibility of being the guiding voice during these, but I was eager to offer the women (at 8:00) and the men (at 9:00) potentially new skills to practice in the weeks to come.

Our session didn’t begin until 8:30, though, and even then was missing two members—one who’d been removed from the unit for a spell and not made it back, and one who sent word that she was sick. The call for medication dispensing further interrupted proceedings, as did a brief discussion about the circumstances leading to all this lost time. Body scan? Muscle relaxation? Not a chance. There was barely time to consider what to prioritize in my notes, although I settled quickly on “adaptive” and “maladaptive,” another pair of terms I relish from my social work education.

I admit, I was disappointed and also challenged as to how I’d make up the lost half-hour in our eight-week curriculum, which I’d plotted out so carefully over the course of the summer. But in that first fifteen minutes, when it was just the one young woman and myself, she shared with great excitement that she had been allowed just one book during her time of exile, and that some inspired person in the jail—blessings upon whomever that was—had given her Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger to take with her. She shared with me that she’s not usually much of a reader but devoured this book and identified deeply with it. “I don’t know,” she said, seeming to marvel at the confluence of events. “This class, this book—there’s just something about mindfulness.”