3 Steps To Free Ourselves From Our Inner Prisons

bird-flying-from-cageThough I frequently walk in and out of WA State prisons, I find myself trapped in my internal prison much more often than I enjoy. It’s one I carry around with me and enter easily. Getting out can be an arduous process. The prison is my mind, specifically the part that spins stories about what other people are thinking, doing, intending or reacting to. I am amazed how frequently my brain can come up with a story and how often a story when checked out, can be way off base.

I find I am not alone. Conversations I hear daily are couched in language that implies wrongness or diagnosis of others. When our stories are about others, we usually feel anger. When our stories are about ourselves, the feelings of shame, guilt and depression arise.

The last time I was in the women’s prison I found myself on the receiving end of the stories. It was a very stressful weekend for the inmates. Mother’s Day events were being held. Try to imagine the stress of parenting from prison or the pain of not having contact with your children anymore. A higher number of fights than normal were breaking out, and most of the women who were trying to focus in the Freedom Project workshop I was co-leading were bundles of nerves.

At one point on the second day, one of the women told me I was disrespectful, then another said I was being condescending, yet another one agreed and added I was just like one of “them” (the officers). They were sure their stories about me were true. Their evaluations were clearly facts in their eyes. I listened with empathy and was trying to find out what they had seen or heard from me that they interpreted as disrespect or lack of caring.

I had asked two women to join me out into the hall first thing in the morning, to create safety, when I thought a fight was about to break out. I mediated between them for 45 minutes and the two women involved were thankful for the reconnection and learning. Some of the women who remained in the room, however, assumed I was somehow punishing the women I had asked out into the hall. It took empathy from my colleague and individual empathy from me with the angry participants during the following break to finally have my intentions for support, caring and learning seen by the women. We ended in a place of connection. The remaining hours of the workshop were spent giving empathy to the women for their pain and talking about the self-empathy that allowed me to stay present to myself in a way that let me hear their pain and not take their judgments personally. Judgments are simply tragic expressions of needs. 

I spent the next couple of weeks noticing when I didn’t stop to pause between something that triggered me (what someone said or did) and my story about it. Some of my stories are well rehearsed as I’ve practiced them for years. My belief in my stories can be as strong as the inmates’ belief in their stories about what they thought was going on in me. The freedom from the internal prison happens in that pause between observation and evaluation. I work through 3 steps that spring me loose.

  1. I find a way to notice what I’m reacting to the specific observation of what someone actually said or did.
  2. I pause long enough to look under my story (the evaluation) to my feelings and needs.
  3. I let a request naturally arise in relation to the needs I’m aware of.

That pause is a place of choice and power. Separating observation from evaluation is a crucial first step to freedom. I find myself making that inner journey time and time again from my prison to liberation. It’s starting to get easier the more I do it. It requires compassion for myself along the way and trust that continuing on that path will lead to greater joy, clarity and connection.

How Did a Revolution Happen in 2 Hours?

broken chain photoIn October of 2007, I was scheduled to go into the men’s prison in Monroe, WA to lead a Nonviolent Communication basics workshop with a Freedom Project team. I was bringing a guest, and after 4 hours of traveling there, the guest was not allowed to enter the prison because the paperwork could not be found. I sent the rest of the training team inside and I drove the guest back to the ferry.

Two hours later, I returned to the prison and walked into the most amazing scene. There were 25 inmates sitting in groups of five offering each other the gift of presence and deep listening. How had that happened when only a few of the men had any idea what NVC was two hours before and they had spent months or years avoiding each other on the prison grounds? They were playing “NVC poker,” a game where one person tells a story about a time in his life, the rest listen while holding a handful of cards with a need written on each. After the story is told, each player lays down the need cards they think apply and ask, “Were you feeling_____ because you were needing_____? (Ex: Were you feeling discouraged because you were needing support?)  The storyteller just listens until all cards are down then picks up the ones that resonate the most.

What was amazing to me was the level of presence these men were giving each other, the sincerity of their guesses about needs and the profound look on the faces of those who were having their stories heard in this way for the first time ever. A sense of hope rushed through me that within two hours such change could occur. I was flooded with gratitude to know a practical, useable process that has the power to awaken our natural sense of compassion. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that in my work I get to experience so much beauty over and over in places few people think beauty resides.  This was one of those times.

Kathleen’s TEDx Talk released!

Houses of Healing: Kathleen Macferran at TEDx Monroe Correctional Complex

Kathleen Macferran on stage at TEDx - Monroe State Prison

This TEDx event was full of heart and inspiration for me. In this talk I’ve shared some of the experiences that make prison work so meaningful for me. I hope you find the stories relevant and inspirational in the video below.

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Still glowing from the prison TEDx Event

It has been a week since the TEDx event at Monroe Correctional Complex and I’m still glowing. I’m inspired by the many ways we have to support healing already and I’m hopeful that we can grow that support exponentially to embrace more of the prison system. One of the many highlights was a conversation between and inmate and officer in the green room as the three of us were waiting for our turn to speak. They were talking about inmate-staff relations. The officer talked about how he sees his job not just to contain, but to encourage. He talked about how he tried to get those in solitary to at least laugh once a day, because he wanted them to have that human connection that comes through humor. He told a story of how he was really hard on an inmate once, much more so than other inmates, and when that inmate was being released, he pulled him into an interview room and said he wanted to tell him why he had been so hard on him. The inmate’s crime was similar to the one that had killed one of the officer’s family members. The officer was encouraging the soon to be released inmate that he could do well one the outside, that he had a lot to give, that he could make it. The two of them ended up in tears and their relationship healed.

        

  

 

Kathleen Macferran, Certified Trainer
Strength of Connection Center for Nonviolent Communication
Office: 472 Grow Ave NW | Bainbridge Island, WA 98110
206.780.1021. Tel / Fax
Mail: PO Box 10009 | Bainbridge Island, WA 98110-0009