A lot of people really wonder how I, as a naturally soft-spoken and compassionate young woman, manage to effectively reach hardened juvenile criminals, and secondly, why I would even want to do such a thing? “Isn’t it dangerous and scary?” they want to know. Yes to the first question. And until early last month, I would have said “no” to the second.
Up until last month, I have not had any scary situations arise, though I am working in a dangerous environment. The only thing I’d really had to contend with in teaching until than had been politely warding off inmates’ requests for romantic involvement with me, which was a lot easier for me to do than one might imagine.
Last month, I asked if there was a word my student inmates would like to use to help re-focus their attention when it inevitably went astray at times. In hindsight, I realized that, though democratic, this refocusing method was not the best option for this population.
“I’ve gotta word,” one inmate replied. “Rip.”
An ordinary English word, I wasn’t too struck by this choice, but did notice the rather surprised and uneasy expressions on the other inmates’ faces at this fellow’s selection.
“Rrrrrrrip,” he repeated a few times throughout the class.
The line staff/guards asked me how the session went. I told them it was a good first class of the cycle. Because the staff are so supportive, they wanted to know if there are tools I shared with the kids that they can use to help the inmates refocus and behave better. They wondered if there might be a word they could even use. I shared how one of the kids came up with a word in class.
“What words was that?” one staff member asked.
“Rip,” I said.
“Do you know what that means?” another staff member looked me directly in the eye, very alarmed. His disdain was easily apparent.
I didn’t know, and soon learned that “rip” is a brand new gang code word for a victim of gang-rape. Probably a play off of my name as well. The staff apologized profusely to me, promising that would never happen again as they scolded the inmate whose idea it was to use this language.
For the first time since beginning to work with this population, I felt fear at the possibility of what the usage of the word “rip” could mean this inmate wanted to do to me when released. My mind began imagining the worst. “My God, why on earth have I chosen to work with such dangerous and callous criminals? I could get badly hurt doing this work. Am I really crazy?”
For a few days, I was ready to quit my work with inmates altogether. Until I realized what doing so really meant: allowing myself to become a prisoner of my own deepest fears. The only way to be free was to transform my thinking pattern and subsequent approach to those I work with.
Predators of all sorts don’t like to work too hard to attack their prey. That’s why it is always a good idea to first avoid the risk of coming into close isolated contact with one (in juvenile hall, staff are always with me), to not be afraid and to demonstrate this fearlessness in one’s demeanor (and subtly at the level of one’s thoughts). If needed, one must fight back physically (for which I’m learning self-defense). If I decided to never return to juvenile hall, I would have sent a message that I could be easily thwarted from the powerful mission I’m on by my fear. I strongly believe that fear is the most debilitating of emotions, and must be addressed first and foremost on a spiritual path. Fear will always hold us captive.
My personal motivations for wanting to do this work have been to grow stronger as a teacher and person and to protect women and children victims of violence, both of which predicate my demonstration of courage, clarity and conviction. One of my personal goals is to live as fearlessly as possible, to really live fully.
So this challenge was (as all obstacles are) my golden opportunity to cultivate courage in the face of fear. At best, fear can be very practical and helpful, because it protects us from vulnerability to danger. My main fear in this situation was having any inmate try to find me when released and harm me in some way. So I decided to change my name to protect my identity and lessen this risk for future students I work with.
I meditated on what I would change it to. It quickly became clear to me that Kali would be the name I’d tell the youth I’ve legally changed my name to. Kali is an extremely powerful Hindu goddess. She is the embodiment of Mother Nature, who cleanses away the old with natural storms and fires to make the ground fertile for new life. Kali is a ferocious goddess. She has many arms that all carry swords and is typically depicted destroying a demon, with her enormous tongue stuck out. Kali is the symbol for the human struggle for self-mastery. Her destructive aspects represent our ability to slay the inner demons that exist in us all: hatred, anger, fear, jealousy, etc. With Kali’s help, a spiritual aspirant is said to be able to transform powerful emotions like anger into constructive energy with which to take courageous action.
I returned to juvenile hall the next week with a new name and a stronger sense of my purpose: that it is not about what I say or what I do, how I look or how I dress, but who I am that really matters and can inspire change. I opened the class by stating, in a strong and very firm tone of voice:
“I am aware that men in our culture like to assert their machismo by treating women badly, and how they think that brings them power, popularity and social prestige. And I’d like you to know that you can go ahead and leave all that conditioning at the door.
When you come here, I expect that you treat me and everyone else in the room with respect. If you wish to talk back, make rude jokes, call anyone hurtful names or talk out of turn, I will give you one warning and then am not afraid to send you out of the class. I have never had to do this and hope to not have to but am perfectly comfortable with doing so if it becomes necessary. You will then be welcome to come back next time, as long as you agree to respect everyone here.
There are many other things I could be doing with my time, but I chose to spend it here with you because I believe that though you are incarcerated, the mind is its own prison. I believe that you can come out of this prison without even freedom from bars through the practice of meditation.
And by the way, I wanted to let you know I have legally changed my name to Kali.”
“You legally changed your name?” they were surprised. “What are your parents going to say? How can you do that? How can I legally change my name?!”
“You want to know more about Kali?” I asked them. “She is an Indian goddess – I am also Indian. She has many arms and legs and is carrying swords in all her many arms. She is ferocious and has her enormous tongue stuck out. She is slays demons, which represent anger, fear, hatred, jealousy and all the things that get people locked up into prison.”
In the fall of 2010, I had the good fortune to meet and touch the feet of (a sign of deep respect in the Indian culture) Dr. Kiran Bedi during a local award dinner honoring her achievements. Dr. Bedi was India’s first woman police officer and prison warden who won the Magsaysay Award (Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize) for transforming Tihar Jail (the most notorious prison in Asia) into an ashram (place for personal development). She told a story about how she led a march of all-male police officers with a sword in her hand. She ended her march by meeting and saluting Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only woman prime minister to date, with her sword. Like the goddess Kali, Kiran carried a sword, representing her great fearlessness and triumph in enabling the good in criminals to prevail over the evils they committed through giving them opportunities for personal transformation at Tihar. To meet Dr. Bedi was to symbolically be passed this powerful sword. To serve young prisoners, I have first had to transform my own inner demons into strength to protect myself. This has given me the power to lead juvenile inmates through the fire of transformation. Having inmates call me Kali has been a constant reminder to me to be strong, forceful and direct when necessary, to have extremely clear boundaries, expect – and demand – respect. Being called Kali has been an effective way for me to call upon this powerful goddess’ transformational energy in a place and at times when I most need it.
While outwardly, I am working to help criminals come out of prison, inwardly I am empowering myself to attain full freedom from the confines of fear. It is my personal transformation that pushes me forward and is enabling me to grow spiritually while serving women and children in a way that addresses the root cause of the widespread violence women face, which is none other than the victimization of perpetrators. Really, the lines between predator and prey are not as clear-cut as they may seem on the surface. So-called victims can cultivate tremendous amounts of violence on the subtler level of thought. These thoughts are usually filled with hatred and anger toward those who have harmed one. Karma teaches that others are harming us because of what we have done to others in our past. If we have caused no harm in this life, however, it’s essential to get out of violent situations and stand up for ourselves outwardly, but to know that we are never really completely “out” of violent situations if our minds are not free from hatred and anger, toward another, or toward ourselves (internalized violence). As Gandhiji said,
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
Co-Director of Partners in Conflict and Partners in Peacebuilding at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland Dr. John Davies said in “One Percent for Peace: The Real War on Terror:”
“The real jihad is not fought with weapons. The real jihad is to create inner peace, to create inner unity, and slay the inner demons that hold us in separation. That’s the war on terror. Then we really slay terror literally instead of getting caught in this trap of going after terrorists, and thinking, it’s these bad people that are the problem. It’s a complete fantasy and a tragic waste of resources to get caught in that way of thinking.”
One who hurts another hurts oneself the most. But a so-called victim who harbors hatred and negativity while failing to take responsibility out of fear of what would happen as a result of standing up for him or herself also suffers a great deal. Yes, it seems that developing compassion for oneself and for others (recognizing others as oneself) is the most direct – and difficult – path to peace and freedom from fear.