Before being released from prison, I worried that the world I would be returning to would be a scary place. On my very first day outside, I noticed that most people walking down the sidewalks of LA were looking down at their phone or some type of device that connected them to social media. People didn’t take time to look up and acknowledge one another. Nobody was paying attention to what was going on around them; or next to them; or who was behind them at the checkout line at the grocery store.
In prison you learn very quickly to notice EVERYTHING. “Keep your head on a swivel” are words to live by. Paying attention in prison will save your life. Even when you’re on the yard playing sports or chess— your attention is never fully on the game. You’re scanning the yard from end to end as a lifeguard would a swimming pool, looking for signs of danger. If you see someone digging in the dirt it’s likely that he’s burying a weapon or pulling one up. If they’re digging in their waistband it’s likely they’re pulling out a weapon or putting one away. You learn to look for the signs. Most of the time the people you’re watching are watching you watching them; and the correctional officers watch us all. There is a lot of eye contact in prison, acknowledgement of one another. You really feel noticed. It is even a sign of disrespect to walk past someone without taking the time to acknowledge them in some type of way—a nod of the head, a smile, a hand shake, even a simple hello.
When I joined the Council program I learned about “reading the field” and paying attention to body language and things that were unsaid. What got me the most is that I had already mastered these skills. So when we learned about mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment without judgement, these teachings only reinforced and put into words what I was already doing. After I became a Council facilitator I was applying these tools in a more positive way, to really benefit myself, and they stayed with me for the course of my time in prison. Council enhanced these skills for me, my awareness of what was happening around me deepened. I was NOTICING more. And the more I noticed about the world around me, the more I noticed about myself. What began as a means of survival became a way of life for a different purpose: the bigger picture, the third consciousness, the reason why we do Council, and that has carried over to the way I interact with the free-world.
What I have been encountering out here, though, is that people don’t live by the same rule of thumb: sometimes I get weird looks when I say hello, or good morning. Other times people seem shocked to receive a friendly smile or help from a stranger. But then there are the ones that seem to be as alert as I am. There is a familiar look in their eye; they have the look of someone that has been on a prison yard, having to play by the rules as a means of survival. Usually they can be spotted by the tattoos they wear, their piercing eyes, or the weathered look of someone that has spent a little too much time in the sun. I may not personally know this individual, but with the simple nod of the head we have a connection. It feels good to be seen.
Everyday I wake up and I set the intention to acknowledge the world around me in all of its forms. It may be a random stranger that needs to be heard like a guy I met at a gas station that just wanted to congratulate me for having such a beautiful family. He didn’t even know that I was just released from prison only hours before. Or it may be a cashier at a Walmart that wanted to talk about her brother that was released from prison after serving twenty-nine years. Or even a homeless person on the sidewalk that asked me for a cigarette. Or the police officer that helped me find the train station. In all of these encounters we shook hands and introduced ourselves, and walked away with a smile and a sense of humanity. In all of these encounters I walked away feeling refreshed and relieved to find that the world isn’t such a scary place after, all as long as we take the time to see one another.
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