I made a commitment to a spiritual practice before facing my “enemy”
That was the short and simple email I received from Rick Warr, a mediator with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who was arranging for me to meet John Black,* the man serving a life sentence for raping and murdering my sister 30 years ago.
Why was he eager? I wondered. What did he think would happen?
As the trip to Texas approached, I sought the wise counsel of Donald Rothberg, my first meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He helped keep my thinking clear: “All you know is that you have been given the opportunity to forgive him,” he told me. “That’s all you know. This is a big experiment.”
Rothberg’s advice was essentially to “practice” insight meditation — lots of it.
Insight meditation is just sitting quietly, spine erect, eyes closed, concentrating on the physical sensation of the breath, and paying close attention to other physical sensations and thoughts as they arise, and pass away.
We gradually come to recognize that our thoughts — including our fears and desires — are simply thoughts: Like all phenomena, they arise and pass away. We don’t have to act on them, or even believe in them.
Normally, I meditate for a half-hour every morning, but to prepare for the journey, I began to meditate at least twice daily, and for longer periods. I also practiced “loving kindness” meditation. This consists of mentally “reciting” four traditional phrases, first directing them toward ourselves: “May I be safe…may I be happy…may I be healthy…may I be at peace.”
Following that, in the traditional sequence, the phrases are directed toward a benefactor, a dear friend, a “neutral” person, then, finally, an “enemy.”
Rothberg suggested that I direct the traditional meditative phrases of love toward myself, which I struggled with.
I then remembered what another Spirit Rock teacher said: By truly loving ourselves, we create an ever more radiant, compassionate heart within us that can more readily embrace other people. In this way, paradoxically, loving and forgiving yourself is one of the kindest things you can do for others.
Several days before flying to Texas, I attended my third retreat. Most of the daytime sittings were outside, beneath Bay trees in a meadow in the hills above Spirit Rock. Nothing could have been more calming.
One morning, a truth struck me deeply — that all beings simply want to be happy, to thrive. Even a rapist-murderer, someone using, then taking, the life of another. In his deeply twisted confusion, in his unthinking, reactive, blind agony of desire and fear, even John Black wanted happiness.
The day before my visit, Warr visited me at my hotel and we spoke for two hours. A soft-spoken man in his 50s with a slight Texas accent, Warr carefully reviewed the questionnaires I had filled out. He asked if I wanted to see a photo of John Black. I did. Somehow it was very helpful: it calmed my expectations, narrowed the vast field of possibilities my mind was raking over and over, to see a photo of the man I’d meet the next day. His eyes had a particular intensity.
Warr told me that John Black often quoted Bible verses. He told me that John Black had “college-graduate” intelligence. He told me that John Black was worried that I might take his habit of smiling as a sign of disrespect. He told me that John Black had written me a letter that he would read at the meeting.
That evening I was assailed by fear. I knew first to address the fear rationally — Warr had assured me that a prison is actually a very safe place. The fear took another form: that I might somehow flub the meeting.
Donald Rothberg’s words came back to me: “All you know is that you have been given the opportunity to forgive him.”
In the weeks leading up to this moment, I had realized that, in the context of meditation and compassion and our interconnection as human beings, forgiving John Black was actually a very simple thing. I felt it, I knew it.
Now all I needed to do was go to him and say it.
*Some names have been changed to protect family members
Tom Hudgens lives and works in Marin County, CA, and attends retreats at Spirit Rock. This series was adapted from an article Hudgens wrote for Spirit Rock’s newsletter.
NEXT: My prison reckoning
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