Twice a week, I hang out with ex-convicts, recovering addicts, former prostitutes, homeless men and women, and the occasional drag queen. I lead two support groups at a center in Greensboro. Monday is a meditation and mindfulness group, open to HIV positive men and women. Thursday group is for HIV positive men. If I’m having a bad day, I go check in with these friends and get a sweet, gentle dose of “the real-real world”. The real-real world is so much better, so much more immediate and so much more real than anything I’d ever see on Facebook, or on television. You can’t make this shit up. It’s too real for reality t.v., and it’s more compassionate, gorgeous and messy.
Here’s what happened this past Thursday. (Names have been changed to respect the confidentiality of those involved.)
Six of us gathered in the middle room of the house. Three on one couch, two on the other. Andy sat in a green plastic lawn chair by the window. He stared out for several minutes before group began. Andy shows up when he needs to be there, so I know when he’s there, he definitely needs it. He’s good at taking care of himself, from what I’ve seen. He is self contained, tight and sinewy and strong, hidden beneath layers of baggy, ill-fitting clothing, and adorned with dredlocks that reach his lower back. He looks like a vine–twisted, knotty, and tenacious. He thrives best in rocky, harsh soil in spite of the elements. Sometimes he comes to group and stares out the window, saying nothing for the full 90 minutes. This Thursday, he spoke.
It had been awhile since he joined us, so I asked Andy to ring the singing bowl to get us started. He rang it so softly, it barely registered. To me it sounded weak. I thought he was fucking with us by barely tapping the bowl with the tamp. It wasn’t “perfect”. It wasn’t “loud enough”. I opened my eyes and asked, “Did you ring the bell, Andy?”
“I did ring it,” he replied softly, “I hit it real soft. It lasts even longer than if you ring it real hard.”
“Oh, okay. Would you mind ringing it just one more time?” I asked. He did, just as softly as he did the first time. The sound was like a whisper. I strained to hear it, listening harder, eyes closed waiting for the sound to grow and wash over me like it had in the past, cleansing me and preparing me for the seriousness of meditation. Instead, it came to the edge, touched my toes and backed off. I wondered if any of the other men experienced the same thing.
We meditated for several minutes, and opened our eyes. Andy turned in our direction away from the window and said, “I got something I wanna say at the start today.”
My first thought was, “Oh shit. What’s he gonna say? Is there going to be drama? Please God don’t let him go off on some rant or say something crazy…” Instead, he told a story.
“The loudest sound you ever gonna hear is silence. True silence. It be louder than anything else around it. There be a Sanskrit word…ancient word…it be called “mouna” and it means “silence”. It comes down from heaven and it washes over you. Other times it tap you on the shoulder in the middle of a crowd, too. Sometimes you can get there when you meditate, other times you can find it it the middle of chaos, noise, in the middle of a bomb going off or somebody murdering somebody right next to you…them times it be harder to find but it’s there. It’s always there, that silence, that darkness, right underneath everything.”
Andy looked at us and paused…silent…were we with him? He wanted to know. Our faces said, “Yes, brother. Keep talking. We need to receive what you’re serving up.”
“Why do there be so much noise in the world? Why? Because people…they be afraid of the silence…of that darkness beneath the darkness…because it’s so loud, and because they don’t understand it. But that silence is peace. It’s where God speaks to you, where you can listen just underneath all the static, all the white noise that just don’t mean nothing. Look at it like this: You got a 60 by 35 foot room. Now, in this room there be 44 men. 12 of them be over on the side playing cards and yelling, and another 12 be watching the t.v.. You got another 3 or 4 listening to the radio, all listening to different channels, two of them just be sitting there, breathing, staring off into space, but they still making noise. They still adding to the chaos. Then you got the rest of them, and they be fussing, arguing, or maybe they be lifting weights…ain’t none of them listening to the silence. They all do their best to block it out because it be so loud…that silence. It may make them have to take a good, hard look at they-selves, and they might hear something in that silence they ain’t ready to hear just yet. 31 years in prison…it wasn’t ever quiet. Not once in all them years. I had to learn to listen for that silence in the middle of the chaos…to find my peace, because everything there in that small space…in them small rooms…was doing everything it could to block out that silence and keep me from hearing it. They used to…the guards, they did…they used to have this big metal coffee pot. And anytime someone wanted to go in or out the cell block, or anytime anyone was coming or going, they would rap on that coffee pot. Three times for going, and four times for coming, with a big metal spoon. All hours of the night. Or some of the cells had televisions. And you could prop your feet up on the bunk and against the t.v. and watch it. And that t.v. would be on all night long and all day long. No quiet. No silence ever.”
He paused for a moment, gathered his thoughts, and continued.
“So you got to listen, and find your own way. Because maybe you got to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and wash, and be ready to assist the prison doctor if he needs help sewing somebody up that had gotten stabbed during the night…during all that noise. Or maybe you work in the kitchen and no matter how much you don’t like it, no matter how much you didn’t sleep last night, you still got to get up at three and start making the breakfast…the biscuits…the oatmeal or whatever. Because the day don’t wait for no one. Because the other inmates, they don’t care if you didn’t sleep last night because it was too loud. They want their breakfast. That’s all they care about. And so you got to find that silence…that darkness behind the eyes…that place that is a peace beyond all understanding…that place you go right before you fall asleep…when you’re still awake but you ain’t awake, and you got to stay there and wait. Wait for the voice of God. You’ve got to hear the silence and lean into it…sit with it…embrace it…because it will teach you things.
Bob, sitting next to me, asked, “What things, Andy? What things will it teach you?”
“That be up to you. It be up to what you signed up to learn…it depend on what you be studying at the time. Whatever you is supposed to hear, if you get quiet enough in your mind, you’ll hear it. You know the best thing I ever learned from the t.v.?” He waited, not answering.
I took the bait. “What’s the best thing you learned from the t.v.?”
I think all of us were en-rapt, and our mouths were slightly open, forming the letter “O”, by this point in his sermon.
“The t.v. be like the mind. It be exactly like the mind. And you know whatever you think in your mind you can make happen in the world. Like reality t.v. We create and we destroy with our mind. See, the problem with most of us now is we never have a break from it, or we forget that the t.v. be left on all the time. That t.v. be on 24/7. It be playing something all day and all night long. Used to be, when we was younger, all the t.v. channels would go off the air after 2 in the morning. That screen would turn to snow and they’d be a long beep, and then silence. And then snow. Snow and silence was all there was. But even then, the t.v. was still on. Still noise. Static noise. That’s not the darkness, not the silence I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you turn off the t.v.”
“You remember when you used to turn off the t.v. and it would slowly fade down to that little white dot…right there in the center of the t.v. And that little white dot, it would stay there, surrounded by the black screen, tiny white dot surrounded by blackness. Then, that little white dot would go away. That’s the darkness I’m talking about…the silence. You got to get yourself to that little white dot in the middle of that black screen and stay there, breathe there, be happy there. Because the first time it happens to you, it’s gonna scare you because it’s gonna be so quiet you ain’t gonna know what to do with yourself, and then, guess what? It’s too late. You done started thinking again. You done turned the t.v. back on.”
“It was being able to find that silence…and listen to how loud it was, and how it wanted to heal me and speak louder than any of the loudest noises around me…finding that got me through prison. It gets me through when a problem comes up now. Being able to go to that blackness behind my eyelids…find that silence and peace. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t try to chase it. Just sit with it and let it come and find you.”
I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much. That’s more or less what Andy shared. All of us listened intently, taking in the wholeness of Andy, a man who has been arrested, charged, convicted and served time. If anyone knows the power of the present moment, it’s him.
Take from this what you will. If you saw Andy, you’d most likely walk the other way, and he’d be happy to do the same. However, you’d have missed an opportunity. Because there are the unlikeliest angels among us. I’m convinced our saints and prophets are faceless, don’t get three square meals a day and probably don’t smell too good, either. When I gave Andy a hug Thursday, he embraced me fiercely, like a brother, like a fellow warrior. And for that day in his presence, I felt blessed to be spending time with one of the wisest men I’ve ever met.
Happy Spring, and Namaste.