In 1994 I was invited to speak to a group of men incarcerated at Englewood Federal Prison, Colorado.
They were a group of men who had been part of a meditation and discussion group, and their leader had attended some of the meetings I was holding in nearby Boulder.
It was a thrilling meeting for me. The gut fear in my body as I entered the prison behind heavy locking doors gave way to wonder. In this small chapel with this group of fifteen to twenty men, at least most of them with horrific backgrounds and guilty of crimes against society, I discovered the passion for truth. I discovered that people in all circumstances, when they are willing to face both the failures and successes of their lives fully and ruthlessly, find peace and redemption in their hearts. It was deeply moving to me in that moment and in the subsequent visits there and in other prisons in other states, and it is alive in me now.
Looking at those mostly tough, mostly black men, meeting them heart to heart, I discovered we are all the same in the core. For me, a relatively sheltered white woman raised in the 1950's in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the time of deep segregation, this was a life confirming moment.
I had worked for civil rights in the 1960's, and knew through spiritual experiences that we are all one, but this was concrete and immediate in a way I had never experienced.
When my meetings continued in Boulder, and I shared my experiences with the mostly tender, mostly white audience, I felt electricity in the room. It was such good news to hear that our brothers in prison could be free in their hearts and minds. We benefitted from them!
And when I returned to Englewood, and shared the news and enthusiasm from the Boulder group to the prisoners, the prisoners beamed with the knowledge that even from prison their lives and inner discoveries could serve others. The union that gets severed by categories of them and us was reconnected. The joy and support could flow through any barrier.
Partly as a result of those visits and the support of the "outside" community, one of the former inmates, Kenny Johnson, now leads his own program and foundation. Kenny's story is a story of redemption and service. It is his foundation that gives the theme of this article its name: This Sacred Space.
Years earlier in a small coastal town in Northern California I first consciously felt, "This space is sacred." It was on a cliff side, nestled in between large supportive rocks and sweet wild flowers. I would often visit it, and there I felt myself at peace. I could unburden my mind of its craziness and my body of the accompanying emotional and physical stress. It was a power spot, in the language of the 1970's.
After discovering that place, I began to look for such sacred spaces whenever I was in nature. Whatever part of the world I found myself, I could find some spot in nature that was a sanctuary of peace, a place of wholeness.
The beauty of the place played a part, but sometimes the place didn't conform to my idea of beauty. Maybe it was the feng shui of the place, or the spirit, or the age, or the history. Finally I couldn't say. I just surrendered to the truth of it, and allowed my whole being to be nourished.
In 1990 I was in India, in a very humble room with mildew on the walls. Strange unpleasant smells and sounds drifted up from the street below. Yet in that most unlikely place I discovered the nature of sacredness. The teacher I was visiting, HWL Poonja, pointed everyone in that room to the sacred cave of our own hearts. The sacred space of peace and love inside us all.
At first this experience of sacredness seemed too simple and available to be true. I attributed it to the power of his personality and the foreignness of the setting. But I allowed myself to follow his instructions, "Discover what is always present. Discover what doesn't change."
This simple and challenging instruction has guided my life since. Emotions of all kind come and go, thoughts of all kind come and go, situations of all kind come and go. And what is still always here, present through it all?
In the core of our imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, and imperfect situations, there is the sacred space of welcome and sanctuary.
Those prisoners in Englewood discovered it, and so can you.
Where is your sacred space? Your comments are very welcome!
Gangaji is holding meetings and retreats this summer in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Baden-Baden, London, Dublin, and Dorset. Read more about Gangaji's events and catalog of books and videos online.