Compassion for Those That Have Been Discarded

Our prisons are full. Our juvenile halls are full. Our group homes are full. The list goes on. Culturally, we have a habit of discarding people whom we don’t deem worthy. We discard them in the name of “rehabilitation” or punishment.

 

By Sarit Z. Rogers

I spent the morning with murderers, thieves, the abused, the wounded, the lost, and the discarded.

I was teaching yoga with my best friend, an offering we make monthly at a women’s prison. We don’t get monetary compensation; we get something better: soul compensation. I sit in this room filled with a sea of white shirts and grey shorts, prison tattoos, tired eyes, and a sorrow that is tangible. Yet, I sense the tenderness in my heart—a tenderness that allows me to open myself just enough to bear witness without falling into despair.

I am struck by one thing: how high the trauma load is in each and every one of these women. I am struck by the stories they wear behind their eyes, in their wrinkles and early-onset grey hair, in their painful joints, and in their gratitude they show for our presence there. They share gratitude for our willingness to come out there on a Saturday morning “just” to teach them yoga. I might ask, why wouldn’t I?

This was an impetus behind me teaching in the first place: to bring this practice to places where no one wants to go.

Compassion used to hide beneath my tough exterior, beneath layers of anger and fear. It used to hide in the shadow of rage—the rage that covered the hurt and trauma that flooded my nervous system—the same rage that provided a maladaptive protective shield against a dangerous world. It took years of deep, muddy work to move through that rage, hurt and despair and into my natural state of compassion and empathy.

It took a ton of courage.

The more I delve into my trauma work and Somatic Experiencing®, the lens through which I view the world has shifted dramatically.  It has forged new pathways in my nervous system, healing old wounds and creating new roads toward deeper and more profound healing. It has allowed me to view the suffering of others as a response to something deeper than what we can see with the naked eye.

Ill behavior is a result of an unmet need—this doesn’t only apply to children. Adults lash out, behave terribly, cause harm, and are themselves harmed as a result of something far deeper that is snarled up and spit out unskillfully. Perhaps it stems from something that happened long ago or something fresh and raw. Regardless, a question which has been rolling around in my thoughts jumped to the fore again:

What would it be like if we loved people when they screwed up instead of discarding them… if we had compassion for those who caused harm… if we created enough capacity within ourselves to also remember we, too, are imperfect and deeply flawed.

This question isn’t asking the victim to have compassion for the perpetrator, but rather, it asks those of us who have the capacity, or privilege to offer that compassion do so instead of throwing people away. Our prisons are full. Our juvenile halls are full. Our group homes are full. The list goes on.

Culturally, we have a habit of discarding people whom we don’t deem worthy. We discard them in the name of “rehabilitation” or punishment. Even the prison chaplains look down on their charges. Teaching in the prisons has changed me, but not in the way you would think.

I’m not bitter; I am open. I am not scared; I am compassionate. I am not better then anyone; I am beside them. I don’t walk away disgusted; I walk away with a heart that is whole yet bruised, softened, yet wilted.

Sometimes, I don’t think I’m a very good Buddhist or a very good yogi. I’m not a regular retreat-goer, I don’t have one specific teacher, and I am rebellious. I drink a shit-ton of coffee, I have potty mouth, and I won’t turn down a really good burger. I am not vegan. At the same time, I find my practice deeply woven into the fabric of who I am—this imperfect, flawed human being.

I rely on the container of the five precepts to hold me accountable in my actions—am I causing physical harm, stealing, being unskillful with my sexuality, lying, getting loaded? What steps do I need to take to be a more wholesome individual?

Can I drop an F-bomb and still be kind?

None of this comes easily. I have a trauma history that is long and sordid. It took me years to get to the place I am now where A: I don’t have to repeat the stories in an attempt to validate my experience, and B: I love the hell out of myself. It takes work to untie the knots that are tangled within, and this work is messy. Still, it’s is how I got to where I am now. That is how I got to that damn question that keeps bumping around in my brain:

What would it be like if we loved people when they screwed up instead of discarding them… if we had compassion for those who caused harm… if we created enough capacity within ourselves to also remember we, too, are imperfect and deeply flawed.

I imagine it would be like this: People are still responsible for their actions. We are still responsible for the harm we caused. Those we’ve harmed may never forgive us; that is our karmic fruit. And at those same individuals would have the opportunity to heal. We would have the opportunity to know that we are worth fighting for and being loved. We would know we are worth being seen and heard and cared for.

Consequences and compassion can simultaneously exist.

This does not negate the harm caused. Both parties are harmed and both require tending to. Here’s some context: The man that tried to strangle me when I was 14 was a sick, deeply wounded and traumatized individual—a real POS and my mother’s boyfriend. I have no desire to see him or have any contact with him. Yet, I still believe he deserves compassion.

This happened when I was 14. I’m 47 now. This is the first time I’ve ever said this—this realization is new. Still, I am not the one to divvy it out; that is a role for someone else. In this scenario of both parties being cared for, everyone would have an opportunity to heal.

For the record, these are those 5 Buddhist Precepts. They hang on my refrigerator. I see them every morning and I say them every morning.

1: I commit to the practice of not taking lives.

2: I commit to not taking what is not freely given.

3: I commit to being wise and careful with my sexuality.

4: I commit to being wise and careful with my speech.

5: I commit to not taking any intoxicants, which may lead to heedlessness.

This is the framework. The Eightfold Path is the road I travel. I practice in the prisons, on the streets of Los Angeles, with teen girls from group homes, with adolescents in treatment, and with addicts trying to heal.

My road isn’t in the glorious spaces of retreat centers in Bali or Northern California, though I imagine they’re lovely and I wouldn’t turn down the offer of going. I feel at home practicing in the grit and in the underbelly of the community. I feel at home sending compassion to murderers, thieves, the abused, the wounded, the lost, and the discarded. I feel at home with grouchy teens and grumbly adults. I feel at home sitting beside those who suffer and meeting them where they are. I am imperfect and deeply flawed.

I love you anyway.

This is the Eightfold Path. There are many books out there to dig into and learn it. Explore it. Make it yours if you want!

  1. Wise Understanding
  2. Wise Intention
  3. Wise Communication
  4. Wise Action
  5. Wise Livelihood
  6. Wise Effort
  7. Wise Mindfulness
  8. Wise Concentration

There are many ways to approach the dharma. I choose to approach it in sneakers and a hoodie rooted and rising through the muck of community, loving on the underdogs. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says, “We forget who are supposed to be to each other” and he asks us to “imagine a circle of compassion where no one is outside of the circle.”

We have forgotten. I know this isn’t easy. It’s hard and at times, uncomfortable. Start with yourself, because you are worth fighting for; you are worthy of being loved, you deserve to be seen, you deserve to heal. Our hurts have the capacity to transform us and allow us to understand things in ways that are unique and inclusive, allowing forgiveness to look more like a practice than an impossible feat, while compassion begins to feel like the soil from which your tender heart grows.

May you be at ease;

May your heart be light and undefended;

May you be seen and heard;

May you experience joy;

And may you be free from suffering.

 

I’m not bitter; I am open. I am not scared; I am compassionate. ~ Sarit Rogers Click To Tweet

 

Photo: Sarit Rogers

Editor: Alicia Wozniak

 

Sarit Z Rogers is a Los Angeles based photographer, writer, yoga teacher, body image advocate, activist, and co-founder of the LoveMore Movement. She has photographed the covers of 21st Century Yoga, Yoga PhD, and Yoga and Body Image. Her images have been featured in several magazines including Mantra, Yoga Journal, Lira, Sweat Equity, Revolver, and more. Her writing has appeared at Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers, Elephant Journal and the Yoga and Body Image Coalition’s blog.

Sarit’s writing is from the heart, raw, and stems from a life of recovery and survival. She writes from a place of resilience, cracking her heart open one word at a time. With over 20 years in recovery, Sarit appreciates the reparative nature of a consistent yoga and meditation practice. Yoga is like medicine—it is a modality that allows the practitioner to move through their difficulties with pause and sensitivity, applying what is necessary to heal the wounds within.
Sarit teaches a trauma sensitive vinyasa flow to high-schoolers, middle schoolers, private clients, and small groups. She can be found online on her photography site,  www.lovemoremovement.com, and her yoga website. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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The Tattooed Buddha was founded by Buddhist author Ty Phillips and Dana Gornall. What started out as a showcase for Ty's writing, quickly turned into collaboration with creative writer, Dana Gornall and the home for sharing the voices of friends and colleagues in the writing community. The Tattooed Buddha strives to be a noncompetitive, open space for the author’s authentic voice. So while not necessarily Buddhist, we are offering a dialogue that is aware and awake to the reality of our present day to day, tackling issues of community, environment, and compassionate living.

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