After 9/11- I traveled up and down the west coast with a small film crew to talk with high school students and see how they were handling our new world. I was particularly sensitive to not overload them with more discussions about the actual event but rather to provide a forum to talk and see what evolved.
We posed the following premise: If you were given a television network to program and say whatever you want, what would you create? What do you have to say? And so it began. A deep debate about how they as teenagers are portrayed, what we as adults were missing from our assessment of them and what they viewed as our obsession with war. These were kids from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, political orientations and socio-economic levels.
One thing rang out loudly, “How can I as an individual possibly save this mess? World peace is unrealistic.”
Theory of Three Feet
Our discussion created the theory. How do we each create a peaceful existence and aren’t we more likely to come to each other in peace if we are experiencing more peace individually? The three feet of peace speaks to our own personal three-foot circumference. We spoke of paradox; the woman who cuts you off in traffic because she is late for yoga, the father who interrupts his own meditation to scream from his room when he hears a glass drop in the kitchen, the parents who restrict their children’s television consumption but are permanently affixed to their IPhone’s.
What if you were calm, and I was calm, and she was calm, just for a moment... What if we do it in the next moment and the next? Ok, well, maybe not this one, but how about the next? If I can create a peaceful world, and she can create a peaceful world, and he can create his peaceful world, maybe we will be less likely to blow each other apart, in all the small daily ways as well as the earthshaking, truly soul shattering, literal ways.
Shakespeare and Meditation in Jails
Years earlier, I had an idea. An idea not yet made popular, I wanted to work with gang members using Shakespeare to talk about their crimes. It was the early 90’s and I had had many bizarre experiences living in New York while studying. Sometimes I found myself afraid on the streets and since fear has often served as a signpost of the next thing I am meant to explore, I dug in. So when I moved to the West Coast I was looking for an opportunity to test my convictions and my belief that these kids held more possibility than their situations were allowing them to express.
The opportunity came over a game of pool in LA, when I met Ish Moran, Head Probation Officer at the maximum-security juvenile facility in the area. He is a striking man. He stands well over six feet tall, a mix of histories and ethnicities, with hands that can rival Wilt Chamberlain’s. All this packaged with a large brimmed cowboy hat, spiritual totems around his neck and large rings whose origins seem to come from all over the world. Much later, I would see him walk across the yard in the jail, with a distinctively measured gate, carrying with him a large stillness, no matter what the situation at hand.
I pitched him my idea as we played. My youthful exuberance and natural tendency to excite bouncing around the table, as he stood thoughtful and still, effortlessly whipping my butt at pool, he agreed to meet with me. Months later, I would be the one standing still, in the frame of the gymnasium door at his facility with the four teachers I had hired, and watch as a line of extremely large young men crossed the yard towards us in formation, hands behind their backs. I thought, “Good god, I hope I know what I’m doing.”
As they approached, I could see the reluctance in their eyes, already suspicious. I instinctively reached out my hand to shake the hand of the first man as he approached. The line came to a halt. I asked him his name. He gave me his last name. I asked for his first name and gave him mine, shaking his hand as he entered. My well trained but green-like-me teachers stepped into line behind me, following my lead. First names exchanged and contact made. I was unaware of how many protocols I had broken and how significant it would be that I had done so. At the end of the first class they lined themselves up again and wanted to repeat our greeting on the way out, shaking each teachers hand. This became our own private protocol.
This also became a space for them to momentarily let down their guard, even slightly must have been a relief to their system. “They take away everything when you get locked up. They take away your clothes. They take away your freedom. They take away your thoughts. They take a way your hair. They take away everything, except your memories. So you just sit in here and start going crazy, ” one man confided. This was indeed a setting where there was no hope for ownership of your three feet of peace, so it had to be created from within, an internal place to land and find comfort. Over time the handshakes became hugs, which periodically were shared among their peer group even between otherwise rival gang members. As they left each class, the ritual continued, and each time I would watch their bodies shift, contort, and re-assimilate in structure and energy to create their façades as they entered the yard which required a tighter hold for survival.
Ish began a class in meditation and spoke of a similar experience. This would be a moment where they were safe to be still, return to an internal space for which their thoughts were their own, the possibilities endless, and they controlled their world. Even for a moment.
One teacher shared with me that he learned more from them than he possibly could have taught. I agreed. I worked in the world of entertainment at that time and I looked forward to my weekends in the jail where communication felt more direct and for better or worse, you always knew where you stood.
The greatest lesson was about the need to express, be heard and to feel respected as a human being. I remember a specifically pointed conversation about the feeling one student had when holding someone at gunpoint. He expressed a feeling of being respected. He spoke of how, for that moment, he had the complete attention of someone who otherwise might never have looked him in the eye. I took a risk and told him if he had held me at gunpoint, he would have indeed had my attention and momentarily held my life in his hand but my attention would not have meant my respect.
I realized how critical our first meeting had been. My immediate desire to look them in the eye, get their name and shake their hand. That was the move of a self-possessed person choosing to meet another as a self-possessed person and honoring the interaction, which allowed a space for respect to grow. We had huge differences but that didn’t create a chasm of assumptions or a stance of permanent retreat.
Three Feet of Peace™
One of my favorite images sits at my bedside. It is a hand drawn image of a bird perched on a branch, singing. Below is a cage with an open door. Most of us will not experience the truly confining reality of prison. Most of us have experienced a cage of our own making. The psychic cost of compressing ourselves and limiting our expression into those harnessed but safe dwellings has a global cost as well. When in this state, it is near impossible to grow, to be open to the unknown or unfamiliar, or to challenge our beliefs. For me, peace comes when I feel at home within myself, without the feeling of constriction provoked from the outside or pre-instructed from within. When I do so, I add my three feet of peace to the larger world.
These collective three-foot increments can significantly alter our world in ways we may not fully comprehend. Like seeds dropped on a path. We do not always see the bloom, but it is enough to know it will sprout. This is the next evolution. Change occurs within your next choice. What will you chose? May it bring you Peace.
Deborah Greene is the Founder and CEO of LiveaMoment.com, a company which has created a platform for daily mindfulness that combines the action of cultivating individual peace and connecting globally to foster world peace. Deborah has a long history of creating award-winning programs in diverse sectors, working with manufacturers, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, educators and media of all kinds. She is a writer and educator and has been schooled in Mindfulness and Child & Adolescent Development, mediation, and is skilled in victim-offender dialogue through her work in the LA Detention Centers.