April 7, 2019
One day the Hindu philosopher and sage Ramana Maharshi was traveling across India on a train when he observed a man carrying two overstuffed suitcases. “Young man,” Sri Maharshi remarked, “you can carry those bags yourself or you can put them down and let the train carry them for you.”
That story kind of makes you think “Hmmmmm!” doesn’t it? So I’m sure you can guess the questions of the day are:
But before I just blurt out solutions let me ask you one more question: why do you suppose the research on the health benefits of daily mindfulness practice is everywhere these days? I think we can pretty much all agree that the evidence is overwhelming…SIMPLY PUT, BECAUSE MINDFULNESS WORKS!
There’s a problem, though…as Jon Kabat Zinn himself often said, sitting down with the intent to quiet the monkey mind "may be the hardest easiest thing you'll ever do."
But again before I plow straight ahead with solutions I’m going to back up and tell you the story of man named Franky Carrillo*
Franky grew up in a small suburb of LA. At 16 he was arrested, tried as an adult, and convicted of a murder he did not commit. Even though Franky’s father testified that his son was at home when the crime was committed, the system ignored this and other evidence of Franky’s innocence and he was sentenced to life in Folsom prison (one of the first and often considered one of the worst maximum security prisons in the entire US.) Throughout his entire incarceration, however, Franky never ceased maintaining his innocence.
During his years spent in prison, Franky wrote hundreds of letters and filed numerous legal briefs but even though his requests for a new trial were rejected over and over again he never lost hope in himself or the judicial system. It took nearly 15 years for Franky to even get the attention of a lawyer who believed in him enough to assist in his battle. Finally, after a five-year-long investigation, the key witnesses admitted they had been forced to falsely accuse Franky….when this new evidence was presented in court, the prosecutors conceded they had been wrong and asked the judge to dismiss all charges against Franky.
On March 16, 2011, Franky was released, an innocent and free man filled with optimism and hope. For twenty years Franky, through no fault of his own, had faced rejection and injustice, but it was his optimistic and hopeful attitude which had enabled him to continue fighting.
One thing that happened during Franky’s 20 years at Folsom, however, (which the media rarely talks about) is that he discovered a book called T’ai Chi Chih! Joy Thru Movement in the prison library. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with T’ai Chi Chih here’s an overview: it’s one of many evidence-based mindfulness practices but one of the only MOVING mindfulness practices (it might also just be the EASIEST mindfulness practice but for now this is ‘nuff said.)
After reading the book, Franky began participating in weekly T’ai Chi Chih classes that were being conducted in the prison chapel. During class he often dreamed of being able to do his T’ai Chi Chih practice on the outside, as a free man. These days Franky often talks about how T'ai Chi Chih changed his life by enabling him to connect with a higher, softer, internal self he didn't even know existed. He speaks of how it helped him find peace in the midst of a chaotic, dangerous, and stressful world. He speaks of the comraderie between himself and his T’ai Chi Chih “brothers through the form,” be they white, black, or brown, and how they would always smile and wave to each other out in the yard. But most of all he often speaks of gratitude for Justin Stone (the Originator of T’ai Chi Chih), his T’ai Chi Chih teachers, and for the practice itself. Franky has even gone so far as to say that he’s grateful to have been in Folsom for it was there that he discovered T'ai Chi Chih and, more importantly, what he learned from the practice: how to really live.
Just about 4 years after his release, Franky returned to Folsom on March 31, 2015 to participate in an event called Circles of Light** (which he’s partially responsible for…while in the prison yard Franky could see a tree on a hill across the American River and often pictured himself practicing T’ai Chi Chih beneath that tree.) The annual event is considered almost like a birthday party celebrating the success of the weekly T’ai Chi Chih classes which have been running in Folsom since 1997.
The day began with Franky, several past and current Folsom T’ai Chi Chih teachers, and the current Folsom students sitting in a circle of chairs in the chapel. They shared their stories but mostly their gratitude for the changes T’ai Chi Chih has brought to their lives. All attendees then shared a “banquet” (which was extravagant by prison standards: a few very simple foods but, most importantly, LOTS of ice cream.)
After the meal Franky got up on the chapel stage to talk about his post-incarceration life. He said that after being inside for most of his adult life there were many who wondered if he’d be able to adapt to the “real world,” creating a life he loved. But he explained to the men that not only is adapting to life on the outside possible, he’s gone on to live a life beyond even his wildest dreams. It’s true that Franky’s become quite well-known but he’s using his fame as a catalyst for creating change within the system. “Once released I had a choice,” he said…”I could hold onto the anger and bitterness I felt towards those who hurt me, or I could reach out in forgiveness…I chose the latter.” Franky went on to say he’s had dinner with the DA, the Prosecutors, the Judge who passed his sentence, and he’s even befriended the very head of the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. “And,” he said “I always introduce himself as a former inmate…I am your face out there. I am working to destroy the stereotype of how a former inmate looks, of who he is." Then once again Franky expressed gratitude for the T'ai Chi Chih class he was able to attend while in Folsom, saying it helped him immeasurably both inside and after his release. Needless to say there was hardly a dry eye in the place. A few minutes later Franky and one of the T’ai Chi Chih teachers left the chapel to join a group of people waiting under a certain tree on a hill across the American River overlooking the Folsom prison yard…I’m sure you know what the folks under the tree practiced while the inmates practiced inside the chapel as well.
Now I’m crying too just visualizing the whole thing…I’m sure you can all tell that Franky is one of my radical forgiveness superheroes.
But I didn’t actually mean for this blog to be a commentary on the US legal and prison system! It’s just that Franky’s story is so amazing I’ve always considered it a laser beam pointing directly to two really important facts:
So now FINALLY I’ll cycle back to Jon Kabat Zinn’s quote…what if you really would like to travel lighter but whenever you sit down to practice mindfulness your monkey mind basically begins running amok? Are there any EASIER options?
Why yes there is, actually…T’ai Chi Chih (of course!)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the distinctions that sets T’ai Chi Chih apart from other evidence-based mindfulness practices is that it’s a form of MOVING mindfulness but that's just one reason why it's FUN… it's also completely user-friendly because it has no age, physical fitness, or coordination requirements plus with just a few modifications all 20 movements can even be done from a chair.
So now that I've (HOPEFULLY) peaked your interest in T'ai Chi Chih, here’s an amazing opportunity for you to try it in a completely unique setting: early Thursday morning classes in the STUNNING Main House Gardens of the Mt Cuba Center (and if you’re not familiar with this horticultural gem, you really should be…it’s clearly one of the prettiest spots in the entire state of Delaware!)
These T’ai Chi Chih classes will undoubtedly be even more powerful than usual because just spending time outdoors has also been proven to positively impact your health (ever heard of Nature as Medicine?) plus even on the hottest day of the year Mt Cuba is one COOL place to hang out in the early mornings.
Still have questions? Then click here to learn more about the WELL-DOCUMENTED health benefits of practicing T’ai Chi Chih or you can even just watch a couple of my (short!) TV interviews and all will become clear.
And even if it you still don't believe practicing T'ai Chi Chih will make you healthier and happier or (better yet) keep you from getting sick or stressed-out in the first place, I can personally GUARANTEE it’ll be one of the EASIEST ways you’ll ever find to let the train carry your bags.
* For more info on Franky Carrillo click https://magazine.lmu.edu/articles/first-person-freed-at-last/ and http://www.frankycarrillo.com/meet-franky/
**For more info on the Circles of Light click https://www.chihealsyou.com/apps/blog/show/43222486-circles-of-light-event-3-31-15 And for more info on my good friend Julie Heryet, the AMAZING T’ai Chi Chih teacher currently conducting classes inside Folsom Prison, https://www.chihealsyou.com/ (and mea culpa for “borrowing” a good bit of Julie’s blog re 3/31/15’s Circles of Light…there was no way to describe it any better than she did so why bother to try?!)