The Path of Redemption
This is one of Travis’ most powerful talks to date.
In this episode of The BE ULTIMATE Podcast, Travis shares powerful stories of redemption including his work in the prison system.
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-What is Redemption
-The Story of Angulimala
-The True Story of a Prison Inmate Awakened
-Inspiration from Hafiz, Yogi Bhajan, George Washington Carver and the poem “Unbroken” by Rashani Réa
-The Ultimate Prayer
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “The Be Ultimate Podcast.” Please note that this is direct from Travis speaking unscripted and unedited.]
Welcome to The BE ULTIMATE Podcast.
This episode is called The Path of Redemption.
Next week, my wife Lauren and I, we’re leaving to go teach in a maximum security prison in the state of Maine. This will be our third visit going there, and teaching in prison has really become something that we’ve become very passionate about. Brings a lot of meaning, fulfillment, and joy into our life. And we were initially invited to go teach in prison by an organization called The Liberation Institute by a couple named Piers and Jess, so shout-out to them for having us come to teach.
It’s always an honor. And really can’t wait to get back to seeing these men that we’ve really developed a relationship with over the last year or so. We write them letters, they send us letters, and in the future, I plan on doing a podcast with Lauren where we talk more about our prison work: what that’s like, the details of that, what the future holds for us in regards to teaching in prison.
But for this podcast, thinking about this upcoming trip, it made me really start to think quite a bit about this theme of redemption.
The word redemption means the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.
So I would like to, in the spirit of redemption, share a couple of stories with you on this week’s podcast.
The first story is from 2,400 years ago, from the time of the Buddha. And this is the story of Angulimala.
One morning the Buddha was out going to collect his donation of food in his alms bowl. And he was walking around this town, and it was eerily quiet. Strangely, there was nobody around, and the town was deserted.
A person recognizing the Buddha ushered the Buddha to quickly come inside of his house. This kind person slammed the door shut and went on to explain that there was a murderer on the loose, a serial killer. And he was known as Angulimala.
And the whole entire town and, really, kingdom feared Angulimala. When he would kill somebody, he would cut off one of their fingers and tie it around a necklace. And these necklaces were called a mala. Oddly, Angulimala would kill people, but he would never take their possessions, so on some level, there was really no motive behind the murder other than just this twisted joy in killing people.
Angulimala was on this mission to kill 100 people, and legend had it that, if he was able to pull off that feat, he would develop even darker, more evil powers.
The king had sent brigades of soldiers to take out Angulimala and almost all the soldiers would get killed by Angulimala because he was such a phenomenal fighter. So despite all these tactics by the king, nobody could locate Angulimala, and when they did, rarely was anybody ever able to escape his wrath. So the entire kingdom was gripped in a state of perpetual fear. They were terrified.
The Buddha thanked the man for telling him this happening, this news about Angulimala, and the Buddha began to leave to go back out on the street. The neighbor tried to stop Buddha from going out, but the Buddha insisted that in order to preserve the trust of the people, he must do his normal routines, his begging, as usual.
So the Buddha was walking down this deserted street, again very eerily quiet. And all of a sudden, in the background, he heard these steps running his direction. And the steps were getting closer and closer and closer. And without turning around to look, the Buddha knew it was none other than Angulimala. The steps got closer and closer. They picked up in pace, but the Buddha knew no fear.
At this point on his path, he was 56 years old. He was enlightened, and he had dissolved all fear. Also, when he had grown up as a young man, he was a very accomplished martial artist, so he was badass. That kind of helped him to stay steady as this person is running his direction. So in this state of enlightenment, he stayed steady, and he continued to walk slowly, steadily, bringing mindfulness into every single step.
Behind him, he heard this large voice call out, “Stop, Monk. Stop!” Angulimala was yelling and demanding this monk to stop, right then and there. But with steadiness, with peacefulness, the Buddha continued to stroll as if it was just another normal day on planet Earth.
Finally, Angulimala, he caught up with the Buddha, and he said, “I told you to stop. Why didn’t you stop?” And the Buddha calmly replied, “Angulimala, I stopped a long time ago. It is you who have not stopped.”
Angulimala was startled by this reply.
But as he looked into the eyes of the Buddha, his eyes shone like two luminescent stars. Angulimala had never encountered someone who radiated such serenity, peacefulness, and ease. And he could sense that this monk, too, was absolutely fearless.
For the first time, as he looked into the eyes of the Buddha, Angulimala had his first taste of unconditional love. Not knowing what to say, being completely caught off guard, he said, “Monk, you said you stopped a long time ago. You said I was the one who had not stopped. What did you mean by that?”
The Buddha went on to explain, “I stopped causing suffering to others. I now walk the path of compassion and nobility, but you, you are blinded by hatred, ignorance, and delusion. But my path can transform you. Choose the path of love and awakening.”
Angulimala felt like salt had been poured into an open wound. He was fiery with suffering. But at the same time, there was a deeper part of him that was very moved by the words of the Buddha and also the way that these words were really delivered with a current of kindness and compassion. And he felt like, for the first time in his whole entire life, he was treated as a whole person, worthy of respect.
Angulimala said, “It’s a shame I didn’t meet you sooner. I fear that, at this point, there’s no turning back from all the suffering I’ve caused.” And the Buddha said, “Angulimala, it is never too late to do a good act. Stop traveling the road of hatred and violence. That would be the greatest act of all.”
Angulimala knelt before the Buddha. He surrendered his sword, his weapon, to the earth, and for the first time in his whole entire life, he began to weep deeply, tears of transformation. Through gut-wrenching sobs, he vowed to abandon his evil ways, and he went on to become one of the Buddha’s greatest students and disciples.
All of this happened because the Buddha saw the original goodness of Angulimala.
“I wish I could show you, when you’re lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”
The Buddha saw this light even within Angulimala, even within this person that had committed horrific acts, because the Buddha knew that those horrific acts, that bad behavior, wasn’t the true essence and the spirit of who Angulimala truly was.
This is a poem from Rashani Réa called The Unbroken. “There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength. There is a hollow space too vast for words through which we pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being. There is a cry deeper than all sound, whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole.”
Now the second story that I’d like to share with you is actually one of the stories that comes out of the work we’ve done in the prison.
The first day that I had the opportunity to teach in a prison, I met an inmate, and he told me a pretty phenomenal story.
He said that he was the most misbehaved inmate out of the entire 1,000-people population. So due to bad behavior, to getting into trouble that was beyond the boundaries of what the warden and his staff was finding tolerable, they threw this young man into solitary confinement. And by the time he landed in solitary confinement, he was done. He was done. He had lost all hope.
He was in the dungeons of despair. Not only was he in a prison, but now he was in the darkest, most intense part of the prison, solitary confinement.
And so that day, after being thrown in there, he tried to take his own life, and he did this by swallowing razor blades. Before he had tried to swallow the razor blades, he had tried to cut an artery on the side of his face, and when that didn’t do the trick, he went on to swallow the razor blades. They rushed him off to the hospital, and fortunately, they were able to save his life.
So eventually, after he recovered, they put him back into solitary confinement, and then that day he noticed on the side of his prison cell there was a screen, right there on the wall behind this bulletproof plexiglass. And dangling from the screen was a computer mouse. So he went to go investigate what was on this computer. And as fate would have it, he found a yoga practice, a yoga practice from one of my yoga programs called The Ultimate Yogi. The Ultimate Yogi is a 108-day yoga program that involves a whole range of different practices, but he chose, for whatever reason, to do the Yin Yoga practice.
So he started the practice, and then, he said, in the middle of the practice, for the first time his whole entire life, he felt a switch turn inside of him, a little switch, just a tiny, little glimmer of hope. He said he had never heard the messaging in the words, in the language, of what he heard in that Yin Yoga practice.
This was a guy that had grown up in a very, very, very bad environment, violent abuse. He had become a product of his circumstance, and so he went on to commit a lot of crimes, crimes that landed him in a maximum security prison.
But that day, as he did that yoga practice, he felt a new kind of awakening. It awakened a part of him that he didn’t even know was there, a part of him that actually had just the hint of joy and happiness, positivity and benevolence. And by the end of that practice, he knew he wanted to go on and do the whole 108-day program.
The razor blades that he tried to kill himself with, he took those same razor blades – he didn’t have a yoga mat – and he etched into the floor of his concrete cell a 2-by-6-foot rectangular shape, and that became his yoga mat. And he went on to do the whole 108 days.
And he told me that when he was around day 90, the guards had seen this guy completely transform. He had gone from being one of the worst prisoners to being one of the best prisoners, all in the span of just weeks. So they were ready to take him out of solitary and put him into general population. And he begged the guards, he begged the staff to stay in solitary so that he could finish his 108-day journey.
As you can imagine, the staff was completely stunned and shocked. This was the first time in the history of the prison that somebody had asked to stay in solitary confinement. But he knew he wanted to complete this journey.
When he got towards the end of his journey, there was another inmate that was thrown into the cell across the hall from him. And he, too, was suicidal, and he was on the brink of taking his life as well. And this first gentleman, with the word war tattooed across his throat, and the A in war was an anarchy sign, a big scar down the side of his face, he told the guy across the hallway to go to the computer to do the 108-day yoga program, and it worked. Not only did it save his life, but he also saved this other inmate’s life. And they went on to become amazing friends.
Now this day, when I got to go teach, and I got to meet this gentleman, we were invited to go back to solitary, back to the very cell that they were put into. And so it was me, my wife, Lauren, these two inmates, escorted by the warden and his staff, who were so grateful that we were there. And they took us all the way back into the dungeon of the prison, and the four of us sat inside their old cell, and we meditated.
We closed our eyes, turned our attention inward, and we just got still and silent. And I could see one guy. His face was trembling from all the trauma that he had experienced while he was there, tears rolling down his cheeks. And at the end of the meditation, when I invited them to come out, he remained so still, so quiet, with his eyes completely closed, that his buddy had to nudge him in the ribs to bring him out of the meditation. You could see in his eyes he was haunted by this experience that he had had.
We left the cell, we were escorted back out of solitary, and it was our time to now say goodbye. And so we hugged it out. We hugged these guys. We hugged these prisoners, and one of the gentlemen said that it was one of the best days of his life and that he would remember that day forever and he would tell his family and that he had really come full circle within his journey of healing.
So in the same way that the Buddha saw, with Angulimala, a person that was whole and originally good – yes, they had done really horrific things, but underneath all of that is an original goodness – these men, they too need to be seen that way, and it’s not often that they are. These guards and people coming in to visit, they look at them as bad people and criminals and animals that are locked up in cages.
It’s very rare that somebody comes along and sees them with unconditional love. But the power of that is that it really has the potential to awaken within them the possibility of redemption and the possibility of transformation. And the end of that story still continues, but it’s only gotten better.
These men have gone on to become certified yoga teachers inside the prison, and now they’re actually teaching yoga themselves to other prisoners. So this whole wave of yoga and meditation has spread throughout this entire prison, and the warden is just blown away. He’s a huge fan of yoga. In fact, a lot of the guards are also doing the yoga as well.
So you see how these teachings are really open to all people. They’re open to the prisoners. They’re open to the guards. It really turns nobody away. Everybody deserves to have access to these teachings.
It’s a beautiful, real, modern-day story of what’s possible. And imagine, if the light of yoga can eradicate darkness within one of the worst possible places on the planet, a prison, a maximum security prison, imagine what’s possible within our own lives. And imagine what’s possible within this world, this world where we have so much negativity and so much hatred and so much conflict. Imagine what we could all do to help shift things, and to awaken things.
No matter how much harm that we cause, redemption is really our right as a human being. Yes, people need to be punished fairly. But we can’t give up on ourselves or others.
Sometimes, who needs to be redeemed is our own selves. We’re all human, and we’re all imperfect, and we’ve all done things that we regret. We’ve done things where we’ve hurt other people, knowingly or unknowingly. Maybe we betrayed other people. And sometimes we have to bring compassion to ourselves. And it’s not going to serve anybody if we’re bogged down by guilt and shame.
So in the same way that the Buddha told Angulimala, “The greatest act that you can do is to walk this new path,” the greatest act that you could do, and I could do, and that we could do, too, is to now walk this path of benevolence.
Also, there’s something to be said about somebody who’s really struggling, somebody who’s really suffered, that has a greater capacity to help others along the path.
If you haven’t suffered, then how are you going to help other people?
You’re not going to be able to relate to them. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we all go through suffering and why we all go through very challenging things in our life is so that we can make it through that and then we can help others.
Everybody deserves the opportunity for a second chance because life is incredibly sacred, and we all have potential to do magnificent things in the world!
And just like the gentleman in the prison, he’s doing his own magnificent things within the world that he belongs to. He’s helping other inmates. He’s helping save lives now because his own life has been saved.
“Be a forklift. You should always be lifting people up.”
And once we’ve lifted ourselves up, it is our job to lift others up because we’re all in this together. We all belong to each other. This is called shared humanity.
Never underestimate the power of compassion. It’s one of our greatest superhero powers.
George Washington Carver says, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong because someday you will have been all of these.”
Let’s finish with the ultimate prayer.
May we bring strength where there is weakness.
May we bring courage where there is fear.
May we bring compassion where there is suffering.
And may we bring light where there is darkness.
May we be ultimate!
Produced by Jason Reim
Opening Music by Howie Hersh
Closing Music by Ryan Richko