Prison is a State of Mind…

Posts tagged ‘Coach Mara Leigh Taylor’

Unlikely Success: The Story of LaDawn Bell

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

LaDawn Bell was ushered into the Los Angeles County Jail GOGI Campus program shortly after her ump-teenth arrest, her rap sheet was longer than the receipt from a full-day of shopping at Costco.  A career and habitual criminal, LaDawn had not been out of prison very long before she was back to her old tricks of drug use and stealing other people’s property to pay for her addiction. She landed in GOGI Campus because one officer began dumping his least favorite and troublesome inmates into the campus claiming he needed the bed space for “overflow.”

            “When is your next court hearing?” I asked in a rare one-on-one interview with the new girls who had made it into campus.

            “I go back to court next week,” she stated.  “Coach,” she added with intense seriousness, “this is my third strike.  I blew it.  I am going to be doing the rest of my life in prison.”

            As she stated this inevitable fact, she didn’t cry.  She was just stating the facts.  She knew she had gambled and lost. She knew the ropes.  Do the crime? You do the time.  California was firm on the three strikes law. Three felonies proved you were a persistent threat to society and 25-to-life is what you were going to get. 

            “Who is your judge?” I asked.

            “Ito,” she replied.

            My experience with Judge Lance Ito was less than the entire world’s contact with that particular Compton Court judge.  Most of the world sat glued to their television sets as Judge Lance Ito presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.  My exposure to the decider of people’s fates was limited to his oversight of cases brought against Teri Shedarowich and Erin Iwakiri, two GOGI Girls whose diligent work in the campus warranted my appearance in court.

I knew the drill in his courtroom.  He preferred facts and didn’t mind hearing directly from the accused.  Some judges prefer to communicate only with the Public Defender.  Judge Ito, I had learned, was not against letting the accused make a statement or two. 

What I didn’t know was if Judge Ito would give me another women, bypassing the three strikes sentencing and letting me keep LaDawn Bell in GOGI Campus, instead.  There was a logistics challenge, however, as the longest I could request was a year of jail time.  Anything more than a year of time required a prison stay.  The likelihood of him permitting a year of county time over 25 in the company of CDCR was slim.  Still, we were going to give it a shot. 

“Coach, I am done,” she said.

“We don’t know that,” I replied.

“No, Coach.  I mean I am done with that life.  I truly am,” she said.

One thing you learn when you are in jails or prisons is not to believe conversions or commitment of life changes from anyone relegated to wearing a tracking number and wristband.  It’s usually just jail talk making up their confined conversations. In most cases, it all gets forgotten when the door is unlocked and the meth pipe is pulled out of the dresser drawer.  Still, there was something in her eyes; something I knew was not the same-ol’ flapping of the jaws and wishful thinking.

“How do you know?” I asked. “How do you know you are ready?”

She paused for a moment before thoughtfully responding, making the full-on eye contact that only comes with honesty.

“I dunno, Coach.  I just know.”

I knew she knew.  And I knew there was enough muscle within her to actually succeed, if she became humble enough to turn over her decision making to the grooming and learning she would receive in GOGI Campus.

“OK.  Here is what we are going to do.  I am going to bypass campus rules, make you the President of the Campus and I am going to go into court with you and ask Judge Ito to give you to me for a year instead of prison.”

The tear running down her cheek was likely to have been the first tear making its way out of her broken heart for many years.

“You don’t even know me,” she said.

“I have very good instincts, LaDawn.  I think you can be a great GOGI leader.  I think you are done and I am going to make a stand for you.  But you are going to need to learn everything you can about GOGI, learn the tools, and be prepared to tell the Judge why you think this will work.”

“Alright, Coach.  I can do that,” she replied.

“You better do it because I am putting my reputation on the line for you,” I said with every bit of seriousness the situation deserved. “If other women are to get this chance at changing their lives it is going to be because you do not fail.  I will not let you fail. There is too much at stake. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“You will not fail. Are we clear?” I stated.

“Yes, Coach.  I got it.”  

Announcing to the Campus that I was going to bypass all campus protocol and place LaDawn Bell, a career criminal, a shot caller, an active addict, a woman with a proclivity for getting into physical fights who was admittedly self-serving into the coveted position of Campus President nearly caused a mutiny. 

“That’s not fair,” one of the girls declared.

“I know,” I replied.

“She doesn’t even know the tools,” stated another.

“I know,” I replied.

“You don’t know her like we know her, Coach.  LaDawn Bell? She ain’t no good,” said another.

“I know,” I replied.

“But, Coach, you said this was our campus. We didn’t vote for her,” another chimed in.

“I know,” I replied.

LaDawn and I stood at the front of the group, united solidly in the stand we were making against the barrage of objection.  

I let them vent for a while and then the room went silent. It was my turn to explain myself.

“I don’t ask much from you.  I come here and teach you to be strong and self-sufficient and I am very proud of each and every one of you for learning to be strong, self-sufficient.  Now I need a favor.  I think we can help turn LaDawn’s life around but I need time. She has court next week and if we all prepare her, we might be able to keep her from spending the rest of her life in prison.  I need you to do me a favor and support LaDawn as President until after her court date.  I am going to court asking if the judge will give her to GOGI for a year.  If she is Campus President, we just might have a shot.  Can I have your support?  Will you raise your hand if you will help me by voting for LaDawn as the temporary President of GOGI Campus?”

Most of the hands crept cautiously upward, making certain that they were not the only one endorsing my calling this shot which rattled the very core of our rules.

            The women in the campus resented me, I am sure.  They undoubtedly thought I had been swindled by a self-admitted con artist, I am sure.  They wodl be regressing to the eroding poison of gossip and criticism in the hours that followed, I suspected.  I knew all the damages to be repaired at a later date.  But this was a life raft I felt compelled to toss out, even if it caused others to need to swim a little more. 

            The campus focus turned toward preparing LaDawn, and everyone else to present themselves well in front of their Judges for their upcoming hearings.  Long after I left the campus each night the women were in their requisite rehearsals on what they would say to the judge, the jury, the DA and how they would describe their commitment to positive decision making to their Public Defender.

            LaDawn began to blossom. I could see it happening in the courtroom rehearsals.  She was speaking more confidently about GOGI and about her commitment to change with each mock hearing.  Still, we had a long way to go and a short amount of time with which to make it happen. 





While it was likely LaDawn was sitting in some holding cell in the basement of the courthouse, I was still inching my way eastward on the 105 freeway, slowly traveling past the jail as the sun was coming up, toward the Compton Courthouse which housed Judge Ito’s court.  The security line in the morning at courthouses is long, each person being screened and x-ray inspected before they fill the overcrowded elevators up to their respective courtrooms. 

            I took my seat, choosing that place where LaDawn could identify me quite easily without breaking the rule not to communicate with anyone in the audience.  When she was escorted in her jail uniform, handcuffed with the bailiff by her side, she truly looked as if she felt quite comfortable in this familiar surrounding. Admittedly, she looked like a career criminal.

            At the last minute, a few GOGI volunteers joined me, women who had been released and were making a stand for other women in a similar situation.

            “You made it,” I said with the beam of a proud mother on my face.

            “The matter of LaDawn Bell,” the judge said, moving a massive file before him.

            “Ah, she ain’t neva gettin’ out,” was the comment from the woman seated directly behind me as she observed the huge record of a lifetime of crime being opened by the judge.

            Most of the court cases were thin-file infractions of one law or the next.  None of the sentences that morning had been serious, nor were their crimes, and the files were not massive, as was the case with LaDawn Bell.  The judge’s reliance on the District Attorney to dole out the sentence with the prior cases was not a good omen for our GOGI Girl and her extensive file. The judge actually needed to use muscle leverage to move her file into place.  I had never seen that before. For good reason, District Attorney types don’t take too kindly to criminal files that are thicker than a Bible, Koran and Buddhist meditation book all stacked together. 

            LaDawn stood and her public defender began his introduction in the now-familiar ritual that would ultimately lead to a decision by the courts. Charges were read.  Then the judge consulted the top papers in the file.  The Public Defender stated something about giving her another chance. The tension was mounting and I was praying LaDawn would remember what we had rehearsed.  She was to ask to speak to directly to the court.

            She leaned into the Public Defender and the negative shake of his head let me know she had asked the appropriate question.

            Now I only prayed she would follow the rest of my instructions. I held my breath and closed my eyes.

            “Don’t fail me, LaDawn.  Don’t fail me,” I said to myself, and God, and LaDawn, and any guardian angels up there who might have an interest in the outcome of this case.

            “Your honor, Judge Ito,” she said.

            My heart began pumping again.

            The Public Defender tried to silence her.

            The DA shut her file and looked up in dismay.

            The judge calmly raised his eyes from the file and replied.

            “Yes, Miss Bell?” he said.

            “Your Honor, I have made a lot of mistakes but I am in the GOGI program and I can do it now. I know what I need to do.  The program director is right over there. Can she talk to you for a minute?”

            That one came out of left field, but I didn’t have a choice but to be ready.

            “What program?” he asked.

            “Getting Out By Going In.  Coach Taylor is right there,” she said as she pointed to me.

            “Alright, Ms. Bell. We will hear from Coach Taylor of Getting Out By Going In,” he said as I instinctively stood and walked to the little swinging door dividing the courtroom from the audience.

            “State your name,” someone said.  It was not clear who said it because my brain was too occupied with what the heck I might say.  LaDawn had been in the rehearsals, not me.  This was supposed to be her spotlight, not mine.  The room suddenly went a little fuzzy. For me, there was no one in focus but LaDawn Bell and Judge Lance Ito and the District Attorney hovering in the peripheral of my vision.

            “Your Honor,” I began.  The rest of what I said is not in my memory.  It’s on a court record transcript buried in some file somewhere.  I know I stated that I needed her. That she was president of the custody campus where women were learning to make positive decisions and she had been elected to lead 24 women and something about wasn’t it a good thing that she was leading for good instead of doing the same prison routine that never worked for her anyway? I remember the jest of the introduction to a new possibility in corrections. What I also remember is that LaDawn cried.  I cried.  And the judge looked as if he was nearly moved to tears himself.

            The District Attorney reiterated the career nature of Ms. Bell’s record, the fact that she had failed every program to which he had sentenced her, and that he had given ample opportunity in the past for Ms. Bell to correct her behavior.  She even mentioned the fact that LaDawn started committing crimes when she was nine years old.  I didn’t really hear anything but gibberish coming from her irritated mouth, it meant nothing to me.  I just kept my solid focus on my brave GOGI Girl LaDawn and Judge Lance Ito.

            “Please?” I chimed in.

            The silence turned my focus to the pounding of my heart, which nearly deafened me to what was said by the judge. 

            The girls called it a God Shot, one of those blessings from heaven that no one expects would ever become a reality, like the complete and total instant remission of a terminal cancer.  And that is what it was like, it was almost as if in that singular second of grace, Judge Lance Ito eradicated any residual criminal presence from the emotionally broken and bruised woman named LaDawn Bell who was standing before him.

            The court record became law.  LaDawn Bell became under the supervision of GOGI with a 3 year probation which required her to complete GOGI programming, a formal drug program and he made it very clear she would be severely, and he meant severely punished if she was ever seen in that courtroom again.

            “The only time you are going to see me here again is when I come in to get my record expunged,” she replied, sending a warm chuckle of hope throughout the courthouse.

            And with that the large files documenting the previous life of LaDawn Bell was closed.  She was led out of the courtroom without the ability to glance back at the row of supporters wiping tears from their eyes.

The girls and I returned to our cars, chatting about the magical moments occurring in that courtroom on the way. When they had each left the parking structure I remained in my car, and I cried.  What happened in that courtroom just did not happen.  Things did not go down that way. 

I felt a wave of humility, which begged the question burning in my soul, “What more can I do to be of service?”



LaDawn Bell ~ successfully completed GOGI and the Amity drug program and for the first time in her adult life, she was released from court supervision.  She was employed at Direct TV where they were promoting her to shift manager.  After more than two years of success as a law-abiding and sober citizen, Coach Taylor and LaDawn returned back to Judge Lance Ito’s court to begin expungement process.  She was instructed to return to court in June, 2013, when the process could formally begin. 

While waiting for the expungement of her record which would permit her to increase her employment options, LaDawn began her own GOGI Coaching of young girls on the street corners, often taking them into her home and sobering them up and telling them their lives were worth more.  While on the way to a fundraising event in Manhattan Beach she and Coach Taylor discussed her future.

“Coach, I didn’t know real people lived like this,” she said on the drive through an affluent beach community.

“Honey, you can live like this,” Coach Taylor replied.

“Aint’ that something.  I spent my whole life in prison and here I am, driving with you in Manhattan Beach.  Coach, I wanna live like this,” she said.  “I wanna live like this.”

LaDawn Bell was a regular volunteer at GOGI and finally a good mother to her son, good grandmother to her only grandchild, and an example for her sisters.  On the way to her father’s 70th birthday, January 16th, 2013 at 7:20 pm, LaDawn Bell was the innocent victim of a bullet intended for her niece. 

She died instantly. 


Congratulations! You Have a New Puppy



WHAT IF you woke up this morning and could not remember anything negative from your past?  WHAT IF when you awoke you were told you were one of those rare individuals who had endured much but who had overcome all obstacles and was now an example of the best the human race could possibly become?

WHAT IF when you heard this – that you had diligently dedicated yourself to being the best person possible – WHAT IF you did not doubt, nor did you waiver in assuming this new identity?


If you truly believed this, a powerful mental shift would occur that would change everything for as long as you lived.  Instantly, and without question, your reaction to life’s inevitable irritations would alter.  Your perceptions of others would become more compassionate and the words you spoke would be more encouraging than victimization, damning or filled with blame.

When caught in the quagmire of human weakness, we all are less than our best.  We point the finger, find blame, and confabulate excuses for our own inadequacies and wrongdoings.


When we awake each morning, we have the choice to remember or to forget those things no longer serving our efforts to find our freedom from drama and anguish.  We can LET GO of being upset with circumstance, irritation at our spouse, disliking our boss, the inevitable familial struggles, or our concerns for our economy or government.  In truth, we do not need to carry around on our weary backs those things in our daily life that serve to dismantle our efforts to find the internal freedom which comes when we turn our individual focus to becoming a very good human.

What we remember each morning, or choose to remember when we awake, is entirely up to each individual. Our focus – those things on which we place our mental attention- is our critical choice as the determining factor in our level of internal freedom.


Your brain is at your command.  It is yours to train, to exercise, to guide and to control. The problem is, we are not taught this as children.  We are taught to rely on parents, teachers, peers, neighbors, media and government to make things better for us, that we are somehow incapable of being our own boss.

The truth of the matter is each one of us is in the driver’s seat of our life experience. What we choose to do with our 80-somehting years is more under our control than we would like to conveniently believe.  It is much more convenient and consistent with our training to believe the control lies outside of ourselves.

We can, however, begin to train the neurons in our brain – those messengers assigned the task of moving data from one part of the brain to the next – to get excited about a new way of thinking, eventually altering our very life experiences, our habits, our likes and dislikes, and even elements of our personality we may believe are unchangeable.

Fact: We can train our brain, much like we can train a puppy. We can train our brain to understand when to sit still, when to bark, and when to roll over.  Our brain is our very own puppy to train, or to let roam wild causing havoc and creating a mess we eventually blame on the puppy.


WHAT IF we begin to let our past, our parents, our enemies, our teachers, or our economy off the hook? WHAT IF we stated, “I am BOSS OF MY BRAIN!”

WHAT IF we declared that no one and nothing was in control of our thoughts and opinions? WHAT IF we truly believed we could pick and choose those things we want to have bouncing around in our brain, those thoughts taking up valuable space and energy?


Well.  Wake up.  Good morning, I say to you.  You have a new puppy in your hands.  It’s yours brain to train any way you see fit.

Good morning, I say to you.  The facts about you will never alter.  You are a dear, wonderful, and powerful human, no matter what you have experienced or chosen to believe.  You are born of a lineage of creators, and a species that has the capacity for greatness and goodness, miracle making and magic.

This is your life to create from this day forward as you take control of your reactions and perceptions to life’s unfairness and inevitable obstacles.  It is your day to create your opinions just as you see fit.  You can carry a heavy burden of human errors of the past, or you can embrace the concept that the weight of the past no longer serves you.


In reading this, you are now in charge.  You have the permission; you always have had the permission, but now you really have it tossed in your lap.  And your new puppy needs feeding.

You need nothing more than this simple knowledge to make this very day one filled with example after example of how you are training your brain to respond to your wishes, not the other way around.


Fact: You are more magnificent that you believe; you just have been hiding under a big sack of unnecessary history.

Fact: You are more talented that you can possibly realize; you have just been handcuffed by shame, doubt and the scripts told to you by others.

Fact: You are more than capable; you have just been burdened with unnecessary chatter bouncing around in your head and keeping you stuck, immobile and frozen in place, waiting for some external miracle to make things better for you.


Well, all I can say is, GOOD MORNING.  Wake up. The puppy needs feeding and it needs a good, solid instruction on how to obey its owner – you.  Today, nothing from the past can hold you back or clutter the path to your progress unless you permit it to remain there.

It’s time to find your freedom and that journey begins by you asking yourself “WHAT IF I am not my past? WHAT IF I truly am in control of this thing called life?”

Get your puppy chow ready.  That brain of yours needs to know who is in charge.



Relief is my consuming emotional experience at the dawn of this New Year, a relief that instantly settles my entire body, my mind, and my heretofore ever-restless spirit.  One decade ago, the GOGI journey was embarked upon as a desperate attempt to feel a little better about being alive.  I wasn’t caring much for the whole “life experience” thing and was desperately and frantically seeking something, anything that might change my mind about getting my departure ticket off these school grounds as quickly as possible.

            GOGI was born of my desperation, but also of my unwavering willingness to listen to those whose physical situations were deemed by others to be less desirable than my own.  While I had physical freedom, the people I was serving with my volunteerism were in prison.  Logic would say I had something to tell them and sound advice to offer. After all, I had earned two Masters degrees and a Ph.D. and was an ordained minister among a dozen of other certifications and accomplishments.  Surely my book smarts would aid them in their struggle to play by the rules, the logic went.  But the opposite was the reality; the more I listened to the prisoners of our nation the more my questions were answered and the more meaning was found within the spaces between my frantic paddling.  Slowly but surely a change occurred within me, an incremental alteration of the accumulation of tendencies leading to an alternative life experience, one of internal freedom.


Ten years and 100,000 bits of knowledge later, GOGI, has reached its own tipping point, or that place where it is bigger than my desperation, bigger than my hopeless situation, and bigger than any one person’s life experience.  As a byproduct of my journey, GOGI is officially an alternative culture for the 2.3 million men, women and children in our nation who, through their poor decision making skills and poor choice of peers, have found their home address to be a governmentally-funded gated community. 

            Relief.  Relief is what I feel.  I do not need to check off this planet because it is a sucky place to live.  It’s a sucky place for anyone who does not have the tools with which to make positive decisions.  Armed with the positive decision making tools I learned while listening to our nation’s prisoners, I have come to realize this is a pretty cool planet on which we live and there are constant creative choices that can be made by me. I now know I am the boss; it’s my life experience and I can be proactive and positive in my thoughts, my words and my actions and this will alter my entire life experience.   I can be free if I continue to use my positive decision making tools I learned while Getting Out by Going In. So, best I can, I continue to share the extent of what I have learned up until now in the hopes of lightening the load of someone right behind me on this path.  Maybe by sharing the steps on my journey, I might speed up their internal processes toward internal freedom and they will be inclined to do the same.


A decade of practice and application of the GOGI Tools for positive decision-making has made way for a capacity within me to BE the very essence of GOGI, Getting Out of my own prison by Going Inward for the answers.  Life has become a daily automatic execution of the tools beyond much exertion of energy.  The pattern of positive decision-making has become the very essence of who I am, and, therefore, being on the planet is a pretty cool experience.  I can paint any picture for my life with my choices and perceptions.  What a relief not to leave this planet thinking it is a failed experiment. And this relief comes from the GOGI tool of LET GO, whereby I can LET GO now of all effort to cling on to the old.  I now experience the illusive freedom that I endeavored to find for so long. 


At the sharing of my life’s milestone, my daughter said, “Finally.  Now I won’t have to listen to 24/7 GOGI.”  The relief in her voice is palpable.  We are both relieved.  I am sure my friends will be relieved to get the new and improved version of me back into a more social environment. When I was talking GOGI, it irritated family and drove friends to find other companions.  Now I no longer need to talk about GOGI but I simply “am” GOGI and the world is unfolding with harmony and kindness at the foundation.


Note to GOGI students:  Don’t stop talking GOGI until you truly become GOGI in your every thought, your ever word and your every action.  The repetition of learning and teaching and learning and teaching is at the core of your success.  At that time, at that critical 100,000 bits of learning and tenth year of your dedicated study, your “being” GOGI and consistency of living The GOGI Way will resonate so loudly you won’t need to say a word.  Ultimate freedom is there, between the words and between the seconds of time, if you keep Getting Out by Going In. Image

A Choir of Angelic Voices… in prison?

While comfortably seated in the back seat of Coach Miss B’s Honda, I am hooked in to a temporary internet connection to  write about our recent experience at California Corrections Women’s Facility where we worked with more than 100 women who are desperately seeking the tools they can use to make positive decisions in their lives.  This was yet another successful GOGI workshop, brought into reality by Coach Jennie Curtis who works with the GOGI women at that prison. The goal of the workshop was to reinforce the teaching of how to use the Twelve Tools of GOGI for positive decision making.

I am curious.  Why must we wait until we hit bottom, we land in jail, we end up bankrupt, or we find ourselves divorced before we aggressively seek the tools for positive change?  I have no answers here, other than human nature tends to focus on pleasure.  Oftentimes change, real change, is perceived as hard work.  As Coach Miss B and Coach Amy and I worked with the 100 + incarcerated women of CCWF yesterday, however, the change process was fun, and playful.  The women were tasked with the goal of teaching the Twelve Tools of GOGI through dance, song, poetry or any other means which would entertain and be fun.  At the end of our time together they had coordinated a talent show that rivaled anyone on AMERICA’S GOT TALENT.  In a series of skits and songs and participatory games, The Twelve Tools of GOGI were learned and reinforced among the women.  My favorite was possibly the song.  It was a beautiful testament to the value of the human soul.   The song, with the lyrics “We are GOGI, women of integrity.  Inner freedom is our goal, GOGI 4 Life!” was sung in a round with 100 beautiful voices ringing out like the voice of angels.

Coach Miss B is minding the speed limit of 60 MPH as we pass the prison-populated small towns of this Central California valley area.  Coach Amy is napping.  I am, as usual, taking every possible opportunity to share my world of GOGI with the world.

I have witnessed the fact that change happens, even in those who society feels are unchangeable.  Maybe, someday, we humans won’t wait till the bottom falls out of our life before we embrace the opportunity to make lasting change a fun-filled experience.   That would be my hope; that The Twelve Tools of GOGI are a playful addition to the academic requirements of all school children in the US, empowering individuals with critical tools for positive decision making long before the first bad decision sucks them into the rabbit hole from which they must struggle so desperately to escape.

When Silence Says it All

I wonder. Do we really need to use so many words to express ourselves or interpret our world?  The question comes to mind as I sit comfortably in a corner chair at the neighborhood coffee shop.  My otherwise peaceful time away from the office is thwarted by my inability to tune out the roar of mindless chatter; people exchanging one set of words for another and most not hearing a word the other is saying.

As I glance up from the screen of my new Mac Book, which is not quite as intuitive as the ads proclaim, it appears as if people are talking, but no one is really listening. They all appear to be on a sort of anticipatory pause waiting for a break in the words so they might cram their words into the open space. It’s more like an intricately timed overlapping of words between sips of overpriced hot water dripped over coffee beans.  From the chair I claim as temporarily mine, it seems as if words are what link us together, connect us, keep us tethered together in some superficial illusion of mutual understanding.

I suppose it is true, words are inescapable in this world where if it is not verbalized, texted, or tweeted it probably does not exist.  I take that back.  I popped into a drop-in massage studio last week and the Thai-looking petite woman who earned $45 an hour for working the knots out of my shoulders did not initiate the lobbying of comments or questions. Maybe she understood any conversation would have been forgotten as soon as the next client walked through the door. Or, maybe she didn’t speak English.  Whatever the reason, it was a sweet reprieve, not to hear words for a full 50 minutes.  Attempting to maximize the experience, I did my best to banish words from my thoughts during that blissful, wordless moment in time. It was truly a glorious escape from the almighty word.

I have been giving serious consideration to living a year of my life in silence. You read that right.  Not speaking for an entire year.  Saying nothing for a full 365 days.  As I seek deeper levels of a spiritual existence while doing my time on our lovely little planet Earth, it seems as if words frequently obstruct the spiritual journey, or, at the very least, slow down its progress.  Absence of words, then, may provide me with a rare opportunity to truly listen to the world around me. It might help me figure out a few lingering issues about life’s purpose and how best to serve others during my tenure here.

Can you imagine how you might perceive your world if you could truly observe all of its nuances while relieved of the obligation of adding your own commentary?  I wonder if those things that consume your thoughts would remain important if you did not empower them with a few paragraphs of opinion.

Listening is most certainly underrated.  Most individuals applaud the skilled wordsmith and orator.  We elect officials by their choice of words, not by a record of their deeds.  We marry and divorce due to words, not on the development of relationships that withstand harsh words.  We buy in to words telling us what we need to own, plunging our families and our entire nation into debt from which we must struggle to recover.

We are missing the fact that the true value of the life experience is found in carefully listening, and paying attention to the words chosen by others.  Listening permits us to learn, to assess and to experience the words of others.  When we speak, we tell the world a great deal about us, like turning over our hand in a critical poker game.  With our word choice, we reveal our limitations, our weaknesses, our preferences, our educational level as well as our interests and desires.  When we listen, however, we can observe and learn those things in others.  The person who speaks is exposed, in a way.  And their intentions will eventually surface if we let them chatter long enough.  Interestingly enough, the person who remains silent is in the optimal place of learning, able to take in all the information and eventually make the most powerful decision.

I remember the first time I instructed an entire module of female inmates held in the Los Angeles County Jail that I wanted them to be completely silent, not to say a word, not utter a peep for 24 hours.  I did this because there was a heightened amount of gossip ripping and the fabric of the therapeutic work I was doing with the women.  Rather than attempt to hold back the tidal wave of cross talk, I silenced them.  That night, as I closed the day with the closing of my eyes, I wondered how my students were doing, wordless for 24 hours, some wordless for the first time in their lives.

The following morning when I entered the silent module I received the requisite reports of minor infractions of “Coach Taylor’s Law,” but I was more surprised by what was shared after all the violations were reported. A majority of the women were grateful, grateful they were relieved of the obligation of communication. They told me they loved the silence, welcomed the disconnection for a period.  It gave them time to reflect on their life choices, to think, to meditate, and to pray.

As for my own life, I have maintained silence for a full 72 hour period when completing my ordination as an Interfaith Minister.  I chose 72 hours of silence simply because I did not want to engage in superfluous conversations. I did not want the distraction of words that may have gotten in the way of my ability to focus on my ordination and my commitment to helping people find internal freedom, regardless of where they awake each morning.

Silence is the subtle, and rarely used key to internal freedom. Silence empowers us to turn within for the answers to life’s questions, which are where powerful and life-changing answers reside.

What will I find if I choose a full year of wordless observation of life and the living?  What might happen within my heart and soul if I am not required to verbalize my experience?  Will my life experience be diminished or enhanced if I am unable to label them with a combination of A-Z letters?  What will happen to my feelings and my human emotions?  Emotions often inspire, or require, a litany of words to maintain their strength. Will human emotion diminish in the absence of the word?  Will I be able to hold on to anger if I am not permitted to verbalize my frustration to others? Or will I just LET GO of those experiences that are exacerbated through giving them value through words?

A blind man learns to listen with heightened acuity in the absence of his sight.  A deaf woman learns to watch with keen attention in the absence of hearing.  I wonder.  How will food taste if meals are held in silence rather than hastily inhaled during a chat-fest social occasion?  At the close of the 365th day in the absence of words, will there be a heightened reverence for the words I will first utter?

I will likely choose to live a full year in silence.  Most likely, it will not be this coming year as I am releasing another GOGI book called “How To GOGI” and this book needs my strong voice so it will find it’s way into the hearts and minds of men, women, and children who wish to learn the simple tools to aid them in their efforts to make positive decisions in their lives.

I wonder if anyone in Starbucks has observed my silence. Or am I the invisible the lady in the corner occasionally looking up at the duos and trios huddled over tiny tables?  It seems to me the consumers filling the seats in the coffee shop struggle for connection, struggle to be heard, to be understood, loved and appreciated.  Could they comprehend the concept that their words are actually the very reason their goal remains out of reach?  What might happen if they all chose to be silent, a giant flash mob of silence across our country for a few minutes.  Would the window of opportunity remain open enough for them to actually feel connected in a more powerful, wordless way?

I am coming to appreciate the underutilized power found in empty space; the void.  The void is found in the absence of the spoken word.  It seems as if within the emptiness, the void, in the absence of words, there is ample space for creation to occur.  It is within the void of word that we can engage in the creation of a meaningful connection, of lasting change, of the underutilized potential of the human mind.

Oftentimes we rush to fill the void with words. That is why I wonder what may happen if filling the void with words is not an option for a full year.  I am likely to choose a year of silence in the near future.  Until then, I will begin to practice.  Maybe it is a good time to speak a little less, maybe choose my words more carefully. Maybe it is a good time for our entire nation to speak a little less and listen a little more.

WHAT IF we slowed down the pace of our commentary?  WHAT IF we didn’t rush to fill the silence with hastily chosen words?  WHAT IF we listened for a deeper communication?  Maybe, just maybe, it is within the void, in the absence of words, we find the kind of life that defies all verbal explanation.  Could it be that silence says it all?

The GOGI Way

After answering a barrage of questions at recent prison workshops, I decided to add an introduction chapter to the next GOGI book I am writing.  The contents below make up the contents of that chapter….

Getting Out by Going In (GOGI) is the name for a nonprofit, volunteer-driven group of citizens who believe that humans can, and do, make positive decisions when their desire for change is combined with positive decision making tools. But Getting Out by Going In is not just an organization. Getting Out by Going In is also something you can do; turning inward for your answers and getting out of your old prisons.

The Unlimited Power of the Human Mind

At its very core, when Getting Out by Going In (GOGI) is in action, it acknowledges and supports the unlimited power of the human mind to change, to grow, and to create opportunities as well as create obstacles. GOGI, as an organization, is dedicated and committed to teaching simple tools that help a majority of individuals to make better decisions. That is what GOGI does; helping anyone, anywhere make better decisions through use of the Twelve Tools of GOGI.

As much as GOGI is a set of twelve simple tools for positive decision making, GOGI is also a perspective and very much a way to look at your life. The GOGI Way is one which has the ability to empower you to Getting Out of old behavior by Going In for the solutions. GOGI believes that if you take your focus off the problems around you and focus you efforts to fixing the problems within you, you will magically realize there are fewer external problems. By turning your focus inward, you will also identify simple solutions to those seemingly out-of-control problems which once kept you up at night or caused worry during the day.

The GOGI Way empowers you; it creates an opportunity for you to experience freedom, regardless of where you awake each morning. The GOGI perspective is about seeing the world with the knowledge that you can always make a positive decision, even in the most negative of circumstances.

What IS The GOGI Way?

This idea of “The GOGI Way” has people confused. They question if GOGI is a “program” or a “religion” or a twelve step or a club of some sort. GOGI is none of those things. Rather, GOGI is a way of seeing the world in which you live. Just like there can be negative people who go to your church, there can be positive people who go to your church. GOGI helps negative people be more positive, irrespective of their church affiliation. Just like there can be people who succeed in programs and others who fail programs again and again, people who learn the GOGI tools seem to do a better job in their programs. Just like there can be anxious people and relaxed people, GOGI is helpful in getting people to relax.

GOGI is a way of looking at life which helps anyone be better at anything they choose to do. GOGI is similar to, and is consistent with, core human values which are at the foundation of all religions and efforts aiding in the improvement of the human condition. The simple tools taught by GOGI are intended to permit you to do your religion more fully, excel more completely in your programs, and positively unite members of your clubs or organization with a simple language to promote increased levels of positive decision making. GOGI is for anyone, anytime, anyplace, at any age.

WHAT IF The GOGI Way was taught to kids?

If taught to our school children, we are certain there would be more relaxed, positive, and productive citizens as these simple tools are the foundation of positively functioning in society. If each and every child was taught LET GO, FORGIVE, CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY, there would be less dropouts and childhood drug use. If each child was taught BOSS OF MY BRAIN, BELLY BREATHING and FIVE SECOND LIGHTSWITCH, we would have an increased number of children smiling as they sat in overcrowded classrooms. If each child was taught POSITIVE THOUGHTS, POSITIVE WORDS and POSITIVE ACTIONS we would have less bullying of our school children. If we empowered our youngsters with WHAT IF, REALITY CHECK and ULTIMATE FREEDOM, it is likely we would be turning our prisons into colleges and universities because we would be reducing our inmate population so drastically.

It is our belief at GOGI that simple tools for positive decision making are not to be withheld from anyone for any reason. All humans could have the ability to learn simple tools for positive decision making. That is what the organization Getting Out by Going In has set out to do; provide every living human being with the Twelve Tools of GOGI to increase their ability to make positive decisions. We began our work with the incarcerated men, women and children in the United States of America and we are expanding to include every man, woman and child before they create the prison which limits their life experience.

It is said that people who follow The GOGI Way seem to look happier, seem to have a glow about them and that they exude a happiness which comes from within. That is true. Happiness on the inside eventually finds its way outward. GOGI helps people be better people and the internal happiness this creates is inescapable. GOGI is not about polishing the outside, but, rather, empowering the individual to do a reconstruction project from the inside out. This internal happiness is true and right, and is not limited to a select group of individuals. You, too, can include GOGI into your daily life and being to reap the benefits of living your life The GOGI Way.

Can Something So Simple Really Work?

It’s curious to me that something as simple as a set of positive decision making tools can make such a profound difference in the lives of millions of individuals, but that is the fact. The GOGI Way is value added to your life, a way which values life and living and understands that much of your life experience is created within your mind. Through your use of the Twelve Tools of GOGI, you may find the ability to change your world, from the inside out. The best part of all of it is that The GOGI Way is just the way you need it to be to fortify you to become more than you could possibly imagine.

Will I Be Missed?

Earlier today photographer Amir Ali took pictures of me for materials needed to promote Getting Out by Going In as the emerging leader in providing self-corrective education for our nation’s incarcerated men, women and children. As I sat at my computer reviewing hundreds of headshots, I took a long look at the image of the woman on the screen. Rather than focus on which hair was out of place, or the telltale signs of aging around the corners of my eyes, I tried to put myself in a place one hundred years from now, as a distant relative who might stumble across my picture while researching their family lineage. I wondered what they would think about the image they saw. Would the photograph be so outdated that the viewer couldn’t see the depth of my soul or the clothing I spent so much time choosing? One hundred years from now, will the fashion be as drastically different then as it is from what my ancestors wore in 1911?

When I look at photographs, even those from twenty years ago, I spend less time looking at the individual’s face and more time musing on how goofy and awkward they appear. Their hair always looks awful and their clothing looks uncomfortable. Is that the reaction my image might conjure up in the mind of a viewer twenty years from now? Is that what will happen with your own photograph; the picture of yourself you hope will reveal the best image of you?

Each of us hopes to be remembered when it is our time to leave this earth, as if being remembered provides a link for us to linger on earth just a moment or two longer. In the big scheme of things, however, most of us get forgotten within a generation. Your grandchildren, if you have them, are likely to know very little about you and their children may know even less. Ask yourself, what do you know about your great grandfather? Which ancestor was the first to travel to America? Before that, who were your people and from where did they come? Do you know anything significant about their lives? Do you even recall the details of their struggles? Does anyone remember anything more than the general historical brush strokes defining the five or six decades they walked the earth?

The image on the computer screen before me is one of a woman in the year 2011. I see an image of a woman who has faced struggles beyond her ability and yet, somehow, she has overcome them. Will the viewer see that in my eyes? Will they know of my frustrations, my struggles, and the injustices I faced? Will they even wonder what my life was like, what I chose to do on a Saturday morning, or how great my heartbreaks have been along the way? Will they understand the poverty from which I suffered? The education I struggled so hard to obtain? The school loans which will weigh me down for another 25 years? Will anyone see that in the image?

It is inevitable that we all die. It is also inevitable that future generations believe they are so much more advanced than those previous. It is inevitable that our photographs become nothing more than something to laugh at and clothing to criticize. As we become erased from the world’s awareness within 50 years of our passing, what, then, is the importance of our life? Will it matter what car we drive? What home we call ours? The clothes we wear? Will it even matter where we awoke each morning? Will our affiliations and homeboys and neighborhood truly miss us? Who will mourn our absence? Will anyone visit our gravesite year after year?

WHAT IF the finest life we can live is when we focus all our attention on being of service to our immediate environment? WHAT IF our every day efforts were turned toward making wherever we are just a little more peaceful? A little more tidy? A little more friendly? WHAT IF our every day was spent in a little more prayer? Just one more minute of meditation? WHAT IF we sat up straight and walked tall with the knowledge that our life is occurring this very second, not tomorrow and not when we gain our “freedom.”
When I watched my father’s body shrink to the cancer consuming his healthy cells, I was a 24/7 witness to the slipping away of the  unimportant. The ability to drive his car, for example. When that became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When moving about hi s home with freedom and autonomy became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When sitting up in the bed became a multi-person task, he struggled but then LET GO. And toward the end, when mint chocolate chip ice-cream spoon-fed to him no longer tasted good, he LET GO of that, too. At the very end, it was only those seated by his side that mattered and, of that he had no choice but to LET GO. One by one he LET GO of all the things he had held so tightly. In those final moments I believe he came to understand that all he would be taking with him was what he created inside his head and his heart. Everything to which he had a tight grip for so many years was being left behind.

A realization we eventually face is that life goes on and memories of loved ones fade until they disappear with future generations.

Yesterday a family member asked, “When was this picture of Dad taken?”

“2008,” I replied, in full knowledge that in fifty short years no one will even know that the image to which he referred was that of my father.

Will I be missed when it is my turn to LET GO? We are all so busy with “things” we cannot take with us that it appears as if the only thing which is missing is the choice to be present in living each moment to the fullest. We are so busy trying to make our mark, gain our freedom, change the system, impress our families, reunite with loved ones, do good in the neighborhood, seek revenge, get an education, get a good job, and be the boss. We are so busy that we miss the point.

WHAT IF all these things are a distraction from the truth; that none of it matters more than how we respect and embrace this very moment of our life? WHAT IF we will not be remembered in fifty years and that is the just way it is supposed to be? WHAT IF it is not about our legacy as much as it is our willingness to be present with our current environment?

WHAT IF we stop the chatter in our brain just long enough to see the peace we can create in this exact moment? WHAT IF our mind was still enough to hear the sounds which make up our surroundings? Would we hear the laughter coming from someone in joy? Could we hear the cry of another in need? WHAT IF all the trappings of leaving a grand legacy or grabbing the most out of life or fighting for our “freedom” for twenty years is exactly what robs us of our opportunity for inner peace?

Sometimes we are so busy planning for the future that we miss the point of the entire exercise of being human. To experience life with the absence of struggle, we must slow down and find the inner peace which only comes through contributing positively to the life of the individual right next to us. When we place our attention to being an example of integrity, peace, calm demeanor, helpfulness, as well as understanding and support, then we are helping to guide the way of those with whom we come into contact.

Will you be missed when you are gone? The better question is who misses the best of us when we are not present? And, what might happen if we really paid attention to the life unfolding right under our noses? Whose life can we make just a little bit easier today through our POSITIVE THOUGHTS? Whose life can we impact with a POSITIVE WORD? What POSITIVE ACTION can we choose which might serve as an example for others to follow?

I suspect it is not so important to concern ourselves with thinking about family going out of their way to visit, or society making it easy for someone to get back on their feet. Those are thought- consuming distractions to the single most important aspect of life; when you are not being of service then the best part of you is being missed. When you are blinded by the illusion of importance of certificates or groups or politics or legal paperwork it is then that you miss the point. Ask yourself, of the people right next to you, how many lives have you made better by a simple gesture, an act of kindness? With whom did you share something without requesting something in return? Was the best part of you missed today?

In one hundred years I will be forgotten. You, too, will be forgotten. And all your friends will be forgotten. I promise you one thing; you will be missed about as much as you miss your great grandmother. But, you do not need to be missed in your life right now. When you choose to be present, the very best part of your life will not be missed by anyone.

No matter how impossible it may appear at the moment, each one of us can choose to be present in the lives of every living thing with which we come into contact. If we are not making that choice, then we are missing our finest opportunity.

As I close the computer file with the images of a woman I recognize as myself, I am reminded that with every moment I am not focusing on the present, I am missed. The fact is; images fade and lives end. The world continues to turn with an entirely new crop of humans who, with each and every generation, struggle to make their mark, all the while missing the point.

Being missed is what happens when we do not pay attention to the subtle details of our everyday life. What matters most in all our lives is not the great works we do, or the great wealth or power we accumulate, or the physical freedom for which we strive. What matters most is how keen our eye is focused on identifying and assisting those in need; those who suffer right next to us.

We are missed when we are not making our immediate surroundings more peaceful, pleasant, supportive and positive for those who find themselves in our presence. When we practice being present to those things within five feet of our reach, it is only then that our legacy is experienced in real time. Rather than ask, “will I be missed?” we can ask ourselves, “what part of life am I missing?”

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