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Mindfulness Lessons from My HIV Support Group

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I used to hang out with ex-convicts, recovering addicts, former prostitutes, homeless men and women, and the occasional drag queen. Several of us, including me, had mental and behavioral health diagnoses. All of us were living with HIV.

I led a Thursday support group for HIV positive men at a center in Greensboro, North Carolina called Higher Ground, a community safe space for men and women living with HIV and mental illness. I would walk in the front door to the cheer of “Kevin!” and be served some of the best fried fish I’ve ever tasted, homemade potato salad, collard greens, and as the sign above the percolator read, “Coffee as strong as love and black as Hell.” Jerry sang “His Eye is On the Sparrow” with a bass that shook the furniture, and saying grace sometimes took five minutes before the “amen.” It was a dose of the real-real world: more real than anything on social media or Bravo. It was compassionate and raw, gorgeous and often messy.

Six of us gathered in the middle room of the house after lunch. Three on one couch, two on the other. Andy sat in a green plastic lawn chair by the window. Andy shows up when he needs to be there, so I know when he’s there, he definitely needs it. He’s good at taking care of himself. He is self contained, tight and sinewy strong, hidden beneath layers of baggy clothing and dreadlocks that reach his lower back. He looks like a vine—twisted, knotty and tenacious. He thrives best in rocky soil in spite of the elements. Sometimes he comes to the group and stares out the window saying nothing for the full 90 minutes. This Thursday, he spoke.

It had been awhile since he’d joined us, so I asked him to ring the singing bowl to get us started. He rang it so softly it barely registered. I opened my eyes, “Did you ring the bowl, Andy?”

“I did ring it,” he replied softly, “I hit it real soft. It lasts even longer than if you ring it real hard.”

“Would you mind ringing it one more time?”

I strained to hear it, waiting for the sound to grow and wash over me like it usually did. Instead, it came to the edge, touched my toes and backed off. The six of us meditated for several minutes, took one slow deep breath together, and opened our eyes. Andy turned away from the window and said, “I got something I wanna say at the start today.”

I prayed, “Please God don’t let him go off on a rant.” Instead, he told us a story.

“The loudest sound you ever gonna hear is silence. True silence be louder than anything else around it. There be a Sanskrit word…ancient word called mauna and it means silence. It’ll come down from heaven and wash over you, or tap you on the shoulder in the middle of a crowd. Sometimes it’s there when you meditate, other times it be in the chaos, in the middle of a bomb exploding or somebody murdering somebody right next to you. Them times it be harder to find but it’s still there underneath everything.”

His black eyes scanned us, asking if we were with him. Our faces said yes, brother, yes.

“Why do there be so much noise in the world? Why? Because people be afraid of the silence…of that dark quiet because for them it’s so loud, and they don’t understand it. But in that dark quiet God speaks to you underneath the white noise that just don’t mean nothing. Look at it like this: You got a 60 by 35 foot room. Now, in this room there be 44 men. Twelve of them be playing cards and yelling, and another 12 be watching the TV… You got another three or four listening to the radio, all listening to different channels, two of them just be sitting there, breathing, staring off into space, but still making noise, adding to the chaos.”

He looked beyond the window to a memory of the prison common room.

“Then the rest of them be fussing, arguing or maybe they be lifting weights… ain’t none of them listening to the silence. They all do their best to block it out because it be so loud. It may make them have to take a good, hard look at themselves, and they might hear something in that silence they ain’t ready to hear just yet. Twenty-one years in prison… it wasn’t ever quiet. Not once in all them years. I had to learn to listen for that silence in the middle of the chaos…to find my peace, because everything there in that small space, in them small rooms…was doing everything it could to block out that silence and keep me from hearing it. They used to… the guards, they did… they used to have this big metal coffee pot. And anytime someone wanted to go in or out the cell block, or anytime anyone was coming or going, they would rap on that coffee pot. Three times for going, and four times for coming with a big metal spoon. All hours of the night. Some cells had televisions. TV would be on all night and all day long. No silence ever.”

He paused to tie his shoelace and continued.

“So you gotta find your own way. Because maybe you get up at 6 and wash, and help the doctor sew somebody up who got stabbed that night during all that noise. Or you work in the kitchen and no matter how much you didn’t sleep, you still gotta get up at 3 and start making the biscuits. The inmates don’t care if you didn’t sleep last night because it was too loud. They want their breakfast. That’s all they care about. And so you got to find that silence, that darkness behind the eyes, that place that is a peace beyond all understanding… that place you go right before you sleep, when you’re still awake but you ain’t, and you gotta stay there and wait for the voice of God. You lean in closer and it’ll teach you things.

Bob, sitting next to me, asked, “What things, Andy? What things will it teach you?”

“That be up to you and what you signed up to learn in this life. Whatever you is supposed to hear, if you get quiet enough in your mind, you’ll hear it. You know the best thing I ever learned from the TV?” He waited.

“What’s the best thing you learned from the TV?” I asked.

“The TV be exactly like the mind. Whatever you think up here,” he tapped between his eyebrows, “you make happen in the world. We create and destroy with our mind. We get stuck in a dark hole and live there. We think other people be monsters when they are just as scared of us as we are of them. The problem with most of us now is we never have a break from our minds. We forget that the TV be on 24/7, playing something all day and night. Used to be that all the channels would go off after 2 in the morning. They’d be a long beep, then silence and then snow. But the TV was still on. Static noise. That’s not the darkness, not the silence I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you turn off the TV.”

“You remember how it would slowly fade down to that little white dot in the center? That dot would stay there surrounded by blackness. Then it would go away. That’s the silence. You got to get yourself to that little white dot in the middle of that black screen and stay there, breathe there, be happy there. The first time it happens it’s gonna scare you because it’s gonna be so quiet you ain’t gonna know what to do with yourself, and then it’s too late. You started thinking again. You turned the TV back on.” He chuckled at the irony.

“Finding that silence… and listening to it speaking louder than any of the loudest noises is what got me through prison. It gets me through when a problem comes up now. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t chase it. Just sit with it and it’ll come and find you.”

We stayed silent, taking in the wholeness of an unbroken man who had served time, and who served us wisdom. For me, living with bipolar disorder and HIV and finding solace from fear and shame, depression and hypomania has been a long, loud journey. But Andy is right. Occasionally during meditation, underneath the chaos in my head there’s another voice speaking without words. He sounds like me, he is whole, and he loves me very much.

If you saw Andy, you’d most likely walk the other way and he’d be glad you did. However, you’d have missed an opportunity. There are the unlikeliest angels among us. Our saints and prophets are faceless, don’t get three square meals a day and often don’t smell too good. When I hugged him that Thursday, he embraced me as a brother. “Thank you, Andy,” I smiled, and he smiled back. That day, I was blessed by one of the wisest men I’ve ever met.

Originally published: July 12, 2021
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