For people in prison, forgiving themselves is not easy. They may have committed murder, rape, or assault, sold drugs or stolen. Coming to terms with the impact of their actions requires time, courage, and a depth of honest self-examination that not everyone is ready or willing to do. Fortunately, in an increasing number of prisons around the United States, they have help. Therapist Robin Casarjian, founder and director of the Lionheart Foundation, has brought her “Houses of Healing” program to all fifty states and trained well over 2,000 corrections professionals. The Canadian Correctional System has even incorporated the program into their offender management system.
Through the program, prisoners participate in a process of becoming more self-aware, of understanding why they made the choices they did, and ultimately taking responsibility for the impact on their victims. For many of those who re-enter society, the change in behavior and attitude is palpable. But even for those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, Houses of Healing offers inspiring benefits. As one prisoner put it, “I’ve finally found someone who looked into my heart and soul. You identified the secreted anger, loss, pain, denial and causes of criminal behavior. You gave us a practical and spiritual guide out of this nightmare time loop in hell.”
We spoke with Robin Casarjian about how she views the “core self” of every human being, no matter how heinous their crime, and the real work it takes to forgive and move on.
SC: In your book, you say “Rather than being an easy way out of your past, selfforgiveness calls for total confrontation.” What are some of the common misconceptions you have encountered about self-forgiveness?
RC: The most common is that people won’t confront their past and really do “the work” of forgiveness. Selfforgiveness is not absolving oneself of responsibility or condoning behavior that is hurtful, abusive, or that lacks integrity. Self-forgiveness should never be equated with avoidance of guilt or remorse for the past. In fact feeling remorse and regret for pain one has caused or for bad decisions one has made is part of the healing process. It is not taking a righteous attitude. “I’ll forgive myself because God or whomever has forgiven me”, when, in truth, one hasn’t done the inner work and soul-searching that is necessary for inner healing. Rather than being an easy way out, self-forgiveness calls for total confrontation. This is not to shame a person, but to acknowledge the truth. Ultimately, the truth heals. They can’t fully forgive themselves until they tell the truth about what they have done and how it has impacted others.
But before the prisoners even get to that point they have done a lot of work on self-awareness. Our whole framework is based on the idea that we all have a core nature of goodness, courage, wisdom, love, and compassion, and the work that they are doing is to help them to not only understand this intellectually, but to align with this core nature energetically. That is why meditation and selfregulation techniques are taught and encouraged. They help the prisoners, as they would help anyone, to let go of their primary identification with their fear, emotions and limiting beliefs and begin to tap into the reality of this core Self.
We don’t try and say “do this for the good of the world, or do this because it is the right thing to do.” We really pitch it in a very self-serving way. If you make these changes, you will keep your power. If you make these changes, you will have control over your life.
SC: You talk about the distinction between the sub-personality and being the observer. How does being the observer help the prisoners?
RC: The observer helps us not get caught up in our thoughts, emotions and roles to a degree where it becomes selfdefeating and creates a barrier to the experience of the core Self. The core functions of the Self are awareness and free will. So much of our life we live in reaction and in habitual patterns. Shifting our identification to the core ‘Self‘ helps us step out of habitual reactions so that when we are triggered we can choose to respond differently. We can have our emotions and not be overwhelmed by them. We come to realize that there is a part of us that is greater, stronger and more powerful than passing urges, judgments, and conditional reactions.
SC: You say that forgiveness is never a one-time event. Why is that so important?
RC: So that when anger arises toward people you feel you forgave, you don’t get discouraged or discount the forgiveness. With many individuals we have been angry at, even if we forgive, our judgments and fear might get triggered and we feel hurt, rejected, frightened, and angry again. Once we become aware of this we can step back, see the bigger picture, and choose to forgive once again. That is where the objective observer comes in. We can stand back and see that a person who is habitually controlling, irresponsible, or abusive, is acting out on their own woundedness. With forgiveness, we stop taking others actions so personally. We see fear for what it is, set boundaries, and take decisive action when it is called for – but all while keeping our heart open in the process. We may have to forgive the same person many times. It doesn’t necessarily last over time – because all we have is the moment.
SC: You refer to Raymond Moody’s work with near death experiences where people actually die and experience what he calls a “life review” before returning to their bodies. How is what you are doing with prisoners similar to a life review?
RC: We encourage the prisoners to go back over their whole life and see the things that influenced them, where they have made turns in the road, the good choices they have made, the not good choices they have made, the unresolved grief, the losses they have had, the unresolved grief around those losses.
Participants are encouraged to stand back and really reflect upon the question, “Who am I, really?” This opens up a door for them to see that they are more than the roles, the pain, the loss, and all the things that have propelled them to this point in their life and help them feel and heal some of the losses, anger, and shame. There is so much shame because so many incarcerated men and women come from highly abusive backgrounds. The goal of the program is an emotional healing process that can’t happen unless you go back and review your life. They are given the tools to begin to heal some of that.
One of the phrases that we use in the professional training with the youth is this idea of bringing “relentless positive regard” to the people we are working with. I have always found that if you relate to prisoners in a way that is respectful, and practice what you preach in terms of doing the meditation and centering exercises, that helps to bring the best of yourself to the work. Prisoners are very responsive to being related to with respect and positive regard – especially since these are extremely rare in the prison environment. This also creates a context in which the prisoners are most likely to feel safe to engage in what is often the very challenging and difficult work of healing past trauma and being willing to open to the pain.
Some offender programs are really based upon a shaming approach – this not only doesn’t lead to healing, it undermines the possibility of healing.
So much of our life we live in reaction and in habitual patterns. Shifting our identification to the core ‘Self’ helps us step out of habitual reactions so that when we are triggered we can choose to respond differently. We can have our emotions and not be overwhelmed by them.
SC: We certainly hear a lot about people who find Jesus or Allah in prison. What is the distinction between that and the work you are doing?
RC: As I point out in Houses of Healing, emotional and spiritual healing are intertwined. One supports the other. The work of healing emotional wounds opens the way for a deeply rooted spirituality. When you ignore the emotional work and get involved only with religion, there is the potential for ending up with a kind of immature version that is intolerant and that can quickly wear thin when confronted with challenging times. If you embrace the light, without embracing the dark – doing some of the emotional work of breaking through denial, pain, anger or self-hatred, then religion can be used as an escape rather than a means for healing. It is like big brother has come to save me, but I still haven’t done what I need to do to save myself.
SC: Do you think that is why your program works for prisoners who tried all kinds of other things unsuccessfully?
RC: A lot of people have gone through various types of programs, but many programs don’t touch on the trauma or lost childhoods of these individuals. When you begin to work on this, a big piece of a puzzle that has been missing gets put into place and they become more whole as a result.
This is very pivotal for a lot of the inmates. Prior to dealing with “lost childhoods” they couldn’t understand what was propelling them. They become more integrated and mature rather than being run by an inner eight-year old emotionally. They begin to access more of the strength and wisdom within them. Meditation is a very important part of the process of integrating what they are learning as well.
Rather than being an easy way out, self-forgiveness calls for total confrontation. This is not to shame a person, but to acknowledge the truth. Ultimately, the truth heals.
We can’t choose what we don’t yet know exists. If you don’t know what is propelling you and you don’t know that there is a different way of looking at the world, your options for living from the best in yourself are limited. This work opens up new possibilities for people.
SC: You say in Houses of Healing that we are all spiritual beings by nature. What do you mean by that?
RC: This whole program is predicated on the idea that we all have a core of goodness, wisdom, love, and compassion. I believe that is part of our wiring as human beings. But, in order to align with that, it particularly takes work for people who have not had any positive mirroring in their life or people who have not had love, compassion, and emotional maturity modeled for them. I think that even if you have had that, you get to a certain point in your life where you want to develop your spiritual life. It is a process you have to be engaged in to align with that core Self. And the more you align with your core Self, the more you open up to a reality that is even bigger than yourself. You connect to something larger.
SC: How is the work with the high-risk youth similar or different to the work with adults?
BC: Any curriculum that is designed for youth really has to be sensitive to the stage salient tasks of adolescents. That would be things like developing a sense of identity as a developmental task, individuation, autonomy, and risk as a part of adolescence. Looking at risk behavior and looking at managing this behavior. It is this escalation of negative behavior that gets kids put on that trajectory of going to a prison.
SC: You are catching them when they are still in the process of developing an identity?
BC: Exactly. Am I a criminal? Am I not a criminal? Who am I? We have a very specific model of self that we use. What the consistent studies show us is that people who see themselves as offenders will act in ways that align with those behaviors. People who don’t see themselves as offenders will act in ways that will align with non-offending. It really is working with people in developing a different identity than the one they have.
It is very different to work with adolescents. If you look at where people are in terms of contemplating change, most adult prisoners are way further along in that cycle. There are a lot of them really ready to change. You’re less likely to find that with youth.
We look at it from a developmental perspective. An adult is really at a generative stage of their life. They are focusing on work, how can they be a better parent, how can they mend some of the relationships that they have broken in the past. With “Power Source” you are really looking at different things. How do we prevent them from going so far down the line that they need “Houses of Healing”?
We do have a lot of empathy development. If no one shows you empathy, you are not going to have those skills, most likely, and you are not really going to be motivated to not offend. You don’t see the victim in the same way. We really work on developing those skills that they didn’t get. We ask them to look at their victims. We ask them to look at the impact that they have caused. Most of the young people we are working with have done things like stolen, they sold drugs, vandalized something, or even held someone up, but most of them are not in for murder or rape. I don’t mean to minimize the impact of their crimes, but if we can stop them there, that’s great.
A lot of offender programs make the kids write a letter of apology. But, that kid is not ready to apologize.
SC: How do you get their attention?
BC: We play a lot of games. We don’t try and say “do this for the good of the world, or do this because it is the right thing to do.” We really pitch it in a very self-serving way. If you make these changes, you will keep your power. If you make these changes, you will have control over your life. If you don’t make these changes, let us guarantee you will be back here and you won’t have control and power. They hate it. The mantra we hear over and over again is that “I hate it when someone tells me to eat, someone tells me when I can go to the bathroom, and someone tells me when I can take a shower.” Until you make changes, you are a high-risk life style. Someone will continue to have that power over you. We sell them in a very selfish way.
SC: It is contrary to the traditional “we are going to go in and save the kids” approach.
BC: “We are going to pound the good into them.” Right, and it doesn’t work. A lot of offender programs make the kids write a letter of apology. But, that kid is not ready to apologize. They still blame the victim. They are so angry at their family for not taking care of them. They haven’t done the work to get to that place. We always say if you apologize before you are ready to apologize, it is like putting whip cream on garbage. It doesn’t work. We do so much work before hand, but we look at what work they need to do before they are ready to apologize. Some of them can’t even admit that what they did was wrong. We step way back and we say what are the steps they need to take to get to that place and where do we spend our time and energy in the short time we have with them. If you are not ready, don’t. Work on Steps One and Two first before you get to Step Three.
SC: What inspires you to keep going with this?
BC: I think it works. I think some kids come into the program and they are going to stay out of the system. Without something in place like that, they would have very different lives. You see the kids who are ready to listen to it. You see how it empowers them. A lot of it is through the program. But, a lot of it is through the relationships with the people who are delivering the intervention. Ultimately in many ways, “Power Source” is a relationship-based intervention. If somebody is seeing the core self in that kid for the first time and giving them that reflection, it might be the first time that kid ever looked into someone’s eyes that saw them as good. That is a really powerful experience.
The work of healing emotional wounds opens the way for a deeply rooted spirituality. When you ignore the emotional work and get involved only with religion, there is the potential for ending up with a kind of immature version that is intolerant and that can quickly wear thin when confronted with challenging times.
Robin Casarjian’s work deals with prisoners after the fact – once they’ve already offended and are facing the consequences. But what if they could be reached beforehand? How many lives might be saved and forever altered if young offenders and teenagers could get the same training before they began committing serious crimes?
After the California Youth Authority ordered 300 copies of Houses of Healing and requests began to pour in for a similar program for teens, Robin Casarjian’s niece Bethany decided to take up the challenge. A Ph.D in school psychology, Casarjian is the Clinical Director of The Lionheart Foundation’s National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth At-Risk and the co-author of Power Source: Taking Charge of Your Life and author of Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids. She spoke with SuperConsciousness about how she had adapted her aunt’s work for a younger generation.
For more information about Robin and Bethany Casarjian’s work, visit www.lionheart.org