God is Good. Always.

Last night, I was not awakened by a coconut.

This is very good news.

You may wonder why I am awakened by coconuts at all.

It’s rainy season (aka hurricane season) here, and it rains for some portion of every day and night. Torrential rains. Enormous, unbelievable quantities of water fall from the sky.

And knock coconuts off the palm trees, which hit the neighbors’ cars, setting off the alarms.

Usually around 3 am.

A good night’s sleep is not something I take for granted.

Every day that I teach I have moments of despair. And then moments when someone understands, experiences some insight, opens their heart.

After challenging the juvenile group on Monday morning with our ideas about the possibility that we humans are all alike, despite the superficial differences we insist on constructing, we move to the auditorium to attend the graduation ceremonies for the Journey to Freedom program. The women’s class is cancelled today, because many of them have participated in Journey to Freedom and will be receiving certificates.

For those of you who are not familiar with prison environments: certificates are important. Anything that can go into an inmate’s file, that shows that s/he has done something inside to try to better themselves, is potential evidence that might sway a parole board.

From what we understand, parole boards in Belize are not often swayed, no matter how much good a person has done during their incarceration.

We’ve seen the Journey to Freedom book in the cell block; it was written by a guy from Tennessee who is present at the graduation and speaks about his own struggles with addiction and the choices we all have to make each day. It turns out that the entire Journey to Freedom program at the Belize Central Prison is offered in cooperation with his group; several people are visiting from Tennessee.

Everyone stands for the singing of both the Belize and U.S. national anthems. This is the second graduation this year, and at the first 2016 graduation, one of the folks from Tennessee felt that both anthems should be sung, to emphasize the close ties between the countries.

I find this ironic, given the lines in the Belizean anthem about throwing off despots and tyrants.

There are speeches about persevering through the trials and tribulations of prison, about the inmates using this time to move their lives forward. Hopes that those who have completed the program will encourage others to join. Lots of quotes from the Bible, and several testimonies from inmates who have gone through the program. Even in the graduation ceremony, the women, who are the ones who invited us, can’t stop fussing at each other, and the guards have to remove a couple of them for a chat, then return them to the room.

The group is reassured repeatedly that their lives are part of a greater plan. God’s plan. Every single thing that has happened to them is part of The Plan.

I know there are inmates who are not Christian, and the program is optional, but it’s clearly favored. The ceremony is evangelical, not ecumenical. (And I should disclose here, for those who don’t read my blog regularly, that I am not Christian: I converted from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism about 15 years ago. The graduation ceremony reminds me why: I admired and was inspired by the faith into which I was baptized and confirmed, but I saw no path to get from where I was to the values it espoused. Buddhism provided practical tools for change. And, however imperfectly I practice, I know it works.)

When we were asked about teaching CBCT at the Belize Central Prison, we emphasized that it is a secular program. I provided materials and web links explaining the background and curriculum. It isn’t aligned with any faith, nor does it conflict with any faith traidition.

It turns out that CBCT is one of only two secular programs at the prison. The other one is New Freedom, an evidence-based gang intervention program.

We were told that both meditation and yoga have been taught in the prison. We weren’t told that many people objected to this.

We were more than a little surprised to find out how thoroughly Christian the prison environment is. We’re constantly asked what church we’re from, if we’re missionaries. Both guards and inmates are puzzled by our response, that we’re from a university, not a church.

A version of the CBCT protocol was developed for a specific population, drawing its teaching examples from the Bible and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. We very deliberately didn’t adapt that curriculum for this course, because of the multi-cultural, multi-religions composition of the society.

In such a religious atmosphere, what we are teaching is subversive. We’re talking about people empowering themselves by gaining control over their own minds and actions. We’re teaching about taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences, and yet holding ourselves and others in compassion. We’re teaching that we can change our minds, which will change our actions, which will change our lives. And what is being broadcast all day through the loudspeakers is submission to the will of God.

We’ve had a few challenging conversations. Someone saw our singing bowl, which has a Buddha image on its inner base. The bowl was a last-minute purchase from Amazon when T. realized, a few days before our departure, that he had given away the small bowl that he had planned to bring on the trip. He didn’t deliberately pick one with an image of the Buddha, only the smallest bowl he could get delivered in two days. But when one of the students saw it, he exclaimed, “That’s Black Magic!”

And that was the same response that met my attempts to teach some chair yoga to settle down the boys. I explained that yoga is neither Satanic nor magical, simply an ancient system of movement and meditation.

I get a little more traction when I express surprise that the boys aren’t paying more attention to meditation practice, since so many top athletes do it, including the L.A. Lakers, and that yoga is incorporated into many training programs.

We’ve also tried walking meditation to get the boys to calm down. I really would like to have them go out and do a few laps around the soccer field before class.  Honestly, we’re asking teenagers to do two things that are not natural for teenagers:

1. Sit still

2. Be quiet

And we are asking them to do two things that conflict with their boisterous culture:

1. Sit still

2. Be quiet

In the afternoon, T. has an opportunity to have a conversation with one of the inmates who has been attending our class regularly. It turns out that the guys like us, but some are staying away from the class (and some are attending but sleeping through it) because they don’t understand what we’re talking about, and don’t want to be the one to say that. This inmate is training to be a reading tutor, so they’re able to have a conversation about education levels. We need to simplify our language even more than we have. And I need to speak much, much more slowly.

The greater issue is that the guys were forced to attend the program, and weren’t told in advance what it was about. A group of them was ordered to the chapel the day we started teaching, and they resent being mandated to attend a course that they feel conflicts with their religious beliefs. T. asks the inmate if he can get the guys come back, so we can discuss the religion issue.

I’ve had several inmates hit on me, and some ask for my address and phone number. But none as suave or forceful as the guy who proposed to me today. It’s the last straw in this frustrating day. This is the same guy who provided us with a new definition of compassion: “When my daughter misbehaves, and I whip her, but don’t beat her to death, that’s compassion.”

This is what my life has been missing: a husband who still has a decade to serve on his murder conviction, who admits to being aggressive, who would never be able to get a visa for the U.S., who has no means of supporting me, and who admits to whipping his daughter.

Oh, and he has a girlfriend.

And he’s wearing a wedding ring.

Exactly what I’m looking for in a life partner.

I wonder how long it would be before that whip was turned on me?

Some years ago, someone asked our teacher, who developed CBCT, whether it was worth all the expense and effort to maintain a Buddhist center in Atlanta. His reply was succinct: “If just one person gets it, it’s all worth it.”

T. and I hold on to these words. We know we have helped more than one person perceive their world and their possibilities differently.

In closing, I leave you with this photograph of sharks eating sardines, taken with my GoPro last weekend when T. and I were snorkeling the barrier reef off the coast of Belize.

It’s the best description I can give you of how I am feeling right now: that I am one of the sardines.





© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any way without permission of the author.


Shootout at the OK Corral

In addition to teaching at the prison on Mondays and Wednesdays, we’re scheduled to teach two additional classes, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One is for parents in a disadvantaged neighborhood, riddled with gang violence. The other is to be for teachers at a school in that same neighborhood.

It turns out they’re talking about our neighborhood. Walk up the Boulevard to the grocery store, turn right, and then, oddly, there’s a dirt road on the right, with two policemen stationed there.

The Bloods, The Crips, and The Mayflower Gang have been at war with each other for years.

I’m still not sure if we live on the Bloods side of the Boulevard, or the Crips side of the Boulevard. Or if Bloods and Crips live on both sides of the Boulevard. But we sure know where Mayflower (aka Ghostown) is.

On Thursday afternoon, the day after our first prison classes, we meet with Deborah from the Love Foundation. She and I had been in touch via Skype, and we’re happy to finally meet in person. She’s warm, and a savvy leader. At the foundation offices, she introduces us to Karl, the unofficial mayor of the Mayflower neighborhood — the “worst” neighborhood in Belize City. We talk about the issues confronting the population, and she asks if we’re willing to take a tour. Of course we are. I ask if it would be offensive if I take photographs, and Karl assures me it won’t be. I immediately like these people, and have confidence in them. I’m happy to be working with them.

imageIt’s not the worst slum T. or I have seen. We’ve both spent a lot of time in India. Most of the people live in something that could be called a house, and most of those have electricity and indoor plumbing. But there are unpaved roads, dirt lanes barely wide enough for one person, amidst houses that are constructed on top of another, too close for comfort, separated only by rusted corrugated iron sheets.

imageOur class comprises mostly women, and a few men, mainly, but not exclusively, from Mayflower. And they don’t get along. There are several sub-groups; we identify three the first night and will identify more as the course goes on.


The women have a lot in common: Poverty. Only two of them are employed. Low educational levels (they read at about a sixth grade level, on average). Babies, but no men in the house. There are only two intact families in an area with 250 people.


One of the women who is employed, who has an associate’s degree, applied for numerous positions but was turned down for all of them as soon as she had to give her address to her potential employer. No one wants to hire someone who lives in Mayflower. Finally a woman at her school, who had been mentoring and encouraging her, put in an application at a bank on the girl’s behalf. In the interview, the young woman gave a fake address, and was hired.

And then she got a promotion, and there came a point where she could no longer hide her address. She expected to be fired. She wasn’t. It’s a huge step forward.


And yet, instead of coming together around their common challenges, the people in this neighborhood have found ways to create divisions among themselves. There’s hope that what we are teaching will open a bit of a crack in that, and also that we might identify some people who themselves could become teachers, or peer leaders.

The politician responsible for the area, who is well-funded to do community redevelopment, has stated publicly that he does not need the votes of these people to stay in office, and so he does not care about them or how they live. This is a man with a sixth-grade education, who worked as a laborer before he was elected. But now he is wealthy, having accumulated a real estate empire while in office.

T. and I arrive a few minutes early for our second class with this group; we’re scheduled to teach from 5 to 7 pm. We’re setting up, chatting, when we hear the gunshots. Close. Move to the window to see if we can figure out where they’re coming from. See a teenager running through the church yard next to our classroom building. And then we see the gun. He’s chasing someone, and firing, and the police are chasing him and firing. We dive for the floor behind a concrete wall.

We’re laughing, partly to release the fear and tension, partly because this is just so ludicrous: we’re here to teach a compassion meditation course, and we’re lying on the floor of our classroom dodging stray bullets.

The shooter disappears into the twisted shrubbery at the edge of the church yard.

More police. And a TV camera. The police back up a shiny blue pickup truck to the fence, and make a big show of climbing over the fence to get into the church yard — instead of walking through the open gate 20 feet away.

For one brief moment, before we hit the floor, I had thought about grabbing the GoPro, and filming the whole thing. Then I realized that I wouldn’t want any of these people — not the shooter, not the police, not the neighbors — to know that I had that footage.

Fewer than a third of our students show up for class. We check in with them, ask how they are feeling. Everyone says they are fine, until I admit that I am shaky. And then others acknolwedge that they are, too. We do some meditation to center and calm everyone. They ask us if we’re too afraid to keep teaching the class. We assure them we’ll be back.

And they ask if they can leave early, because the power has been cut to the neighborhood, and they don’t want to walk home in the dark. Not tonight. It seems it’s customary for the police to cut the power when there’s a shooting. Makes perfect sense to me. You’re looking for a shooter and his intended victim, and a gun that’s been hidden somewhere, and it’s so much easier to find people and guns in the dark. And besides, you get to inconvenience the residents of an entire neighborhood. Including us, because no electricity means no water pressure.

This is a little more than we signed up for. We truly weren’t prepared to have The Shoot-Out at the OK Corral re-enacted in front of our classroom building.

We still haven’t seen the beautiful part of Belize. But now we’ve seen the dangerous part. And suddenly I realize how vulnerable I am.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced, in any form, without permission of the author.


Astral Projection, Voudoun, and Ganja

After unpacking our bags the first day, we walk across the street to the grocery store, then up the boulevard to try to find a Chinese restaurant that was recommended to us. We’re puzzled by the restaurants we pass, certain that none is the one intended. None of them has any place to sit down; the storefronts are protected by steel mesh, with a small hole through which you place your order, pay, and receive your food.

Realizing we’ve missed the restaurant, we walk up the road a bit to the river and stand on the bridge, enjoying the breeze. When we return to the business our landlords own, they are frantic. “Where did you go?” they want to know.

“We were trying to find the Chinese restaurant, but we couldn’t, so we took a walk.”

They are shocked. “You’re very adventurous.”

“We just passed a lot of school children wearing uniforms and carrying their backpacks,” we replied. We had chatted with some of them, asking what grade they were in, what their favorite subject was.

“Does this neighborhood feel dangerous to you?” T. asks at one point. “No,” I replied. This is where experience comes in. What we’ve seen so far looks a lot like so many towns in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, South America, the Caribbean. We’re in the tropics, in an area that is not particularly wealthy. The traffic is less frantic here than other places we have traveled. No tuk-tuks, fewer motorcycles than Asia. Drivers usually obey stop signs, traffic lights, cross-walks.

Still, M. & G. warn us to stay on the boulevard and other main streets, and not to walk into the neighborhood behind us, and particularly not into the neighborhood further up the road. We will soon find out why.

The guy at the front counter of the grocery store checks us out, in every sense of that word. He asks me if we’re tourists. No, I reply, we’re here to volunteer at the prison. He translates my answer into Spanish for his companion, who raises his eyebrows in surprise. I make it clear that we’re connected to people in the neighborhood. The faster words gets onto the street about why we’re here, the safer we will be, G. had said. We soon realize that we are the only Anglos living anywhere near here.

We like our apartment, except for not having air conditioning. For a few hours each day it is unbearably warm, with the sun beating in through the windows. Theoretically, we don’t have hot water, but what comes out of the tap is warmed by the sun, and only a few degrees cooler than what I would choose, if I had the ability to choose.

Home in Belize City. We live in the upstairs apartment. Several iguanas live in our yard.
Home in Belize City. We live in the upstairs apartment. We have to unlock the gate in the fence, then the steel outer door, and then wooden front door to get in. Several iguanas live in our yard. We have not been successful in adopting one as a pet. 

Someone told me that Belize was beautiful, but dangerous, and that the airport was the sketchiest one he had ever been in. Aside from some extended questioning by the customs guy, it was like any other airport in the less-developed world. And, quite frankly, they processed people faster than most places. It was far better than landing at Ljubljana at 11 pm, or Yogyacarta at 10 pm, or Kosovo at 2 am, or the old Delhi airport any time of the day or night.

The house across the street. Not kept up quite as well as ours. The guy who lives there is frequently drunk, and kicks the dog when he is. I suppose that is better than kicking his wife, who has a thriving business selling food out of the stall in front of the house.
The house across the street. Falling apart, which is standard for the neighborhood. The guy who lives there is frequently drunk, and kicks the dog when he is. I suppose that is better than kicking his wife, who has a thriving business selling food out of the stall in front of the house. You may not recognize that as a food stall, but that is what it is. 

Our easiest class at the prison is the one we were most concerned about: the adult men. They are taking the class by choice; a number of them are in an addiction recovery program; and several have visited or lived in the U.S. The literacy level is much higher than among the women or the juveniles. They participate actively, ask questions, spark lively discussions. Class is held in the chapel, and we’re perplexed about why one side of the room is full, while the other side is empty, until someone explains that the breeze is much better on the full side, and the ceiling fans are too noisy to be used. Someone has paid for brand-new, auditorium-style upholstered seats in the building. Unfortunately, they’re very comfortable, and the class is right after lunch. In a warm room, it’s hard to keep everyone awake.

We make a standard statement at the beginning of every meditation course: There are no stupid questions. If you have a question about something, probably someone else in the room has the same question, and is afraid to ask. And we probably had the same question when we were first learning.

We won’t say that any more.

Because we were not prepared to answer questions about the relationship between meditation and astral projection. Nor could we put mindfulness and compassion into the proper context for the Voudoun practioner who claims to be able to place thoughts into other people’s minds. Nor did we wish to address claims that the best way to meditate is with ganja.

I did my rational, science-based best with that last issue, discussing the difference between state changes and trait changes; how one does not necessarily lead to the other; and that meditation is a demonstrated way to develop permanent, positive trait changes.

Total waste of breath.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be used or reproduced in any way without permission of the author.

Where old school buses go to die

The iPhone has failed me again. I set my alarm for 5 am, got up, dressed, made coffee and toast, and then checked the time again, seeing with shock that it was time for us to leave to catch the 6 am bus to the prison. And no noise or light from T.’s room. I knocked. He finally answered. “It’s time to leave,” I said.


“It’s 5:54.”

He grabbed his phone. “It’s 3:54. Your phone didn’t update.  Go back to bed.”

Which I did, fully clothed, but couldn’t fall asleep again.

The bus itself had been a saga. First we were told that there was no bus to the prison, only a bus to Hattieville, the closest town, from which we would have to take a taxi. Then, there was a bus for the prison, but it picks up at the junction, and that’s too far away for us to walk. Then it turns out the junction is across the street from the Shell station at the end of our block. But someone will pick us up at 8 am at the sign shop and drive us to the prison in time for our 9 am class. No, the prison bus will come at 8 and stops outside the sign shop.

Actually, the prison bus picks up the guards at 6 am at the Shell station. As we walk up the block toward the station we’re wondering where, exactly, the bus will stop, and then, crossing the plaza, T. spots a man and woman in black uniforms. The man is wearing a baseball cap that says “PRISON” in white letters. (Now we know why we were told not to wear all-black outfits to teach.) We introduce ourselves and they show us to the bus stop. And answer our questions about how to get to the water taxis (a 20-minute walk) and to the museum (flag down a taxi, it’s BZ$7 [US$3.50]).

The female guard warns us it will be hot inside the prison. We expected that. Since T. has just returned from a month in India, he’s a bit acclimated to the temperatures. But I’ve been in Northern Ireland, and it’s 50F hotter here than where I was a week ago.

The guards’ uniforms, black polyester, long pants and long sleeves, remind me of my reaction to the abaya in the UAE: I felt that being covered up in the sun in Dubai wasn’t the insult. The insult, for the women, was being covered in head-to-toe black in that heat, while the men were dressed in breezy white fabric. The only sensible thing to do in that sun is to cover your body, but not in black.

The prison bus stops in a number of places in the city, then in Ladyville and then lots of places in the countryside — wherever anyone lives and needs a ride. And then in Hattieville, and finally we get our first look at the prison. I’m intrigued by the fact that we are riding on a Bluebird school bus, with a different paint job from standard USA yellow. And all the other buses on the road are old American school buses, with all manner of paint jobs. It turns out that the buses are brought down here by the shipload when they’re too worn out to use in the US.


Our first views of the Belize Central Prison, from the Prison Bus.



We are scheduled to teach two classes: a group of 20 women and juvenile boys in the morning, and a group of 20 men in the afternoon.

And as we are walking to our first class, I find myself smiling, a huge smile. I am happy. After all the hassles, we’re finally doing what we came to do, something I love to do.

There are 62 people in our classroom at 9 am. All of the juveniles, and all of the women in the prison, even the people who don’t speak English. And so we have to find interpreters. There aren’t enough guards on the staff to keep some of the group in their dorms and some of them in our classroom, so they all have to be in our classroom. It wasn’t our intention to force anyone to attend our class. Attendance was supposed to be voluntary, and some of our students display body language and facial expressions that communicate very clearly how much they don’t want to be here, and how much they despise us for this course.

Wagner Youth Facility, where we teach the juvenile inmates
Hurricane season: classroom post rain.

There is no way to teach a meditation class to 62 people in a cavernous room with a cement floor and tin roof and no amplification. I’m trying to teach the concept of relaxing and settling the mind. I am yelling to the people at the back of the room, telling them to relax their thigh muscles into the chair. The concept is completely lost in translation, even for the people who speak the same language I do.

And the boys don’t usually see the women. It’s the first time they’ve seen a woman other than a family member for a long time. Adult sentencing begins at 12 years old in Belize; the guys in the youth facility are between 12 and 18 years old. Rampant hormones. Their attention span woud be poor if the women weren’t in the room, and it’s non-existent with the women present. The women don’t want anything to do with the boys. Some of the inmates are convicted, but many are on remand, awaiting a trial, or a trial date. It can take years after an arrest to get a trial.

I’m suspicious at first when a couple of the guys come up and ask for a hug, instead of shaking hands, after class. Is is permitted? And then I realize: they’re little boys, away from their mothers. Whether it was against the rules or not, they got a hug that day.

Our classroom is also the juvenile lunchroom and gym facility. We eat our lunch at the same time they eat theirs, T. ignoring pleas for his Snicker’s bar. Before we leave the building to walk over to the other side of the prison, where we will teach the men’s class, we look out the window. Now we know what happens to old school buses when they’re too decrepit to use in Belize: they get junked behind the prison.

This beautiful flamboyant tree sits across the road from the prison.                                We’re happy to see it every single day.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any form without permission of the author.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose



And so here I sit, in liminal space again, this time between projects. The past weeks have been challenging. While away on a study-abroad trip in Northern Ireland, examining the trauma from the Troubles, I was also trying to work out the logistics for a trip to teach Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) in Belize.

I leave behind a place where I was exposed to people who are interested in creating and sustaining community, who provide space and leadership for those who are interested in peace, reconciliation, healing. Ahead of me, an unknown place, spaces I will be responsible for creating, and no in-country support.

I’m leaving Ireland a couple of days earlier than planned, realizing I couldn’t possibly accomplish everything I neded to in the 48 hours I had left myself. I took off on a sunny morning, the plane turning a reel among the clouds, wings dipping in time with a fiddle and a whistle, while below a piebald horse grazes at the side of the runway.

I wanted to stay at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland, a place where change and healing seemed possible. In a few days I will be walking into a situation that is turning out to be far different from what had been portrayed to me.

My friend T. is accompanying me to Belize, and will co-teach with me at the central prison, and to two other groups, parents and teachers from a disadvantaged neighborhood, riddled with gang violence. (For more information, click here.) Today is Thursday, and I will be on a plane for almost nine hours. We’re arriving in Belize City on Tuesday. We start teaching at the prison on Wednesday. We don’t have a place to live.

The people who promised to help with logistics didn’t do anything until the last minute; then the situation became fraught with tension, as I would be in Northern Ireland without consistent access to email and unable to communicate. And then, a couple of days ago, I received an email that was so arrogant, vicious and ugly that I was ready to cancel the entire project. Which isn’t like me. But we’re paying for all of this ourselves, with a lot of help from friends who have contributed to our crowdfunder, and I see no reason that I should be abused by someone who didn’t follow up on things they offered to do.

We secure a place to live on Friday, just three days before we are scheduled to depart. I have just enough information about Belize City to know that the neighborhood is iffy. T. and I need to make a go/no go decision. We decide to go, and I communicate that to our new landlady…who thought she had two weeks to get the apartment ready, not two days. Not one piece of information has been represented accurately. I’m more than a little frustrated. It doesn’t help that the person who was supposed to pick me up at the airport got the days mixed up, and that after being awake for more than 24 hours I am standing and waiting for another hour at ATL, or that my internet router is burned out at home and that it can’t be replaced until after I depart. I’m trying to do far too much in too little time. Friends invite me for dinner; they’re helping prepare teaching materials for Belize, and also try to remind me that my “normal” is far beyond what other people expect of themselves. Among the many things I haven’t done is to thank the people who have donated to the crowdfunder. For this, I feel deeply guilty.

T. comes over for coffee to discuss last-minute details. I make him coffee, hand-grinding Kona beans from Hanalei Coffee Roasters, but forget to boil the water.

We get on the plane, arrive safely. The taxi costs exactly what M., our landlady, said it would cost, and the driver finds the place easily with her directions. She and her husband are absolutely lovely, and it’s a true pleasure to meet them. They have obviously been working hard to get the place ready for us, installing a new stove and refrigerator, refinishing the kitchen cabinets, having the space cleaned, putting in basic furniture and kitchen supplies and curtains. We don’t have air conditioning or hot water, but we don’t miss that last item. It’s 100°F and 100% humidity. We unpack  and start to settle in. We’re teaching two classes tomorrow at the prison, starting at 9 am, and still have no idea how we’re going to get there. My contact is on maternity leave and not answering emails. M. knows her. M. knows everyone. She picks up the phone and we have an answer: we’re taking the bus with the prison guards. It leaves at 6 am from the Shell station down the street.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission from the author.

Title from “Me and Bobby McGee.” Lyrics ©Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.


Coda: Northern Ireland

The presentations and discussions at Corrymeela clarified and systematized a process of addressing questions of justice and forgiveness that I have been grappling with since my first trip to Kosovo in 2010. Their schema for restorative justice is something I will work to implement into my own teaching about compassion and resilience.


imageI think that my exposure to Corrymeela will change me in ways as deeply as my encounter with Buddhism did, but now, because of my exposure to Buddhism, I’m aware and conscious of the changes happening. Buddhist practice has taught me about the power of the individual to transform. Corrymeela may help me put together the link that eluded me: how individual transformation leads to community transformation. They have placed primacy on relationship, understanding that conflict is a part of any relationship, and that conflict requires repair. The community is careful about how they manage conflict. So there is a constant dialectic between conflict and repair, in the service of maintaining relationship and community.

I have always thought of forgiveness as a process, and that has not changed. Forgiveness is an experience, a gift, with unknowable origins. It cannot be demanded or even requested. An apology may not bring it. Which is better? To forgive or not? Forgiveness is so much more intangible than the experience of pain that it replaces.

In contrast, I started out the trip thinking of peace as a state, and ended my days in Northern Ireland realizing that it, too, is a process. That to speak of a peace process is redundant. That because it is not a noun, not a thing, there is no acceptable level of peace. Once we think of it as a state, we are locked in to a place that does not acknowledge interdependence, impermanence, or change. Peace is more than the absence of violence; non-violence is the most radical thing we can do in a violent society. When we define peace as process and dialogue, we can incorporate forgiveness and reconciliation.


Reconciliation is a dialectic between internal states and external circumstances, the relationship among compassion, truth, peace, and justice.

I will continue to work with peace and reconciliation and forgiveness in post-conflict settings of all kinds, using contemplative practices and the kinds of process that Corrymeela engages in to create curriculum and spaces for dialogue.  There is endless need in the world. I need to refine where I should focus my efforts, and how I need to change and heal myself to be most effective in this work.

“Corrymeela began when I left.” I saw those words on a wall in the dining room, one of the many quotes from past participants. And saw those words again on a t-shirt that I impulsively purchased in the gift shop.

Over the past months I’ve run hard up against my own limitations, the places where I am unwilling or unable to soften my own heart to contemplate something new and different. I now see more clearly the role of resentment and envy in maintaining separation, and how much easier it is to remain separate, and also how it is sometimes not possible to connect.

Our taxi driver today in Belize City lived for a while in the US, in Chicago, and also in the Cayman Islands. He is originally from Nigeria, but chooses to live here in Belize, grateful for the small living he ekes out as a driver. He does not wish to leave this paradise, this place that is not paradise to me, only another poor country with a corrupt government in the less-developed world.

I will not see anything as paradise until I am able to see everything as paradise.

Enter Corrymeela and look up: this is what you will see. Words from the founder. 

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.


To examine the past, or bury it?

We move into the part of the trip where our itinerary is guided by the Corrymeela community, where we will travel to after we leave Belfast. My past is intersecting with the present in the same way that the past and present intersect in Northern Ireland. This most recent semester was stressful, not only for me but for others, and at one point I started smoking again. There were situations I couldn’t walk away from, and in a moment of distress I reached back into the past for a technique that had been soothing to me at a time when I was almost constantly overwhelmed. I stopped the day I left for Northern Ireland; I smoked the last cigarette I had and made a commitment not to start again. At least not on this trip. Cravings arise, but I don’t want to start smoking again, and I let them dissipate. I find I am asking myself if I was able to be fully a part of the community in Jackson that night, or if I was using prayers and meditation to hold myself apart. Have I truly reconciled myself to what took place there, and allowed myself to grieve for it?

In the Corrymeela offices, SP starts us off with a framework that immediately puts me at ease: setting a group contract. Guidelines for how we’re going to work together. This is someone who is accustomed to holding groups, who is aware of the meta-issues that can arise. The list we come up with is not unusual: being respectful, and respecting each others’ need for space; active listening; confidentiality, to create a safe space; engaging completely, being real and authentic and bringing our whole selves to the experience. And one item, which I brought up, about the sub-groups in the room. Watching those interactions will be interesting.


In my journal I have pages of notes from the conversations that day. My note-taking was compulsive, designed to keep me focused on the activity in the room, because my mind wanted to drift off elsewhere. We are listening to two men, C. and L., who had been on opposite sides of the conflict, talk about their experiences. We are hearing details about what it was like to be members of the paramilitary groups, what it was like to be imprisoned, what it was like to live in a war zone for 25 years. But I am distracted by the interaction I see in front of me: two men who would have tried to kill each other if they had been in the same room two decades ago are now friends, committed to working together so that others understand the conflict from the inside, understand that there was no glory to it.

There are people in my life who have damaged my body and my spirit. Much of the trauma is hidden. Some is not, for those who know what to look for. I think I have forgiven the people responsible, but I could not, cannot, sit in the same room with them.

A piece of the puzzle I am trying to put together comes out of this day: Reconciliation as a process in which everyone is accepted for who they are, a process of finding areas where a group of people can agree to work together.

As we tour the city I realize that there are sectors of the country where the Troubles had little impact, and areas where it was all-consuming. And in those places, the Good Friday Agreement created a veneer of peace, but did nothing to change people’s attitudes about each other.

This theme, that underscored many conversations during my days in Belfast, is equally central and salient to my own life right now. Do I try to unearth the past, dig through it in hopes of finding some meaning, try to understand it as part of the path to reconciliation? Or do I focus on the present and the future? How much of the past is enough?

I find Town Square Coffee. Outstanding coffee. Good food. Good people, good feeling. Books on the walls, intelligent ones. The kind of place I can settle in to, to write, to think.

And a new phrase, that will be repeated over and over: You are kicking over history every time you open your mouth in Northern Ireland.

In a place like this, where three out of four families were affected by violence, trauma becomes banal, like evil and depravity in the Holocaust. And instead of unity in the community around the collective trauma, grief and losses, politicians and other leaders find ways to enforce additional splitting: victims vs. innocent victims. Envy when someone is compensated for a loss. I feel the trauma, but no empathy or compassion. People are resentful of each other. And if I were to be able to trace it back, I think I would find a lot of people whose stories are unheard, who are suffering and feel unheard and unseen and unacknowledged.

Which also mirrors what is happening today in my own life: unknown to me, I’ve been snoring really badly, worse than I realized, and instead of talking to me about it, my roommate has had a conversation with the professors about it. So there’s an embarrassing group conversation after breakfast, and I will be banned to my own room in Corrymeela and in Derry, which is fine, but I wish I could have been part of the conversation. I hate being talked about behind my back. And I could have easily fixed the situation in Belfast, too, by getting my own room. I’m exhausted and my body is stiff and I feel my mind stiffening, as well. I want to call home. I need to talk to someone who can provide empathy and comfort.

The Peace Bridge, Derry/Londonderry

Two more sessions before we leave for Corrymeela We visit the WAVE Trauma Center; their psychosocial model of working with trauma feel intuitively right. We’re hearing about the complications implicit in trauma work, the people who want a trauma diagnosis for what benefit they might get from it, the far greater number of people who need help and are still bound up in silence. The WAVE team also works to educate college and graduate students, people born after the Troubles, who didn’t live through it — but who will treat these people, who will need to be able to work with whomever is in the room, will need to accept that good people did bad things.

Until recently I, too, was bound up in silence, too afraid and ashamed to tell my story. I am letting bits and pieces come out now. What resonates with me, as well, is the proposal for an oral history archive. Many people feel “un-believed”; their stories are not recorded. They fear that their stories, and therefore they themselves, will be forgotten. And something clicks for me, the answer to a question I have been asked but until now have not been able to answer: Why is it important for me to tell my story, to talk about what I remember, when the memories are so painful? Why do I feel a need to do this?

Because I need someone to witness what I lived through. At least one other person in this world who will know that it happened, and how it happened, from my perspective. It is not that my experiences are unique or more important than anyone else’s. But they are mine, a part of me, and without someone to bear witness, I fear this will be forgotten. Daniel Shapiro notes in his essay in The New York Times that part of the struggle of the Israelis and Palestinians in his program is that “They all longed to feel recognized for their emotional pain and for the legitimacy of their interests.”

And then we attend a session with a social worker and family therapist who has been involved in Corrymeela her whole life. What I am hearing here intrigues and settles me. Much of my own recent work has focused on the ways that individual transformation leads to community transformation, on trying to describe the mechanisms by which that can actually happen. What I am hearing about the Corrymeela Community and the work it does leads me to believe that they may have learned some very practical things about those mechanisms. They’ve drawn from the work of Rene Girard (whom I have not read, but will now) particularly about the ways that we mimic each other’s behaviors, and that they learned that when they modeled trust and listening they found others modeling those behaviors, as well. Girard may help fill in a missing piece of theory. This community has recognized that relationship is the most important dynamic in healing – and that dialogue can include conflict. They have learned how to be in authentic community with one another, and that it is OK to make mistakes. And how to open a conversation about the mistakes you have made.

This is a community, a process, a way of being that understands that when you ask someone to stop fighting, the pain behind the fighting is going to be felt and seen, and that the pain is likely to be overwhelming. In the same way that trauma survivors are often overwhelmed when they stop struggling against the world. People go to Corrymeela and have a defined experience in a specific location, and then go back to their own lives. And perhaps, just perhaps, the memory of the experience is enough to keep them going.

I am about to have my own experience of Corrymeela.



On a bluff overlooking the meeting place of the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea I watch fog drifting and dropping over Rathlin Island and listen to the call to prayer. Recognizing the intertwined emotion and interdependence of perpetrator and victim.
The grief and trauma course we’re about to embark on normally encompasses 24 hours over eight weeks. I’m feeling vulnerable, realizing that I still have important work to do. I’m being triggered by the discussions of attachment, and being reminded of the times I was shamed for legitimate needs. I am still trying to reconcile myself to my own life and experience. I am recognizing, as well, how much grief I have stored and not processed. I am caught in a dialectic between needing to feel and express emotions, rather than suppress them, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the need to regulate my emotional expression.

Why do I have to experience the pain of grief? In order to heal. If I don’t acknowledge the pain I will never get what I need to heal. I am no different in this than anyone else. There is only one way to avoid the pain of grieving, and that is to deny the experience, to refuse to acknowledge, and thereby to minimize the loss.

I no longer ask, ‘why me?’ Why not me? If it happens to one out of every three women, why not me?

In smoky silk
I pace the shores
east of Ballycastle
trace the clouds the fog
the sea with twigs
of blackened willow

in the croi
a band has formed
a conga line of joy

a crack in the clouds
turns a spotlight onto
the Irish Sea
a stage on which I reach
in arabesque
into the light that pours
through clouds
to touch the source.

Still no one sees.


© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced wthout permission.