Meditation. Photo by Mitchell Joyce.

Share This

We Were Breathing the Same Air

Inside the Angola State Prison on a chilly winter day, as a visitor for a Compassion Cultivation Training class, I strolled into the room pretending to feel comfortable and confident, like white males often do. I walked across the room and sat down beside the largest man in the place. We’ll call him Mr. Big. He could have crushed me in an instant. But that vague awareness was just a sign of my many unconscious biases, as though a stranger would even think of such a thing just because of a man’s chocolate skin or physical size.

Lara Naughton began teaching the compassion class by inviting us to close our eyes or drop our gaze and focus on our breath flowing in and out. Mindfulness turns out to be step one in every compassion class. I focused on that breath as best I could, trying to calm myself with eyes closed in that room full of prison residents. And then I heard Mr. Big breathing.

Hearing his rhythmic breathing and finding my own patterns of breathing in sync with his transformed the moment. A surprising awareness arose from somewhere that began to dissolve the barriers of strangeness and discomfort. We were breathing the same air.

Now that might sound insignificant to you as you read this, like, “What’s the big deal?” So, here’s the big deal.

Mr. Big came from a world a million miles from mine. From the moment he was born his skin tone dictated layers of outcomes foreign to my own. His momma named him, as he later told me, for a mouthwash commercial that often played during her favorite show: “Shaft.” He barely received any education, typical of the experience of people of color in the Deep South. He had no training in how to safely express emotions, so suppressing them until they exploded was his normal go-to. That is how he landed in one of the worst state prisons in the country.

My skin tone meant my life would begin nothing like his and would guarantee me advantages he could only dream of. My dad was a Baptist pastor, and my family never had a lot of money, but we always had enough. My parents didn’t own a house until they retired. But I still had opportunities to be educated all the way from grade school through a PhD. I was taught about managing emotions in productive ways. And I never had people call me names or bully me because of my skin tone.

Mr. Big landed on the inside of a prison for life, based on his one worst day, which happened while he was still a teen. I came as a visitor and could be released by simply asking.

But there we were, sitting next to each other in compassion class, breathing the same air. In that moment, our differences dissolved, the barriers established by skin tone and our resulting histories fell away, and we became two men breathing the same air in the Angola State Prison.


Contemplative experience is sometimes like that. Things we thought important a minute before can just dissolve. Barriers that seemed insurmountable can fall away. Skin tones, education levels, history, the past, even the future, can become as nothing. In fact, everything can transform into nothing. Only the nearly silent sound of breathing remains. And when we are especially blessed, like being swept up into a little miracle, a profound sense of oneness can bring us into union with all-that-is for about a second.

That second never lasts long enough, but it is a very, sweet second. Contemplatives like me build our lives around practices that might lead us back into that second of nothingness, which we call oneness. The moments catch us unawares like a cool breeze on a hot and muggy day. They slip up on us like falling snow in the midst of winter. We never can predict when that second of oneness will come. But we offer ourselves as willing recipients, day in and day out.


Two men from foreign worlds were breathing the same air, and suddenly oneness arose in a prison. There have been plenty of other ways foreign worlds have become as nothing and oneness has visited; Thich Nhat Hanh calls this oneness between persons “interbeing.”


Students from every continent gathered in Palo Alto, California, to begin our training to become certified Compassion Cultivation Training teachers. There were fifty-five of us gathered in a large circular room with a view out into the hills of the Bay area. Dr. Thupten Jinpa, principal translator for the Dalai Lama for over thirty-five years and author of our training curriculum, was there. The founding faculty of the Compassion Institute he created were there too, five beautiful women with giant hearts and bright minds and decades of meditation experience were going to spend a year training us: Margaret Cullen, Monica Hanson, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Dr. Erika Rosenberg, and Dr. Leah Weiss. We had arrived from around the globe to further the mission of the Compassion Institute by growing our compassion skills with them. But no one started lecturing.

They first called us into an extended period of silence as a large and diverse contemplative community. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and probably plenty of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd sat next to each other. We, too, began breathing the same air.

Differences again dissolved. Oneness arose, and compassion too. Our innate compassion for all beings began to fill us, breath by breath. We were not instructed to try to feel anything. We were just all breathing in sync, with no other purpose than simply being. The worries and feelings of inadequacy we all likely felt, every one of us bearing some of the sting of the imposter syndrome (like how we all landed in this room of compassion experts), gently slipped away. At least for those moments.

“I don’t fit in here,” slowly transformed into a vague sense of belonging, beyond belief. It was a felt sense of being part of something global, part of a life-giving compassion force sweeping across the world despite wars and rapes and a thousand compassion-denying acts. Something bigger than us was breathing itself into us. This too is often part of the contemplative experience. Differences and separations dissolve, as a sense of oneness with all beings and something bigger than us arises. Compassion flows into and through us.


A young Buddhist monk from Vietnam came into my life several winters ago. Barbara, my professor friend from the Loyola Institute for Ministry, connected us in hopes of creating an interfaith service for peace. We became brothers the first time I met him. Language barriers meant next to nothing. We exchanged polite conversation, with the help of a translator, but soon we were sharing a period of silent meditation.

Contemplatives are like that. We can’t wait to practice together, no matter the tradition in which we found our way.

We really didn’t need language to drop into the place of oneness that shared silence affords. Once again differences fell away. “We are foreign to each other” became nothing more than a concept. We were breathing the same air, and that was all that mattered.

He is still my brother to this day. We taught a mindfulness course together at Loyola University and led a compassion retreat at Vanderbilt University and this week I will share a compassion practice in his online mindfulness class with a Vietnamese crowd. We still breathe the same air.


David came into my view as I surveyed the crowd gathering for our First Annual Compassion Conference in the Vanderbilt Divinity School. His eyes shone. His face radiated. That drew me to him; I introduced myself and welcomed him to our conference. In a moment we, too, became brothers.

I had no idea that David was a Grammy-award-winning musical producer, having worked with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and a host of others. I had no idea he had traveled the world and performed before crowded stadiums. Nor did I know that he was being trained as a meditation teacher by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, two of the biggest names in the worlds of meditation and compassion teaching. David never said a word.

He just sat there shining, and soon a true brotherhood began. He joined me for my first class teaching compassion training at Vanderbilt. Again, he radiated. He shared vulnerable stories in class, which endeared him to me. He offered wisdom in class, like one educated in a long tradition of wisdom seeking. Did I mention he radiated?

Later, David agreed to co-teach several compassion retreats. That was how I experienced the contemplative breathing with him. Sitting next to each other on a stormy winter day in Nashville, he turned on some quiet music and we gently dropped into the contemplative space within. A group of twenty-five souls entered the doorway into the inner sanctuary with us.

Before long, this room full of spiritual seekers slipped into the-oneness-that-seems-like-nothing with each other, the oneness that includes all beings and Being Greater than us all, the oneness that dissolves differences, the oneness that can warm our hearts so simply, even on a cold winter day. How can this be? We commit ourselves to breathing the same air.

We call this creating contemplative community. But you can just call it breathing the same air. It is our mission. Maybe you will join us sometime.

Let’s begin now.