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What if it all belongs -- everything around you? Just see if you can approach every moment with kindness. Know what that does? That allows you to live in a kind world. --Vinny Ferraro

The Heartful Dodger

--by Alix Sharkey, syndicated from tricycle.com, Feb 02, 2012

A charismatic ex-con lures at-risk kids away from violence.

One bitter night, in the rough end of New Haven, Connecticut, fifteen-year-old Vinny Ferraro and his friends were hanging out as usual by the projects, near the corner where Ferraro sold drugs—mostly coke, but also heroin, hash, and LSD. His father, a junkie and career criminal, had schooled Ferraro in the trade. “You’re the man of the house now,” he had told Ferraro over the phone from prison—meaning Ferraro was expected to sell drugs to support his mother, also an addict, and two sisters. In fact, Ferraro couldn’t remember a time before drugs or the constant, gut-gnawing menace and paranoia that came with the game: he’d first smuggled heroin into jail for his old man when he was ten.

Ferraro and his teenage gang ran these streets, ready to pounce on anybody who didn’t belong. Nothing personal, just territorial duty. That night, it was a homeless man. They fanned out and surrounded him before he knew what was happening. As the gang closed in for the ritual beating—fists, boots, and bats (nobody would bother pulling a gun on a bum)—their terrified victim looked directly at Ferraro and started pleading, “Please help me.”

“Help you?” Ferraro said. “Why should I help you?”

“You’ve got more compassion in your eyes than any woman I’ve ever met,” gabbled his prey. It was a crazy, “Hail Mary” line by any standards, but it hit Ferraro like an uppercut. He was unable to continue the beating.

That exchange on a wintry night in 1982 is one that Ferraro continues to relive. But these days, as the Teacher Training Director of the Mind Body Awareness Project, it’s Ferraro who is looking into angry young eyes until he finds a glimpse of compassion. Based in Oakland, California, the MBA Project is a nonprofit organization that uses mindfulness and emotional intelligence exercises to equip disadvantaged and underserved youth with the tools to make better decisions and to consider more skillful options than violence, self-harm, drugs, and crime.

“All my work revolves around the same conversation,” says Ferraro. “What is freedom beyond conditions? Beyond this school, this prison, this hood, whatever your conditions are. Do your conditions lead inevitably to suffering? No, they don’t. Only a being’s perspective leads to suffering. Two people in the exact same situation, according to their outlook and expectations, can have completely different experiences. Turn that around, and any conditions can be a vehicle for bondage—or freedom and awakening."

Going back to his story about the homeless man, Ferraro says, “I didn’t know what compassion meant when I was fifteen. But I knew that that homeless guy had seen my heart. And that was scary. I’d learned early on that this heart of mine was not a commodity but a liability, and to hide it. That was the science: keeping your vulnerability hidden. I had done my best to hide this heart, because it wasn’t safe in my world to be soft or show feelings. And he had seen right through me.”

Sitting on a friend’s sofa in Los Angeles, Ferraro’s not that big, but you wouldn’t mess with him. His arms are covered from shoulder to wrist with tattoos, although they’re not your conventional gangbanger motifs. Instead, his biceps and forearms depict the Virgin of Guadeloupe; the Sacred Heart; and four-armed Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Before he shaved off his goatee a few weeks ago, he says, people used to say he looked like Edward Norton in “American History X.” That goatee, they told him, made him very intimidating. He laughs at the idea.

“I’m like, ‘Really? I cry for a living and I teach meditation. How intimidating can that be?’”

The story of how Ferraro swapped places with his victim—and turned that into a source of power—underscores his assertion that young people in the criminal-justice system are capable of anything, if given the tools and opportunities. Or, as he puts it: “These kids don’t need fixing. They aren’t broken.”

----

Noah Levine cofounded the MBA Project with a group of Bay Area friends in June 2000. Ferraro had tagged along in its early days to watch the group working in an Oakland juvenile hall, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he came onboard. By then, Levine was no longer involved in day-to-day MBA activities (though he remains on the Advisory Board, along with Daniel Goleman, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Stephen and Andrea Levine, Bo Lozoff, and George Mumford), and the nonprofit wanted to see if Ferraro’s experience with Challenge Day could be applied to updating and implementing its own program.

“There are lots of highly competent people working with adults in prison,” says Chris McKenna, the director of the MBA Project. “But they’re rarely good at working with youth too. It’s a different skill set and requires a different energy level and quality of engagement. Which is why someone like Vinny—with youth specialization, nationally recognized facilitation skills, and grounded in a practice background—is incredibly rare. And that’s why we wanted him to present our program.”

Along with staff and key advisors, Ferraro set about retooling and honing the MBA program for working with at-risk youth. After three months spent discussing ideas with his teachers, colleagues, friends, and kids in juvie, he’d organized it thematically into a ten-session curriculum.

The payoff is a range of indicators that show the program is working, says Sam Himelstein, a cognitive psychology Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, whose thesis is based on his study of MBA’s new curriculum and its implementation. “You see the kids reporting less perceived stress, less anger, increased mindfulness, and increased ability to resolve conflict,” says Himelstein.

 “The Buddha taught that freedom is going beyond conditions,” says Ferraro. “For me, the people who have been through the harshest conditions—and survived—have the greatest potential to transform the madness of their lives. See, that madness made them who they are. So if they can take that madness, claim it, and stand on top of its incredible energy, they can transform it into power.”

----

"When I started learning meditation in the early nineties, you’d never see anyone my age—dressed like me, talking like me—in the room. It was all these older, middle-class white people. Nice people, mentors, very serious. But not people you’d want to hang with, be friends with. Now you got people like Noah Levine teaching people all over the world that the most punk-rock, anticonformist thing you can do is meditate.”

He thinks for a moment.

“Look, my practice is simple. What if nothing is wrong? What if it all belongs—everything around you? Just see if you can approach every moment with kindness. Know what that does? That allows you to live in a kind world. And that slowly helps you deal with whatever comes up, when people don’t act right.”

He pauses, cocks his head, and gives a grin.

“And y’all ain’t acting like I need you to act, most of the time.”




Excerpts of this article were reprinted with permission from Tricycle Magazine. For more information on the Mind Body Awareness Project, visit their website. Photograph by Douglas Adesko.  


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