The Breaking Open of My Heart: Meeting a Bodhisattva of the Prison Monastery

by Nancy Coleman

In the summer of 2021, I became a team member of the Prison Monastery. Our workbook called The Art of Soulmaking offers incarcerated participants an experience of diving into their inner world to reflect and inquire, like entering an individualized self-study monastic experience.

We had the idea to send out invitations to people on death row asking if they would like to be a part of our program and receive our workbook, which could include having a pen pal to connect with about their discoveries.

I didn’t know if anyone would respond, but I followed my instincts and my heart. Would anyone even receive my letter? All I knew was that there was a force that moved through me as I worked on my project that had me come alive. I felt my heart, a grabbing of my soul that guided me. Would I ever get a yes? Would I reach someone with this letter I was sending?

Then several weeks after sending out my first sixty invitations, I got my first Yes—not only did I get a Yes, but I also received the story of this person’s life. This generous, powerful, impactful, and extremely grateful response. My breath gripped as I read the letter; I had to sit with myself for a few minutes before letting the team know that we got a yes. He would like to join our program.

My whole life was forever changed.

The person who wrote was Donald Dillbeck. We have shared about Donald as he became a full member of our team including having a column in this newsletter. He became my friend. Donald completed The Art of Soulmaking program, though this type of growth wasn’t new to him. The generosity of his soul poured out gratitude at every turn. He didn’t say to me, “I already know all this.”

He said, “This is fantastic, I love this and want to get the word out to others. How can I be of service?” Donald offered to mentor other incarcerated Soulmakers who were in our program if there was anyone who I knew who may need more support. I met my first Prison Monastery Bodhisattva, a person whose life is dedicated to ending their own suffering to then help others get out of suffering.

Donald became a part of my life’s path. Our connection brought me joy and inspiration. Then about two years later we got news that he was going to be executed. We fought to save him to no avail.

He was put on death watch, the holding facility for people waiting to be executed. I received an email from Donald’s lawyer asking for my phone number as I would be put on the list of people who would be able to talk to him before he was executed. My heart shattered.

We set a timeframe that he would be able to call me in. I sat for hours waiting, no call. The next day, I had just finished helping prepare a meal to hand out for our Free Food project, I looked down at my phone, and I saw he was calling. I answered and we talked for around thirty minutes. My whole world stopped. I have never listened so intently. The final thing he said to me was, “Nancy, I don’t want to die. I have a lot of service still to do, but if I must go now, I am always with you. You will hear my voice, feel my support, and know the love I have for you and the Prison Monastery team.”

He’s with me in my heart every day.

In memoriam to my dear friend Donald Dillbeck.

Nancy Coleman is Project Manager for Art of Soulmaking Correspondence Program. She teaches mind-body movement in-person to incarcerated Soulmakers for strength, flexibility, and stress reduction.

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