“Who would you be without your story?” This question, popularized by spiritual teacher Byron Katie, has become an integral part of the modern landscape of Nondual spiritual inquiry. When faced with their own beliefs around a sense of lack or limitation, aspirants are encouraged to “drop the storyline”, inquire into “who it is that believes the story” and to find themselves as the open, spacious awareness in which all stories come and go. This skillful teaching means can help us to question our most deeply held painful beliefs, to see through the problem laden stories that they perpetuate, and most centrally, to allow the story of a separate, isolated self to drop away. These methods have the power not only to question the objects of our perception, but also to point us back our ultimate nature as Presence, which has always existed, without a story of any kind.
So, where in all of this, is the place for a good memoir?
Kenny Johnson’s book “The Last Hustle” provides the living answer to this question. The book is a gripping and compelling story of one man’s search for freedom: freedom from poverty, indignity, oppression, feelings of personal inadequacy, and finally freedom from the roots of human suffering itself.
The story begins by following Mr. Johnson’s story as a young man growing up poor and African American in the 1960’s. It describes his early life of abandonment, his time as a crook, a street hustler, and a pimp. It goes on to discuss his time in prison after he is sentenced to 40 years behind bars. While serving the long sentence, Mr. Johnson has an auspicious meeting with the Nondual teacher Gangaji, and a deep awakening to his own True Nature, which changes the course of his life. As the book winds its way through the terrain of Mr. Johnson’s life, including the themes of addiction, violence, isolation, and incarceration, it is at times dark and unsettling. However, it is also captivating, and ultimately redemptive, as we travel with him into a deeper and more profound sense of who he truly is.
His story evokes memories of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book that he notes as having been both inspiring and prescient in his early life. As the first part of the story weaves its way through a world of crime, desperation, and wanting, we see Johnson looking for happiness in the next big come up; yet after each one, he finds himself back with his own feelings of inadequacy and lack. Like Malcolm, Johnson’s inner struggle finally ends when there is a deep
surrender while in prison, and he discovers that what he was looking for has always been there, not in the objects of the world, but rather as his own Inherent Nature.
While the conditions of Mr. Johnson’s life have been intense by any measure, like any other good spiritual story, what makes this tale so compelling is not that it is so extreme that we cannot see ourselves in it, but rather that in its extremity we can see the existential dynamics of our own lives so much more clearly.
The first page reads:
This book is dedicated to all those incarcerated, whether in prisons of brick and stone or prisons of the mind. If you are earnestly looking inward for the key to eternal freedom you will be rewarded. This is the truth.
This points us to the fact that the book, while specific to time, place, and circumstance, is not just Mr. Johnson’s story, but all of our story. If we read this book as an interesting memoir alone, then we have sorely missed the point. The book’s power is that it can inspire us to see ourselves more completely, and in doing so, to let go of the illusions that stand in the way of us living more fully as the Love that we are.
In my own case, I read this book on a trip to New York for a meditation retreat with my teacher. As luck would have it, the trip brought me back through my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, a place where I struggled with my own demons of craving and addiction years before. I spent a lot of time walking and jogging around the city in the days before the retreat: going past my old haunts, and through places where I had known such intense suffering. As I did, I found myself compelled to make amends, internally with the places they evoked inside, and externally with friends and family there. I could feel Mr. Johnson’s words and life vibrating through my Being, providing me with inspiration, strength, and support as I faced the parts of myself that were still in darkness.
The best part of Mr. Johnson’s book is that it does not end with his awakening in prison, but continues on to describe the challenges of his life after prison, which calls forth a much deeper stage of spiritual development. While his awakening has all of the hallmarks of the deep realizations we know and read about, including a sense of peace, bliss, and most importantly the deep knowledge of who he truly is, this is not the end of Mr. Johnson’s story. The last part of the book goes on to describe the challenges that he faces in life on the outside, including trying to find work as an ex-con, dealing with addictive patterns reemerging, and facing his own painful conditioning in relationships. And all of this happens after his awakening. We can feel Mr. Johnson humility and bravery as he goes through these challenges. Not content to hide out in a new spiritual identity, Mr. Johnson immerses himself in rooting out the remaining places of confusion, and in making amends with those that he has hurt.
I found myself deeply touched as I read about his time in the victim/offender program listening to people who had been hurt by criminals in the past, and as he went through anger management, NA, AA, and did his own inner work. Through these pages, I could feel a profound change taking place within Mr. Johnson, one that I recognized not as the opening to The Infinite, but as the purification of the body/mind so that Truth can shine more completely through in a human form. While “awakening out of the story” is essential in the beginning of our spiritual development, in the end, we must allow Love to touch every part of our story if we are ever to fully live what we’ve realized.
Today, Mr. Johnson works as a spiritual counselor for people who are incarcerated and their families. Rather than choosing to hang out in a rarified state of “realization”, Mr. Johnson has allowed Truth to move through him and out into the world. And since there is no separation, this is not a self-conscious movement, but rather Truth meeting confusion, Love meeting suffering, in all forms across time and space. In the end, the most beautiful part of Mr. Johnson’s story is not that he finally gets out of prison, but that he keeps going back.
I feel that Mr. Johnson’s example is good for us and our communities. He can help those who are in great times of desperation to see that there is another way. And, perhaps on an even subtler level, his example can help to keep those of us who had some glimpse of the Truth to be more honest with ourselves. His book serves as a potent reminder not only of what is possible when we let go of our story, but also of the importance of returning, until all aspects of the story, until all beings everywhere, are free. Mr. Johnson’s book and life are a reminder that even without any story at all, the movement of Love is not complete until it touches everything.
If you would like to find out more about Mr. Johnson’s counseling work or donate to his program please go to www.thissacredspace.org.