Karlis Dwayne Williams Senior, born and raised in Boston and currently living in St. Louis, Missouri, is, in his own words, “a prime example of the prison program.” He’s also a force of nature, sparkling with the tender radiance of fresh awakening, love pouring from his eyes. Talk about making yourself a target for love!
In and out of prison his entire life, Karlis eventually heard a deep inner call to wake up and began a tireless search to find the truth from behind prison walls. In this interview he talks about his early life, what started his search, and how he eventually came to hear of the Gangaji Foundation’s Prison Program. He was one of the earliest members of the Freedom Inside course for prisoners, as well as a long-term correspondent with a volunteer. Now, as a free man, Karlis has attended several retreats with Gangaji.
Tell us about your early life, and how you ended up on this journey.
I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. My mom had four boys. My dad was what they used to call a “street nigger,” something like a pimp or thug. Then one day, all of a sudden as far as I remember, he became a preacher.
He put instruments into the hands of us four boys and made us learn music. We would play and draw the crowd with the music, and then he would grab the mic and preach. That’s how we lived when I was young.
But I was growing up in the slums of Boston, and our dad would be on the road a lot, so me and one of my brothers would be out there on the streets. Our mom would make us go to church, but when we were out of church, we were back on the streets. So it was a straddle-the-fence type of young life. In the end the streets had a bigger influence on me, and I chose the streets.
I’m a former gangster disciple. I led a life of thugging and causing havoc in the streets. When you are part of that kind of organization, younger guys look up to you, and you try to prove something, to be something, hold a reputation. But there are consequences for what happens on the streets, so I was in and out of prison all my life.
I went through life not giving life a second thought, living by impulse. But there was still this yearning in my heart for something more, because no matter what life was, it wasn’t enough. It’s the longing that dwells within everybody. We reach out and we grasp. We search, we look, and nothing’s ever enough. There was something in me calling out to my heart and to my mind to wake up. I always knew that there was something greater for me, that God had a bigger plan for my life.
"My heart was searching for freedom all my life; I just didn’t realize it."
How did your search for truth begin?
Something happened to me while I was in prison that was so profound, that it kind of threw me off. There was this new thing going around in prison called K2 (or spice, synthetic marijuana). I was sitting in my cell one day, I had smoked some, and suddenly I lost all control of my body. I found myself hugging myself and rocking, back and forth, crying.
The whole time my mind was noticing what was going on, but I had no control. And then I started saying out loud, “Please wake up! Please wake up! Please wake up!” I knew that outside the bars the guards could hear me, and the guys in the next cells could hear me. I couldn’t stop crying. It was like tears just pouring out of my eyes. I knew that my soul was crying out to my conscious mind to wake up.
I was thinking, “You’re forty-two years old, you’re sitting in an eight-by-twelve cell, you’re eating three meals a day, you can’t go outside, and when you do go outside, you go in handcuffs. You got children, you got grandchildren…” All of these things were going through my mind, but this calling was from something deeper. This calling was from something closer than even the mind, than even my thoughts, than even what I was thinking at the time.
"I knew that I was not going to be allowed to stay free on the outside until I was free inside."
So that episode startled and shocked me, and I began to search. I started sending letters to monasteries, ashrams, churches, Muslim temples. I went from being a Christian to being a Muslim, then to studying Buddhism and about to take the vows. Then I started studying Hinduism and finally just felt overwhelmed. I must have spent over a hundred dollars in envelopes and stamps. I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know which way to go.”
How did you first hear about the Gangaji Foundation?
I was in East Arkansas Regional Unit Maximum Security Facility, and I had just written to the Human Kindness Foundation for a resource package. The Gangaji Foundation’s details were in there, but really it was the last thing on my mind to write to them, because the name just didn’t sound right to me.
So I wrote a few other people and got more books and literature back. It was very encouraging, very motivating and inspiring, to get these books and letters from these other people, but it wasn’t enough.
I kept searching, and kept searching, until one day I looked at the resource letter again, and saw the Gangaji Foundation’s name. When I wrote a letter, immediately I received a letter back from Barbara Denempont saying that I would receive a book real soon, and that I would have a chance of corresponding with some volunteers from the program. After that first letter I thought to myself, “Wow! These are my friends, these are my new friends!”
They sent me a book called The Diamond in Your Pocket by Gangaji, and also Freedom and Resolve. Those two books came at the same time, and I read those books like they were the gospel. I think I read every book that y’all had. I kept asking for more, and Barbara kept sending them. I was getting the Truth, and I was sharing the Truth with everybody else, and they was looking at me like I was crazy. They couldn’t understand how, “Big Wheel” (that’s what they called me…short for Williams my last name), could change so drastically.
Tell us about your experience of being in the correspondence program.
When I got into the correspondence program they hooked me up with a lady named Mary Jo, and we started writing. It’s a very intimate process when you start writing these people. In prison you’re lonely; you want somebody. A lot of guys might start off with the thought, “Maybe I can get me a female, or get me some funds, or something.” But I was serious about waking up. While me and Mary Jo were writing I used to feel like there was a visitor in my cell every time I got a letter from her. Your heart opens up and you feel so much love.
After a while, Mary Jo had to move on because her job got kind of hectic, and she couldn’t find the time to continue to write. So Shanti took over writing me. The letters that me and Shanti wrote each other were even more deep. Every time I read a letter from her I cried like a baby. I had to get under my covers and read them over and over and over. She sent me a letter about her life story, about the, the longing, the same longing that I’m talking about. I resonated with that so deeply when I read that letter.
This connection is so deep, so mysterious, it’s hard to explain. We are all the same. There is no difference, no space between me and you. It’s just love loving itself when you have two forms corresponding. You can’t help but love them back, you know.
Tell us what happened after you got out of prison.
When I made parole in Arkansas, I got shipped to Memphis Tennessee to finish some probation stuff over there. I ended up staying there until February the 27th 2018. That was the day that I got out. At first, I was real strict with myself. It was very conceptual. I was a vegan. I wasn’t having sex, I wasn’t doing anything. You couldn’t come around me if I felt like you were putting out anything negative.
Then one day I ended up getting caught in judgments, and I had to go through a humbling time of failing again. I started using drugs again. I wasn’t gonna go back to the streets. I didn’t want to go back to prison. But I fell in this type of despair, and I felt this strong, strong urge just to escape. The meditation just wasn’t doing it, so I went to the drugs. Pretty soon I just wanted to die. I was so deep in my mess and sorrow, beating myself up, I just couldn’t take it. I let go and lay back on the bed in my hotel. I was almost suicidal. As I laid back the thought came to my mind, “Well, meditate.” And then another thought came, “How could you even think about going before the throne and you just got through messing up, and a whole bunch of BS for three days straight?” (I call MySelf “the throne.")
So even as I was beating myself up, I heard Gangaji’s voice, “Well, what if you just let that go?” and so I did immediately, I let go. Then she said, “What if you just let that thought go?” And I let that thought go, and that thought go, and that thought go…. Layers and layers of thoughts were being peeled back, and let go. Everything that came to my mind would be released, and I would let it go. I would just forget it ever existed.
At a certain point it came to my life, and I just let my life go. When I let my life go, I started saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” All I saw was nothing but light around me. What I felt cannot be described. I wasn’t seeing with eyes, I was seeing within, and I knew I was home. I was home, I was alive, and there was nothing separate from me.
At first, while the layers were being peeled off, I was saying, “Oh my God, I gotta bring my family. I gotta bring everybody I love. Oh my God, I love everybody, I gotta bring everybody, even the ones that hate me, I gotta bring them too!” And then I came to my senses again and realized, “Everyone’s already here! They’re here already, oh my God!” I realized that I didn’t have to be on a mountain, or in a cave for forty years, trying to realize myself. It just happened.
It wasn’t something that I deserved. I felt like I worked hard for it, but I didn’t experience this because of the work. Because it was when I wasn’t working that it happened. It was when I let go, when I gave up everything, when I gave up my life, that it happened. Grace, it was grace!
I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars, I wouldn’t trade it for a billion, a trillion, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, because all of that comes from who I Am. So, I’m here, and so are you.
"This is something that I know I did not deserve, that I did not make happen by my actions. This is grace."
When you got out, you were able to meet Gangaji and some of the others who had helped you. Tell us about that.
When I got out, I got a scholarship to the Fallen Leaf Lake Retreat through the Gangaji Foundation Prison Program. Oh my God, I was so ecstatic! I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to myself, “Something bad’s going to happen before I get there, cause this is too amazing that I get the chance to meet Gangaji and all the people who had supported me when I was in prison.”
At the Fallen Leaf Retreat I met Gangaji, I met Kenny Johnson who wrote the book The Last Hustle, I met Shanti, who edited a lot of the books and who was my correspondent while I was in prison. And I just had a ball. It was like the time of my life. Even though it was a silent retreat, I had the time of my life.
My first experience of meeting Gangaji was ecstatic. I was so nervous I didn’t know what to do. I just couldn’t do nothing but smile, laugh, and just be myself. Gangaji’s presence is so full of grace, and the way she moves, the way she talks, everything is so graceful. So I didn’t know how to act around her. It was just so powerful just to be sitting beside her. It’s beyond words.
What has been the impact of Freedom Inside and the Gangaji Foundation Prison Program in your life?
The Gangaji Foundation is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life as far as freedom is concerned. Because of the Gangaji Foundation, I am a changed man. And there are hundreds of other changed men and women out there who are corresponding with the Gangaji Foundation right now and participating in Freedom Inside; and thousands of men and women in the prisons who need the Gangaji Foundation.
This freedom is the highest attainment of human potential, and it is something that everyone needs, but especially those in the Prison Program. Because these guys have been to the lowest of the low, they have seen the lowest of the low, they have done the lowest of the low, they have been victimized by the lowest of the low, and the Gangaji Foundation is helping. The Gangaji Foundation is giving life, sharing life.
For people to take time out to just care for someone who is locked up as scum of the earth, this is something! "This is something going to go down in history as being one of the greatest organizations that helped prisoners."