Most people have heard that they can look at situations anyway they want, that we don’t have to suffer by adverse situations. “We cannot escape pain, but suffering is optional,” but how exactly do you do this? It’s one thing to know something, but how to actually apply what we know and live it is not the same thing.

This year I learned more about applying what we know when I heard a woman say, “I am in prison, but prison isn’t in me.” She said it during a restorative justice group reentry planning process, that by most rational people’s judgments, she is unlikely to ever use.

The woman is serving a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.

Her family does not live in Hawai’i. She has not seen most of her children and grandchildren for many years and she has missed most of the important life events that they have experienced.

Instead of being depressed and sad about what she has missed for 30 years the woman beams full of hope and possibilities!

How does she do this? How does she find anything positive in a life sentence in prison missing her family?

The imprisoned woman is an example of Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer’s definition of someone who lives “mindfully.”

Langer’s research for over 30 years shows that people who practice “paying attention” to what they think, can create happier and healthier lives despite illness, aging and other things we normally think of as difficult.

The woman in prison told me that she keeps her positive attitude by working everyday to help other people, including the people her crime and incarceration seriously hurt. She sees everyday as an opportunity to try and repair some of the harm she caused. She keeps her mind full of possibilities and solutions to her problems instead of letting herself become defined by the problems.

The Dalai Lama also encourages others to live mindfully, and he says that in our saddest and most painful moments, caring about others will keep us from suffering: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

I think the late Insoo Kim Berg, a co-founder of solution focused brief therapy, would love Langer’s approach and I know for sure that she would agree the woman in prison does not have to let prison be in her.