Brandon Dawson-Jarvis is a Montreal based Social Entrepreneur and yoga instructor. Brandon is the founder of Grove Campus, a company that provides eco-friendly yoga mats. They also offer pay-what-you-can yoga and meditation sessions and use the contributions to organize and execute community events and initiatives. His efforts have resulted in helping families in need with school supplies and Holiday toys, among other initiatives. Brandon is passionate about building stronger communities and making yoga and meditation accessible to all.
Who are you, in three words?
Father, light and love.
Was it easy to find those words?
Father came to me immediately. The next word that came to me was light, after which I immediately heard part of me say, “That doesn't sound very grounded.” Another part of me then responded with, “It doesn't matter. We are going to go with it.” And then love just flowed through.
You have awareness of your parts!
Sometimes when I try to explain things in these terms I wonder if maybe I sound crazy, but I don’t mind.
You are definitely speaking my language and don’t sound crazy to me at all. I am wondering how those who love and respect you would describe you Brandon?
I think it would be in the same way as I describe myself. When I first started to practice yoga there were a few people who reached out to me and asked me what had happened to me. They must have been noticing a drastic shift from the old projected version of me. These same people had not seen me since I had just gotten out of prison, a time when I was somewhat reckless, angry and impulsive and, at which point their perception of me would have been a very superficial representation. After I started practicing yoga, others noticed I seemed like a completely different person. Their perception of me has shifted to be in line with how I perceive myself now.
What helps you feel safe and grounded?
How would you define trauma?
I can’t give a definite answer as there are so many things that could be experienced as traumatic. Coming into this world through childbirth, for example, might be quite traumatic for a baby. When we hear the word trauma we might automatically associate it with something bad or negative. Teeth coming in might be traumatic, but if our teeth never come in we never get to eat apples. I guess trauma is something that we go through at a particular point in time that is experienced as uncomfortable at that time, whether it is physical, emotional or psychological discomfort. Trauma can also end up sticking with us for years after the initial event and associated discomfort, and can cause continued suffering.
It can end up haunting us, can’t it?
I think “haunt” is a very accurate word to describe the thoughts and emotions that trauma can leave us with. I really like that you used that word.
I don’t often use that word and am not sure where it came from.
Brandon smiles knowingly.
How has trauma contributed to your personal haunting as well as your liberation?
I always felt as though I had a high level of sensitivity to the energy within me. I can remember as a kid being aware of a slight vibration in my body, and of being able to tune into that and influence it to some extent. I also remember the first time I experienced a high level of emotion; the emotion was frustration. I would have been about four years old at that time. I didn’t always want to eat on my mom’s schedule at that age. Whenever I said, “I’m hungry,” at a time other than meal time my mom would respond, “Hi, I’m Melanie. Nice to meet you.” There would be this back and forth and I would get so frustrated as it felt like I was not being understood.
Not to make excuses, but I want to give a little context before I go any further in my story. My mom was 19 when she had me and my father was 21. I was the first born. They were young parents with a boatload of trauma themselves. They both had very poor emotional management skills, which contributed to the passing on of trauma. They have both given me permission to share openly about our history.
At about the same age I was when I experienced high levels of frustration around access to food and my requests not being validated, was also the first time I can remember my mom hitting me. She hit me because I was having trouble tying my shoelace. My father was back and forth between home and jail throughout my childhood. When he was home, there was a lot of
physical violence. If it wasn’t physical, it was verbal and emotional: “You’re too stupid to be my son.” My father is of a darker complexion and he used to say I did not belong to him and his side of the family.
I ended up taking all of the anger, frustration and hurt out at school, as I considered school my safe place. I would unpack everything at school, but it wasn’t a healthy unpacking. I would disrupt class, get into fights and get into trouble on the regular. My parents would beat me for getting in trouble at school. I remember waking up often thinking, “I want to be good today. I don’t want to get in trouble,” but as soon as I walked through the school doors it was like I couldn’t help myself. I ended up forging my mom’s signature on the teacher updates in my agenda – which had to be signed by her daily – so that my mom wouldn’t find out about my behaviour at school. This was a great plan, right up until parent-teacher interviews.
When my mom found out about how disruptive I was being at school, and that I had been hiding it from her on top of that, all she said to me was: “Wait till we get home.” She called my dad and I heard her say to him, “This time I won’t stop you. I won’t even be in the room.” Normally what would happen when I got in trouble was that my father (if he was not in jail at the time) would be the one to do the beating. Whenever my mom figured it had been enough, she would intervene. She’d have to jump on him and pull him off to stop him, because otherwise it seemed like there was no stopping him. This time, my mom was not even going to be in the room. I did some quick math in my mind and figured that my dad could kill me if he wasn’t stopped. At eight years old, I was carrying the thought: “I could die tonight.” I remember my heart racing and my adrenaline rushing. I wondered how I could get out of this. There was nowhere to go. My dad got home, walked into my room with a broomstick and started beating me. After what felt like forever, he did eventually stop and leave. I remember just lying there thinking, “Why me? Why is this happening to me? My parents are supposed to love me.”
This led me to distrust adults in general. I didn’t trust my parents. I didn’t trust my teachers. I had an uncle who worked for youth protection, and he turned a blind eye. I had no safe place left.
My parents broke up when I was 14. Their relationship had always been toxic. There was domestic abuse and, although I didn’t outright know it at the time, my father had a substance abuse issue with crack.
Usually when parents break up kids are not happy about it. I remember feeling immense relief that I wouldn't have to walk on egg shells anymore. I was celebrating their separation. On the other hand, my dad had always been the breadwinner and when he left the ends did not meet. My mom went through a depression and I ended up having to fend for myself. I was worried about where my next meal would come from, and I also felt as though I needed to become the man of the house. I began stealing to get by and to pay for what was needed, or at least that’s how I justified it at the time. The frustration was building inside of me – along with immense hurt, fear and pressure – but on the outside I tried to maintain the image that I had everything
together. I studied hard at school, got good grades and was a good student-athlete, but those who really knew me knew how much I was harbouring inside.
I always wanted to be better and on some level I was always seeking integration. Going back to your first two interview questions, at this time in my life those two answers would have been completely misaligned.
The adults around me at the time gave me a happiness recipe: Go to school, get a good job, get a house with a white picket fence, have 2.5 kids and get a golden retriever. I decided to make all of that my goal. I believed that all of those things would take away my internal turmoil.
I made it to university, where I studied Criminology at the University of Ottawa. I also got a part time job at a bank at that time. Within my first two weeks on the job, the bank was robbed. The robbing appeared to be ridiculously easy. It was clear the bank’s security was relaxed. With my history of stealing and how much I had gotten away with, I decided that I could pull of an inside
job. With the help of a couple others, we did it. We robbed a bank. I rationalized it by telling myself that with enough money my problems would go away and I would be happy. Very soon after, I realized I was not happy. I was carrying even more anger and resentment than before, which left me feeling confused.
Fast forward eight months and I get a knock on the door: “Brandon Dawson-Jarvis, you’re under arrest for robbery.” The news spread through the community quickly. Everyone found out. My mother had to come bail me out but because it was such a serious crime, I needed two sureties (people who were responsible for making sure I appeared in court and who had to put up collateral on my behalf). My mom became a surety and a friend of my family who lived in Ottawa – where I was living at the time – became a surety. I had to stay with the family friend. The two people I knew in Ottawa at the time were the girl I was dating and my roommate. My roommate was also implicated, so I couldn't have communication with him. My girlfriend at the time testified against me, so I couldn’t have communication with her. All of my other friends and family were in Montreal.
The woman I was staying with – the surety – ended up coercing me into having sex with her. At this point I would have been about 21 and she was in her late thirties or early forties. The first time was consensual. I later came to find out she was married. She told me that her and her husband were separated, then later told me she was in an open relationship with her husband. None of that sat well with me and I told her I didn't want to sleep with her anymore. She didn’t take kind to that at all and began to make my life very difficult. Legally I had to stay with her, or I would be in violation of my probation conditions and would go to jail. To keep the peace when she continued to make sexual advances, I slept with her once or twice after all of this even though I did not at all want to. This topic doesn’t get spoken to at all, but men and boys get raped too. I felt incredibly stuck in the situation, and there came a point where I simply couldn’t stay at this woman’s place any longer. I started sleeping at the University campus. When my mom found out I wasn’t staying with the woman anymore, she called me understandably
confused and distressed. I told her that the woman, her friend, had been forcing me to sleep with her. My mom told me to hang tight and that she’d help me find a way out.
I ended up getting my own apartment. I was still on parole for three years and ten months with lots of conditions to meet. I cultivated the ability to really be in the present moment during that time, as thinking even a day into the future would bring such huge feeling of anxiety. That time went relatively smoothly, and then I got to prison. As I imagine you know, the criminal justice system doesn’t make sense. Taking a bunch of people who are traumatized and mentally unwell and locking them up together in no way makes sense. It is a recipe for disaster.
While I was in prison, I asked to speak to a Psychologist. The two forces within me – who I wanted to be and who I was – weren’t on the same page. I wanted help understanding and integrating. The Psychologist I spoke with asked if I was suicidal and I told her I wasn’t, to which she replied they did not have enough resources to continue to see me unless I was suicidal.
During my stay in prison I saw people overdose and witnessed lots of violent fights. I saw people get stabbed. After these incidents we would be locked in our cells for weeks as the prison was being searched for drugs or weapons. The best you could hope for during these times was that you had a good book or two and that you had showered. There was a fentanyl outbreak at one point and people were overdosing regularly. We were locked down for almost a month and a half that time.
I was sentenced to three and a half years and did two years and four months. I came out for the last third of my sentence and was on parole. I remember sharing with my parole officer basically the same things I had shared with my prison Psychologist – my trauma history, the ongoing PTSD symptoms, all of the inner turmoil and – at this point – rage. I asked to be connected with a therapist, and was told that there was a six-month wait. I felt incredibly let down by the system. When I did my crime, the system had relentlessly pursued me with every resource they could in order to charge me. Now I needed help and was able to ask for help. I needed their resources more than ever but they were not available.
I tried to get my life in order on my own. I finally got my I.D. back and landed a job. The Thursday before I was supposed to start my job, I was driving to a basketball game and someone rear ended me. The guy who had hit my car started yelling at me and – with the size of my ego at the time and after having taken shit from prison guards and other inmates for so long and not wanting to take anyone’s shit – I yelled back. It escalated and we started pushing and shoving each other. I hit his phone out of his hand and his phone broke. At that point he said he was going across the street to the corner store to call the police. In my mind I thought, “What have you just done? You just breached parole. You’re going to go back to prison.” My parole conditions at the time were pretty straightforward – keep the peace, be on good behaviour and report to your parole officer every so often. I thought about running but quickly decided that wasn’t the best solution.
The police came, ran my name, saw that I was on parole and said I was under arrest. They said they were charging me with robbery and assault. I was told that because I hit the other person’s phone out of his hand, I had robbed his phone. I started panicking because if I was charged again with robbery it would not be seen well in the eyes of a judge and I would be punished harshly. My attempts to reason with the cops didn’t work. I was in shock. I didn’t know how this was possible.
I got arrested again and had to tell everybody, all over. I went back to prison for a second time. I felt immense shame. I had always judged my father for going back and forth in the prison system. When I saw other inmates coming in and out of prison previously, I always judged them strongly and was not very understanding.
When I got to prison this time around I spent about a week feeling sorry for myself. After that first week, I became determined to figure out why and how I had ended up back there. I had to figure it out or I feared the quality of my life would be similar to my father’s, which was the last thing I wanted. Instead of judging, I shifted to wanting to learn.
I set out for a pen and paper. One of the other inmates noticed I was keeping quietly to myself and told me he liked the way I was ‘doing my time’. He gifted me a TV. I thanked him for the TV, but never turned it on as I considered it a distraction. I did not want to be distracted at this point. I wanted to write. After finding a pen and paper in the library, I began writing non-stop. I only left my cell when I needed to eat, shower or do laundry. Other than that, I wrote. I wrote everything from my first memory up until the fender bender. Everything came up. I started having nightmares. There was massive tension and anxiety in my body. After about three weeks, I had finally written out my life history up to the point of the fender bender. This was what I wanted an answer to!
My mind was going back and forth like a ping-pong ball time lapsed times a thousand. This is the part where it gets really out-of-this-world. My mind was going so fast that I couldn't keep up; I somehow shifted back into observer mode and became a witness to the back and forth. I thought, “What the fuck is happening?”
One side of me was saying, “You messed up.”
The other side was saying, “No it’s the guy’s fault. He hit me.”
“You’re on parole. It doesn’t matter that he hit you. There was no damage to the car.” “He yelled at me.”
“Who cares? You were on parole. You are the one that’s here in prison now.” “It’s the police’s fault.”
“No. They did their job. Somebody called them to make a report. They analyzed the situation and this is what they came up with. They were within the rights of their power.”
“So if it’s not the other driver’s fault and it’s not the police’s fault, then whose fault is it?!” “It’s your fault!”
Everything started to slow down, and from the place of observer I thought, “If it’s true that this is my fault, what about everything else? What about all of the lying, the cheating, the stealing, the robbery?” I had always blamed my parents, but I suddenly had the realization that I was accountable for all of it. It was all my fault.
At this point my body took over, but I was simultaneously still observing it all happen. I felt a heaving reflex, as if I was going to puke. I put my pen and paper aside, walked over to the TV and turned the volume up to max. Next came the biggest emotional discharge imaginable. I
can’t even put it into words. It felt like I was having a heart attack. I thought I was dying. It was a sharp and intense pain that brought me to my knees.
Looking back, I thank the universe that I had that TV. It was as if my body had known what was about to happen. It wasn’t a conscious or directed choice to turn the TV on at that moment. As whatever it was came out of my heart, I let out the biggest scream along with it. It felt like my heart was being ripped out. I remember feeling a dark, demonic, evil cloud of energy being released. That’s why I was so fascinated that you used the word haunting. It felt like I had been haunted all of those years and this was like some sort of exorcism. After it all subsided, I was happy to be alive as I had thought I was dying. My next thought was, “You can never speak a word of this to anyone; people will think you are crazy.”
Then the magic started to happen. I finally came out of my cell and started interacting with the people. I was coming up for parole. I was told by a few of the other inmates that I didn’t stand a chance of getting parole – especially because I was there on the same charges that I had been sentenced for the last time. I refused to believe that I was not going to get parole. I had been asking for help and they had been denying me all along. I was told that the best I could hope for was seeing a Psychologist in prison. I was told there was no way I was getting out, but I still refused to believe it.
I came up for parole and pleaded my case. I let them know that I had asked for help on two occasions previously and had been denied it. They granted me parole and told me they were going to connect me with a Psychologist. At my first meeting with the Psychologist she asked me what was going on in life. I told her I didn’t need to speak about my current life; I wanted to know about trauma, childhood trauma and its impacts on brain development. I wanted to understand it all. All she told me was that I needed to take responsibility. She wouldn’t talk to
me about the things that I wanted to learn about at that point, so my five or six sessions with her ended up not being very helpful.
My time in the criminal justice system ended and I fell into a deep depression. Ever since that big emotional discharge, my thoughts were on a constant loop: “You hurt yourself. You hurt others. You ruined your life. You’re never going to be happy. How could you do this? You’re so stupid. You are no better than your father.” Hope was out the window and it felt like there was no point to life.
About a year into this bed-ridden depression, my partner approached me as said, “I think you should try yoga.” I told her that was the most ridiculous suggestion ever. I told her I didn’t identify with the yoga community at all and I was sure people like me didn’t do yoga. At that moment, I heard a little voice within me speak up: “It has been a year. Things are not getting better. How about we just give this yoga thing a try?” I realized I had little to nothing to lose and decided to try out a week of yoga. I was working at the YMCA at the time so I didn’t have to pay for classes and could go during my lunch time.
Monday I went to class and nothing special happened. Tuesday I went to class and the teacher said, “Before we start class, I would like you to set an intention for your practice.” I asked the teacher what an intention was and was told an intention could be anything from wanting to be the best version of yourself to wanting a deeper sense of peace or presence. I thought, “Wow! All of that is all I’ve ever wanted since I was a young child.” Yoga class proceeded. It was an intermediate class and it was hard. I had thought yoga just involved a little stretching, but I was getting my ass handed to me in this class.
As we were led through the poses, I noticed myself struggling and complaining in my mind non stop: “This is too hard. I don’t want to do this. I’m hot. The weather sucks. I don’t want to go back to work after this. I hope I don’t get home before my partner because then I’ll have to cook dinner and I don’t want to cook dinner. Look at that woman over there in the corner. She looks so peaceful. I’m struggling.”
About halfway through class the teacher said, “Come back to your intention.”
I realized how negative my thoughts were and began to understand that of course I was depressed. I was miserable if that is what was going on in inside of me constantly. That day I didn’t go back to work after class. I bolted home and I started meditating. I observed my habitual thoughts. Anything that was not true I let go of. If there was something that was true but not serving me, I changed it to be more optimistic. I forgave myself.
Had you meditated before Brandon or was this intuitive?
I struck intuitive gold and am so grateful for it. I think all of us are born with this ability though. Some of us might need a little bit more guidance, but I believe the ability to heal our minds and body is inherent.
I can now say that going back to prison was the best thing that ever happened. When I became depressed afterwards, I felt empty inside. Whatever I had emotionally discharged in prison – all the pain and suffering – was what I had been identifying with. It’s who I thought I was at my core. When all of that left, I was left feeling hollow. Then came the question of, “Who do I want to be?”
There was a Netflix documentary on the Black Panthers that I watched at the time. I fell in love with Huey P. Newton and he became one of my role models. I had also fallen in love with Ellen Degeneres in prison; she got me through a lot. I decided that these people and a few others were the people I wanted on my panel – the humans who I wanted to embody.
I began to share my story and all of these realizations on Instagram. Those who had known me pre-prison asked, “What happened to you?” I shared about my yoga journey and invited people to join in. I wasn’t certified as a yoga teacher at this point but was able to set up a twice yearly by-donation program with all of the yoga class proceeds going to support struggling children and families. This gained momentum and three years down the line now, I still try to make yoga as accessible as possible. I want to remove any and all barriers and excuses for not making it to yoga sessions. I feel like as a person of colour – especially a man of colour — I am blazing a trail for other men and men of colour to try this practice. I have gotten rid of as much of the shame and guilt associated with my path as possible, and I want to share my story so that others know that there is hope and that change is possible.
We grow up with the idea that our brains are not changeable or that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s not true. We can absolutely re-wire. We can build new pathways. We can change ourselves and change the world. This is what I strive for every day, to the best of my ability.
What other words of wisdom would you offer to those who are stuck in suffering that is similar to what you have been through?
Whenever you are ready, without rushing it, do your best to cultivate a sense of forgiveness to whoever or whatever situation negatively affects you. We often associate forgiveness to letting the other person "off the hook" or forgetting what happened. I associate it more so with the ability to let go of the hold or power that the situation or person has over you. Chances are they are not in the best of space and that is why they passed that energy onto you. In order for you not to keep that cycle going, forgive them and take your power back.