After $2.7M forgery scam went awry, Marine, ex-convict found serenity
The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga.
Matt Tenney seems to still feel a little bit of the “nauseousness” he says he felt when he made a phone call in 2001 impersonating a financial officer with the U.S. Marines.
Tenney, a Marine himself who was “unhappy with his job,” said he had forged all the forms needed for a reserve bank in Los Angeles to send $2.7 million to him on a Brink’s armored truck. He said he was close to being a millionaire, but guilt, holes in his plan and the FBI caught up with him.
Tenney was to speak with Dalton State College students Tuesday night about how being arrested was the best thing that happened to him, promoting the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice that emphasizes being in the present moment without thinking about the past or future as a means to shirk selfishness and foster compassion.
It’s a teaching Tenney came to in a moment of desperation after being in solitary confinement in a military jail for several months, he said.
After being arrested by the FBI he said he was told by a military lawyer he could face up to 80 years in prison for forgery. He pleaded guilty, became suicidal in prison, he said, but never took action.
“I was in a 6-by-9 cell. A small closet,” he said. “I spent 22 hours alone every day. I was in shock. I had thoughts of suicide. I was in a daze. I would just think, ‘I don’t want to wake up in the morning.’”
So there was some relief when his sentence was reduced to little more than five years for good behavior. But for Tenney, who was 24 at the time of his sentencing in 2001, it was still a “long time” alone.
It was in his cell that Tenney thought “What’s the point of even being alive?”
“The question came to my mind, and I began to wonder if it was possible to be happy in prison,” he said. “I was very focused on money at the time.”
It was by reading about and practicing mindfulness that Tenney became “happy.”
“Mindfulness is just a simple way to train the mind,” he said. “It’s about attention and awareness. It’s about not being distracted by thinking. If you’re not comparing your present moment to the past or the future, it is perfect just the way it is.”
The practice — which Tenney says isn’t exclusive to Buddhism and can be used in anyone’s private or professional life regardless of personal beliefs — changed him.
He was no longer interested in making or taking millions of dollars after picking up the practice, he said. Tenney turned his prison into a mental monastery and has lived “monastically” since, devoting his life to “serving people ... in every day, every moment if possible.”
Now Tenney works for several nonprofits and lectures throughout the nation.
Upon being released from prison in 2006, Tenney spent time helping at schools in Mexico, volunteering in communities throughout the nation and founding a nonprofit organization called Kids Kicking Cancer.
He currently serves as a director at the Perth Leadership Institute in Gainesville, Fla., and travels the country as a motivational speaker. He says he turns all profits from his speaking engagements over to various charities. Which might raise an eyebrow from cynics, he admits.
What would he say to anyone who questions his motivation? After all, he was a would-be scam artist capable of forging military documents and impersonating others.
“I don’t care what people think,” he said. “I would hope people would have that (skeptical) attitude towards me. The most amazing thing about humans and their stories is our capacity to change. Someone could think I’m a terrible, rotten person. I don't think I was. I did something dishonest and illegal and unethical, but I wasn’t horrendous.
“And I’d tell them (skeptics) to observe me through my actions. Observe what I do on a day-to-day basis and you make the decision then on what you think of me. I don’t care what you think, but if you observe my actions I hope you’re inspired to know that all humans have the capacity to transform.”
And if those same skeptics doubt mindfulness, Tenney said they should do some research. Mindfulness is something that has recently gained teeth in the psychology field, particularly in the branch of positive psychology that employs the practice to better the world.
And if someone is convinced mindfulness is something they could benefit from?
“Start with a minute a day,” Tenney said. “Be fully alive in a moment instead of thinking about life. Most of us probably spend 90 percent thinking about the past or future and life is too short for that. Think about the activities you do. When you brush your teeth, think about what it actually feels like to brush your teeth.”
Focusing on small details like the way toothbrush bristles feel, instead of thinking about bills and work and thus living passively, is what puts you in the present moment and makes you more capable of picking compassion over greed, Tenney said.
“When you’re in a moment you become aware of your own thoughts and behaviors and programming. That’s when you can be more self-aware and show more self-control,” he said. “You are free from conditioning. The more time you spend in the present, focusing on the room you’re in, you realize your conditioning and selfish needs are not what you are. They start to lose their power.”