Updated: May 26, 2020
“When I try to meditate in my room people walking by yell and bang on my cell door,” one of our more committed meditators told us this week. Our meditation group in juvie is usually a fairly peaceful and safe environment, but this week we got a small taste of the chaos that permeates the rest of the environment. The person responsible for assigning folks to our class was away for the second week in a row, and after having just three people last week, I asked a CO if he wouldn’t mind rounding a few other folks up. Well, these kids are locked in their rooms all day and are eager to get out and do something, even if it is just go to some program that they don’t care about, so we had a very large crowd this week. It was tough to work with this big a group, most of whom had no interest in meditation, but we made a go of it, starting with a minute of Being Still meditation.
Kate stopped the group after about 30 seconds, because there was one guy who was moving a lot. She told them that we would keep trying until we could all make it for one minute without moving. Once they realized that she wasn’t kidding the room got very still. For the benefit of all the newbies, we then asked the guys who have been coming regularly why meditation might be a useful skill to learn, and got answers like “you can relax,” “it helps make you less angry,” “you can make better choices,” and of course their favorite: “it’s like going to the beach!” We talked a bit about what those answers meant, and addressed one regular attendee who had just gotten in a heap of trouble for repeatedly kicking his door. “What have we learned in this class that could help you next time you want to kick something?”
Francesca led us through a director’s cut meditation – where we address looping thoughts by saying silently but firmly to ourselves “Cut!” and then Kate guided us through an abbreviated discussion of our Path of Freedom topic of the week. She introduced: blame, resentment, being right, and justification. The guys got the idea pretty well, though no one knew what the words resentment or justification meant. Reflecting on it later, we realized that better word choices for this situation might have been: holding grudges, and making excuses. When we tried to get them to think above the line though, things got pretty funny:
“So what is the opposite of that ‘being right? we just talked about'” Kate asked them
“Being wrong!” someone called out
“Okay, well yes. What about if instead of thinking that they know everything, someone just listens to you and is interested in you and asks you questions and stuff?
“That sounds fishy to me!” another guy called out, “I would be suspicious.”
I learn more about every week, about the guys, and the assumptions I hold about the world. It never would have occurred to me that these guys have probably had so few people really listen to them – without some kind of ulterior motive or agenda going on – that the idea of it seems strange to them. By the end of our conversation, I think the guys in class definitely saw what Kate was driving home about two different ways of being in the world – one of which they respect, admire, and enjoy in others around them, and one of which pisses them off and makes them feel bad. Which way would you rather live?
We closed out class with a meditation called “Changing the Channel,” where I told the guys that they each have a remote to their own mind, and whenever they don’t like what’s happening in there, they can go ahead and change the channel. We flipped together to the beach channel, a perennial favorite, and moved around a bit to other pleasant stations. They seemed to like it, but I have a question about whether or not it is a good practice to be offering them. While I tried to emphasize the control aspect of the exercise, driving home the simple and valuable idea that they can gain some personal power over what goes on in their minds, there is still the fact that many of them seem to be drawn towards meditation in order to dissociate and escape from their current circumstances. I certainly don’t blame them for that, and I am glad if it works to make them happier, but I ultimately feel that meditation is much more about leaning in to reality, experiencing what is rather than what would be nice. As I recently heard someone express it: “What is is, and what isn’t isn’t.” I would love to get some opinions in the comment section below this blog on this dilemma. Would you stay away from practices that are more about fantasizing and escaping from the dreariness of one’s present situation, or are those valuable practices to introduce, alongside other more present and body-focused techniques?
Lastly, as promised, here are three tips from Ryan Moore, who generously spoke with me Wednesday about his many years of experience teaching the Path of Freedom and other mindfulness-based transformative programs to incarcerated youth:
Don’t just talk. Bring in visual and audio props. Like pictures of sports players meditating, Lebron James, and the Seattle Seahawks for example. Or brings in some contemplative music, or short film clips from a movie like the Dhamma Brothers
Introduce the practice of journaling between weekly classes. If folks start to get involved in practicing meditation on their own, journaling or some kind of weekly self-reflective exercise can help them keep momentum going between class sessions.
Use going to sleep as a way to get buy-in. Everyone can relate to having trouble falling asleep because of racing thoughts, and if you suggest doing five minutes of meditation laying down in bed before going to sleep every night, many people will do it. Then, voila! they have a daily meditation practice.