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Conflict Amidst Chaos

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

There’s no place like a prison to explore conflict and how mindfulness (or lack thereof) enters in…

For whatever reason, the women’s class was mostly all together (so much for my assumptions…), which meant it was also back to its usual chaotic nature. 

I began by asking for one authentic statement about how they were doing. There was a range of responses, but the last woman, who arrived slightly late and very flustered, burst out in a lengthy diatribe about how “you must need to be mentally insane to qualify for a job as a C.O.” (that also included a number of apologies for her colorful use of language…). This woman had just spent the last two weeks in segregation (which was why she wasn’t in class) and was in trouble now for having a pen that was given out during another class earlier in the week. Needless to say, this gave us a great doorway to enter the topic of “conflict” and how mindfulness might be useful in negotiating it. 

We talked about what happens physically in the body during the conflict, to which everyone in the room had something to contribute. Then the woman who spoke about the C.O.s talked about her angry pain. “I just don’t know what to do with it…”  And so we talked about learning to open to rather than act out on, ignore, or push away the pain (a preamble for this week’s class).

Later, when we had just gone through the ladder of inference, a verbal catfight broke out (more colorful language…) between two women over a note being passed. In retrospect, I wish I had used the opportunity to assertively coach them in state shifting (“stop, don’t speak, take space, breathe”), but at the time, what I did was to point to the ladder of inference, and everyone else at least could see in real-time the data selection, assumptions, conclusions and actions taking place before their eyes. Fascinating.

Moving on to the four agreements, there was considerable discussion (particularly involving one woman who has shown little to no interest in the material to date) about whether “not taking things personally” was a choice. She contended that “not acting” was a choice but NOT “not taking things personally.”  I was thrilled that she at least had an opinion!

We then dove into the meditation for panic. Initially, several women noted feeling short of breath, so I asked them to adjust the instructions to two counts on the inhale and three on the exhale. A few women noted feeling calmer at the end, and one woman said (proudly) that she could extend her exhales to 13 counts. This was a great example of how we must always listen to the body/heart/mind and adjust our practice to work for us. We closed with the compassion meditation, and most (not all!) said it was helpful in shifting their perspective about the challenging person they chose to work with.

As I was leaving, I had a chance to talk to the woman who had been so upset about the C.Os at the beginning. She said that she believed this class was helping her. I also shared with her the following quote from a C.O. who had asked me what class I was teaching as I was going through security that morning. When I told her, she responded: “When are you going to offer a class like that to the COs?  We really need it.  It’s great that the inmates are getting it, but as long as there are officers who feel stressed out and angry and over worked, then the environment isn’t going to change. Really, I’m serious, we really need it.”

The participant sighed and said, “Thank you for telling me that– it makes a difference. It gives me hope.” So conflict is alive and well over there at Women’s Medium, but so is hope, which may be a first step toward the path of freedom…

Moving on to Men’s minimum, Fleet started by asking the men how they had been working with the material. It was pretty quiet, but one fellow said, “I like the saying (from the empowerment statements) that an adult is someone responsible for their thoughts, feelings and actions. That’s helpful for me.”  Then another guy talked about the above-the-line/below-the-line material.

“I lived my whole life below the line for many years– in and out of prison– and then the last time I got out, I spent 3 years living above the line.  And it was amazing how everything worked out for me– not like I didn’t have problems, but I was happy. Then I somehow dropped below the line again, and landed in here once again.  So I get it from my experience, and it’s great to have a way of thinking about it now.  It helps.”

A third fellow then went on at length about how the entire prison system is set up for inmates to fail–  it was clear he had done a lot of thinking about this subject and was pretty sure he was “right.”  Fleet handled this beautifully, genuinely affirming his viewpoint, sharing his commitment to changing that system, and challenging him to consider how holding on tightly to this view might not actually be in his own interest. This “conflict with the system” later became the lens through which we were able to look at the ladder of inference and question some of the assumptions and conclusions underneath (referencing Byron Katie’s favorite question: “is it true?”).

We closed with what I believe Fleet calls the “Confidence Raising” meditation– ground down to the core of the earth, connect to the vastness of sky/heavens, let both energies meet at heart, and then open your eyes and come into the space with clarity and confidence, all in 4 counts. We did a few rounds of it. I’m not sure to what extent this landed for the men as I noticed a number of confused and spaced-out expressions… but that’s just me selecting data and making an assumption! Ha ha ha… 🙂

Looking forward to diving into the “pain” material this week…



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