My friend and co-volunteer and I arrived at the prison right on time. We gave our drivers licences to the correction officer as ID to be returned at the end of our visit. My fellow volunteer had mistakenly given them a credit card which they laughed about and rejected. She had to return to the car where her wallet was and retrieve her license. We then chose a locker to lock up our miscellaneous stuff not allowed in the prison which requires one quarter to use. I mishandled the locker lock and it locked before I put everything in. I then had to go back to the car and get another quarter in order to lock all our stuff up. Mind you, this is a Saturday morning at 9 AM. In any case, we gave each other a meaningful look and wondered how we were going to teach MINDFULNESS meditation today 🙂
We entered this antiseptic, cold and seemingly hopeless place and were led through all the security traps to the chapel where our class is held. We were greeted by five familiar faces and we were mutually happy to see each other. We started the class with about ten minutes of meditation. Everyone seemed to settle in and relax with themselves and their environment. Then we asked if anyone wanted to share something about their lives since the last class. One guy said his time is passing very slowly in prison and it’s always been that way. A couple of the other guys said that they experience time as passing quickly in prison. We learned that the guys who tended to perceive time passing quickly were the ones who were more active during the day with work and the routine of prison life. We encouraged the guys to remember to take the time, whether or not it’s passing swiftly or slowly, to formally practice meditation and to practice some of the mindfulness in action techniques that they’ve been taught.
We then began a discussion about the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, CT. We all contributed our thoughts and feelings around this tragic event. All of us expressed our shock, anger, grief, empathy and disbelief. One guy said that he was afraid of the direction this country is going in. He sited all the other recent mass shootings in the past few years. He said that most of this unthinkable violence is occurring in the suburbs and not in the cities. He feared that there is no longer safe places to live in this country. His last statement is ironic as he has a long term sentence at a maximum security prison. Another guy said that none of the guys in this meditation class would ever be capable of committing such a horrific crime. We discussed the deep and long term trauma this has caused for the surviving family of those murdered, and also the trauma for those who didn’t lose family but are nevertheless deeply wounded by the experience. I reflected back to the time my daughter was on a school bus trip to Canada when she was in junior high school. In the middle of the night the bus lost control, flipped over and slid down an embankment. Four children died. There was a short period of time that we didn’t know if our daughter survived until she called us. That short period of time was incredibly painful, stressful, disorienting and traumatic for my wife and I. And it was the longest short period of time we’ve ever experienced.
This discussion then led to us introducing the practice of tonglen (sending and taking). In a nutshell, this is a practice of breathing in/taking the other person or persons’ pain and suffering and breathing out/sending those same people qualities such as love, compassion, light and peace. We started by visualizing a loved one who is suffering and began the sending/taking practice with that loved one. Then we suggested that they expand their tonglen practice to include all people including those involved in the tragedy in Newtown and even the whole country. Finally, we asked them to include the people who they considered their enemies, including the suffering person that murdered all those innocent children and others in Newtown. We ended with several minutes of basic mindful meditation practice.
All of the inmates were moved by this practice. It was a very powerful moment for all of us. We recognized that even if we may make poor choices in our lives that results in more suffering for ourselves and others, there is always the possibility of transformation. The possibility of self-transformation exists for each of us because at our core, all of us are innately good. That goodness is always present and it is our job to discover this truth.
We ended the class agreeing that we may start the Path of Freedom curriculum sometime early next year. Smiles, handshakes, good vibrations, and basic goodness soaked the prison chapel this morning.