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High Anxiety

Last week at Women’s, having covered the basic ground of mindfulness, holding your seat and state shifting, we dove into the wonderful world of pain and anxiety.

As one woman who is repeating the Path of Freedom this fall put it, “Out of everything we did last year, I thought Meditation for Pain was total bullshit.”  Pain seems like such an alive and vivid foe– sure, maybe we can get a handle on our anger, but how on earth could meditation hold a candle to the popular strategy of dropping a pharmaceutical H-bomb on whatever ails you?  Nevertheless, this same woman went on to say that she had decided to give the Meditation for Pain another shot just a few days prior and: “I did feel better, not cured, but it really did something. The pain wasn’t pulling me around anymore!”

Similarly, another woman noted after doing the Meditation for Pain in class that her “pain became livable. I can deal with it, like being a crumpled piece of paper finally opened up so I can breathe. When I’m not judging, or telling a story about my pain it feels totally different.”  Most women in the room seemed able to work with their pain in some way.  A woman whose “check in” at the beginning of class included “a lot of terrible back pain,” agreed that by focusing her attention on the back pain, it started to lose its grip and her attention started to move to other parts of the body.

The overall message– to move towards pain instead of away from it– was mirrored by a more general discussion about meditation.  Thanks to a grant funded through the University of Rhode Island, the women now have CD players with audio recordings of most of the meditations we offer in the Path of Freedom curriculum.  While a number of women talked about the usefulness of the recordings, there was a general consensus that the CD needed more recordings along the lines of nature sounds that would help them to psychically leave the prison.  While trying to honor this as potentially useful at times, I reminded them that the goal of mindfulness is not escape, but rather to cultivate strength, acceptance and skillfulness by working with what’s here, just as it is…

And often “what’s here” includes enormously high levels of anxiety.  Even during the class period there were two high anxiety meltdowns– one that included intense fidgeting/picking of her neck and ear that resulted in some bleeding and another, triggered by my example of how a previous dog encounter might create general anxiety around dogs, went into a state of near physical disassociation. (She later showed me her large dog bite scars.)  To their credit, both women managed to hold their seats through the remainder of the class.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion in the room was that even if meditation is helpful in controlled environments like the classroom, it does nothing for the constant high levels of stress and anxiety that is their daily experience at the prison.  “There’s too much noise.” “I have to watch my back all the time.” “I would never close my eyes here.” “It’s total chaos here, it can’t happen.”

I did my best to encourage them, but it most likely sounds a bit hollow coming from someone who– right now– is tucked away in a quiet cozy house with a wood stove (and a curled up pup) during a “nor-easter.”  The only way for them to know if this stuff works is to try.  That’s more or less what the Buddha said– find out for yourself what is truth.  Hopefully the meditation CDs will be an encouragement.  Hopefully they will (like the mother who noted that her daughter, who is also in the class, has been pushing her to stick with it) encourage each other.  Hopefully, even amidst deep pain and high anxiety they will give meditation another shot… May all beings (including all the incarcerated women around the globe) live with ease.



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