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Humility and Teaching Mindfulness In Prisons with Richard Shankman

Updated: Mar 21

In this episode, Richard Shankman speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director Vita Pires on his experiences teaching meditation in California prisons in the 1970s and how that has influenced his work to date.

  • Early days (1970s) of contemplative programs in California Prisons

  • Working with Youth (mindful schools)

  • Importance of humility and ‘not knowing’ mindset when working with others with completely different life conditions

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Richard Shankman has been active in bringing mindfulness practice into prisons and jails since the 1970s, when he began teaching meditation in San Quentin State Prison, the Marin County jail and a San Francisco drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Richard was the Buddhist chaplain and started mindfulness meditation programs at the Salinas Valley State Prison and the Men’s Correctional Training Facility, both near Soledad, California. He has been a meditator since 1970 and teaches classes and meditation retreats at dharma centers and groups internationally. Richard is the guiding teacher of the Metta Dharma Foundation (www.mettadharma.org), and co-founder of the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies (www.sati.org) and of Mindful Schools (www.mindfulschools.org). He has sat many silent, intensive meditation retreats for periods up to eleven months long.  Richard is the author of "The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation" and “The Experience of Samadhi”.


Humility and Teaching Mindfulness In Prisons Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Welcome! This is Vita Pires with the Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm happy to be here today with Richard Shankman. Richard has brought mindfulness practice into prisons and jails since the 1970s. Wow. Almost 50 years, huh? 


Richard Shankman: 

Yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

When he began teaching meditation in San Quentin State Prison, the Marin County Jail, and the San Francisco Drug and Alcohol Rehab Center. Richard was a Buddhist chaplain and started mindfulness meditation programs at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Men's Correctional Training Facility near Soledad, California. 


He's been a meditator since 1970, teaching classes and meditation retreats at Dharma centers and groups internationally. He is the guiding teacher of the Metta Dharma Foundation and co-founder of the Sati Center for Buddhist studies, as well as Mindful Schools. He has sat in many silent intensive retreats for periods of 11 months long. He's the author of The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation and The Experience of Samadhi. Two books. Two great books. Well, that second book is really excellent. 


So, Richard. So, you've been teaching Dharma for a long time, and you've been teaching in prison or working. I don't know if you still are teaching in prisons due to COVID, but what got you started on going into prisons? 


Richard Shankman: 

Yeah. Well, yes. Nice to be with you. Well, I got started, I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was in the early 1970s. I was living in a yoga ashram. Actually, it was in Marin. As part of what we did as social service, there was a new organization called the Prison Ashram Project. Back then, I don't know exactly what's with it these days, but Bo Lozoff and Rahm Das were the two who really had that going. And so, we were, I guess you'd say, the prison ashram, West Coast. 


And so, we were going into San Quentin Prison back then. Well, now it's level two, although it has a death row. But back then, it was a level four, which was the highest kind of seriousness. They are all serious. And so, this is what we did. It was interesting because being young and, you know, we all went in very sincerely. I hopefully did some good work. But of course, I was pretty young and new and naive and idealistic. 


It's funny because you're kind of in a teacher role. That's the whole thing of what role we go into. I don't know if we'll talk about that or not as teachers or just what we think our role is, but back then, we were kind of in the teacher role, but you were really young and just kind of starting out ourselves. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, I interviewed Sita. And, of course, I knew Bo. I had spent time with him at various conferences, and he came to Boulder a bit and stayed with me. But yeah, so that's great. You were involved with that. You were teaching. You were a Buddhist practitioner then. So, a new Buddhist practitioner. 


Richard Shankman: 

Actually, no. So back then. I don't know what you say more of, but Hindu-oriented yoga tradition, which is what I started out with when I began meditating in 1970. It was kind of, I think, in the mid-70s or kind of late-70s when I kind of transitioned over into the Buddhist world. That just kind of happened as a natural evolution in my own Dharma practice. But back then, it wasn't coming from a Buddhist perspective. It was more of a yogic meditation-oriented yogic tradition. 


Vita Pires: 

Did you continue to teach him in these various facilities when you were teaching Buddhism, Dharma, or things like that? 


Richard Shankman: 

Right. I was most active in the '70s. That's when I went into San Quentin, going into the Marin County Jails. And then, through the '80s, I was really kind of more than that. I was still going in, but other people were running programs. There were things in the San Francisco jails and different juvenile halls down in Santa Cruz. Depending here and there, I was going to programs other people organized. 


So, I kept that up over time. And then, when I really kind of stepped up, even another level, was when I think it was around 1990 when I started these. I was actually the Buddhist chaplain. It was a volunteer position, but I was the Buddhist chaplain of these two state prisons. I started those programs. Those are probably still going on to this day. 


Vita Pires: 

Oh, great. Great. So, what aspects of Dharma did you feel when you were a chaplain that most resonated with the folks inside? 

Richard Shankman: 



Well, that's an interesting question. So, definitely, there are aspects of people actually doing meditation practices. It's just like in just daily life for all of us. There are many people who are sincere, what you would call Dharma practitioners or spiritual people. Some really take this to formal meditation a lot. It's hard in daily life to do. Some don't. 


The same thing happened in prisons. Some people really take meditation practice, and it actually has quite a strong impact. And others don't, but they still perhaps take the teachings and try to apply them. I think another piece that was quite powerful would come once a week, and we have a few hours to run our group. I was only teaching the men. There are people who do it with women, too. But this was for men. They formed a lot of good connections and support. And places because in the prisons, you probably know, you walk around defended and guarded, probably, almost the whole time, right? 


And so, this was a place where people could get real with each other, get vulnerable with each other, feel just the support of the community that developed and at least during the time when they were in the safe bubble that we would create. So, I think that probably was the biggest impact, regardless of whether they actually meditated or not. 


Vita Pires: 

They developed a sort of Sanga together. 


Richard Shankman: 

That's right. Even sometimes men. I remember a time when men would say, you know, when we're out there in the yard, if something happens, you need my support, I'm there for you, kind of a thing. I don't know how much it really carried out because I'm not around during those times. So, I think it was just the supportive community, and that you could see there other men who wanted to live in a different way are very supportive. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. So, seeking something that would help them deal with their distress and suffering. 


Richard Shankman: 

That's right. I would think for a lot of men, even if you didn't have these formal groups like ours, that people would join. A lot of these guys get in there, you know, they're young. This is a stereotype. There's a lot of truth. Maybe they were in gangs or just on their own, involved in just a certain way. Especially those who have long sentences, you know, you get older, and then we all change, right? None of us are the same as we were when we were older when we were 18, or whatever. They mature and settle out. 


Some of these men really have gained a lot the hard way but have gained a lot of wisdom. I can tell you a lot of stories about that. But some of these men were just amazing. It was actually just quite. I felt like just to be able to be in their presence was quite a gift for me. So, yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

They developed a lot of insight and wisdom about their own life experience. Were you able to share? 


Richard Shankman: 

Yeah, I remember. These memories are coming out and speaking with you. I remember one man in particular; he was doing what they called Life Without. So, he's doing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He was an older guy; He'd been in for a long time. 


I remember him telling me, he said to me, "You know, of course, I'd like to get out if I could." But he said, "You know, I'm here. I got myself in here. And now that I am here, I think that I can really have something to offer other men and hopefully make a difference in their lives being like an elder, and kind of set an example and just being an elder support for people." 


He really kind of took that role in a way that was quite beautiful to be around. So, there were men like that. I'm not saying I don't know what percentage of people got like that, but we certainly know it's possible. There were men that could set an example like that. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. So, you know, as a chaplain, you'd have people coming to you that were maybe experiencing things like anxiety or panic and practices and stuff like that. 


Richard Shankman: 

Right. So well, this gets into a whole thing for any of us. You want to offer what you know. You don't want to try to teach her off of what you don't know. I'm not a psychotherapist. I'm not trained, but it's more like pastoral care or chaplaincy, something like that. So that stuff happened all the time. 


I can actually think of a few specific instances I could share. But in general, I think the feeling is that you just want to be an ally, a supportive presence. Sometimes that's what people need is just someone who is with them. You're not like the teacher, and you don't set that dynamic up. You're just there with them as a caring, supportive person. 


Sometimes you do have the wisdom to offer. That's great. I remember a time somebody came to me in a very difficult situation, almost impossible, asking me what to do. And it was like, an idea to offer something, but, you know, I didn't know the answer for him. Right. 


Vita Pires: 

And sometimes, it's just your presence. Being right here and listening. 


Richard Shankman: 

Well, that's very powerful, I think, for all of us to be seen and heard in a way with genuine care and love and just coming together with another human being to be really seen and gotten. Maybe that's for all of us where so much healing can happen, you know. 


Vita Pires: 

You've been around a long time. You founded things like Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools, you're one of the founders of that. You've been you've witnessed the mindfulness movement emerge beyond just the Dharma. What are the differences when you're teaching? Of course, I know the difference. I'm curious to know what you think of the differences between just simply teaching mindfulness to people and then the full-on dharmic path. 


Richard Shankman: 

Right. Well, this is interesting that you bring that up. I think, hopefully, we're beyond this kind of what I'm about to say now. But there was a long time when there was quite a tension between what you'd call secular mindfulness and then Dharma people who would kind of argue, you know, mindfulness is great, but if it doesn't have kind of the Dharma, ethical teachings, things like that, if it doesn't have the rest of Dharma, you know. 


I remember a man named Bob Stall. He's been a friend of mine for many years. He's sort of been in both worlds, like I have the Dharma world. I guess, for lack of a better term, I call it secular mindfulness. I remember we were having this discussion. I was at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We were teaching a retreat, and people were coming around about this when Mindful Schools was just starting. 


I remember Bob saying, "I don't care about this secular versus Dharma or whatever." He goes, "I'm just interested in relieving suffering." When he said what he wanted to do, which I really resonated with, you just want to meet the person to meet a situation on its own terms. And then the question is, what is appropriate, what's needed, and it's not one way. 


In really going into the prisons, the same thing with Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools doesn't teach directly in itself in classrooms. We used to go by ourselves. We started off going into some of these real kinds of inner-city schools in Oakland and underserved communities. That was pretty rough. It wasn't like a prison, but it had its own challenges. And then you had to come in and meet the students, the teachers, the community, and here you are coming from the outside, you have to be very respectful. 


Same thing in prison. I had to be very respectful that I was coming in and, in a few hours, I was walking out the gate. Those guys aren't. So, you have to be very humble and respectful of that. You don't want to come in and dispense your wisdom and then leave. You have to really come there in a real genuine way. So, I find that for all of these, whether it's Mindful Schools or anything, it's just like living daily life. We want to meet life, just in an authentic way. 


And then hopefully, if we've developed, hopefully, a little bit more of a steadiness of mind and clarity of mind, and a little bit of life experience, you could say wisdom, I suppose. Then, if we're being authentic, then hopefully that the best responses in life reveal themselves. That's not always true, but I think I have a better chance. And maybe that's all we need to know. Right? 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, that's true. Okay. So, when you were teaching in the prisons, what did you learn about yourself when you were a chaplain? Did you learn things about your own practice or yourself? 


Richard Shankman: 

Sure. Well, that's very interesting. I don't know if it was something special going to the prisons that hopefully we don't just learn in life. We all have our blind spots, and we all have our delusions. And hopefully, that's not the whole story. Hopefully, it's a mix, right? Where we have kind of our wisdom and our good heart, and from a Buddhist language, we call them the wholesome parts of ourselves. And then we've got what you call the unwholesome part. So, the difficulty. 


I like that language because it doesn't put judgment on it. It just acknowledges that we're a mix. There's no question like coming into the prisons, for example, those guys, people would use to say, you know, they've got very strong, highly attuned bullshit detectors. It's not that they're looking for trying to, in some way, but just, if, you know, if you can just come in there away, you don't have an attitude. And you had to come in. 


I remember, actually, in my early days, has changed over time. It was scary. You go into San Quentin. I guess it's like any prison, but the first place I went to was San Quentin, and just the name San Quentin has a lot of thought. Oh, my God. And I remember walking in when you go through the gate. It feels serious. One gate opens, and another closes. There's another gate that opens it. When you're in there, you're in there. These guys are walking around. It's like, "oh, my God. What am I doing here?" 


Plus, you know that you're there doing the best you can, but it's not like you're coming there, and you're the one who knows. You know what you know. But you also are aware of everything you don't know or whatever. And so, you just have to come into being. Again, it's like being your authentic self. There's another piece too about coming in to be the one who's coming in to help, not to come in to save necessarily, but I'm the helper. And yes, you aren't doing it. I mean, of course, you're coming in to be helpful and hopefully make a difference. But you have to kind of let all that go. 


It's the same thing in Mindful Schools. When we first started, I didn't know if I wanted to get off on that too much. But it was very similar in Mindful Schools. I actually created the first curriculum. When we started, there was just me and another person. I got some help when we created the first curriculum. I think we did an okay job and got a little help from others. And then I went into the first school, and like, I didn't have training in childhood development, or as an educator, just like I wasn't trained as a chaplain when I first went in, but I did have a lot of faith. I knew I was coming in sincerely. 


The real thing is you have to be willing to just show up the best you can and take what comes back. And if you screw up, you have to just not have an ego about it and be able to just go, "You know, you're right." I sent the wrong thing there that caused some pain or whatever, and you learn. And so, you bring that open attitude about yourself. That was a great learning, I think, in the prisons to be able to go in like that. Because it's not like you go in and you're never going to make a mistake, you can trigger someone off or something like that. And wait, you just didn't even know your blind spot. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. I mean, I can have a curriculum, but then I usually just throw it out the door. And you're right. You never know what's going to be happening. 


Richard Shankman: 

I'll just say that just reminded me way, way back, when I was going into Marin County, there was this drug and alcohol rehab center that I went to. I can't even remember the name. It may not even be around. These were people who were sent there. They had maybe some minor drug offenses or whatever. And so, the court, instead of going to jail, they were in this residential thing. So, they didn't really want to be there, but they were forced to be there. Part of it is they made them come to this yoga class I was teaching. 


Vita Pires: 

Voluntold. 


Richard Shankman: 

I was in there trying to get them to do some yoga asanas or meditate a little, whatever we were doing, and they just weren't going for it. At some point, we finally just learned, like, we just dropped. It reminded me of when you said you could go in with a curriculum. We just dropped the whole thing and just said, "What's up, guys?" kind of a thing, and we just all kind of talk. I thought that was more valuable than some meditation techniques. You had to show up for what the situation was presenting. And so, you had to respond to that. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. And yeah, right. I mean, I was going in before COVID into a facility where the administration had heard the word mindfulness. They'd been to some. I don't know, online courses or something about it. And so, they thought mindfulness was a great thing. 


They had the word being mindful up all over the walls for others. And so, they were using mindfulness. But when they came into the class because our class was called mindfulness-based emotional intelligence, they were like, "We hate mindfulness." They'll say that we hate mindfulness. I said, "Tell me why." 


And then they were like, well, because everybody's saying, "Be mindful. Be mindful." So, they were using being mindful as a way of punishing. I was like, "Okay, I won't mention the word mindfulness." So, we dropped that whole idea. I was like, "Okay, so what do you want to do?" 


Richard Shankman: 

Yeah, I totally relate to what you're saying. It actually reminds me of when we first started going. We are still part of the Mindful Schools curriculum. The very first thing we would do going into the classroom, the first thing. We didn't say about being mindful of everything. None of that works. But we had a really beautiful bell, like a Buddhist Bell, and it had a beautiful tone. And when you ring it, it really has a sustained ring. 


We would just say, "Tell you what." We get the kids and say, "Here, just take a minute and listen." And you ring the bell, and it has this magical effect on everybody, which is quiet down, and then we would say, "Okay. Now, how does that feel? Let's try it again." And notice how you feel in your mind when you just feel the spell. 


Some of the kids didn't like it. It's not going to work for everyone. But some of the kids said, "Wow, that makes me feel kind of nice." And then that was the doorway to say, "Oh, you actually had an experience that felt kind of good. What if we could deepen that, and you could have more of that in your life?" So, we try to get them to get into some experiential thing first. In prisons, it's a little trickier. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. I mean, I would bring in music, and we'd play music. I'd say, "Can you tell me when you hear the drums come in? Just raise your hand." So, I try to get them to notice things in the actual music they want to hear. I would bring in, and we do movement, you know, different kinds of dancing and goofy stuff. So, it worked out fine, but everyone's sort of saying, "So, I think that was mindfulness." They all laughed. They hated the word. Then they were like, "Okay, we don't hate mindfulness so much." 


Richard Shankman: 

And you know, we do the best we can because no matter what we do, it's going to resonate. My experience was some percentage of the men, it's like, out in the world, right? It's just not going to connect with them at all. And then there's some percentage that will get some good out of it. And then there's also a percentage that actually was quite life-changing for people. So, it was a mix. But I think that's kind of true in even Dharma communities and out just in daily life, kind of Dharma communities. It's a range. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. So, in the Sati Center, do you have a chaplaincy program with that? 


Richard Shankman: 

Yes. Yes. Yes. 


Vita Pires: 

So, you train people to be chaplains? 

Richard Shankman: 

Right. 



Vita Pires: 

I'm sort of mixing up modalities here, but we're getting people to go in and facilitate programs. We teach programs. People want to go teach things that they're excited about. But maybe, like you said, they're 19 years old, and they just read a book or something they're very excited about. They want to teach it to people. But what do you suggest to people is to kind of like back off the kind of going in and downloading something to people? 


Richard Shankman: 

I don't teach at the Sati Center. I know about it. I've actually participated in it and been around it. I have actually been to a lot of the training there. I know what they're doing. I'd be a little careful because I'm not really one of the teachers, but I can say a little bit. 


Well, if you're coming in as a Buddhist chaplain, you do want to, of course, be grounded in some of the foundational teachings. You need to have that there even if you're going to drop all of that and just be present in some way. You still have to have a good grounding and all of that. No question about that. And your own practice, for sure. But a lot of the training is about just what you and I are discussing now, about what it is about just meeting a present moment with someone in a way without your agenda, and just really just showing up and being there. And then, what might come? 


I remember one of the teachers was just trying to make a point. You know, when you go in, there's a balance. Like, of course, you want to be helpful. If something's broken, it's nice to try and fix it. So, I don't think we have to throw that away. But they were trying to train when we were talking, and people were bringing up really challenging things in their life, and then how you respond. And then, the person who was teaching the chaplaincy training that day would come and listen to people. Then the person who was responding, they'd say, "You're trying to fix it. Like, fixing." They are going, "Stop fixing. Just be present." 


I think he was just trying to make a point about the quality of what is the best thing that will fix them. Sometimes it's not like, "Oh, I'm trying to fix you." It's just more the attitude of how we are present. So, a lot of the training really is about just how you show up in the way that's most appropriate or helpful for people. A lot of it is sometimes, you know, I don't like this word ego because it has a lot of weird meanings, but just to say, a lot of us get our ego out of the way as a way of speaking. 


Vita Pires: 

You kind of summed up what advice you would give to people to maybe just be in kind of an open space where you are open to listening to what other people where they're at and what they need, what they want. 

Richard Shankman: 



That's right. The other thing when you say what advice, a couple of things. Generally, you know, when you're going somewhere. Now, I've started some programs where I wasn't with a mentor myself, where I just like the two I did at the two California state prisons. I just cold called and reached out to the head of, anyway, I found contacts there. I just cold called. We actually took over a period of more than a year and a couple of years to kind of get it to happen. But I've been practicing for a long time. I felt comfortable doing that. So, that's fine. 


I think most people probably will go into it if they're younger. It's not about being young. But if they're newer, you're probably not going to, so go start your own program. Maybe you could. That might be fine. But you're going to be with people who are more experienced. So, part of it is, you know, we all watch and learn and get feedback. And so, part of it is that, but the other thing is you just have to. I was going to say not to be afraid, but it's actually okay to be afraid. 


I shouldn't say it that way, but we want to be just willing to step into something, even if we are afraid or something. Not being afraid, even if being afraid. That kind of sounds a little weird, but just being able to just go in, being our authentic self, even if we're not so clear on ourselves. I mean, that's okay because we're being authentic. And to not know it. 


This reminds me of just a quick story. It's short. This was what I mentioned earlier. This is a guy who came up to me in Salinas Valley State Prison. That's a tough prison. In California, they call it to level four. It's like people hear about Pelican Bay in California. This is another Pelican Bay, where it's like, guys who didn't make it in other prisons or got sent here. And so, it's tough. 


A guy came up to me. He had been in a gang or whatever. And he said he had stopped. He was a Dharma guy. He took it very seriously. And he said to me, "His gang has tasked him to go stab someone in the other gang." in retaliation for whatever. I don't remember what it was. And he said, "What do I do?" He's asking me. He says, "I'm not going to go stab someone." But he says, "If I don't do it, my own gang is going to come and get after me. Maybe stab him or whatever. What should I do?" 


I remember very clearly. I said to him, "I don't know." I even said to him, "Listen." Just like I said earlier in our discussion. I said, "I'm getting ready to walk out of here in a couple of hours. You're not." So, this is tough. I said, "The only thing I can tell you is to the extent you're able to not be reacting out of fear or anxiety, which I understand that you may or may not be able to do. But to the extent you're able to just settle yourself and have some kind of balance or something, just even a little bit, you have a better chance of making a wiser decision whatever it's going to be." 


And then what happened was I didn't see him for a few months. One day he showed back up at the group. I go, "What happened? What happened?" He said, "Well, what I decided to do was…." When they were out in the yard, they called him Shanks, which are their homemade knives. He has a shank. Where everybody could see what was going on, he lunged for the person who was supposed to stab on purpose somehow, like stumbled and tripped while he was lunging. 


And so, everyone can see went for the guy tried to stab him but missed and fell down. So, he satisfied his own gang, and he did his best. He didn't actually stab anyone. And he took it on. These are his own words. He said he took it on his own karma. 


That's not me saying that. I want to be very respectful. He said that. He got thrown in there. They called it and threw it in solitary confinement for a few months. And then he was out. I like to think that my wise advice had an effect. 


Vita Pires: 

That was a creative way to engage with that. Yeah. 


Richard Shankman: 

He actually came up with a creative solution, given he didn't have any good options. 


Vita Pires: 

He could see that, you know, kind of the strategic move. That was a great story. Thank you. And thank you so much for meeting with me today and talking about your experience. 


Richard Shankman: 

Yeah. I'm glad to be able to connect. It's nice. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Thank you.

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