We started our class with a few minutes of meditation practice, and Joel helped us settle into it with gentle guidance. All the guys now know how to take a good upright posture, plant their feet solidly on the floor, place their eye gaze several feet in front of themselves, and put their attention on their breath. These guys are experienced meditators after 16 weeks!
Several of the guys will be released from prison in the coming weeks. And as our topic of discussion for this class is “Mindfulness in Action” we chose to discuss what it means to be released back into “free society.” I recently read an excellent and eye-opening book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I recommend this book to everyone, and it’s especially a must-read for anyone involved with prison work. Ms. Alexander brilliantly explains the history of how African Americans were controlled by American society by slavery, then by Jim Crow laws and culture, and finally by the “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration.
A free-wheeling discussion ensued about how we can mindfully take responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and actions while cultivating empathy for others. And we contrasted that with how we can become more aware of how American society’s negative and almost unconscious institutionalized mass discrimination/incarceration acts as a barrier for everyone’s recognition of their and other’s basic goodness. It was an intense discussion that even reached beyond the American borders to include Columbia and Jamaica as two inmates would be returning to their home countries after release.
At the beginning of the class I wrote on the blackboard “Mindfulness in Action.” One guy asked me to add “Cover Your Ass.” He explained that if you are not careful and don’t cover your ass, the biased, racist system with eat you up. Joel and I tried to find the essential goodness in the notion of “cover your ass.” We talked about how there is an intelligence in covering one’s ass that is not blind to the blindness in others. And when society blames and shames those who are the victims of its institutionalized abuse, it is possible to understand that those who are perpetrating that abuse become victims themselves.
We also discussed how the more one becomes mindfully present and genuine in character, the greater the chance that one will recognize the same in others. And this may allow the guys, upon release from prison, to connect with people who are more aware and genuine, thus giving them a better chance of breaking the cycle of victimhood. These inmates know that as convicted felons (criminals), society has marked them for further institutional abuse through it’s biased laws and culture, and will try to keep them down for the rest of their lives. Yet, we feel that most these Path of Freedom graduates are leaving this class with a greater sense of innate self-worth and goodness that no one can take away from them.
We ended the class with good cheer and every one of the the black guys warmly fist-bumped with us and all of the white and brown guys shook hands with us. The guy who asked me to add “cover your ass” on the blackboard fist-bumped with me, then flashed a friendly smile and quietly whispered to me “never forget to cover your ass.”