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Mindfulness in Prison – my experience

I vividly recall the moment when the judge announced my prison sentence to be 36 months on Oct 31, 2006 (I was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, 1 count Conspiracy to commit Healthcare insurance fraud, as  a direct result of my drug addiction/alcoholism). Although it was somewhat of a surprise as I had cooperated with the Prosecutors and they promised leniency, I also felt in a deep way that everything was going to be OK!

   I had been meditating since the 1970s off and on (mostly off) until I took my first MBSR course in 1999-2000. In that class, I learned and experienced the benefits of mindfulness and was taught the MBSR meditation practices. I kept up my home practice for only a few months, and eventually took the MBSR course for a 2nd time in 2002-3. This time I recall a deeper experience that undoubtedly contributed to my coming into recovery for drug abuse in 2004. This was my first shift. For the next 2 ½ years I tried other forms of meditation, mostly guided meditations and guided imagery but kept up with mindfulness practices.

         When I entered prison in November 2006, there were no meditation CDs/tapes, classes, or instructions, so I immediately started to practice the body scan from memory. I had plenty of time to meditate the 1st few months as there was literally nothing else for me to do. In February 2007, I was transferred to a prison camp, where I spent the next 14 months. Here I practiced 4-6 hours per day, including one hour of yoga. I did body scans, sitting meditation with open/choice-less awareness, yoga and some walking meditation. Other interested and curious inmates saw me meditating and approached me. We started a meditation group on our own, meeting every night. We took turns leading the group, trying different techniques and practices including chanting, focusing on breath and other objects, and sitting quietly. Ironically, I was the one that organized the group but did the least guiding of the practices!

         The effects of all this meditating and mindfulness were not only profound but practical. For the first few weeks, there was the tendency to feel a sense of ‘escapism’ during my practice. I saw that meditating kept me from a lot of the less useful, at times harmful and dangerous, activities that go on in prison. But as I built up the ability to practice longer, from 30 minutes to 2 + hours, I noticed the true shifts; my experiences deepened as I began to notice the tendencies of my mind and my thinking. As a student of neuroscience, this fascinated me so much, that even the long ‘boring’ meditations were entertaining and enlightening. I learned a lot about myself: my fears, pride, and positive attributes. With the non-judgmental attitudes of the practices, I developed self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and forgiveness of others which was a useful practice in prison. Finally, I was able to ‘do the time’ most productively by staying grounded in the Present moment, taking the ‘one day at a time’ principle to ‘this moment at a time!’

         The time passed quickly enough. I stayed out of trouble. I thrived in that I learned a way of Being that is most useful now, and I have the experience of going through something that I never thought I could do with dignity and integrity.

         And another observation: the six of us in the meditation group clearly noticed a calmer prison camp for the six months that we met, even though we did not meditate with the intention to reduce tension, suffering and such, for the others and the system. We suggest it was the impact of a group of men meditating together that my have benefitted the camp as a whole!

         Of course, one of the most surprising shifts in me personally has been the fact that I am now a teacher of Mindfulness and MBSR, and this was ‘gifted’ to me – literally – the first month after I was released. At that point, I had no idea what I was going to do for a living.

~Article by a former prisoner.

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