Last Sunday I participated in a day retreat.. There were 24 participants present. It was labeled a “Theravadin retreat” but there were several Zen and Tibetan folks there as well. It was to be led by two Theravadin monks who teach at the prison a couple of times per month and lead quarterly retreats. However, the Theravadin monks were celebrating the Buddha’s birthday (Theravadins have there own date for Buddha’s birth) at their monastery and therefore could not attend the retreat.
The inmates asked me to lead the retreat which I did by sharing responsibilities with a couple of the other guys as I’m not familiar with all of the Theravadin practice protocols. We did the standard Theravadin chants and added some special chants in honor of Buddha’s birth which included prayers for peace that were particularly beautiful. We sat for a couple of hours interspersed with walking meditation. There was two coffee breaks timed with inmate “movements”. Movements are when inmates are securely moved from one location of the prison to another location.
I spoke about the meaning of peace. How inner peace can be cultivated by the practice of shamatha meditation. How genuine peace is not weakness but rather is coupled with bravery and strength. The bravery and strength to lean into our habitual patterns and reactions with a steady yet light touch of mindfulness. I talked about how the leaning into our resistance and solid stuckness with mindfulness has a liberating effect. How we could find freedom FROM attachment patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving by first finding freedom IN the midst of these patterns. This led to a lot of interesting discussion. These guys have totally caught onto the spiritual by-passing notion without much problem, perhaps because most of them are in prison with long sentences, including life sentences. I’ve experienced some inmates at another prison that have relatively short sentences (a few years) and many of them are bidding their time until they get out. They can see the light at the end of the (prison) tunnel. Many of them are still involved in the blame game complete with resentments, excuses and avoiding their darker ingrained behavioral patterns. However, by and large, the guys cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. So many of them have had to directly face their ghosts and skeletons in their closets. They have learned to generate their own internal light. They know what it means to hit bottom and to navigate through that darkness quite well. I am always inspired and grateful to be with them because of their struggles and because of their bravery and strength. I learn a lot from their example.
We continued to practice and enjoy each other’s friendship during the breaks. I left the the retreat with a heart full of peace and much tender sadness and joy.