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Prison Sunday Retreat

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

by Fleet Maull, PMI's founder Last Sunday, I participated in a day retreat. There were 24 participants present. It was labeled a “Theravadin retreat,” but there were also several Zen and Tibetan folks there. 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 their 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 some other guys. I’m unfamiliar with all of the Theravadin practice protocols. We did the standard Theravadin chants and added some special chants in honor of Buddha’s birth, including prayers for peace that were particularly beautiful. We sat for a couple of hours interspersed with walking meditation. There were two coffee breaks timed with inmate “movements.” Movements are when inmates are securely moved from one prison location to another.

I spoke about the meaning of peace. How can the practice of shamatha meditation cultivate inner peace? 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 leaning into our resistance and solid stuckness with mindfulness has a liberating effect and 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 discussions.

These guys have caught onto the spiritual by-passing notion without much problem, perhaps because most are in prison with long sentences, including life sentences. I’ve experienced some inmates at another prison with relatively short sentences (a few years), and many are biding their time until they get out. They can see the light at the end of the (prison) tunnel. Many are still involved in the blame game, 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 have had to face their ghosts and skeletons directly 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, 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 retreat with a heart full of peace, tender sadness, and joy.

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