By Sarah Drumm for Gainesville Today, November 15, 2012
Becky Porter spent three days in agony, her lower back and shoulders searing in painful protest of spending hours and hours each day seated cross-legged, upright, hands clasped, on a thin cushion in Lowell Annex.
It came, seemingly out of nowhere, on the fourth day. Sometime during the hours of sitting in silence, focusing on breathing, a safeguard crumbled. And, suddenly, pure sadness overwhelmed her. For once, Porter forced herself to allow the tears to come.
Lowell Annex is a prison for women located in Ocala, Fla. It is part of the Lowell Correctional Institution, which offers Mind-Body Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes through the volunteer teaching of Abbot K.C. Walpole of the Gateless Gate Zen Center, a nonprofit Buddhist organization in Gainesville.
Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of being present in each moment. In meditation, this translates to being aware of your body, which is only sitting and breathing, and, if memories or feelings do come, to let them be what they are without trying to change how you feel or think.
“Compassion is what it’s really about,” Porter, 25, said.
While Walpole, 70, is Buddhist, the MBSR is a secular program based on the concept of mindfulness and the practice of yoga.
Still, Porter, who is not Buddhist, said she thinks it is religious preference that keeps many women from trying the class. They associate meditation with Buddhism and are wary of trying something new.
For Porter, synchronicity inspired her to try the class. In August 2010, she was charged with possession of methamphetamine, and at the first jail she went to, she met a Buddhist woman who told her about meditation. Later, at a different jail, she read a book about meditation and inner peace. Then, when she got to Lowell, she learned about the MBSR class, and she again ran into the female Buddhist she had met earlier.
“It was like, hmm, I think something is pushing me in this direction. And I think I’m gonna go,” Porter said.
While still in jail, Porter knew she would end up serving time in prison. So when she had a chance at probation, she took it — with the sole purpose of violating it and stealing a vacation of sorts before the inevitable.
She evaded capture for two months. Two months of extreme behavior. A last hurrah that was so intense that Porter was relieved when she was finally arrested. By that point, she said, she was so tired that she was basically trying to overdose.
But she didn’t overdose. And once in prison, with all the signs pointing her toward meditation, she decided to give the eight-week MBSR program a chance.
Before she took her first MBSR class, Porter had tried meditation a few times. But it didn’t seem to do anything, and it was really difficult to focus on breathing. Without instant gratification, Porter found she couldn’t take it very seriously.
Walpole’s class inspired her to keep trying because he taught how meditation positively affects the body and mind through aspects of biology and psychology. In addition to meditation, Walpole also uses the time to teach the women how to look beyond the stigma of being a convict and how to prepare for re-entry into society.
Porter knew re-entry would be difficult for her. In the past, leaving jail meant an opportunity to get high again. If she wanted to give herself a real shot at turning her life around, she knew she would need to keep busy and have support. So she made arrangements to join Walpole’s residential program, which allows her to stay at the Zen Center while she starts back at college and looks for work.
“I have a really good feeling about this,” Porter said. “Things can finally change.”
Having never lived in Gainesville before, Porter is able to have a fresh start. But having a new location isn’t enough.
“If you haven’t dealt with your issues, they’ll follow you wherever you go,” she said.
Before she was released, she had taken to meditating five times a day for 10 minutes at a time. Now that she’s out and plans to be busy, she wants to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes at a time. The meditation has been essential to her healing because it allows her to deal with emotions that, in the past, she would have shoved down until they exploded back out.
Dealing with her emotions is an important step, but conquering addiction is, too, and for Porter, that’s an addiction that has been growing since she first got high — at age 12.
She dabbled at first. By 14, she used regularly. By 17, she was a full-blown addict.
Porter spent her first 38 hours out of prison making sure she kept herself busy. She signed up for classes at Santa Fe College, where she wants to study psychology, and attended a car wash for Alcoholics Anonymous. The hours were a blur of hope, excitement, sensory overload and relief at not being surrounded by barbed wire.
“I’m going to college instead of out chasing,” Porter started to say and then paused. “I don’t even know what I was chasing before.”
She is more self-aware now than the last time she was free. Some of her meditations have given her flashes of insight about herself, such as the realizations that she judges herself harshly, that she is impulsive and that, rather than working through emotions and finding support, she tends to isolate herself from others.
These insights came to her randomly over time. They can’t be forced. Mindful meditation has one goal: being present in the moment. If you try to set a different goal, such as achieving peace or insights, you will distract yourself from the state of mind needed to achieve these things.
“When you chase after something, you can’t get it,” Porter said. “Just do it to do it. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
Walpole said he came to Florida from Massachusetts with one goal.
“My intention when I came here was to sit on a cushion on 12 acres of land until the day I died,” he said.
He started the Zen center, which he runs in his home, so that others could come if they wanted. He didn’t care if they did or didn’t, though. But they do come, in small yet devoted numbers.
Walpole started studying Buddhism in 1990, five years after he retired from the U.S. Military. He started teaching Buddhism after sitting on a cushion for 12 hours or more per day for 90 days.
“Things changed,” he said. “I found a degree of tranquility.”
He started volunteering in prisons because he was asked to, he said. Over time, it became a purpose to which he devoted a lot of time and energy. At one point, he worked with 12 prisons in Florida. But after two heart attacks and some arguments with his doctor, he agreed to reduce his service to only the closest prison, which was Lowell.
Even with the reduction in work, Walpole said he only sleeps about five and a half hours per day.
While Walpole said he doesn’t think there is much to say about himself, he is held in high esteem by those around him, including Bill Stephenson, a professor of English at Santa Fe College and a volunteer with Lowell’s GED classes.
“He is powerfully committed to an extraordinary vision that runs against the grain in a political culture that doesn’t really believe in rehabilitation or second chances,” Stephenson said.
Walpole has also committed himself to spreading the word about “the problem,” which he says is the high rate of recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 58 percent of women over the age of 21 return to prison within three years of release. Added to that is the statistically high likelihood that children born in prison will later end up in prison themselves. Walpole logged nearly 11,000 miles speaking around the country about “the problem” and possible solutions in the summer of 2011.
Whether teaching people about the realities of the prison system or leading MBSR classes, he helps those he can in the best way he know — by sharing his knowledge.
In early July, he led an MBSR retreat at the recently opened Lowell Reception Center. Walpole said, with a slight smile, that the lights in the new prison are motion activated, and the class had been so still that the lights stayed off until he signaled the end of each meditation session.
Walpole will continue to help inmates learn to understand themselves, others and how to live in the world around them. But inmates need to be open to his help to receive it.
“This is working for me because I chose it,” Porter said.
No one forced it upon her or pushed her into it. And for the first time, she has found the will to change the pattern of her past, to write her own success story—a sequel to a painful past that she is learning to set aside for the promise of the present.