Updated: Apr 22
Below is an article that I (as Kate Crisp) wrote for the Shambhala Times:
article by Kate Crisp (aka Vita Pires)
In a distant place, far from the elegant world of Shambhala Centers, almond milk lattes at Whole Foods, and lightning bugs by campfires, is the land of juvenile detention. Incomprehensible to most citizens unless, of course, you are one of the millions in the U.S. who have been a resident of one of these places.
On a recent Thursday, I ventured again into the local male juvie prison to teach our weekly PMI “mindfulness & emotional intelligence” class. These classes with the kids are always challenging, proving to be a constant and rich learning experience for us as facilitators.
There doesn’t appear to be any one-size-fits-all formula for facilitating these classes or working with the kids; we generally just take in that week’s curriculum topic, some ideas for possible meditation sessions, and then see what’s going on in the room and adjust.
There are always new kids each week, and then a few who return over and over and appear to want to learn (albeit guardedly). This week four young men attended the class, two regulars and two new participants. I asked the new guys what they knew about meditation or mindfulness:
“Nothing, I guess it makes you less stressed?” the first guy said.
“Helps with anger,” said the second. Neither looked very excited about either of these topics.
I asked the other two what they thought of meditation since they’d been coming to the class for some time, and both replied too quietly for me to hear. I asked them to repeat, and they mumbled something like “It’s okay” hesitantly. There is always a strong flavor in the room: "How am I gonna look to the other guys?” So mumbling is a norm.
First, I led them in a very simple body scan and basic breath awareness meditation. They all seemed to settle into it quite well and appeared somewhat calm when we finished the short session. This is often not the case. Jittering legs, shifting eyes, slumping over on the desk, giggling, and talking, are all also the norm.
I then gave a one or two-minute “Intro,” talking about what meditation is and isn’t, using sports analogies and referring to famous folk in basketball and other realms who meditate. I asked them if they had trouble sleeping — all said, “Yes!”. I told them this tool would help, explaining that, like body-building, this practice needed “reps” for the effects to show up. They all seemed to get this. This whole “lecture” part took less than 5 minutes.
Then I asked for questions, and it opened up into dialogue. First, the new guy (the one who said he thought meditation was for anger) said:
“So you said this meditation thing would make us more focused right?”
“So does that mean if you were a cop or a soldier then you could be really focused and shoot someone more accurately? I mean you talked about basketball ‘taking a shot’- so what about really taking a shot?”
At this point, I was making a mental note to cut out the “basketball shot” reference in the future. I said, “So, is that what you are interested in? Being able to shoot someone more accurately?”
“Naaaaa, I’m not into shooting, I just wondered if this will make cops more able to shoot people better?”
I talked about how mindfulness meditation would not only help you be more focused and alert but also opens us up to feeling and awareness. I suggested that becoming more aware of our feelings and reactions will help us make better choices that wouldn’t create harm or trouble us or others. They all seemed to agree that this made sense. I stressed again that while there are immediate benefits to practicing meditation, you have to practice to gain skills and create lasting impacts, just like with any other activity in life.
Then one kid said, “I need something to help with anxiety, I’m anxious all the time in here.”
I led them in a meditation for anxiety where we take a longer count breath on the exhaled breathing through pursed lips as if through a straw, and a shorter breath through the nose on the inhale. This time I added slightly holding the breath on the in-breath, a slight pause, then taking a long out-breath. They all seemed to be able to accomplish that, except for one kid who was by then lying on top of the desk.
I asked how they felt, and most reported that they were “sleepy,” and then all said they needed some sleep. I suggested they might remember this tool to help them sleep at night, asking them if they could see how it calmed down anxious thoughts. They all agreed that even a few short minutes helped.
Then one kid pipes up: “Yeah, so that longer out-breath thing with holding your breath first?”
“…Well that’s how they train snipers to be able to shoot someone.”
Okay then, back to the topic of the day!
Again I made a mental note to drop the “breath-holding” technique. So I agreed with him, “Yes, that’s how they train snipers, so is that what you’d like to do? Be a sniper?” This kid looks to be about 15, with long hippy-ish hair; he comes to the class a lot and appears to be a very mellow guy who always seems a bit spaced out.
He laughs (the first time he’s ever laughed) and says, “Noooo!”
I attempt to talk a bit about how mindfulness might lead to kindness (words like “compassion” don’t generally fly far in this group) by clearly seeing that other people are people who might have kids, moms, and family (all these kids always talk about how much they miss their families), that one might be less likely to shoot someone if you could see other people as human beings just like you, with families who love them.
They didn’t seem to follow my logic much, although they agreed that shooting generally does not create a good ending. A few were there to testify. But a few also clung to the position that “I gotta have a gun to defend myself.” I didn’t try to talk them out of this. I said something like “I hear ya, you need to stay safe.” They nodded.
Then one kid interrupts me, saying, “Okay, so you look like someone who could hypnotize us, can you do that? Can you wave something on a string and hypnotize us?”
They all got enthusiastic about this idea. “Yeah, hypnotize us!”
I said, “I’m not a hypnotist. But what do you want to be hypnotized for? To quit smoking…?”
“I dunno, just sounds fun.” None seemed to know what they wanted to achieve with a hypnosis session. They just wanted to see me do it, they said.
Then the kid inquiring about meditation for being a “better shot” says, “Well, I definitely want to be hypnotized so that I can learn remorse.”
“Remorse?” I said, surprised (I don’t usually hear this sort of thing in juvie).
“Yeah, I’d like to feel some remorse for the people I’ve done stuff to.”
“That’s a very cool thing that you want to learn remorse. So if you did something that hurt your sister, you are telling me you feel nothing?”
“Naw, I wouldn’t hurt my sister, I’m talking about people I don’t know. I don’t care about them and feel no remorse. I think those people are all liars and full of BS anyway and I don’t believe a word they say.”
“So what do you mean by ‘full of BS?’ Give me an example,” I ask.
“So you know if a girl comes up and tells me she has cancer, I’ll never believe her, I know she’s just sayin’ that to get attention.”
“So, you’d like it if people were more honest about what they want?” He said, “Naaa, I just want that kinda girl to shut up.”
Rather than continue on that track, I decided to ask them about something more in the here and now:
“Give me an example of something in here, in this place, this week, where you don’t believe what people are saying.”
The room got animated again, and they all yelled, “Tell her that one!”
“Oh yeah, so in here everyone says “I’ve been shot,’ and I don’t believe any of them have been shot; they’re all a bunch of liars!”
“You would really like it if people told the truth?”
He wasn’t listening at all at that point, and they were all laughing and saying, “Yeah, YEAH! What a bunch of liars!”
And one kid says laughingly to me:
“So, have YOU been shot?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve been shot many times!” (Laughing). They all seemed to find this highly amusing.
Then I did say, “Well, in reality I was in a situation once where I could have been shot.”
They were all super excited to hear this story. The “focus” was happening now! So I briefly told them about the time (in the olden days) I was in a record store, and some guys came in to rob it. When one guy held a gun to my head, I started screaming and ran.
They all agreed I was an idiot and probably should have been shot.
“So why didn’t the guy shoot you – was he ‘meditating’?” Mister Jokester.
“No, what I saw was that he was scared.”
I decided to try again to get off this topic and moved to do some “hookups” from Brain Gym to calm anxiety. None of them could do the hookups since their shoulders were too tight. (Hook-ups involve crossing arms and then bending arms at the elbow.) I adjusted that quickly and moved it to simply crossing the legs and folding the arms across the chest, and doing the Peter Levine-suggested tapping on alternate arms. They all seemed to like doing that, and one guy yelled, “HEY, it works!”
It was time to end the class, and I said, “Any last questions?”
“So, do you have a gun?”
OMG, the theme that never ends! Here we go again! I replied, “Nooooo, I don’t have a gun, I’m for nonviolence.”
“So you mean to tell me that if someone is comin’ in your house to rob you, you won’t shoot them?”
“No, I won’t.”
Then one kid laughs and says, “So where ya live?”
And a big laugh was had by all.
And as always, I left the class with the distinct impression that the most important thing that happened during the class was that these young men had the experience of someone simply caring enough to come to spend some time with them. I also left, as usual with a mixture of heartbreak and hope, heartbreak for the tough situation these kids are in and what may be a bleak future for some, and hope that somehow we are touching and affirming the obvious intelligence and vulnerability underneath all their bravado in ways that may eventually lead them in a new and healthier direction.