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The Meaning of Life [at Juvie]

Updated: May 26, 2020

“The king is here!” A year ago there was a young man in our class at juvie who the officers looking in through the classroom window yanked out of mediation because he was laughing and looking around and being generally spazzy. I wouldn’t have kicked him out, but honestly I didn’t mind not having him there. A year later he is back, after a stint in a program and then three months on the run. He is different now, more serious, and he is the only one in our group that actually meditates every day. He introduces himself as King, a nickname he got in meditation class when my coteacher, Steve, suggested that we are all take our seats like kings on a throne. He excitedly pointed to the tattoo on his wrist, of a crown and the word “KING” in bubble letters. He doesn’t get a lot of respect among the other guys inside, but we call him king, he loves it.

This week we had king, another young man who is our resident meditation ringleader, and three new guys. Since there were so many new faces, I started off with a minute long ‘being still’ meditation, which they nailed first try. Having someone in class who is something of a ringleader among the guys and who loudly declares that he is ‘in to’ meditation has a huge affect on getting the others to take it serious.

We talked a bit about meditation then, what it is and why we do it. We talked about choice, power, discipline – becoming the boss, the king, of ourselves. This seems to be a good frame to use to get them interested in giving it a try. That, and dangling the promise that it will help them get to sleep better. After describing the process, we meditated quietly together (that word quietly is not to be taken for granted, it is so often not the case in there) for about five minutes.

After meditation, our ringleader said “hey, can we like go around, and say each of us what we think life is about, like what is the point of life?” I thought this was a fine idea, and the others weren’t going to say no to this guy, so we did. The first young man who spoke up said it is about reproduction. We were created so that we can create life. The others nodded. The next young man answered with one word: Money. “To make money the right way though, not the wrong way,” he added.

Our friend King was shy to answer, but after giving him some time to flounder he said, “just to be who I am I guess.” I assured him this was a very fine answer. Next we had our ringleader who said he agreed with everyone so far, but added that it was also about “doing good things for people.” The next young man said quietly, “reproduction, money, power, survival.” For my turn I said something about being in harmony, with myself, my people, the world.

Steve, my co-teacher and elder, said that while he is a lot older than all of us, he really doesn’t have the answer. He said that we all gave true answers, but that for himself, he really doesn’t know. He added that he does know that he wakes up every day and is excited to find out what the day will bring. The guys (myself included) thought that was a great answer.

I took that opportunity to tell the Indian story of the four blind men touching an elephant, each getting to know a different part of the whole, and taking that to be the reality of what an elephant is. All of our views of what life is are correct, but none of us are seeing the complete picture. I don’t think they quite got the point I was trying to make – the first response was, “They must have been stupid as well as blind if they didn’t walk around and feel the whole thing.” I have some hope though that the core of that story – that there is more to reality than perceive – sticks with them.

Somehow, this launched us into a concluding discussion of the relative lovableness of snakes compared to dogs, and a tender sharing from our ringleader about how much he loves his pitbull, which, with tragic predictably ended with a gun reference: “If somebody ‘baps’ my dog I’d ‘bap’ them.” These are smart, thoughtful, beautiful young men, with a lot of life to live, and a lot of work to do.

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