Do you teach only Vipassana
We generally gear the meditation classes toward what the
men themselves want, what they need, and what their experience
is. For those who have medita-ted before, for those who
take ongoing classes, we often begin with a guided meditation,
but there'll be mostly silence. For those who are new,
just beginning, we give more explanation and often start
off with the body scan-a meditation that focuses on different
parts of the body in a progressive manner, starting at
the top of the head-as a way of stilling the mind. If
you can tune yourself into the sensation of the body and
align mind and body in the present moment, you get a moment's
relief from the "monkey mind" that's worrying about the
future, dwelling in the past, and relentlessly bouncing
back and forth between those two poles.
In Vipassana meditation you focus on your breath to quiet
your mind. We also use other forms of meditation like
Father Thomas Keating's "Centering Prayer." In that method
you choose a word like Jesus, love, or peace, or whatever
works for you, and see it in your mind, focus on it until
you go deeper and maybe have some insights. We also work
with guided visualizations.
I save lots of time for questions, and of course the meditation
technique is important. It's funny; I find that in classes
on the outside people are much more concerned with the
exact elements of the practice and getting it right. The
inmates are more interested in the larger picture, in
what transformations are possible, so I let them talk.
It borders on being sort of a support group with meditation
as the anchor, and a means of opening up, of coming to
a place of peace and, really, truth. So much of jail time
is spent in bravado, bragging, comparing; talking about
what you're going to do when you get out, all the women
you're going to get, and all the cars you're going to
buy. This is an oasis in the middle of all that; people
can really come into their own truth. We keep everything
confidential so that everyone can feel free to speak their
mind and heart and not have it repeated outside the group.
People who are interested really take to it.
You said you've done two-day,
silent meditation retreats at the Santa Rosa prison. That
doesn't sound easy! Please tell me more about that experience.
I brought in a film done by a man known as S. N. Goenka.
He's a Vipassana meditation teacher, and his group is
the only other one I know of that's done a long meditation
retreat or any retreat at all in prisons-in Washington
State and Alabama. Anyway, this film was about a ten-day
meditation retreat at a prison in New Delhi, India. It
was such a success that the Indian prison now has such
retreats on an ongoing basis and actually has a wing of
the prison set up for Vipassana insight meditation.
The men at Santa Rosa saw this video and they all wanted
to do a ten-day retreat. I said, "Well, maybe we should
try a two-day retreat." They said, "OK, we'll do a two-day
retreat; then we'll do a ten-day retreat!" I knew that
getting through even a morning of silent sitting and walking
meditation would be arduous for them. They haven't spent
a lot of time in silence, introspection, psychotherapy,
or any of the things that make a retreat, perhaps, a little
easier. For two days, eight hours each day, they were
in silence. I asked them to try to keep the silence when
they went back to the pod after the first day, knowing
that would be difficult.
They were really blown away. They were very, very sincere
in their effort. Even in "experienced student" retreats
that are done in the Vipassana tradition in America or
Asia, a certain amount of chatter goes on. These guys
were absolutely silent; if they had to, they communicated
in hand language to get their food, etc. The guards brought
us the food on trays, with only a few extra ones. Using
sign language, the inmates offered the extras to anyone
who wanted them and took seconds themselves only after
the rest had what they wanted. Their sincerity was touching.
Like most people on meditation retreats, their emotions
ran the gamut: boredom, restlessness, anger, rage, peace,
joy, happiness, tranquility, rage again, and impatience.
But they learned that they could sit through it all without
reacting, and that's half the battle: to understand that
everyone has these emotions and that they can be managed.
They could process and talk about these feelings in private
interviews during the retreat, and later with the mental
health department, and that's really the key to this work.
Some people had amazing openings. Many Christian prisoners
(and the majority of these men are Christian) feel a lot
of guilt and shame for their bad thoughts and actions.
They believe that a part of them is evil and that they
need to purge or suppress or exorcise it. The meditation
approach is just the opposite. It promotes accepting these
emotions as parts of themselves that have developed over
time as a result of their experiences, but that do not
define who they are. Those aspects of the personality
are to be observed, understood, accepted, and learned
from; only then will they subside and become more controllable.
They really took to this new approach.