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"These are meditations where you repeat phrases to yourself silently, giving yourself permission to make mistakes- to be a learner in this life and forgive the pain you've caused yourself and others, letting your intention not to repeat your mistakes give you the right to forgiveness".


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Home » Features » An Interview with Doug Booth

Finding Freedom on the Inside
by Sally Sommer

Were you aware of any changes in them once the retreat was over?

One inmate cried when he realized that the person who indulged in drugs, sold drugs, got into violent situations and generally didn't care about anything was not the devil. He saw that this was only an aspect of himself, and it was a very sweet revelation.

Another had great difficulty accepting any goodness in himself. He wanted to believe he had some spark of good but didn't really believe it. I asked him to just open to the evil thoughts, consider them, and let them run their course; somehow, that process freed him up so that at the end of the retreat he was playful like a child.

Have you seen the effects of meditation work in their daily lives?

I'm really not around them on a daily basis; however I've gotten very good feedback from the administrators in the Santa Rosa and the Grants facilities. The mental health department in Grants has said that meditation classes have really helped these guys become more peaceful and accepting and generally happier. And Father Bryan at Santa Rosa, who sees these men daily, tells me he finds this a marvelous way of going deep, of really "healing the soul."

What about the men themselves? Have they said anything about how this is helping them?

I receive three or four letters a month from them telling me how they use the meditation techniques to feel their anger rise, to watch it, and to feel it in their bodies. They are learning not to be overwhelmed by it and to remain aware that it's only a passing state of mind. They also tell me how the meditation manual has helped them.

Tell me about the meditation manual.

It's a little booklet called Doing Your Time with Peace of Mind. It gives the basic elements of the meditation practice that we teach in the prisons. And though the meditation is based on Buddhist teachings, we exclude any reference to the Buddha or the Pali language. Bo Lozoff recently visited the Dalai Lama in India, who had written a foreword to Lozoff's meditation book for prisoners, We're All Doing Time, many years ago. The Dalai Lama repeatedly asked Bo during the visit, "Now you're not calling it Buddhism, are you? Make sure you don't call it Buddhism." So that's kind of been my authority for teaching the way I do, teaching the heart of the Dharma without getting lost in the particularities of the philosophy.

Do you distribute or sell this book in some way?

It's available free-of-charge to all prisoners and all those who conduct prison meditation groups, and it's been well accepted. We advertised it in a national prison magazine, and I also posted it to the Prison Dharma Network online. We've distributed over 4,000 books around the world, and about 3,000 prisoners have written asking for a copy. The requests just keep coming in. We also just published a Spanish translation. I was surprised to learn that it's also being used successfully to teach meditation to teenagers in juvenile halls.

Most prisoners appreciate the fact that different types of meditation are described in the book. There are two concentration/insight practices, two kindness practices, Father Keating's "Centering Prayer," and walking meditation.

What do you mean by kindness practices?

These are meditations where you repeat phrases to yourself silently, giving yourself permission to make mistakes-to be a learner in this life and forgive the pain you've caused yourself and others, letting your intention not to repeat your mistakes give you the right to forgiveness.

What do you see as the greatest difficulties for the inmates who are trying to carry on a meditation practice in a prison environment?

Peer pressure is probably the toughest. We talked with the guys at Santa Rosa who came to the two-day retreat about going back to their pods and being with the other prisoners. The windows of the chapel were open during the retreat, so everyone knew that these people were in there sitting in meditation and doing funny-looking, slow walking meditation. So they were going to have to deal with that. We talked about how to respond to the jokes, and we supported their right to not explain anything. If somebody had a sincere question about what they were doing, they could answer it sincerely. If someone was poking fun, they could ignore it, just as they would anything they didn't want to get involved with. But it's not easy. It's different from going to a prison in India, where meditation's a part of daily life.

How do the guards feel about the meditation classes?

Whenever I'm in to teach meditation, they'll say "I could sure use some stress reduction." So, I don't know if they believe that meditation is really going to help the inmates, but the program's been okayed by their superiors and they have to let me in to do it. We've been invited by several prisons to provide meditation classes for prison workers and administrators as a means of helping them cope with their stressful jobs. I think it's important for prison staff to have an understanding of meditation so they can support the inmates'practice and perhaps receive the benefits of meditation themselves. That's further down the line, though.


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