Finding Freedom on the Inside

by Sally Sommer



Doug, how did you get started teaching meditation in the prisons?

I understood the teachings of the Buddha to be directed at the relief of suffering and I saw the prisons as places where suffering is at its worst, perhaps, and wondered if meditation would help. I had read books by Bo Lozoff, whose work in this area for the past 25 or 30 years has been very helpful to inmates. About four years ago I called up the assistant warden and program director of the Santa Fe Penitentiary, south facility, and asked him if he'd like to have a free meditation program. I called it "stress reduction/meditation" to make it more palatable to the mostly Christian administration. He said yes, so I started classes, going in once a week, and only a few came. Those who did come never returned. I didn't know what the problem was, and I quit for awhile. Later I realized that I had been reading from books that said "Zen" and were based on Eastern religion and thought. They weren't very accessible to most of the prisoners. Then Joan Halifax, roshi of the Upaya Zen Center, was starting up her Upaya Prison Project and wanted a male to go into the maximum-security facility with her. I started working with her and then later began teaching weekly classes at the minimum-security unit.

What is your experience and training for this kind of work?

I've meditated about 20 minutes a day for the last 12 years, practicing Vipassana or insight meditation, which is a Buddhist practice. For about a month every year, I also go on extended, intensive meditation retreats. As to training, I completed the Community Dharma Leader Teaching Training Program at Spirit Rock in California, under the direction of James Baraz, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein and other Spirit Rock teachers.

You're working in four different prisons now. Is your program uniform? Do you do the same sort of thing in all of them?

They're all a little different, depending on the prisoners' interests and needs. Because the New Mexico State Penitentiary is right here in Santa Fe, I go once a week and teach an hour-long class. It's an eight-week course that ends with a graduation ceremony and the students receive certificates of completion. Many have never completed anything in their lives before so most of them are very proud of that certificate. The prison in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, is about two hours away, so we try to get there about once a month and run a day-long class. I'm not the only teacher now; we've also got a therapist, a former inmate, a Qi Gong instructor, a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, and a sensory awareness instructor, all with strong meditation practices of their own, and we're trying to get to the outlying prisons more often. We've had a lot of support from the administration at Santa Rosa, and from Father Dennis Bryan of the Church of Antioch, who's the prison chaplain. Father Bryan advocates the men doing anything on the psycho-spiritual level. He feels that type of work is integral to healing. We have done several two-day silent meditation retreats there, a first in New Mexico prisons. Another prison is in Grants, New Mexico. It is quite a drive so we go out once a month and teach day-long sessions of meditation, Qi Gong, and council process. Also, we just started to work at the women's facility in New Mexico, which is also in Grants. There's a meditation pod at the men's prison in Grants now, and . . .

Excuse me, could you explain what a "pod" is?

A pod is a prison dormitory, in this case housing 16 men in single cells, with a common area.

How did the "meditation pod" come about?

There was an inmate I'd met back in my early days who had a very profound meditation practice and he got shipped to Grants. He wanted to see something like this happen there. So he wrote some letters and got in touch with me, and I started going out to the prison. Then New Mexico's governor, Gary Johnson, got turned on to meditation and asked how he could help. I said, "Start a meditation pod."

You say a prisoner has a very serious practice of his own? People don't expect that kind of attitude in a prison. We often stereotype prisoners. Do you find a number of inmates who really have a serious practice?

I haven't had a lot of experience with the gene-ral population, but there are people who will probably be incarcerated for many years, if not the rest of their lives, who really want to transform and understand who they are. Those guys are really committed. One of them got a mail-away course in meditation and studied a Hindu practice with a mantra. He set it up on his own. Then he wanted some support from the outside and also wanted to use a wing of the prison where he could do contemplative practice, with only like-minded people in there, even if they had different practices.

The pod's been going for about five months, and it's doing very well. The men are enjoying the trust that is building and the common dedication to spiritual practice. Theft has stopped and mutual respect is growing. The 16 men living there were selected by the addiction services manager, mainly for their abil-ity to get along with others, and for their sincerity toward their own spiritual paths, not to mention their willingness to resist preaching to others. The men themselves decided to have three hours of silence set aside each day for personal spiritual practice. They also chose to restrict TV and smoking to their cells so the common area stays fairly quiet at all times. Two inmates teach yoga and Qi Gong six nights a week and anybody can come.

I see us teachers as supporting their practices and their ability to run their own pod. When problems arise, we use council process to pose questions like, "How do you picture the ideal pod?" "What can you do, personally, to make it happen?" "If you broke one of the pod rules, how would you like the others to handle it?"

There are several lifers in the pod, and two are very ill. As their sense of community builds in the pod, the healthy men are beginning to take care of those who are not. As they become more adept at working out their own problems and creating the space they truly want for themselves, they're also developing a remarkable sense of personal empowerment.

Do you teach only Vipassana meditation?

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.

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.

Do you think that the heart of the teachings that you're talking about here is universal, or is it specific only to Buddhism?

Only the particular meditation techniques are unique to Buddhism, though even they are probably shared by various aspects of Christian and Jewish mysticism. There is a prescribed methodology for opening and awakening that the Buddha taught, and I draw upon that. But ultimately it's the same stuff that Father Keating, a Trappist monk, teaches across the country in his "Centering Prayer." It's really a matter of quieting the mind, bringing awareness to your mind/body experience, letting the revelations and insights arise in that non-discursive, non-rational mind-space that forms in meditation, and then bringing as much heart and compassion to yourself as possible. Then you can begin to see who you are and what obstacles prevent you from opening and connecting with people and with your own life.

After all this time teaching, what do you get out of this?

It's like a litmus test for me. On one level, I really need to test the Buddha's teachings in one of the most severe contexts. The Dalai Lama once said that he cherishes his enemies, the Chinese in particular, because they teach him compassion. I need to see if that really works across the board, if prisoners can cherish their enemies and the people who threaten them, or if this is just an abstract principle when it is applied to all the people in the world. On another level, I just love going in there and talking with the guys, exploring my own pain and my own truths, and being with them-they're so close to the edge. They don't have enough time or interest to look at meditation practice as an intellectual process or as a philosophy. It's a matter of utmost importance that they get some peace of mind, or someone's going to get hurt-themselves or someone else. I really thrive on their sense of urgency. And I learn a great deal, too, when someone doesn't understand what I'm doing and starts laughing. I get to see my control issues arise and how I deal with them, to understand the pain they bring to me and then to see other ways of working with them.

What do you envision for the Upaya Prison Project's Future?

Oh, we have a lot of plans, and we're trying to get funding to implement them. We want to expand the meditation classes to all nine prison facilities in New Mexico. That means training more teachers as well. Just a side point: some prisoners in Florence, Arizona, have been begging for teachers to help them with a meditation practice they're doing on their own. So a couple of us are going to try to go to Arizona.

Prisoner recidivism averages about 75 percent in the U.S., but studies have shown that meditation programs in prison have significantly reduced it. For example, a King County, Washington, study showed recidivism fell by 25 percent.

We'd like to slow down the "revolving door" even further with a comprehensive, post-release program that would include individual mentoring for every released prisoner and continuing meditation classes in Albuquerque. We've already asked one of our teachers, a former inmate, to teach classes in Albuquerque. Right now, two of us counsel former inmates we've gotten to know through classes inside. They need a lot of help to get and keep jobs, find a place to live, stay off drugs, relate to their families, and keep up their meditation practices.

We'd also like to see a prison hospice formed, with the prisoners as the main caregivers. Terminally ill people get shipped out away from their friends and are often left without support. As I said earlier, the men at Grants are learning to be caregivers.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I think the program has been remarkably consistent. The Buddha taught that meditation is a means to relieve suffering, and so far he's right-no matter where you take your practice. I think that when we teach with an attitude of acceptance and understanding, openness and forgiveness, whether we're teaching Buddhism or Christianity, healing will take place. This is just one method of doing it.