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Freedom on the inside

Light coming through prison windowPeople behind bars are often open to change, as Suvarnaprabha discovers when teaching prisoners to meditate.

There is a series of rituals you learn when you start going into prisons. Of course they aren’t meant to be rituals –- they’re for security, but they end up feeling like rituals, in the same way that some of us automatically bow when we enter a meditation room. You walk up to the door, push the button, turn your back to the door, the door buzzes, and you turn around, open the door and go inside. Every time you go through a door, even on the inside, you do the same thing: you push the button, turn to face the camera, open the door, go inside.

In 1998 I spent four months co-teaching a creative writing class at a medium security prison. Once a week I drove my little Honda into the hot Central Valley (where pretty much all California’s prisons are), my chest achy and nervous every time. Walking in the first day: I passed through a series of remotely-controlled gates, each buzzing as we approached it, someone watching us on a screen somewhere, pressing a button to let us through to the next gate. Even as a visitor, you feel you have no control over what’s going on. At almost the last gate, the Director of Arts in Corrections mentioned that he was required by law to tell me that the prison policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. “We’re supposed to tell people before they come in,” he says.

 And then came the thought, It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.  

That confused me. On the one hand, it was sort of exciting to think that someone was legally required to warn me that if I were seized by the neck and dragged away, nothing was going to be done about it. And then came the thought, “It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.” I felt I was entering another world of wall-mounted cameras, hostages and violence; a place behind a wall of electric razor wire, with its own customs and language, that is looked upon with fear and hatred by those outside, perhaps including me.

In the US about two million people are incarcerated and the unfortunate news is that the experience tends to make them more violent . The current Sheriff of San Francisco was a prisoner’s rights attorney at our county jail in the 1970s, when it was described as a ‘monster factory’. He resolved to try to change it into a place that prepares inmates to rejoin the community, helps victims to heal and helps communities to play a role in rehabilitation. Such a system is referred to as a regime of restorative justice. This is one of the most progressive jails in the US.

So for one evening every week or two, thanks to the Prison Meditation Network, I go to the jail with a yoga teacher, do some yoga in a circle of about 15 muscle-bound, orange-clad guys, meditate, then have a discussion about meditation or whatever comes up. The class is voluntary and participants come from one of two restorative programs: one is for drug-related offences, and the other is for those in a violence-prevention program in which men confront the causes of male-role violence and work to observe, understand and modify their behavior. The programs, especially the one for violent men, are meant to provide tools to understand their conditioning, and to work more effectively with their own minds and anger. About half of these guys are in for things like violence against their wives or partners, or going against a Restraining Order.

My sister said to me: “I can’t really see what the appeal is. I would never go into a jail – it would scare me.” It was pretty scary for a while (but only when I thought about it, not when I was actually there). Part of the reason I started this was for a change from the mostly middle- class white people that show up at our Buddhist centre, even though we’re in a non-white, non-middle-class neighborhood. The most annoying thing about privileged people, at least Americans, is that we haven’t the slightest idea that we are privileged – we just expect things to be easy and to be happy, while so much of the world grinds on, often smiling, in the face of real hardship. So I like to get out of that sometimes, get a different point of view, and meditate with people whose level of engagement with meditation seems more like a necessity than just a trendy way to relax. Plus, in many ways, one’s life and one’s body are themselves a cage. I occasionally feel that, as Bo Lozoff’s book says, “We’re all doing time.”

 Inmates may have done horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them.  

People who want to change, no matter where they are, are interesting. In a sense the degree to which they want to change is the degree to which they are interesting. People who realize they have made mistakes and are trying to learn are interesting. They may have done – probably did do – horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them. It’s just that many of them are covered with tattoos and have unbelievably huge arms. And after a while I stopped noticing that.

Devi and I walk to the door of one of the dorms. The deputy yells out to the crowd: “Yoga and meditation!” A few guys shuffle up to the front. Most are clustered together watching a movie on a set high on the wall. Two African-American guys lean against the wall, missing teeth. I ask if they’re coming to yoga and meditation.

The big guy says, “What, is that like acupuncture?”

“Huh, is it like what?”

“Acupuncture. Is it like acupuncture?”

“No buddy, we ain’t going to use needles on you.”

“I know, like you know when we’re sitting around in a circle, all quiet, but without the needles.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s like that.”

The skinny one says he’ll come. I doubt it.

We reach the classroom, sit in a circle and check in. One guy says he has toothache. Now they’re doing yoga and I decide to opt out and meditate for an hour. Will I do it or won’t I? There aren’t as many old-timers as usual …

 I remember when I started to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind…  

When they’re done, I look around and say, “We’re going to do an experiment today, and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want. First we’re going to do something like singing, then we’ll do a meditation on kindness. This kind of singing or chanting comes from a particular tradition, but I want to point out that I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, or convert anyone. I know some of you are Christians, and if you like you can think of this mantra as a prayer to God. So we’re going to chant this phrase om mahnee padmay hung, which means, simply, a jewel inside a flower. It is a symbol of compassion – a symbol of human development that sees people as flowers blooming.”

So here goes: om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung. The white guy to my right starts laughing in an odd stop-start kind of way. I cringe inside. What if he doesn’t stop? What if no-one will join in and I am a failure? Can’t turn back now. Another guy joins the laughing guy, who now sounds slightly hysterical. I am not looking but something is definitely going on to my right, seems very bad.

I continue: om mani padme hum, the magic mantra, deep. God help me, as it were. Five minutes, that’s all we’ll do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It feels very Buddhist to me, too much for this secular place. The sound fills the cold hallways. What if the deputies protest? Many people here are Christians.

Waiting, chanting. After about three minutes, everything goes still. There is only the mantra, deep and clear. My own mental noise has stopped, the laughing guy has stopped, no keys jangling, no doors slamming. Everything has stopped but this group of people, this rippling, low-voiced beauty. Everything changed.

After five minutes I ring the bell and the chanting fades. We cultivate an attitude of kindness towards ourselves, and then towards all beings, including our enemies. The nervousness creeps back in. Is the meditation too long? I am worried about introducing the cultivation of love, awareness of emotion, here after they’ve known only the Zen-inspired approach of ‘letting go of thoughts’. There was some shifting around during the meditation but, during the last stage, in which we focus on all beings, everyone settled down. When people seem restless in the meditation, I have learnt to take it less seriously. I figure it’s better just to carry on. I ring the bell three times … the reverberations last a long, long time.

Some people take to loving-kindness meditation like fish to water. I understand these people. They look beautiful after they meditate, like they just got back from a retreat. The skinny new guy’s eyes when they open look like he is in love, sparkling. I wonder if that was like acupuncture. I am careful not to stare at him. The white guy next to me says, “I’m sorry I was laughing, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m sorry. I don’t know what was going on, I couldn’t stop, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I couldn’t stop.”

The guy on the other side of him says to him, “I’m sorry I got mad.”

“That’s OK, I didn’t like it myself, I was trying to stop but I couldn’t.”

I tell him he can be kind to himself about having had that experience. It’s fine with all of us. “Yeah, it’s fine,” they all say. Everyone looks so kind.

Devi explains the physiological benefits of chanting, according to the yoga tradition. I’m glad she can do that. It sounds sensible.

Someone said he found the meditation very difficult, which I took to mean that he couldn’t engage with it. He said that during the difficult person stage, so many people flooded into his mind that he would get really angry about it, then he would get angry that he was angry, and so on. In a later class he said that his interactions with people had changed after he’d done the practice only once. He had never actually seen people as people outside of what he wanted them to be, and that he had started doing that. The change seemed tremendously painful — suddenly to have that kind of awareness, to realize how it’s been before, and to see how much painful work one has to do.

I remember when I started, against my will it seemed, to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind. I was on my first week-long retreat, and in one of the meditation sessions, my whole experience, my whole being and sense of myself, sort of filled up with awareness of hatred, and I saw with an indescribable immediacy what was underneath so much of my experience. I saw how at some level I hated myself and other people. Of course I also loved people, but I didn’t love them how I love them now. That retreat was excruciating, as were many subsequent retreats. The path to happiness can sometimes be sad.

“I really want to change,” an African-American guy says, another one who looked blissed out after the meditation. “Thank you for coming here, thank you,” he says. People are very beautiful: I have to stop myself from looking at them. Some people end up getting out of jail and losing it – stalking their ex-wives, taking drugs again, both. Some of the yoga and meditation teachers get upset when this happens. Yet, I figure, doing some productive time isn’t going to be enough for some people, perhaps most people, to transform a lifetime of addiction and violence. But while we’re in the class, there is something else going on, about peace and acceptance, something that seems to be rare – anywhere in this world.

The new guy is still sparkling. Is he in love with me? Well, the anxiety seems misplaced in the face of this beauty. The other guy I had problems with doesn’t come anymore. This guy is different. He is a flower.

Shin, the monk from the Pure Land tradition with the big Sanskrit ah tattooed on the back of his head – whose master told him he couldn’t give Dhamma talks in jail -– tells me I was chanting it too slowly. He says the resonance is right when there’s no pause. He looks extremely happy.

The guy with toothache says his pain’s gone. Another guy says his headache has gone. Another guy throws his crutches across the room, stands up and walks. Just kidding – about that last thing.

The laughing guy says, “You know, when he got mad at me, I just thought, ‘This is how people are, he can get mad, it’s OK.’ ” There but for the grace of God go I … I’ve never thought anything like that before. He looked happy, and also shocked.

Everyone looks so kind. There is love in the room. Transracial, transpenal, trans-sectarian love – the kind you can’t actually define. Devi and I are leaving now, both very happy, walking to the door, towards the big outside. And I say, “Well, that mantra was great, but I won’t do it again, or I’ll wait a year or so. There’s something not right about it here.”

I press the button and a man looking at me on a screen in a booth presses a button. The door buzzes and we are outside again. When I get home I am so happy I can’t sleep.


SuvarnaprabhaSuvarnaprabha is the Director of the Triratna Buddhist Community’s San Francisco Buddhist Center. She also meditates with violent offenders in San Francisco County Jail and is a Buddhist Chaplain at California State Prison, Solano.

In her alter ego, Suvarnaprabha is Auntie Suvanna, a Buddhist advice columnist on Wildmind. She is currently supporting an ordination retreat in Spain, and therefore isn’t blogging very much.

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