How Prisoners Practice Mindfulness Amidst Chaos

Close the gap between everyday living and meditation with this mindful moment practice tailored for maximum security inmates.

miro kovacevic/Adobe Stock

A maximum security prison isn’t the most supportive place to take up mindfulness practice. The places are always noisy with ambient sounds that include talking, yelling, chains rattling, doors banging…even through the night. In addition, prison schedules don’t adapt to the needs of individual inmates, and cellmates might belittle the practice, making it difficult for an inmate to find 20 undisturbed minutes to sit and follow the breath.

At Folsom Prison in California, I teach a variety of mindfulness practices that have evolved to enable enough flexibility for the men I work with to develop the practice and cultivate what mindful awareness they can.

One of the most successful practices is what I call the Three-Breath Trip. It’s a practice the men can do any time, anywhere, without adopting a meditation posture or even closing the eyes. Here’s how it’s done:

The Three-Breath Trip

  • Anchor your moment. Any time, anywhere when you remember to do it, bring your attention to the internal sensations of three consecutive breaths.
  • Shift your focus away from the external. Because this isn’t taking place in a quiet setting where the body is still, you will need to take the primary focus of your attention from whatever activity you are in the midst of and feel the physical sensations of breath expanding and contracting. You can feel this in your torso (your chest and belly), in your nose as the air moves in and out of your nostrils, even the sound of the air moving in and out can be an anchor. (Don’t try this while changing lanes in heavy traffic!)
  • Let your breathing flow naturally. Since the body is always breathing on its own, let the body do what it does naturally and simply observe/feel what is already happening — breathing — for three consecutive breaths.
  • Check in, but don’t lose yourself in your surroundings. You don’t need to lose track of what is going on around you, but if you keep as much of your attention on the feeling of the breath as possible, there is an opportunity for each successive breath to become increasingly more vivid.
  • Take note of how you felt. After the third breath, you can resume your ongoing activity and take note of whatever change has occurred in your experience.

How the Three-Breath Trip Changed Mindfulness Practice for Prisoners

The first time I proposed this practice to a group of men, I suggested they try it three or four times a day, if they could. When I returned a week later, one of the men reported that he’d been doing it 50-60 times a day. It turns out that every time there was a commercial break on the TV he would take the Three-Breath Trip.

It was invisible to his cellmate, and didn’t require any setup. He said he found the third breath to be particularly sweet. Weeks later this had become his primary practice, and he had decided to pursue the practice more seriously because he was seeing noticeable effects in his daily life.

One of the benefits of this off-the-cushion practice is that it doesn’t separate meditation from day-to-day living. Coming back to the breath dozens of times during the day is coming back to the present moment throughout the day. The men who practice the Three-Breath Trip have found that it provides them with substantial benefit in a challenging environment.

One of the benefits of this off-the-cushion practice is that it doesn’t separate meditation from day-to-day living.

Their experience has inspired me to make greater use of the Three-Breath Trip myself. Now, when I stop at a red light, step into an elevator, or grasp my front door knob on my way out in the morning—and any other time it crosses my mind during the day—I bring my attention to the feeling of my breathing. I don’t change my posture, interrupt my movement or close my eyes.

The Three-Breath Trip can be a powerful adjunct to regular meditation practice or, as some of the men have found, it can constitute a full practice in itself.

I’m certainly not making a case for the Three-Breath Trip being what mindfulness should be, but I am coming back to the present more often than before, and there’s increasingly less distinction between meditation and my day-to-day living.