I find it rather confusing and a near outrage that we—society—would lock up so many people people, basically forget about them, offer them nearly zero in the way of “rehabilitation” and then expect them to magically and joyfully, gently slide back into the mesh of society upon their release.
How is anyone expected to achieve this? It’s hard enough to live as it is; juggling this issues of daily life, with its endless choices and unexpected twists and turns. And we expect those accustomed to living in violent, angry, depressing conditions where nearly every choice has been stripped away, to do it without fail. No wonder the recidivism rate is so high.
I suppose a challenge is how to provide the necessary teachings and exercises and, furthermore, how to encourage them to study and practice. One would think, with all of the resources at the government’s disposal, defining and implementing legitimate, helpful solutions wouldn’t be too difficult.
Actually, one of the most difficult—but certainly the most rewarding—practices for me while being incarcerated has been meditating in what could be considered one of the most undesirable environments to do so. Most here would call it hell.
Imagine in one corner of the “pod” —a 70′ x 35′ acoustically challenged room filled with 40 inmates—a television blaring at max volume—which to those watching it from two feet away, isn’t loud enough—a few feet away from there several inmates are in an argument over topics such as what size rims should go on what vehicle. A few feet further, a heated and intense poker game where seven inmates play for potato chips and cookies but, by observation, one would believe they were playing for millions of dollars. All of these activities are in competition with the spades game on the upper tier—where I am located—in which, the four non-English-speaking players are laughing and possibly arguing at the top of their lungs. Did I mention the occasional interjection of an officer over the P.A. system?
Still I sit, in between two bunks, on my folded, raggedy blanket with a folded towel under my feet, in the half lotus position, earplugs—which I made with toilet tissue, pieces of plastic bag and thread from a sheet—in my ears, eyes near closed, focused on my breath. ten minutes pass and gradually all the craziness around me fades away. I feel the breath enter my body and again as it leaves.
Shortly after, someone on one of the top bunks adjacent to where I am sitting drops a towel on my shoulder. I notice it but do not budge. After all, it’s just another distraction. I gently return to my breathing.
Life, in the middle of chaos, has become still, calm, tranquil. It’s almost as if I were no longer in the middle of this place many consider hell. And yet, I have never been more aware of each moment as it is.
I have found what those around me search endlessly for. Freedom. Enjoyment in each passing moment. For most here, even the notion is a fairy tale. Unattainable. Understanding this causes compassion to swell in my heart. Why can’t everyone here experience this for themselves? Why is everyone struggling so hard, to only suffer more as a result?
An hour or so passes and I end my meditation and open my eyes. I’m in a different place. I no longer see a jail full of loud, fighting criminals and angry jail officers but instead, full of suffering beings, wanting to be happy just like me. It is then that I realize that great opportunity at hand; I am in the middle of intense suffering. It’s here that I can really practice. Here I can really help. But I wonder, how?
After I rise, and reassure the person who dropped the towel that all is okay, I begin my first daily walk… mindfully. Focusing on my breath, on each foot as it touches the cold, hard floor. The walking area is maybe 40 feet long and I traverse it as if almost gliding, feeling light and blissful. Surely there is a subtle smile on my face as I feel the energy of joy, the energy of mindfulness spread through my body with each careful step. Realizing how wonderful life really is.
It isn’t long before the same person who dropped the towel joins me—for the first time—quietly, with nothing but a nod and a smile. We continue to walk silently, mindfully. Both of us enjoying every step we take. Neither of us says a word. We each understand. Here, in the middle of jail, we are free.
I see now, there never was the question of how. There is only being. When my thoughts and views are of love, compassion, and understanding, I and the world around me suffers less. The best thing I can do here is practice. To live each moment mindfully.
Maybe the jail and prison systems should teach meditation, mindfulness, compassion and understanding. Wouldn’t that be a leap closer to rehabilitation? It certainly would give many inmates a more reasonable chance re-entering society upon their release.
A year of practice has already provided me with a renewed life. I have cultivated courage, generosity, humility, concentration, kindness, compassion and wisdom. More than I would have ever dreamed possible. For the first time, life makes sense. I am finding inner joy and happiness.
I’m not sure where the remainder of this journey is going to take me and really it doesn’t matter. Focusing on what’s happening in the present moment is producing joy and peace in everything I do; walking down the steps, standing in line, even washing my hands has become a joyful experience.
Not only am I producing joy and peace but I’m passing it on to others as well. By others watching me, they are deciding to live mindfully by themselves.
So in the meantime, until the American correctional system catches up, by practicing diligently and creatively, they help for others will come on its own. This is the profound power of practice.