Photo via NY TIMES
From the Autumn ’05 issue
For 33 years, I have worked with the habitual patterns of my mind through the path of meditation. For 12 years, I have volunteered in prisons, presenting the insights of meditation to prison inmates. There is a great similarity between my own path and the path of the inmates with whom I work. As human beings, we share the ability to appreciate our life’s circumstances as a vehicle for the spiritual journey. The whirl of thought-based confusion that we project upon our world can imprison all of us. Likewise, we all possess the capability and means to realize fundamental freedom.
This is live work. From the moment one enters a correctional institution one is grounded in the reality of a place where people are caged—many with heavy karmic debts. It is difficult to describe the pain of that circumstance. A Christian chaplain from Texas recently told me (as we exited a medium-security Federal prison) that, were he incarcerated, he would most miss hiking in the mountains with his children. Our appreciation of freedom is infinitely heightened when we realize its fragility.
Since organizing the Shambhala Prison Community to present education to women and men in prison in 1996, I have been approached by hundreds of would-be volunteers. In the beginning, we harbor many preconceptions of what a prison is like. We all have expectations of how people should learn and how much they can be helped. The path of volunteering in prison is one of allowing one’s own preconceptions to be rendered transparent in the light of reality—again and again.
We cannot skillfully help others free themselves from bondage of the mind until we notice our own agenda. We all bring emotional coloration with us—even in as simple and beneficent an idea as helping another person. We must constantly reexamine our motives, asking “What do I have to offer?” Do we really know how to tell others how to live their lives? A healthy cynicism goes a long way.
Recently, I presented a weekend seminar to 27 men in a maximum-security men’s state penitentiary in the deep South. Gang leaders, men with multiple life-sentences, some who had been incarcerated for decades—they sat before us in chairs learning how to simply be without either acting out or suppressing their thoughts. At the end, one gentlemen with a face so pitted it looked like the landscape of the moon—who had sat directly in front of me all weekend— said that resting his attention on his breath had naturally uplifted his posture. He had been “down” 33 years—and I felt as if I were the one receiving meditation instruction.
Last June, I helped present a weekend meditation program to 24 women in a medium-security prison, again in the South. We brought flowers for Japanese flower arrangements (ikebana), banners to uplift the chapel and recreation room where we met, a gong to time meditation periods and meditation cushions. On Sunday, in our last session, everyone sat absolutely still. We celebrated with juice and sponge cake.
Last month, as I looked into the troubled face of a chaplain— with his assumptions about a homogeneous religious culture and his fear of things not of his world—I saw that he was, in his own way, trying to help. I
realized again that helping others is not a one-way street, not good vs. evil, and that whichever side of the bars you live on, we human beings all want to live a good life. We just need to learn how.
After thousands of years of everyday practice in the East, meditation is finally gaining currency in the West as an effective tool for working with one’s mind. For while we “practice doing nothing” when we meditate, something happens. Confusion and aggression drain out. A simpler moment arises—and then that gives way to further complication. It is an ongoing process, with moments of confirmation but, seemingly, no fruition.
Now it frequently occurs that I am looking forward to a prison visit; it is not just on the way out that I feel good. Inside and out are both fertile ground.
Bill Karelis is the founder of the Shambhala Prison Community and a wonderful teacher of the Buddhist teachings. For more: [email protected]