The Quiet Within

A volunteer at Carmel Prison Shares:

I’ve been meeting with a group of inmates for the past six months. The group is made up of about ten regular inmates that belong to a program which uses Methadone as a drug substance.

It was a rough start despite a lot of good intentions on my part and on their part. The participation in the group is mandatory and at first that created difficulties. They had a lot of respect for me for coming as a volunteer, but they didn’t really understand ‘what I wanted from them’ and felt they were being coerced into something that didn’t suit them. I also came with some kind of a preconception of my practice and my notion of what meditation is, and it took me a while to let go of this preconception and listen more deeply to what works and what doesn’t work for them.

At some point they were brave and great and told me that ‘it’s not working for them’. So for several meetings we just talked. I listened a lot and learned from them. We established some trust and since then the group became a special place for them, giving them a place to rest and create a form of partnership. They told me: “You are the only person who listens to us who doesn’t have any self interest.” to me it is a great gift and I love them dearly.

In the past couple of months we formed a few “rituals” at the start and end of our sessions, that provide some framing and continuity to our time together, and I feel it has great value.

At the beginning of every meeting I invite the participants to close their eyes and let the body and mind relax in the room. I draw their attention to the shift from outside inward, to the day they came from and the need to take a moment to adjust to the transition to another space. I think this practice achieves several things: It teaches them about the need to adjust to transitions and changes, it respects and
acknowledges the experiences from which they come to this moment, and allows them to find some quiet and a new way of breathing when entering the meeting.

Then each one shares ‘how his heart is feeling today’. Sometimes they share a word, sometimes they share something they are going through. Sometimes I address something they said in the spirit of Dharma. At the end of the meeting I invite them to close their eyes and think of something good that came out of the meeting that they would like to take with them for the rest of the day or week: A good thought that passed through their mind, a moment when they felt good, something someone else said that touched them. I invite them to wrap themselves in this moment like a gift and take it with them back to the wing.

During the session we perfect the ability to reflect on the way we act. I use the same metaphors over and over again. For instance, just as you open the car hood to learn how it works so you can take better care of it, so we try to learn how our body and mind work. I found that silent meditation that lasts for more than a minute doesn’t work for them. So I focus more on structured things: Mindful/conscious eating, paying attention to feelings/thoughts/sounds, practicing loving heart meditation, working with anger, etc.

There was an incident in the prison recently where a teacher had an inappropriate discussion with some inmates. The result was a new instruction that an education officer has to be present at all meetings. At first the inmates were very irritated and felt it was a vote of distrust towards them. I tried to undo this decision because I too felt it would hurt the balance and sense of safety we worked so hard to achieve, but I failed. I decided to invite them to try to see together what this change triggered in us. In the last session the education officer joined for the first time. Some of the time I felt like inmates were saying only things that she would want to hear, but at other moments I felt we succeeded in seeing together what her presence had triggered.