For the past year I have been offering meditation classes at a juvenile detention center in Santa Cruz, California. The population at Juvenile Hall is mainly Latino teens between fifteen and seventeen years old. I became interested in meditation practice myself while in my teens and thought that more effort could be made to introduce meditation to this age group, especially to those incarcerated or in trouble. Along with two friends, Noah and Jason, both former residents of the hall, I have been teaching primarily mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditations.
Since kids are continually coming and going at the hall, each week my co-leader and I speak for a few minutes before class to gather volunteers to participate. We might have to compete against movie videos like Contact or Starship Troopers, and the meditation class often has a small turnout. One night, when talking to a few kids gathered in the meeting room, one guy asked us somewhat jokingly if he could get high doing meditation. We hesitated. “Some people do,” I finally responded, “but it is not guaranteed.” The boy stood up wide-eyed and announced cheerfully, “I’m going to get high. Let’s go get high.” He eagerly jumped to line up for our class. One other kid followed him.
When we have so few takers, we try to talk the staff into bringing the kids in lock-down. These are the ones who have misbehaved in the hall and are being punished by not being allowed to take part in the evening activities. Some staff think that the kids are not really being punished if they are allowed to go to our class, but we argue that these are the ones who need meditation the most. On this night, six or seven kids came out of their rooms to attend the class. Meditation was at least more interesting than sitting alone in their rooms staring at the wall.
For each class, the kids line up, and we make the slow walk through the quad to one of the classrooms. We then gather our chairs together into a circle. We begin by introducing meditation as a way to relax and find some ease in life. Then we talk about the first meditation we are going to do, mindfulness of breathing. We tell them that it is not about breathing a certain way but about using the breath to help calm and center ourselves. A few of the kids are usually interested, some goof off a little, and others look around wondering whether they should have stayed in their rooms.
“I’m ready to get high,” said the eager kid, still joking. He had been on lock-down the past two weeks, one week for trying to start a fight with someone on staff.
My co-leader, Noah, said, “If you really want to get high, you gotta take this seriously. Otherwise, it won’t work.” Everyone quickly came to attention.
I began the meditation, giving them the image of the mind as a sky, with thoughts being like clouds passing through. After only a few minutes, I became aware of a great stillness and calm in the room. I didn’t want to end the meditation when our twelve minutes were up. As I rang the bell to close the sitting, several kids smiled and giggled. We went around the room and asked them to share what they had experienced. “Was it cool, boring, dumb, interesting, or what?” we asked.
The first few kids said they felt very relaxed. Another said it made him feel like he does when he takes heroin. The kid who had come in wanting to get high looked at the group with a smirk on his face. “That was cool,” he said, somewhat surprised. “I got high. For real,” he repeated several times to make sure that his friends knew he wasn’t joking around. “Thoughts still came into my mind about my court appearance next week and other stuff, but they didn’t cause me much of a problem. They were like clouds passing through the sky.”
The last kid said, “I noticed myself thinking, then I thought that I am not supposed to be thinking. Then I remembered how my dad used to ask me what I was thinking, and I’d say, ‘Nothing,’ and he’d respond, ‘You have to be thinking about something.’ Then I thought, ‘What’s up with that?’” All of us laughed, realizing the way our thoughts work.
During the second half of our classes we usually do some lovingkindness or compassion meditation, which we renamed the “happiness meditation.” One night, Noah asked everyone to choose one word to express what is really important to them, and he gave them a little time to think about it. One kid said his friends were most important, but most kids named their families. Noah said that for him it was happiness. He explained, “We love our family, friends, or child because they help make us happy.” Another kid agreed, “Yeah, change my answer to happiness, too.” Noah then guided the meditation.
Another night I led a meditation on kindness. First, I asked everybody to remember a time when someone was kind to them. “What did it feel like to receive this kindness? Can you feel it in your body?” Then, I asked them to remember a time when they were kind to someone else; maybe it was something really small. Next, I said to send this kindness to all the people in the room, then to others outside. It was a simple meditation focused on remembering the importance and power of kindness. Afterwards, we asked them how it was. “Could you bring to mind times you both received and gave kindness?”
One guy answered, “I could picture it. For the first one, I thought of my mom, who has always stood by my side through many court appearances. She always shows up at court.” He lowered his head, a bit shy. “Then for the other one, I remembered how I used to let my homeboys sneak into my house and sleep when they needed a place to crash. Even if everyone else was on their case, I would let them in and feed them.”
Then, surprising everyone, he looked to the other guys in the room, first at a guy across from him. “I wished you happiness and hoped you would get to see your child soon.” Turning to another kid he said, “I wished that your court appearance next week goes well.” Around the room he went. To the next, “I wish that your relationship with your parents improves.” All the kids seemed to take in the good wishes. The room was filled with a feeling of trust and support. It was a wonderful moment. This was one of those classes where the teens seemed to “get it” and appreciate the practice.
At the end of class, we often ask if anyone has anything they want to say about what they learned. They say things like, “It makes me feel relaxed.” “It reminds me what is really important in life.” “It makes me feel high.” We’re happy to receive such good feedback. We might have eight kids in a class—some of whom had come just to get out of their rooms—and often they share many positive experiences. These are kids who are not inclined to say nice things just for the sake of it. If anything, they consider it uncool to say that they like something; it is more accepted to be suspicious and noncommittal.
But I also know that each week can be much different. Teens in general are not ready to commit too deeply to anything. One week they are interested and the next not. One of my challenges has been simply to offer the class and let the kids come and go as they wish, not giving them a hard time or feeling bad when there’s a low turnout.
As I was walking through the hall on another night, I saw a familiar face, a guy I’ll refer to as Juan. He’d taken a meditation class I had given several months earlier at another correctional institution. At that time, he had spoken about the benefits he was receiving and was very interested in knowing about books and centers where he could practice when he got released. He seemed as though he was touched by the practice, and I was happy and excited for him.
Seeing him now, I was sad to know that he was back behind bars, but I also thought he might be interested in coming to the meditation class that evening. I said hello and invited him to the class.
“Man, not tonight,” he said, lowering his head. “Too much is going on. I recently got my girlfriend pregnant, and I’ve been charged with attempted murder.” He turned away.
Attempted murder! I thought to myself. I teach you to meditate, then you go and try to kill someone! What on earth were you thinking? Go back to your breath, for crying out loud. Soften, and calm yourself, damn it! But at that moment, I was the one who needed to calm myself. I tried to soften around my reaction to Juan’s words. I knew that the last thing he needed was for me to vocalize such thoughts, so I told him that I understood and would look forward to seeing him the following week.
Juan is no older than sixteen and no taller than five feet. If you had heard him speak in our meditation class, you would have been amazed at his sensitivity, innocence and openness. He and so many of the youth at Juvenile Hall at times reveal such tender hearts. But when you hear what they are incarcerated for, it’s easy to think, “What’s wrong with this picture? Am I in complete delusion? Are they just putting on a show while in class?”
Juan’s news made me question the reason I was showing up at the hall each week. I wanted to make a difference to the kids, to teach them skills that would help calm their bodies and focus their minds. I wanted to show them an alternative to drugs and violence. But I realized that I had presumed an unstated agreement: I will show up if you agree to act in a certain way.
Juan had broken the agreement, and my first impulse was to give up the classes altogether. But in looking more deeply, I see that he has forced me to explore my intentions in working with this group of kids, raising some basic questions for me about meditation practice. What is the heart of the practice anyhow? Am I offering this heart to these kids or just teaching meditation techniques? How do we share our practice with those who are not seeking it—to our judgmental aunt, our child, our neighbor, or a kid at juvenile hall? These questions continue to serve as my koans.