Inquiring Mind receives many letters from inmates across the country, each a testimonial to the positive impact of meditation and dharma practice in very trying circumstances. This short article is representative of what we hear from these inspired practitioners.
One of our support sangha volunteers came to our weekly meeting troubled by a conversation she had with a neighbor. Her neighbor commented that it was a waste of time to meditate with a prison group, that inmates are not serious about practice, and that prisoners simply get out and come back to prison anyway. Our sangha volunteer was upset by this comment and brought up the issue for discussion following our meditation.
These questions deserve examination. Do released convicts all simply return to prison? Is meditating with prison groups a waste of time? The statistics lend credence to those arguments. Currently, almost three percent of the U.S. population—over six million people—is either in prison or on parole or probation. Recidivism rates indicate that two-thirds of all released convicts reoffend and reenter prison within two years. Within three to five years, the numbers climb to almost 80 percent. This perpetuating cycle continues to fuel the negative effects of the system.
But does this mean that prison meditation groups are ineffective, that they are a “waste of time”—or does this demonstrate how potentially valuable they can be and how great an opportunity exists?
Generally, those who choose to participate sincerely in a meditation group are seeking a better understanding of themselves and are ready to look at accepting responsibility for themselves and others. A meditation group can be a strong support for truly “rehabilitating” oneself. At the very least, prisoners who meditate feel more peaceful after a sitting than before one. The soothing influences shared by the group calm the often discordant energies that are part of the prison environment, and those effects can then extend beyond the sitting group to the larger inmate population. Sharing in discussion, hearing the dharma, practicing the Eightfold Path, taking refuge in the Three Jewels, and following the precepts all encourage positive behaviors and a growing sense of awareness. This is simply the first layer and only begins to reveal the potential. A teaching from the vinaya begins, “Small drops fill a big pot.”
Pema Chödrön, in one of her teachings, observed that our suffering results from “our observance and insistence that things be other than what they are.”
Understanding must be paired with acceptance, or we will continue to live in a cycle of denial and delusion. For many of us, ending up in prison correlates directly to not looking at ourselves honestly, to not knowing ourselves, to losing a focal point, or to having unrealistic expectations. Our perspectives have often been egocentric, ignoring our own responsibilities as well as broader societal considerations. Once in prison, so much of life is then spent remembering a hyperbolic past or imagining an equally exaggerated future. Almost anything is preferable to dealing honestly with the realities in front of us. Meditation encourages us to look deeply within ourselves and at our connection to, rather than our separation from, the surrounding world.
Meditation, however, is not a magic formula that will prevent convicts from reoffending. It doesn’t automatically eliminate feelings of loneliness, pain, anger, frustration and inadequacy. What it does do is help provide a greater understanding of the root of these feelings, and our deeper sense of awareness increases our ability to recognize the feelings honestly, acknowledge and deal with them, and move on without becoming hopelessly entangled.
Participating in meditation groups does not guarantee that I, or anyone else, will not return to prison upon release, but it makes it far less likely. Taught and encouraged to be more aware of positive and negative behaviors and their consequences, attitudes and actions will shift. And even if the changes are incremental, aren’t they worthwhile? If only one member of each meditation group (and I’d argue that the numbers are significantly greater than that) overcomes the recidivism statistics, we all benefit.
And what about those of us who never leave prison? When examining my own situation objectively, I must acknowledge this possibility. Does this make the practice any less valuable as a part of my life? Or does it become even more significant—offering me the ways and means to look more honestly at myself and others, to live and love in ways that benefit myself and others—even here, even now? When no real future exists, at least by most definitions, living more fully in the present takes on new dimensions. Right now is all there is.
Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I sit, we sit, with new eyes, grateful for each small drop. Our pot may be huge, but with continuous effort and practice, each precious drop will collect and be used to nurture and sustain the growth. It makes a difference.