SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: Meditation Liberates

Meditation in prison

We step into a grand entrance hall. Shiny large letters high up over the first set of iron gates say “Stillwater MCF.” Shiny woodwork and smooth stone panels delineate the soaring walls. Tiny white and green hexagonal tiles cover the floor of the enormous entry and stretch into the visitor waiting room.

Cal Appleby and his partner, Laurie Savran, have been here many times. Cal taught college classes here for 33 years during the end of which time he and Laurie started coming as volunteer meditation leaders. Like all volunteers to correctional institutions, they’ve completed the one-day certification/orientation required each year for each institution they enter. In other words, those who visit 10 institutions regularly, which Cal, Laurie and many others do, spend 10 days a year getting certified. (Because I am certified for another facility in a different program I was cleared to visit Stillwater just for one day.)

The guards are neither friendly nor unfriendly. We walk through the security monitor door frame and no sirens go off. Cal shows his brass meditation bell and the cushion and cloth on which it rests. Not a problem. Then we go through a series of clanking metal gates whose bars reach to the distant ceiling. The last gate, which walls off the chapel area, is made of large steel concentric circles welded to a square frame that swings shut behind us. When people refer to “being inside,” that’s exactly what it is. Really inside.

Eight men join us in a small, plain, rectangular room. Half of us sit on the blue floor cushions provided by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the other half sit on chairs. The three of us from the outside tell how we barely got there because of the snow. Cal’s car, which had died in the middle of an intersection, was now at the shop being fixed. To get me on the road, my daughter and her friends generously pushed my car down a very long unplowed alley. Buddha-like calm had enveloped us as we got ourselves to Stillwater, we said. Well, almost.

Everyone agrees at the beginning that it is OK for me to use their words and change their names in this article.

A man who takes his place at the front, clearly a leader, is the editor of the prison newspaper and a gifted painter. Two of his large, haunting watercolors, tributes to the courage shown at Ground Zero 9/11, hang outside the chapel. He asks about Patrice, a volunteer who is usually there for these regular Saturday afternoon meetings.

Another man, Brent, says Patrice is in Myanmar on a meditation retreat—for six weeks—out of communication with the rest of the world—even her husband. “Patrice has a lot of guts,” John, the painter/editor, says. “She’s a tiny little woman, with a big heart.”

Cal opens the meeting with an invitation to introduce ourselves and say how our [meditation] practice is going, or, if we don’t have a [meditation] practice, what it is that interests us about meditation. Most people give their names. Not everyone speaks. The meeting is organized Quaker-style so that anyone can speak at any time, i.e., you don’t go around the circle.

A number of people respond that meditation helps them deal with the noise in prison, after trying the obvious solution—earplugs. The meditation meeting at least takes them away from the noise for an hour and a half. Brent says, “There’s a big roar in there.”

Tom says the noise makes it hard to concentrate. Meditation helps him think through his studies, a theology correspondence course. It helps him calm down, relax, wash the day away, and then his ideas flow on paper better.

Alex says he shakes a lot and suffers from ADHD. “When I leave here my head is empty and I can concentrate a little more.”

Willard says the meditation techniques help him cope with stress in the environment. Now he can step back and analyze a situation. Now he’s not easily provoked. Tom adds that meditation gives him the extra [mental] space he needs so he doesn’t care if somebody gets the last word. He can now walk away from situations that formerly would have ended in fisticuffs.

Brent says he needs meditation when he starts getting negative. Tom says that meditation opens him to good thoughts.

After our initial acquaintance with one another, it’s time for a meditation. Cal says to focus on the feeling of your breath, not the idea of breathing. Meditation is the foundation of mindfulness and trains your attention. “It strengthens your attention muscle.” He says to close your eyes if that’s necessary to block out distractions, otherwise keep them half open and unfocused. It’s important to notice what you’re dwelling on as thoughts enter your awareness, but equally important to gently let them go.

He taps the brass bowl/bell three times, an exquisitely pleasing sound, and for 15 minutes we sit in silence, a short, wide disk of red candle flickering in the middle on the carpet. We do this twice during the entire meeting.

After each meditation we share our experience. Everyone acknowledges what an amazingly difficult task it is to empty your mind. Nevertheless, guilt about not being able to do it is definitely not the goal. There are lighthearted comments from Alex and Laurie about seeing images of spaghetti and long hair. Willard and Brent speak as though they’ve awakened from beautiful dreams. They describe a jade green Buddha bathed in light and a day on the lake waiting for the fish to bite.

Accepting things the way they are is one of the tasks of meditation. If you have 500 thoughts, then you have 500 thoughts. If you don’t do what you’re trying to do, then you don’t. It’s not an occasion for judgment, but rather for reflection. Meditation isn’t something you do to see if you will succeed or fail. To encourage everyone, a young man who spent three years as a Buddhist monk and is now finding his way back to meditation says that if he has two breaths [during the 15 minutes] that are black, that is, free of thought, he has met his goal.

Laurie sees the stretch of time in meditation as a chance to make decisions, either to keep the thought or let it go. “It’s your choice what you want to do with your time.”

Corey, who has been practicing meditation for years, remarks that today his thoughts turned to impermanence, which he has been working on lately. “The tsunami,” he says, “demonstrates that things are not ever the same one second after the next.” Grasping on to things and not accepting the impermanence of all things is the cause of suffering. “Of course,” he says, “when things are not going well, impermanence is a consolation. When things are going well, one doesn’t want to accept it.”

The constant in our conversation is the idea of living in the present. Now is the only time you have. It’s all there is.

The Volunteers

Around 1997, Cal began to assemble a network of volunteers to bring meditation to prisons, treatment centers, retirement complexes and homes for mentally challenged and disabled people. He called it the Beverly White Outreach Project, named for his teacher, a yoga instructor at Macalester College, a lifelong student of meditation, a poet, author, community activist, lecturer on comparative religion and a friend to many people.

The organization is nonsectarian. Its 30 volunteers include a Zen priest, practicing Buddhists from sanghas throughout the Twin Cities, including Common Ground in the Seward Neighborhood, and one “in-church-every-Sunday” Episcopalian. People from other traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhist or Christian centering prayer, are very welcome. Also welcome are former prisoners who’ve begun the meditation journey.

Volunteers go to Stillwater twice a month, Oak Park Heights once a month and St. Cloud once a month. They also go to Lino Lakes, Rush City, Shakopee, Sandstone, Redwing and the Prairie Correctional Facility, a private, for-profit prison. The department of the prison that helps to set up meditation groups varies. Sometimes it is the psychology department, sometimes the chaplain, the nurse or the volunteer coordinator.

A recipient of the 2003 Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service, Cal is the understated mastermind and driving spirit behind the Beverly White Outreach Project. He hopes that the meditation groups, wherever they may be, will foster more meditation groups.

The practice of meditation (and yoga) in his own life is fundamental. Many years ago it helped him overcome alcohol addiction. It is the strength and grounding of his educational philosophy. He is devoted to growth, and describes himself as a lifelong learner. The knowledge of “oneness of all things” and the ability to “let go of the outcome” or to simply “observe what is going on” has allowed his creativity to soar. One of his favorite themes is “learning through difficulty.” In his characteristic way of turning a thing on its head, he claims, “Our best teachers are difficult people, computers, health crises and so on.” As a college teacher, in prisons (until the funding for higher education in correctional institutions dwindled) and at Augsburg College, Cal consistently brought diverse groups together to look through each other’s eyes. In prisons, he got staff, guards and prisoners to take classes together, all for credit. He taught criminology classes in prisons in which prisoners were able to correct and update the textbooks. He used role plays to help people figure out what it’s like to be someone else.

Because he knows personally what meditation will do for one, he reflects that it especially benefits those who are incarcerated because the self-awareness practice “allows them to have more choice, more ability to respond. They become less mechanical and conditioned.”

At the same time, there’s so much to be gained by volunteering. Cal says, “I’ve never met one volunteer who didn’t say spontaneously, ‘I get more out of it than they do.’ ”

What Laurie gets out of going to meditation groups in prisons is that “people share in a more real way than people on the outside. They are really serious about [meditation] practice. It’s more profound than any other group.”

Seward resident Dave Brus, who is part of the Seward Common Ground Meditation Center, has been a volunteer with the Beverly White Outreach Project for three years. A practicing Buddhist for 16 years, he reflects that meditation practice lets us experience “the more sublime, the essence.” Prisoners “express amazing wisdom and deep insight—in spite of poor choices they may have made.” Dave says people in general don’t always make the correlation between wisdom and action. He likes the meditation groups because they are sort of like support groups, not just for inmates, but for volunteers as well. He also enjoys the way each session has an “organic nature to it. Check-in starts a theme and it’s fascinating to watch the flow. It’s very moving.”

Besides benefiting himself, Dave reiterates Cal’s belief in the benefits of meditation for prisoners, although, when he says ” … it’s a way to look at life in a new way … It offers a chance to let go of negative thoughts of self and go to feelings of a deeper nature,” he could be talking about himself as well as about the groups. Dave talks about the interconnectedness of all people. He says, “We think we’re seeing the other, but we’re seeing ourselves. We think we’re so different, but we’re the convict, the poor person, the rich person, etc.”

A Leap Forward

In the film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” a clergyman, or maybe a scientist, describes how thousands of people met to meditate in Washington, D.C., during the summer when the murder rate was at an all time high. As in other cities where massive meditation had also been organized, the murder rate dropped 25%. What will happen in the former Burma where Patrice is meditating?

There really is a powerful place, a place where the divine spirit lives, that is beyond our own egos, physical forms and personal histories. The place where the spirit lives is in all of us and it’s all the same spirit, the same light. We are all one. When thousands of people meditate, the awareness of the collective spirit becomes overwhelmingly powerful. This all makes sense to me.

I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle to prepare for this story. His ideas are not Buddhist ideas per se but they are related to Eastern philosophy. I’ve come across ideas like: “Live in the present, not the past or future; be completely present at all times; don’t make up stories, see what is there; don’t judge or put labels on everything, let it be; surrender to and accept the present; live in a state of consciousness, not thought; observe, don’t label; surrender and acceptance are not the same as resignation; form and essence are not the same thing; we are all one.” Not all of what I read made sense, but whenever something rang a bell, it was an exquisitely pleasing bell.

What I’ve learned so far has been liberating. You don’t have to be literally incarcerated to need liberation.

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