Adventures Behind Bars
After years of being "interested in prison"--via movies and articles by/about prisoners--had opportunity to go behind bars to visit an English/Spanish class. The felons, as their teacher fondly referred to the students, were no less, possibly more interested, in my mini show and tell about relaxation, than "out in the world" students. Since that experience went ok, spent months pursuing training. Learned prisons have far more programs offered than I imagined; their volunteer schedules are full. Perhaps because many of the articles I'd read by prisoners were by men, I had in mind being with men rather than women. After asking any number of groups if I could volunteer with them, connected with a student of Thich Nhat Hahn going in as meditation teacher. Whatever-- I'd go in with most any group that'd have me. After a few team visits, the leader suddenly quit (he'd gone in for years). I continued, as visiting student to Open Heart sangha (not teacher).
The first and only thing I was keen to bring up with the men: would it be ok to sit facing each other, circle-like, rather than in 2 rows, back-to-back? As a trained mediator, circle/community minded sort, I was a bit horrified by asking prisoners to sit back to back, as well as my doing so. Don't know what fellows do when I'm gone, but we're circled inward now.
Not entirely clear why I'm interested in men who screw up and get caught. Because I struggle with rules too, have nothing to do Friday nights, am a bleeding heart, figured out "where the men are", have authority issues, wanna save souls, visit the incarcerated, like a challenge, take the easy path, need-a-life? Take your pick. The bottom line I came up with most recently is--all part of my need and search to feel useful, accepted.
I've only been to anger management class maybe 4 times since summer. Each group of 12-16 (men) has been v. different. I think the chaplain's hand shows more and more, as in men eating out of an anointed palm. Each session, fewer and fewer "attitudes". Chaplain holds such respect that if he tells the men to respect a presenter, even a white honky, they do. That's God at work. Last week the chaplain gave a nice intro, then left. Chaplain plans to "put himself out of business".
Hopefully I'll get over my rough starts. Still not clear how to link my loves of yoga and meditation to why I'm there; the men have to help me, and do. You're ok, a big black, articulate man assured me, "just say it". I'm slow to relate how yoga and meditation are tools for anger management--tools for peace of mind and health. An article I like says: "Anger is terrible for your health!" Amen!
This visit made sure to start with prayer. The chaplain's assistant, like the chaplain and his men, does righteous prayer. I added, as Rev Geo did, “May the words of my mouth…” A big black responded: Psalm 19 and verse. I nodded. Thank you Rev Geo, thank you men, thank you God. It's a highly religious experience going into prison. Wouldn't dream of doing so without faith, God, Buddha. No way. These brief visits make a huge difference in my life.
Along with the blessing to "just teach, no need to be nervous", there was the blessing of a middle aged white man (1 of 2, this class; 0 last class) who first showed up at class #3 in the series. I try to involve the men as much as possible. The big black answered first call to read from John Main's Silence. He read beautifully about meditation helping us find our center--though he wanted to know which center. Like to think he answered his own question. Lord knows, I wasn't gonna.
Then the book went to the next table, to a beat up white fellow, who read as most do, with difficulty (I screen readings for straightforward words). Afterwards he gave what turned into a testimony about having been interested in these sorts of things (think he meant both yoga and meditation), and how he just happened to show up today. He laboriously wrote down the book's title; said he thought maybe he could get someone to send it to him.
We sat in silence about 20 min. (Couldn't resist tapping the drum set cymbals for a bell to begin and end!) There was shifting and rustling, but not much. (I'll never forget the time we sat in meditation and it thundered and lightning, blowing us all away.) This was a softer experience; several men folded forward, heads on tables.
Most remarkable--afterwards no one moved to leave. Sensed the group wanted to stay with their experience! The men continued to sit quietly, no snickering. Every few min. I said something and let it go. They just hung out. A man would drift by—"Do you know Eckhart?" one asked. I guessed he meant Tolle. "Wonderful writer", I agreed; "would make a fantastic study group", I babbled. Pretty much every man smiled and thanked me. Saying thank you can't be be easy. I'd managed to make eye contact and smile to each; remember Judith Orloff doing this. What beautiful children of God!
Seems to me, minds are more open in prison than in many churches outside. The young man looking at my acupressure book intently—the first of the men to look at anything I'd brought to share—later asked if I'd been to an ashram… uhh, I stammered…
Dunno what will become of these seeds I try to plant in the rich soil between rows of the chaplain's well tended garden. This visit I had a strong feeling of merely watering; the hard work had already been done. I reap the chaplain's field gratefully. By the end of the class, I realized the men had truly listened. Gulp. Other classes hadn't been like this.
Must I go to prison to feel alive, heard, supported? Whatever it takes. If I have to wait another couple months to visit, so be it. Patience, JT! I so want a regular class—yoga, meditation, whatever, where I see the same faces, like I did out west. I've no ongoing meditation group in town; prison'd work. When I tried to introduce meditation in my home, using a recording of Fr Jerry Pierce, it was obviously folks weren't interested in anchoring the mind-body-spirit experience in teachings. Never underestimate how conservative we are. But in prison men are hungry.
Further note. Since the chaplain and his men size up everyone, I've decided to enjoy myself. No more bland clothes (of course I have guidelines). In Dec. I worn my vintage red and green plaid wool coat—chaplain mentioned the men approved. That visit I was held up, as I recall, quite awhile at the entrance, while several men were admitted ahead of me by the female guard.
This recent cold February day I opted for the long red blanket coat with hood (we not so welcome visitors hike from the far visitor lot). Once I signed in, doors flew open and I was buzzed right through. Red works.
Took a year to connect with the local prison after moving back to the Midwest. Way more prisons around this area than out West. Since I moved away, my home town has one; "they" say the town has never been the same. I don't know, but the home town is definitely a lot rougher than when I left.
Hard to believe anyone would miss visiting prison, but I have. (Getta life, woman!) Patience was the only option. Can't bare thinking how much of the nations male energy is behind bars. No wonder life's so yin.
In the year since I started filling out the local volunteer application, a chaplain was hired. By the time I finished the hoops (i.e. a 50 mile drive one of the bitterest winter days last winter, only to find--surprise--no drug tester around) and got an i.d., it was summer. In a brilliant call, the new chaplain suggested visiting his Bible study, a perfect test. He's one AMOG, as we used to call Awesome Men of God at the Vineyard. I met chaplain and men; they met me. I came out pondering their suggestion--yoga and meditation as part of anger management.
Lo, in September I gave a yoga-meditation session. Gulp. I miss discussion, but am game for this new opportunity and challenge. I'm on the schedule for the next series.
Today I went out to watch a video. My thinking is knowing what the men are learning helps me plug my part into the series. One of the interesting things I noticed was how good the hearing of the incarcerated is. Hanging out in the "real" world with every day folks, I regularly wear ear plugs during church services, videos, etc. Quite possibly the most common utterance I ever hear is-- "What?" Nobody can hear "beans" as it were. We repeat and repeat. Faulty hearing's an ongoing joke, as in, "I'll need to sit on the left". The phenomenon still seems more like failure to listen, rather than hear. Regardless, what a stunning contrast in prison. Caught myself wanting the video volume turned up! then thought, wait--these are ordinary people, with normal hearing, folks not rotted by computers and cell phones! They endure group living, snorers, bad attitudes, but not generally booming music and teevee. Interestingly, I think because life depends on it, old and young hear well.
Summer 2006 - Holy Teachings - Impermanence
About a month ago I was greeted by 4 new still fluffy killdeer "kids" bopping around the visitors entrance, with adults near. Plenty of restricted areas in which to nest? Glad to see a family made it. They have a hard go of it at church where they persist, despite loose dogs, kids, vehicles, and an ultra tidy, vigilant staff, spraying weeds, removing anomalies. "Oh, yes", the guard responded to my comment about the successful killdeer family. "The warden put out a do not disturb memo about the owls nesting on another side of the building!" I was shocked and delighted by critter awareness in an unlikely venue.
Two weeks ago the guard dog was laying out in hundred degree sun; last night he was in the shade of the dog house. Strikes me as bad karma, being a prison guard dog. One evening a dog was whining; the chapel guard mentioned it was a new one. I chuckled thinking how so many of us whine at new situations. Apparently I save my sympathy for incarcerated people. A true buddha has compassion for all sentient beings, which likely includes four leggeds. One step at a time. I leave the animal rescue to others.
Last night was my last night with the inmates. The only felon able to say he was sad was the Asian. He prayed passionately for my drive and new home, and, for the others. We kept hearing our names, or "six people" in the flood of his language.
Expressions of gratefulness, however, were right there, each man in his own way, capable. The group I first met was angry. This group of long time incarcerated, is entirely different. Most be graduate/be released relatively soon. They're all above averagely spiritually grounded and mature. They know The Truth. The pleasure and benefit has been entirely mine.
I slipped in a variety of interesting postcards as goodbye gifts, picking out what I thought was the right one for each man, or letting them do so. Last week it occurred to me to take in the Thai amulets from former friend/bad boy Peter. Indeed they belong with these men I suddenly realized, and took 4 in for each to chose. I was touched that L attends mass regularly but yearned for one of the medals freely handed out. "This will be my amulet", he said, full of gratefulness. "Small" tokens can be huge behind bars. How I related to the feeling of everyone else being given something but me, the one who desires it most. The Asian set the amulets on the altar with reverence to be blessed.
A final piece seem to fall in place yesterday when Linda phoned expressing interest in community liaison, based on a wonderful letter. Interestingly, a month ago I sent an email to local Buddhist groups requesting them to circulate a note about my leaving, looking for anyone interested to contact me; apparently the email was suppressed by "leaders" I thought would circulate it. Hmm. Wish I could explain how narrow, parochial is that the word? the local groups seem to me! I can't and shouldn't. The same decision makers who kept me off the list to get a Dalai Lama ticket. Meow. Meanwhile, behind bars, L persisted, requesting addresses "not from the internet"; I'll ask national Buddhists groups to send us someone. ?? Having nothing else to draw from, I compiled Idaho Buddhist group addresses from the internet, along with my original email request and an article on local sanghas. Not like there's Buddhist groups are listed in the phone book! L seemed pleased.
When Linda phoned, we talked on top of each other, me surrounded by packing boxes, attempting to explain the men teach each other, I'm a guest who brings flowers and incense; she holding forth about fears, wondering what to wear. Her heart is right, I told the men. An interrogator? like me! Pete laughed. Yup, another student stepping up to the plate. How wonderful!
The second hour kinda fell apart. Eventually I looked at the men and we agreed. Brought the remainder of the hour back with the bell. T sang a Korean farewell song; the Asian another. The only way to share our limited time seemed to me to pass the bell. Public speaking, not my forte. Gave it my Toastmasters best and said something like "Words are really important. So is silence. So is intention. You are all real teachers; I know it to be so, every one of you understands The Truth. I am blessed to know you. May all beings know peace." T clapped silently, enough for me. Everyone's words were unique and perfect. No one passed the bell in silence.
Said goodbye with handshakes, pats, bows and bumping of foreheads with my new group of pen pals! It's a huge deal, leaving, letting go, saying good bye to this experience that is the light of my life. I'd grieve but I got get packing. What would I do without the masters' holy teachings about impermanence?
My deepest sympathy on loss of your father and uncle this winter, L. Your names are with the prayer network at church. I am grateful beyond words for your wisdom and patience. Warm blessings from your fellow Friday night searcher for truth.
Things have unfolded rather rapidly this spring in the chapel. One evening I knew something was going on, but didn't ask until I saw the officer at the visitor's entrance who said transfers had been announced. Ahh... the men were uneasy not knowing who might be transferred. Learned medical cases were unlikely prospects (which would be several men in Open Heart sangha).
Another evening I overheard one of the sangha regular's father had died the month before. Ach! Hadn't known! For the first time L talked personally a bit, mentioning where he's from, how to pronounce his name. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he asked if I'd put his family names on our church prayer list. Of course! Couldn't resist slipping in a postcard to him the following week, with the message above. Can it possibly be any different losing a parent or spouse if one's incarcerated?
I saw L read the card, head hanging, as always. But later he wrote and handed me a note asking if I could submit a letter of reference for an upcoming hearing. Nodded, honored.
(At home) I composed a masterpiece, knowing if there's one thing I do, it's write. A board wouldn't have a chance--ha ha. Of course I knew I might well have no chance to submit a letter. Not surprised when I heard, "No. What if every prisoner asked?" Moved to Option B--connected with a social worker who returned my call, confirmed I couldn't submit a letter of reference, but profusely thanked me for contacting her about the prisoner. Mission accomplished.
The next time I saw L, he was a new man. Looking at the floor I overheard him tell one man, "We have no idea how many beings are supporting us." Then he looked up. From cynic to reborn. Remarkable.
I'm acutely aware small things can be a big deal to fragile psyches. We all were gentle the evening L lit the incense with our one match, forgetting the candle. The next time I asked who wanted to light the incense, L shook his head strongly. Now we remind whoever has the match to light the candle first. I like to think L smiles a little.
Perhaps it was the week transfers were announced, one man came in weepy and remorseful, a first. Asked the men to find an appropriate reading to start the evening. "Beginning Anew" was read. Perfect.
Have I mentioned that twice now we've brought in a keyboard for the Asian to play and sing while I/we do walking meditation? I say I/we, because walking meditation is not popular with the men. Either they work too many hours and are tired, or they're on meds and have poor balance; one has a bad leg. A couple of times it's been just me, or me and a man who joined out of sympathy, "I'll walk with you." Of course it was great fun for the men to set up the keyboard. I didn't care much for the rhythmic drums accompaniment--considerably louder than strong acappella--but I'm always up for an adventure, willing to try anything once, maybe twice.
Such a stressful winter! Searching for techniques to work with my frazzled mind, recalled Pema Chodron's tapes teaching "tonglen" meditation. Tried silently breathing in anxiety for all us anxious beings, exhaling antidotes like peace and calm. Very helpful to get to the bottom of my anxieties, frustrations and fears. Almost always I come home and sleep better than any other night of the week. The Asian's prayers are profound. I'm amazed how the honesty and community I feel in prison is far greater than in the Buddhist groups I sit with in town. What a blessing!
Let's see... reviewing the last 4 months, seems like a lot has happened. No two evenings similar. After more than two years of visits, I'm something of a known quantity, comfortable with the Friday evening routine signing in and out, going in with other volunteers, or now that I'm badged, on my own. Always enjoy seeing the regular guard who signs visitors in. The regular chapel guard, who waits at the chapel door, then unlocks the room where the Buddhist box waits, handing me 1 match for the evening, has a smile that lights up the whole evening.
I've gotten to know one of the catholic inmates, another long timer. He invited me to a special Easter Passion service. Wish I'd had the energy to drive across town at the end of Easter Sunday. He was visibly moved telling me about the evening, and so was I went watched a few minutes of what I'd missed. Sometimes Mormons (inmates or volunteers) drop by and introduce themselves while I'm setting up the room, or help set up. All are welcome, I hope.
Currently we're back to 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted silence first hour. No more spoken guided meditation like "inhale, present moment; exhale, perfect moment". Just silence, very challenging for most men. The issue about "silent" meditation evolved like this. One time when the silence was interrupted, startling several of us, an inmate left. The next time we saw him he apologized and explained he needed total silence. I nodded and said that would help me too. That evening we tried facing the wall as the group used to do. One of the next times, the man who'd requested total silence managed the bell during meditation. A couple of times, I've kept time and the bell. We make sure the Asian has time to do his prayers aloud, usually both beginning and end of the evening; they're powerful, wonderful. Facing the wall didn't last long; soon we returned to a circle, which the Asian clearly likes. Me too. "Come sit close", he tells a friend. We do pretty well, all considered.
Last night turned out to be a big evening for sharing, a first. Maybe the new 1/2 moon overhead? The way Moon of cars murdering baby prairie dogs is just starting again--aarg. Pleased to report a burrowing owl sat on a metal fence post near the women's prison. As I got to the chapel one of the inmate library workers came up and thanked me for all the books and music I recently donated. This was good news since I hadn't been able to find out from chapel staff whether the box actually had made it into the library from the front desk where I left it when no memo was waiting. "I kinda like opera," the tall fellow confessed, "so I like that new tape". Not sure which one he means, but I'm delighted to know things made it into the system. I've started another box to donate.
We ended up talking until he went on duty. I find some of the Christian inmates far more tolerant than Christians out in the world. He started out much as I do, embarrassed for the intolerance associated with Christians. "Jesus only said love God and your neighbor", the fellow commented; I nodded of course. We chatted, and I mentioned our 20 minutes of silence. "Maybe I can visit your class sometime", my new friend said. He's been "down" nearly 20 years to have gained one of the best jobs in prison, library worker.
As soon as T showed up for class he began pouring out his financial situation upon release; luckily I'm pretty unflappable. "Do you have a lawyer", I asked? Better get praying, I thought to myself. T's physically and emotionally fragile. The 2nd hour, the regulars left, but P drifted in from the Wheels for Him/motorcycle service in the big room and talked at me. He's concerned he'll return to his old tricks/what he does well when he gets out next year. He teared up talking about his soft spot, patting his heart. Yup. How in the heck to help guys make the leap from prison back to the world I dunno. Been thinking a lot about how our moral compasses are pulled off true north by our various lodestones and what it takes to stay steady.
I've begun mentioning to the regulars that I'll be moving this summer, so the men, like everyone expect each visit to be my last. Not my plan. Fred got out recently. Long timers T and L will be getting out soon. The Asian is in longer, but I know will do well. Trying to figure out how to stay in touch with those men who'd like to once they and I leave, when none of us have addresses!
Left the chapel a few minutes early (learned I can leave before the 2 hours is up!) in order to print photos of Chan and a regular customer with the customer's colorful motorcycle. Drove through McDonalds to fetch a chicken sandwich (became a Friday night ritual last winter when Chan asked me to get him a couple of McChickens) and ice cream (for the rhubarb pie on the floor of the car). Always an unskillful experience when my enthusiasm and compassion for prisoners overrides my ability to remember Chan has a completely different opinion and experience! When I arrived, he was listening to young Irish goddess/pagan singer Sinead O'Connor's Universal Mother! "Looks like middle East, Iran", he exclaimed, pointing to the photo of a dark haired woman in the CD booklet! "Women who aren't so beautiful sing better" (I paraphrase strongly); I agreed. What a musical explorer that man! Between horrid jolting rap tracks were lovely songs.
Soaking under the stars later I pretended I was a prison spiritual director--listening, nodding, dispensing timeless wisdom. Stopping men from saying hopeless things about themselves. Insisting they're strong, healthy and bright. Reassuring inmates education isn't as important as what they think of themselves. Asserting that families are tough, disappointing business for many of us. Reran the evening. "It's ok if you're Type A. Lot of us are." "I know that you know you know yourself better than any counselor does." And so on.
Who benefits? Just me, though that night I tossed and turned despite the Asian's superb prayers. Sure hope an agreeable Illinois prison opportunity is in the stars.
January 2006: and the teacher appears???
Last night's evening in the chapel classroom assigned to Buddhism started with a bang when the buddhist box was overturned by a nervous new young man walking too close to where the Asian had it balanced as he set up the altar. Bits and pieces of leaves and branches I've brought in the past year scattered, our bell and its base crashed, and Buddha's head rolled across the floor. The Asian dropped to his knees and held Buddha parts tenderly, clearly stricken. I opened my palms, bowed as he silently handed them to me to search for mending materials. This was going to be interesting--welcoming a clumsy new inmate in white scrubs, apologizing nervously, who'd never been to class and broke Buddha!
I knocked and scratched on the library staff door, until a worker/inmate ushered me in. He pulled out a drawer with tape and glues and we went to work. To be fair, Buddha's head has been skillfully taped since we, green Buddha and I, met. The worker said he'd find a better glue and fix Buddha. I'm always struck by how much the felons want to help and do meaningful work. How much of society's energy is locked behind bars!
Back in class the Asian and I awkwardly welcomed a couple new men and returning ones. I explained as best I could what to expect. (How I miss former leader--he did a wonderful job welcoming, opening and closing.) I'm rather nervous about speaking out but there doesn't seem to be anyone else to do so at this time.
Eventually we sat, not 20 minutes--but close; not in silence, but as close as it's been lately. The guys shift and fidget, cross legs and slump. I sit up straight, but always yawn so much my nose drips, causing me to dig into pants pocket for a handkerchief rather than let nose drip. Who's perfect.
When the bell closed meditation, I didn't ask how it'd been, since the elements of sitting--posture, breath or observing mind--hadn't been mentioned. The newcomer in white stunned me by saying he'd never had an experience like that. He explained he was Christian but had an open mind. He'd just come out of 14 days in the hole. He was heading for Orofino, would anyone there know about Buddhism? He thanked us profusely for the quiet and left. [Fingerprints... one never knows...]
I've been talking to myself about what's next at Open Heart Sangha, where lately only the Asian regularly comes. Curious new faces stop by, old faces return. What can be created from this? How can this time slot called Buddhism best serve the incarcerated? I've been listening and praying. It comes to me a "real" teacher would be good--I'm an outside facilitator. Yoga and qigong, yes; Buddhism, no. Friend of Buddha that I am, I don't feel called or capable to play the roll of teacher. How can I help empower the men to teach themselves? How can I help transmute/revive Friday night Open Heart Sangha/Buddha class? Until this fall, there's been a strong in-house Buddhist student/leader and assistant.
The sangha does have a real monk in the Asian. He's a wonderful person, devout, the real Buddhist thing, raised Buddhist, who spent 2 years in a monastery before fleeing the country. He's one of several ego tamed Boddhisattva's I've met in prison. However he doesn't speak (or read) English well enough to explain or discuss teachings in much detail, or so I think. (He speaks 2 other languages.) It was a tender moment when I realized he didn't read English. One evening he sat close by and asked me to help him read a paragraph as we passed around the book. I was touched by his trust.
The Asian sings and prays passionately in his language, whether anyone else shows up for the time period or not, and in his cell every night, with his Spanish speaking cell mate. I'm most fond of both men. The Asian's monastic practice must have been praying and chanting aloud, not much silence. He likes to pray for those of us in the circle and we like being prayed for. Men come just to be prayed for by this slip of a fellow with great heart and warmth. "I pray for good sleep, Buddha protect you,' he explains. And so he does. I've watched the occasional man his same height try to bully him; it goes right through him.
One December night during before the holidays I drove out to prison at wits end. 2-1'2 hours later I returned at peace to fall into a deep sleep that night. I knew why.
I'm unable to sell the Asian on 20 minutes of silence. Probably not his tradition. He likes to say prayers aloud during "the silence". Hmm. Guess it doesn't help that once in awhile, when there are newcomers, which there usually are, I say aloud, as leaders have the past couple of years, one or two of Thich Nhat Hahn's couplets. Such as, "Breathing In, present moment; Breathing Out, wonderful moment". The Asian translated some of these phrases, but then he goes on and says much more!
Generally in the second hour of the evening we do walking meditation, my personal favorite. I/we are particularly fond of the Asian's singing as we slowly walk around the room. The singing started a few months back, when, after months/years of silent walking meditation, which the Asian (and others) sat out, he asked if we'd like him to sing. Knowing the Asian is a participatory monk, the mainstay of the evening, I looked around at the others and thought why not, and we nodded. (I was thinking that if he sang now, we'd be more likely to have the sitting meditation silent. I was wrong, of course.) Lo, out of his mouth came strong, passionate, Eastern melodies, reminiscent of the stunning opening of the gypsy film "Lacho Drom". Wow. I think men come just to listen. It's quite remarkable, a real blessing.
The first time the Asian sang he was so overcome with emotion he reached for the tissue box and I'm pretty sure he said, you'd cry too if you understood. Now, he regularly sings, having chosen chapters from his Asian Bible ahead of time, brought in handwritten words, or from memory. His language, nat. While the Asian sings, another man or 2 usually joins me walking slowly around the small room, attention to balance and breath. Again tonight a young fellow with a cane walked slowly with us. That delights me. Usually 1 or 2 men sit out, on the side.
Would a real leader have everyone walking, everyone silent, everyone sitting? I just can't see Robina having a small class doing several different things at once!
Recently a couple of mature (by which I mean older) men, new to prison, have started coming to class. They seem above averagely interested in Buddhism, mentioning they're reading a lot. Both have been more outspoken than most about using prison as a wake up experience. (Seems like the quality of inmates is going up as society struggles!) I'd love to interest either or both in regularly bringing in chapters to read and discuss. From experience I learned to never assume men attend regularly; both this prison experience and life have taught me that. I don't know what the men's lives are like; I do know not to count on any but the Asian, and he's been known to fall asleep and show up late! I don't come out every Friday night either; however I let the men know, best I can, when I'll be out to join them, in case it helps to model dependability, a big issue behind bars where not much is left to be in control of but one's mind.
I've gone out to prison long enough to see men who were released bounce back. I wince and ask what happened! I so want the men I'm rooting for to do ok in that crazy world out there. Yet I hear them express how they want to make up for lost time-- travel, wine, women and song--an especially dangerous mix, crossing state lines, if a parole officer is involved. Few say they wanna settle down when they get out, get their life together, getta job, find a 12 step group or church! Nooo.
I don't have the answer. It doesn't seem that Jesus always works. The world/the "system" doesn't make it easy, particularly for the incarcerated, unless they really have their ducks in a row, so to speak. Some do. Such good men--darn it. I'm fascinated how the urge to feel free at any price free overrides the experience of being locked up. As a very free spirit, I guess that's where my compassion comes from. (How I squander freedom! But that's another story.)
Sensing it's important to re-establish reading and discussing Buddhist basics, last night I suggested we read the Four Noble Truths to close the evening. (Facilitator at heart, I hope to lead from behind.) One of the new men eagerly agreed to read aloud. The men nodded. They understand suffering. I trust practical Buddhism speaks for itself. We closed the altar; I returned the box and match.
Across the hall pastor Mike said later he nearly spit his tonsils across the chapel singing How Great Thou Art. Never a dull moment at Friday Night Medium.
October 2005: STAND BACK and trust the process!!
Recently Open Heart sangha went from 10 to one or two men. Longtime Leader was transferred suddenly. I grumbled--no good bye, no closure after nearly 2 years, how tacky. Truly had been his group; what a loss! The Asian mentioned he too could be leaving soon.
Next time I visited I was prepared to accept the group had dissolved and go across the hall to watch a full team evangelists flog the well flogged.
I was surprised, of course, by the evening ahead in the Buddhist time slot. Old faces and new dropped by (some when they smelled the incense)! Learned the leader's transfer truly was an unwelcome surprise to all, not just me. Felt better. The Asian shared how he decided to finish his sentence, not leave earlier.
Did I mention how last summer one of the men asked to discuss whether he might be enlightened? Then after "putting it on the agenda", he left early. I'm aware he's heavily medicated.
Lo, last summer's potential enlightenment candidate reappeared, still blissful, repeating his request to talk about enlightenment. [I thought: why me! Quickly followed by the more adventuresome spirit: this'll be interesting!]
As usual first hour we sat, walked and prayed. During yard movement I asked recent Leader's trainee/side kick and another sincere young searcher who also has the Plum Village Chanting textbook if they thought they could find a reading that would be helpful to discuss enlightenment. I surely wasn't prepared to hold forth on the subject. Missed Longtime Leader dreadfully, although he tended to have answers, whereas, not having answers can be very interesting... Gulp.
When we reconvened I asked if there was interest in passing the reading [The Diamond that cuts through Illusion] around for whoever might want to read a paragraph. And so we read aloud a discourse between Venerable Subhuti and the Buddha, World Honored One. By the time the book got to Potential Enlightenment Candidate [PEC], he was beaming. As he read, he smiled and paused to say, "I like this", or "I understand this".
"...Yet when this innumerable, immeasurable, infinite number of beings has become liberated, we do not, in truth, think that a single being has been liberated.'
The Buddha said to Subhuti, 'In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception. If you see the signless nature of signs, you can see the Tathagata.... To create a serene and beautiful BUddha field is not in fact to create a serene and beautiful Buddha field... He can only give rise to the mind that is not caught in anything.'"
Men nodded in agreement while I could barely follow! The second time the book circled, PEC just kept reading. When one of the men asked if he wanted to pass the book, PEC replied No, he really liked the chapter and wanted to keep reading! And he did!
"All teachings must be abandoned, not to mention non-teachings."
With my big picture mind, I only heard a classic discussion of the illusion of dualism, not the details.
I was dumbstruck not only by the perfect, exquisite selection of the reading, but the profound understanding the men exhibited of it. The Enlightenment candidate was more blissful than ever; several men said they really enjoyed the reading. Still believing the chapter had been highly esoteric, hard to follow, bluntly asked what others thought (one of my facilitator guidelines is to never assume all agree or that things are as they appear! Give everyone a chance for input.) The men convincingly nodded they'd understood fine.
Once again, who struggles! [Only the facilitator!]
As the hour closed, I mentioned to Longtime Leader's assistant how I'll always see LL during walking meditation. "Oh, he's here", he replied. For sure.
Across the way, evangelists had evangelized; 5 very tall, clean cut, middle aged men, immaculately dressed in green hued suits had held forth, sometimes yelling so loud I raised my eyebrows and turned my eyes across the way, astonished (and grateful I believe there is another way). Although I was curious about the evangelists' evening (always wish I could simultaneously be in all the classrooms Friday evening) I couldn't imagine anything more magical than what I'd just witnessed!
Afterwards as we volunteers walked through the gates, the evangelists rejoiced over souls that had come to Jesus. (Again and again perhaps I thought cynically.) Walked with oh so warm retirement aged LDS volunteer Dale whom I hadn't seen for months. Stunned to learn he and wife leave on mission to Australia just after the volunteer appreciation dinner! Sonja Henie's tutu! Whadaworld!
INDEED HOW GREAT THOU ART!
6/11/05 Not only have I gotten used to the long drive out to the prisons, I look forward to a taste of the desert. The last few visits the view of the Owyhees with clouds was simply breathtaking. I'm relieved the "Moon of Baby Prairie Dog Murders", which began in April, is slowing down. For months, tiny new kids were smished under tires, leaving small splotches everywhere. (Not everyone swerves for wild ones like I do.) Last night I was early enough I could turn around when I thought I saw an owl high on a phone pole. Yup, young burrowing! S/he was still there when I headed home, 2 hours later. And, the following week! The men tell me prairie dogs and owls were poisoned. Glad they're returning. (Ya just can't keep a good varmint down?)
Now that, after a year of needing an escort, I have an official badge; if I'm late, I can go on in on my own. Usually we volunteers go through the hoops and gates together. When we get to the chapel, almost always someone is playing the Moonlight Sonata, either in the chapel or the LDS room. I listen appreciatively. Or, I hear the tail end of the awesome LDS acapella group practice. I often express my delight to one of the singers. One said, "You oughta hear [us sing], "It's a Wonderful World'!"
Go figure. Just a glimpse of the many faces of prison life.
One of the first things I've learned to do when I come into the assigned Buddhist room, is erase the bulletin board. Saves listening to snorts and scoffs about the notes from the preceding Christian class.
The men seem to appreciate my having the "Buddha Box" and 1 match waiting so they can set up the room and altar quickly. Even in prison time is precious. Did I mention the green plastic buddha's head is taped on?
Although I'm tempted to tell the men it's a crazy world out there, I wouldn't try to convince them they're not missing nearly as much as they think. Bizarre as it seems, I go to prison to relax for the evening!
One night I learned more than I wanted about asking questions in regard to "good" and "bad". Shudda known better. Thought the comment by a zen teacher that it was easier to be good than bad, might make good discussion. My timing was all wrong. "Well, now, what's good and what's bad just depends," one felon began, predictably. Asked for that one. The view from behind bars teaches one how to ask questions skillfully. Oh to be a ferocious Lama Robina, who teaches, not facilitates! I'd like to revisit the question another time--"What do you think the zen teacher meant when he said he realized it was easier to be good than bad"?
Went out to “Open Heart” sangha at medium security last night. Absolutely never know who'll come, if anyone (or even if chapel will be open). For months now, the Asian fellow is dedicated to showing up for 1 or both hours.
I'm always interested to notice small changes, like what's posted on the hall bulletin board. In "our" room, the plastic chair feet are newly wrapped with white toweling and tape! Guards rotate.
Took my new Taoist incense along. (The Asian says it's from Cambodia.) My predecessor used to bring incense; the men have missed it. (The Walmart candle no longer burns well.) When I went to open the window--yes, we have 2 windows that slide up--the men didn't want a wisp to escape!
Ended up with 7 of us (more than usual, I think, I'm not there every Friday night). I'm pleased that the Asian saying prayers in his language appears to be a regular part of the evening. Most of us sat on the floor in a circle, enthusiastically bowing with him, and “listening”. We're clue less, but we know he's sincere and serious about his practice and he was in a monastery; he sounds good! He doesn't seem to like to sit still or silent, which we do for at least 20 minutes at the beginning. The other night, during silent meditation, I heard strains of the familiar hymn--" On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand..." drift down the hall, and smiled. I'd could be happily singing it.
Lately, while we do the slow, meditative walking that I particularly like, the Asian sits and reads aloud (Thai I think) from his mysterious buddha bible. All seem to find that agreeable too. I notice his shortened finger as he holds his book. Luckily I have a keener than average interest in wounds and tattoos.
I feel certain the Asian will do well when he gets out. I'm impressed how up beat and at peace he is; he seems to have turned his life around and is influencing others. I believe he has the discipline and skills to transition. What do I know! I merely sense something in him that I don't in others.
I've been thinking how it seems imperative to have good family or church or sangha of some sort to affiliate with when released. Stamp club, something! No?
Next, Longtime Leader/LL suggested those of us who wanted to read aloud, read sutra from Thich Nhat Hahn/TNH's book. I thought the reading was wildly esoteric, but most of the men nodded, particularly the fellow who I learned may have been incarcerated 20 years. He seems quite the student of matters metaphysical.
A young man/G said he attended when my predecessor came out. He was released, he explained, but is back. I'll be listening for that story. (At the end of the evening in the hall I recognized another young man with the same story; welcomed him to return to meditation.)
To close the evening I suggested we pass the bell around, strike it and listen until the ringing disappears, say something it we want. Nods of agreement. That gave me the chance to tell the group that I've met a counselor at the jail who works with women awaiting prison assignments; she wants the group to learn yoga. I've enjoyed 3 classes with the gals very much. Gives me hope that yoga will be accepted in other ID prisons. LL says he's jealous. Also mentioned I'd been to a TNH retreat where the teacher told the story of the dying monastery whose abbot spoke to a rabbi and brought back suggestion to treat each other like Buddha. The monastery began returning to life.
I enjoy the challenge of sitting with and perhaps helping create a meditation sangha from misc backgrounds. The sangha currently includes an Asian chanting and reading in Thai and the long time leader reciting or reading from Thich Nhat Hahn's Plum Village book. Personally I practice basic qigong walking techniques-—post, sink, level; occasionally share these, generally just let the men be. I listen for the relationship of what's on the men's minds to Buddhist practice and discipline. Sometimes I bring in stories from teachers, or articles to discuss. Always, I hope, encouragement. Two hours fly.
I want prisons to hold a time slot that welcomes anyone to practice silence, sitting and walking. I want the space to feel encouraging, not preachy, yet no nonsense.
A “real” Buddhist would have a fit at how “nontraditional” Open Heart sangha currently is--or would s/he? Something for everyone, rather than exactly the same thing every week, with no group discussion. I'm an outside guest, not leader; I ask and facilitate, go along, rather than order. Some men are returning to sangha; others no doubt won't come unless I'm away. Fair enough. Currently the group seems more comfortable than when I first came; maybe it's just me.
Small surprise at the end of the evening. A Mormon elder/long time volunteer I'm fond of, whose group meets at the far end of the hall, greeted me, saying how much he'd enjoyed our incense! Evidently brought back fond memories of the Orient. The evangelists had no comment. Give me a mature LDS any day, over judgmental Friday night Jesus Only folks! (Now who's judging!) Bless us all!!!
As a prison pen pal put it: we live to return everything to harmony and peace! Smiling deeply...
Woke up this morning raring(sp) to writecha. Now, what was I gonna tell ya besides New Years...?
Ah, yes--How much fun we had at prison last night. We volunteers--the mormon, the (2) evangelists and me-who-drops-in on the tiny-buddhist-meditation group--all agreed we'd had an exceptional evening. Strange, the wilder the world gets, the more appealing escaping to the prison chapel is? Who knows!
Gonna start writing a prison web page, this being my second year of "prison" adventures. Picture this: after going through the process of signing in twice and getting through gates, we walk to the chapel, where I turn into a small room and wait to see who shows up during yard movement. Lately only the asian and I show up. While I retrieve the "Buddhist Box" from the guard, and 1 match (to be returned after use), he sets black or orange plastic chairs with hand taped foam feet in a circle towards the card table sized "altar". I always notice the shine on the well waxed linoleum tile floor.
Across the hall in the large chapel, the evangelists and the chapel sound crew test visual aids, amps and microphones. Down the hall, the mormon study group is already meeting; once I heard awesome singing.
In the small room assigned to "buddhists" 7-9pm Fridays, the asian spreads the blue table cloth, chooses 1 or 2 red or blue prison bibles (English or Spanish) for a base on which to set the tiny green taped together buddha, and 2 origami lotuses. He sets out the bell, holder, and striker; carefully arranges the dried mulberry branch I brought in last summer, green leaves still holding on, and a sprig of pine, which occasional drops a triplet of needles. He frequently stops to bow or ring the bell, sometimes kneeling on the floor, touching forehead to cold linoleum.
Since I don't like most incense, I started bringing in a left over orange Walmart Halloween candle, which delights him. He bows to it.
The not-so-tall asian arranges bibles below his chair for his white socked feet to rest on, so they don't get cold. And a group of bibles for me to sit on in the plastic bucket seat (levels out seat so I can sit cross-legged). Who says Santa Biblia ain't useful!
Last night the main organizer of the meditation time slot, a self described long timer with 5 years in prison, returned after not having been around for a number of my visits. (I only visit 1 or 2x a month; the group is scheduled every Friday.) "Welcome to Open Heart sangha", he says; I like the welcome. At some point, the candle is lit and The Match struck. Now that I go in "on my own", I borrow the match cover along with the match, since I'm not as keen about the match being struck on pants zippers, especially if there are only 2 of us. To understate, I'm a student; he's The Leader/TL, having studied buddhism for something like 30 years. No problem. (I smile, remembering he, like many in and out of prison, does not acknowledge "karma"-- actions cause results-- but that's another story!)
Last night, for the first time, I observed that the asian (A), who was in a monastery before fleeing the Asia, seemed fully accepted, part of the evening. Evidently winter nights "TL" and "A" got comfortable with each other--hallelujah, PTL--and "TL" began letting "A" speak prayers/chant in his language, just as I had, on New Years Eve when we were the only ones to show up for Open Heart Sangha. (In the chapel 3 leather jacketed couples from "R Wheels R His" team held forth...!) Last night, "A" proudly held a shiny new black book, I swear entitled "Holy Bible", filled with foreign characters. I asked to hold and admire it. Don't ask me--it's all in script except for a short paragraph in English on the fronstpiece about a bible society.
TL welcomed the group--seems like there were 4 of us. We sat on chairs silently about 20 minutes. I do my utmost to sit tall with crossed legs on the biblical platform in the bucket seat. Particularly "A" squirms; "TL" sits very still. Hardest thing in the world for men in prison to do: sit still. So many on medications, nervous, etc.
Then we stand and bow to each other and the buddha, then walk slowly clockwise around the room. Since I knew that after this first hour, we might loose or gain men--generally "A" leaves--I began "worrying" that "A", after offering to chant, hadn't had an opportunity. Walking meditatively, I broke the silence and asked if it would be ok for "A" to read to us (in his language) as we walked. All agreed--I was a little surprised. He began reading choppily in whatever language it is. Finally I heard the word "glasses", laughed and took my glasses from around my neck and handed them back behind me. Oh! he exclaimed, and began reading easily.
It's a standing joke no one but me needs glasses. Earlier, for the first time we discussed our ages; I'm their elder, which is probably good for all to know. The men stretch their arms as long as they can rather than borrow or admit glasses would help. I offer the ones I wear on a cord around my neck, or the extra folding pair I bring in (in clear plastic pack with book, magazine, candle and something from nature if I remember). They shake their heads resolutely. Usually.
At break/yard movement, 2 familiar faces returned, plus a hesitant, clearly uncomfortable, slouched new younger man.
Sometimes men stop in, just it see a woman, even an old one! They were in luck tonight--both me and a female guard!
With new faces, we sorta started over 2nd hour. We're not real skillful with newcomers-- not clear who's "we", who's "they"? I'm aware of course that there are heaps of prison dynamics.
How to welcome a silent person without putting them on the spot. English? Spanish? Read and write? Not easy to know. Old faces chatted; "TL" made another introduction to buddhism on behalf of the new face, who kept head down. Did he follow? "TL" always explains how bowing is respect, not worship; join in only if you're comfortable. I suggested a second silent sit for those of us staying for the 2nd hour, (first sit for those newly arrived). Everyone nodded. Perhaps we walked a second time. No longer recall. I do remember, because it was a first, that we all ended up sitting on the floor in a small circle, just below the altar table. I always keep an eye on a newcomer. He seemed happy to slip down off the plastic chair onto the floor and to bow; not all men are. In the circle "TL" mentioned he wanted to acknowledge the group of soldiers in Iraq that had just been killed. I asked for prayers for a couple of friends (hadn't done anything like that before). No one else said anything, but afterwards one of the men said he'd be praying for them. "TL" closed the evening; I followed along, dedicating our practice (such as it is, awkward and unskillful) to all beings. There was an unusual sense of camaraderie, as we each bowed deeply in our own way, some bending foreheads to linoleum. "A" may have said something in asian; between language and dental work, the only thing I recognize are pauses where he inserts our names.
As we packed up the Buddha Box for the night, the new man--possibly American Indian-- came over to me. Seeing the CD in the box--it's a teacher talking, I explained--he asked, "Do you listen to Echoes"?. This was not the first time a man has confided how important listening to Echoes (meditative evening music program on public radio) is. They tell me with reverence in their eyes. Wonder if John Diliberto has any idea how many prisoners listen to his program!
Buddhism? Who knows! I only know I felt better at the end of the evening, and I think others did. If I can be a part of facilitating even a few minutes of peace and relaxation within prison, I'll call it by any name or no name. I'll even let my beloved church shake their head.
In the hall the evangelists were tickled with their evening (wish I'd been there to hear the men sing and play stump the preacher). The mormon elder said they'd had a wonderful evening. Bet you always do, I commented; oh, no, he replied. A blessed evening, we all agreed! Returning back through gates, we waved good night to guards and officers, headed the parking lot.
Sometimes a mellow evening, sometimes angry; each in it's way, eventually, wonderful.
Can you believe it's your crazy sorority sister in Wide-a-ho...
Dancing to the Concertina's Tune. For 17 years Jan Walker taught behind bars. Why? The author asks and answers.
Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, 1991, Jarvis Jay Masters, San Quentin CA. Awesome essays.
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