As many of you know, I volunteer in prison, sitting in a circle with inmates, teaching and practicing mindfulness. My most recent, real writing comes from these prison experiences. It’s deep spiritual practice—both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It connects me to humanity in simple and profound ways.
Yesterday, during our check-in, multiple men expressed concern for the world. Great sadness about the tsunami in Indonesia, Ebola in Sierra Leone, and ongoing violence within the States. These men sit in a hell realm—a noisy, confined, angry space—yet are quick to feel compassion for each other and the world. And they also feel the heft of suffering. They’re looking for light in the darkness.
On my turn, I wholeheartedly declared: “There’s hope in this circle. Your effort, insight, and compassion give me great hope. Our world is complicated, but there’s hope right here in this circle. I feel it and others feel it. I share what happens with many different people. It touches them deeply. You give hope to me and countless others on the outside.” As I looked around, they met my eyes, checking my sincerity—they’ve been told for so long they’re bad, worthless, and disposable—then there was a softening in their faces, smiles, and tears. An understanding, if only for a moment, about their own transformation and its powerful impact.
The session ended with prisoners sharing the importance of mindfulness practice. If someone asked them to defend mindfulness-in-prison programs, what would they say?
“Before meditation, I was tolerant. Now, instead of just tolerating others, I have deep empathy and compassion for people.”
“This group helps me remember my own wisdom. After group, I have more perspective and patience.”
“A large percentage of prisoners are on psychotropic drugs. Meditation is a truer medicine than any drug we receive. Mindfulness changes our thoughts and actions.”
“I used to have a rage problem. Because of mindfulness, I’m more aware of my emotions and thoughts. When anger flares, I relate to it differently. I make different choices.”
“Through meditation, I eventually understood that the single, brief moment in which I committed my crime doesn’t define who I am or who I can be.”
These are messages of hope from prison. A stark place hidden from our view, behind barbed wire and steel doors, provides stories of hope. When we pay attention, we find hope in surprising places. Our world is complex but we’re in it together, as human beings. When we see each other as people—when we look deeply and listen well—we find truth, beauty, and hope.