Yesterday when I arrived at the prison, I saw a large and beautiful butterfly lying motionless on a small tray on the education officer’s desk.
“Is it alive?” I asked. “Yes, but it seems to be injured,” responded the officer, “we put it here so nobody would hurt it.”
“May I take it with me to the meditation group?” I asked. “Of course.” she responded.
As I carried the butterfly with me towards the room, it continued to lie almost entirely still on the tray, occasionally fluttering its wings as though to prove that it is still alive.
The inmates drew close, amazed to see the butterfly. I placed it in the center of the circle and said, “It will be our teacher today.”
They wanted to verify that it was still alive. One of them came near and touched its wings, and the butterfly fluttered them.
I asked them to sit and we began to meditate. I asked the inmates to think about the fact that the butterfly’s life is very short and who knows, maybe it is nearing its end.
We continued our usual meditation silently and focused on inhaling and exhaling, as the butterfly lay motionless in the center of the circle. After the bell rang, marking the end of the meditation session, I suggested the inmates share their experiences as they observe the butterfly and consider where their paths converge. Here are a few of the experiences shared by the inmates:
“I live many more years than the butterfly does, but since its life is so short, it reminds me that I must pay attention to every moment that passes and ask myself whether I am at peace with myself at that moment. Time passes quickly and my bad deeds or words can hurt someone; thus, I need to choose my actions and the words I say, and live each moment in the best possible way.”
“The butterfly brings only beauty to its surroundings. It flutters between flowers and everybody enjoys seeing how free it is. I would like to be able to live like the butterfly.”
“Before it was a butterfly, it was a cocoon. When I was a drug addict, I lay in the corner of the room, unable to move. Now that I am in therapy, I begin to spread my wings and I hope to learn to fly.”
Many things were said, other perspectives were presented. The butterfly was an excellent teacher. From time to time, one of theinmates would touch its wings to check if it were still alive, and it responded by fluttering them as though nodding: “I’m still with you.”
When we began to practice walking meditation, I placed the tray with the butterfly on the table and suddenly, it spread its wings, lifted itself and flew through the cell bars.
We were all stupefied. “We gave it energy,” said the inmates.
It was a lesson for me as well, about freedom in prison.
I would like to share my experience teaching meditation at the Hasharon Prison. I was assigned a group of inmates from the rehabilitation ward who were taking part in the 12-step program. There, I encountered people who yearn to find a true place to rest. Above all, I make an effort to clarify that we must learn from our own experience, by exploring the place inside ourselves where we can let everything be as it is, and rest. One moment at a time. For me it is a great privilege to sit with this group, to share, teach and learn. People who have chosen to undertake a rehabilitation program are consciously making a very significant change in their lives. These are people who – even though they may struggle along the way – have found the strength within themselves to assume responsibility for their lives and choose a new, unknown path. I make a consistent effort to link meditational practice to real life, to remind them that we aren’t practicing in order to sit in silence for two hours but rather so that we may incorporate the insights gained during meditation into every moment of our lives.
Currently, the 12 steps fill their lives. I try to use a vocabulary familiar to them so that everything will come together and so they don’t feel like they are being led down two different paths. In the end, we learn to let go of all that brings us suffering, whether it be thoughts, emotions, sensations or addictions. In the end, we are all searching for a way to face life’s pain and hold on to life’s pleasures. In the first meeting we discussed change, choice, responsibility and courage. We discussed changes in life that always begin from within, and whathad to happen inside them so that they could decide to come to this ward.
I find there is something very easy about teaching this group. Firstly, the fact that they are already a group. A group of people who are already undergoing a variety of things together. I assume they have already heard each other’s experiences and are learning to support each other. There is no pretense here. Everything is very authentic, nobody pretends to know and understand everything. Even when objections or doubts arise, they are expressed openly, making it much simpler to discuss our many difficulties, whether in life or in meditation.
The first of the 12 steps is admitting that we are powerless in the face of alcohol and that we have lost control over our lives. If we replacedrinking alcohol with any other attempt to grasp happiness, we can see that all of us are addicted. If we weren’t addicted, it would be much simpler and easier to let go instantly: to stop seeking, once and for all, the desired happiness and relief in all transient aspects of life. In order to make them understand better, I simply said that the first step in meditation is to see that we don’t have control over our mind. They immediately understood and were enthusiastic, someone even asked me if I designed their rehabilitation program. After we really see clearly that we don’t have any control over our mind, we release the necessity to try to manage it, to organize or control it. Suddenly I remembered the second step: we believe that a force greater than ourselves can give us back our sanity, and the third step: we have decided to dedicate our desires and our lives to reaching Godas we understand him. The 12 step process is very spiritual; it involves great dedication to something that is greater than one’s self. I can see so many analogies: the letting-go that we agree to undertake while meditating, the dedication to something greater than ourselves. Agreeing to give up control, to lose our grip and to try to open ourselves to a new layer within ourselves, even and especially if we have no idea where it may lead us. I must state that I was surprised by the degree of openness and the inmates’ personal, honest explorations (of course there are still many doubts and objections, it is impossible to avoid them). There is something specific about their difficult situation, both in prison and in the rehabilitation program, that doesn’t allow them to live an illusion. Although I believe there is not a single person among us who would want to find himself confined in the therapeutic ward of a prison, perhaps in such a situation, where it’s so clear that this is not the way you envisioned your life, and where it’s no longer possible to delude yourself that everything is OK, a new door opens: some sort of readiness and incertitude, which are a great point from which to begin practicing meditation.
Something else I would like to share: in my experience, it is most important to give the meditators the feeling that everything is OK. Everything that is happening within them is alright, and it is important to allow this space to resonate so that they can find respite within themselves, even if the thoughts, emotions or pain they experience is unbearable. One man shared with us that he has many malignant or self-destructive thoughts and that he is trying to rid himself of them. He asked whether I was saying that he does not need to rid himself of them. He is a very intelligent and curious man, and always asks relevant questions. I answered that he should try to let go of the need to change or to manipulate his thoughts in any way, and check if there is space within him as these thoughts arise,so that he may rest, without needing to do anything. I reminded him of the clouds in the sky, and the many phenomena that may appear within them: lighting, storms, rainbows; that despite everything, the sky will never be influenced and will remain open and pure. I told him that within him, there is also a part so pure that cannot be influenced by anything. That very second, his face transformed before my eyes, as though a mask that was glued to his face fell off, and there was such great relief and openness there. That moment remained with me all week.
When I went into the club some of the inmates were already waiting there. One of them was red with fury: “I’m going to bust them, how can this be, this shitty air-condition isn’t working. It’s so hot in here you could die, I’m going to get out of the meeting and call my lawyer, they haven’t heard the last of me.”
I sat down quietly and waited for the other prisoners to get into the room where we practice.
During the meeting we talked about pain and suffering and the difference between them. We talked about how we occupy ourselves with wanting to change what is, instead of being present with what is.
Towards the end of the meeting we sat again for a short mediation. Afterwards I asked how everybody were doing and what they had noticed during the meditation. That same prisoner said quietly: “I noticed the breeze from the air conditioner.”
I smiled at him. He smiled back and said: “There is a chance that this is going to change my life.”
I wanted to share a touching event that happened in the inmates meditation group a few weeks ago, when one of the inmates was guiding the meditation.
D. was part of the meditation group from its very first days. At first he was very quiet, and shared nothing. But he faithfully arrived to all the meditation sessions, and with time he opened up a little to the rest of us.
After a while he suddenly stopped arriving to the sessions. Before going into the meditation hall I would stroll around the department and say hello to everybody, and when I saw D. I would encourage him to join the session, and he would refuse. A while later he did come to one session, and when it ended, said that he had forgotten how good meditation was for him, and that now he saw that the times when one doesn’t feel like practicing and joining the group are actually the times when practicing is most important. After that, he began arriving regularly, sharing more and more often, and practicing with zeal.
Throughout my time of volunteering in that jail, I made sure to watch the inmates with an eye that keeps it in mind that each and every one of them might, one day, become my own teacher. I wanted to give the inmates a space not only for practicing but also for holding the group, instructing the meditation themselves. Being in an empowered place, a place of giving.
I put down meditation instructions, printed them and handed them out to the inmates, so that they could also practice when I wasn’t there. On each of my visits, I encouraged a different group member to give one guided meditation during the meeting. Most of the time they didn’t even use the printed instructions. With the group’s permission, and in response to a wish they had expressed, I reached an agreement with the head of the department that they would have, twice a week, a time slot on the daily schedule for practicing on their own, without my presence.
After half a year I left the place because I had moved to another town, and the volunteer who took my place told me how the story unfolded:
“D. is now one of the regular and dominant members of the group, and it was touching for me to read about the process he went through with the difficulties he had had when he began to practice.
“Duringmy welcome meeting with the group, on which the former volunteer was also present, the group told me that the inmates used to guide some of the meditations during the meetings. On the following meetings I repeatedly invited group members to guide the meditation, but it was clear they didn’t feel comfortable enough with me as yet, and so I didn’t push it.
“Once we had come to know each other better, there came a meeting when D. said he would like to guide a meditation next week. He arrived at the following session with the printed instructions, and guided it in a professional and confident manner. D. was given very good feedback by other group members and by myself, and it was evident that the experience was meaningful and empowering for him.”
Today, when I arrived at the prison, the educational officer who came to pick me up to take me to the cell block was excited to tell me: “A. was released this morning, earlier than expected”. I admit I don’t know everyone by their first names so it took me a minute to realize who A. was and the rest was even more surprising. A. arrived at the courthouse next to the jail last Thursday.He faced the judge who scanned the list of courses and workshops he attended. When she recognized the word “meditation” she asked A. what the meaning of the word was. A explained the meaning, he talked about the everyday life benefits for us and for those around us and even led her (in the course of the trial) to shut her eyes, focus on her breathing and just be present in the moment. According to the prison guards who were there, the judge was mesmerized.
Recently, the project with which I volunteer in the prison has grown and the group of inmates grew too – from 10 to 20. It has been for a while nowthat I come to the meetings with the feeling that the transition to a large group is so difficult that I cannot really get to know and hear them all and that something does not work properly. Many inmates fall asleep and many do not participate. Questions arose as to how to proceed, in the discussions in which the team of education officers also participated. The most active members of the group also expressed frustration at the size of the group and were angry at other inmates who were asleep and did not respect the group.
With all this in my mind, I came to the last meeting and decided to share my feelings and doubts about how to continue. The meeting was really good and meaningful. We opened the subject to discussion. I shared with them my feeling that it is not easy to have a meeting with such a large group, when onecannot hear them all, and that it is more difficult to feel safe and share one’s feelings franky and openly. I asked them what rules they thought could be supportive for us, so that we could have a meeting that would be significant even in such a large group.
There was an interesting conversation about taking responsibility. We talked about rules that are imposed from the outside versus the possibility of paying attention and choosing our own supportive rules. We talked again about the essence of this practice andits value for us. We talked about practicing attention not only when we sit with our eyes closed, but actually at every moment, even while talking and listening and in our daily conduct.
I learned something about my presence, which is needed to hold the group and the space and the common practice. It is a presence full of love and unconditional acceptance, but at the same time, it is strong and dominant, accompanyingevery step, all the time, not letting the energy disperse.
I feel that something has honed my understanding of the need for this second part. The part of the loving presence has always been there, and after this encounter I also realize their need for a strong presence and for clear rules. I now understand the clear rules as an act of love and support rather than an act of domination or coercion.
Thus, the structure of the encounter was very clear with very brief exercises of a minute or two (attention to sounds, to breathing, to emotion) followed by a return to the shared presence in the group and highly focused collaboration: What have I noticed? What surprised me? What did I find that is new?
The sharing was done in the form of a listening circle: with an object of speech and a reminder of rules about how to share – listening with the heart and without judgment, speaking from the heart. The object signals to us who speaks and who listens and helps us be attentive.
I see that whenever something is not working with the group, in fact it’s an opportunity to deepen my learning as the facilitator as well as for the inmates to learn. The possibility of listening to what does not work opens the door to learning and changing attuned to the live touch with reality.
Of course, the inmates also benefitedfrom a number of things: the ability to learn from mistakes, to draw attention to what does not work – out of curiosity and without judgment, learning through partnership and at eye leveland a leadership that is not aggressive and controlling, but respectful and loving.
I’ve been meeting with a group of inmates for the past six months. The group is made of about ten regular inmates that belong to a program which uses Methadone as a drug substance.
It was a rough start despite a lot of good intentions on my part and on their part. The participation in the group is mandatory and at first that created difficulties. They had a lot of respect for me for coming as a volunteer, but they didn’t really understand ‘what I wanted from them’ and felt they were being coerced into something that didn’t suit them. I also came with some kind of a preconception of my practice and my notion of what meditation is, and it took me a while to let go of this preconception and listen more in depth to what works and what doesn’t work for them.
At some point they were brave and great and told me that ‘it’s not working for them’. So for several meetings we just talked. I listened a lot and learned from them. We established some trust and since then the group became a special place for them, giving them a place to rest and create a form of partnership. They told me: “You are the only person who listens to us who doesn’t have any self interest.” to me it is a great gift and I love them dearly.
In the past couple of months we formed a few “rituals” at the start and end of our sessions, that provide some framing and continuity to our time together, and I feel it has great value.
At the beginning of every meeting I invite the participants to close their eyes and let the body and mind ease in the room. I draw their attention to the shift from outside inward, to the day they came from and the need to take a moment to adjust to the transition to another space. I think this practice achievesseveral things: It teaches them about the need to adjust to transitions and changes, it respects and acknowledges the experiences from which they come to this moment, and allows them to find some quiet and a new way of breathing when entering the meeting.
Theneach oneshares ‘how is heart is today’. Sometimes you share a word, sometimes you share something you are going through. Sometimes I address something they said in the spirit of Dharma.
At the end of the meeting I invite them to close their eyes and think of something good that came out of the meeting that they would like take with them to the rest of the day or week: A good thought that passed through their mind, a moment when they felt good, something someone else said that touched them. I invite them to wrap themselves in this moment like a gift and take it with them back to the wing.
During the session we perfect the ability to reflect on the way we operate. I use the same metaphors over and over. For instance, just as you open the car hood to learn how it works so you could take better care of it, so do we try to learn how are body and mind work. I found that silence meditation that lasts for more than a minute doesn’t work for them. So I focus more on structured things: Mindful/conscious eating, paying attention to feelings/thoughts/sounds, practicing the loving heart meditation, working with anger, etc.
There was an incident in the prison recently where a teacher had an inappropriate discussion with some inmates. The result was a new instruction that an education officer has to be present at all meeting. At first the inmates were very irritatedand felt it was a vote of distrust towards them. I tried to undo this decision because I too felt it would hurt some balance and a sense of security we worked so hard to achieve, but I failed. I decides to invite them to try and see together what this change triggered in us. In the last session the education officer joined for the first time. Some of the time I felt like inmates were saying only things that she would want to hear, but at other moments I felt we succeeded in seeing together what her presence had triggered.