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.