Sharp: Meditation as RehabilitationWritten by Kenneth Sharp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
How many of you have stepped completely outside your normal comfort zone to try something new and challenging? I recently completed a mentally and physically intense ten-day course in Vipassana meditation technique. This technique has been in practice since the time of The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. In short, its aim is to focus the mind on the true cause of suffering in order to properly understand our responses to the joys and miseries we encounter. It seeks to teach how we associate outside sensory objects as the cause of our joy or misery and so we transfer the power of our joy and misery to these outside influences.
Rather, one is meant to discover these are mere symbols and that joy or misery resides entirely within us and is naturally constantly changing. As such, we should not cling to the sensations of joy, resulting in excess, coveting, fear, envy and a host of ills, nor avert from the sensations of misery, resulting in shame, denial, repression, anger, fear and its own host of ills. One is to attempt to see these sensations from an impartial, equanimous state understanding their transient nature. The result should be a greater understanding of oneself and then compassion for others.
Three months ago I, perhaps like you, was completely ignorant of this practice. It was revealed to me at a meeting of People for Change, an alumni group for those University of Toledo students and inmates of the Toledo Correctional facility who have completed an Inside/Out course. Inside-out courses are part of a small nationwide program that brings education into prisons with actual university classes and students. Professor Jeanine Diller of the UT philosophy department came in to provide an informational session on the use of Vipassana at some prisons in India and now a few in the United States as well. The results for reducing violence and recidivism have been very positive. It should not be surprising that any tools we can provide people to increase education opportunities and interpersonal skills will help return to our communities productive and healthier citizens than the ones we incarcerated. When we realize the vast majority of inmates will one day be released, it becomes clear that this is vital to community wellbeing.
We incarcerate more of our fellow citizens than any other nation, nearly half for nonviolent crimes committed only against themselves (substance abuse). Over crowding is one source of internal violence, the lack of educational and mental health resources is another. Recidivism is high for the same reasons of overcrowding and lack of programming. Our prisons have become a different form of higher education — creating better criminals and often more violent ones, who eventually return among us. This has not been the choice of the inmates; it has been our choice as the incarcerators. The system is beyond broke and no one solution will fix it.
My experience with Vipassana leads me to believe it could be an important component in rehabilitation. The ten-day course, the shortest amount of time recommended to produce the desired results, shares some traits already familiar to inmates. One is expected to stay the entire ten days and follow the course rules diligently — no early release. Next, the new student is expected to be in near total isolation from the familiar and loved ones. This is achieved through “noble silence,” where one does not talk, gesture or otherwise recognize any other persons around them (with the exception of program managers in the case of needs regarding the facility or the teachers regarding meditation practices). The new students schedule, sleeping quarters, meditation spot (for group sittings) and meals are all outside the student’s control. This is so that all attention can be placed on the practice without any outside concerns such as to where one will sleep or what to prepare to eat. None of these practices will be as foreign to an incarcerated person as to one who has not shared that experience.
It was an arduous, rigorous and, at times, painful experience. My days began with a 4 a.m. wake up bell. The day generally concluded around 9 p.m. In between, one learns to meditate actively, alertly, and attentively. This is not reflective meditation and does not resemble relaxation. During the day, I would be required to meditate for close to twelve hours. It is physically and mentally exhausting. One would think that Americans would be particularly good at sitting. Many of us sit at our jobs, and then will sit for hours in front of our televisions or computers, but that is passive sitting and one is free to change positions regularly. Vipassana is active sitting — active in that you must try to maintain your position each session. No one should worry about this being easy on an offender. All of us students voluntarily practiced and none in first practice found it easy or comfortable.
Our results also were very positive. None of us became fully enlightened nor expected to be, but each came away with a better understanding of how their past learned behavioral responses to external influences created obstacles to true happiness and understanding. How and if we choose to incorporate this knowledge into our lives will be up to each individual. The same would be true for any inmate. It always takes active participation in life whether one goes with the proper natural order, Dhamma, or against it, but the results are superior in all aspects when one follows natural order. Vipassana will have its flaws, as do all philosophies and religions, because they are practiced by fallible human beings. It can only be a component of true reform and rehabilitation. It is not meant to replace religion or education, but to enhance any genuine life choices. Whether Vipassana or some other forms of self improvement, along with educational opportunities, become a part of rehabilitation is uncertain. What is certain is we cannot afford, by any measure, our current prison system.