Thursdays at the Jail
Not for safety reasons--in six years, I've never felt unsafe, barring the one time a big guy asked if I ever did felt unsafe. That did elicit a little spinal tingle. I sit close to the door so I can reach the light switch easily and get back to my chair in the gloom. We can't achieve darkness in our little space, but it's the closest the inmates ever get to it in all their time inside.
Soon after seven, in their orange jumpsuits, they trickle in, one dorm at a time, until we agree that no one else is coming. I usually begin: This isn't a meditation class, (despite that it's billed that way on the sign-up sheets). That's because I have nothing to teach you and you have nothing to learn. The beauty of meditation is that you just do it, you sit quietly noticing what's going on. That's it. OK if I turn the lights out?
In the semi-darkness, I ring my little Tibetan chimes three times. "Listen as the last chime dies away," I say. "Follow it down." I give them a chance to appreciate the gloom, allow them to shuffle and readjust in their seats, perhaps they're wondering what they're doing here. "I'd like you to check out your body, starting from your feet and working your way up to the top of your head. Notice any areas of stress and imagine breathing the tension out when you exhale." Much deep breathing.
"Notice how you're sitting. Notice what it feels like to be you, right now. Notice how you're breathing. Notice where you're aware of your breathing." I imagine they're doing as I am, becoming aware of my body, slightly amazed at this whole wondrous mechanism.
The mood of the room changes from week to week. Sometimes I sense much tension, other times a deep acceptance. It's a stressful, noisy, overly bright environment the guys are in, 24/7. "This is it," I say, "your life, my life. Right now. This is what's happening."
After 15 minutes of this, we check in. "How's it going?" "Man, I feel peaceful." "I'm more tense than when we started." "I really tried to calm down, but my mind's going crazy." "I fell asleep." I'm always out of my depth, and say so. "All I'm here for is to create a safe, quiet environment. Sorry I can't do more," I tell them. "That's OK, bro."
We end with 20 full minutes of silence--a major stretch for many of them, who have never sat still for more than two minutes at a time in their lives. To stop and notice--that's new, sometimes scary, sometimes exciting
One evening, there seemed to be a lot of tension in the room. Towards the end of the 20 minutes, I heard myself breaking the silence. "Whatever you're feeling, however you're sitting, whatever you're thinking, you're doing it right."
A few minutes later I rang my chime for the last time, switched the light on, and thanked them. As we were putting the chairs and tables back, a young man approached me. I noticed his eyes were watering. "I just wanted you to know that in 25 years, that's the first time anyone told me I was doing it right," he said.
I hope he still is.