I had a conversation the other day about all the ways I could think of for a friend to get out of going to Jury Duty in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.
Suddenly I found myself ranting about the American Judicial System, particularly the fact that the rehabilitation of hardened criminals is virtually nonexistent.
I told my friend about the book, "We Are All Doing Time,"by Bo Lozoff, which describes Bo's experiences with the "Prison Ashram Project.” Bo took meditation programs into prisons, thus helping unruly and chaotic people find peace of mind through their spiritual practice.
This program is still fully functioning, under the auspices of "The Human Kindness Foundation."
The marvelous action of synchronicity took over from here and began to work its magic. I found Jenny Phillips on Oprah's Soul Series. Jenny is a Cultural Anthropologist and psychotherapist. She has been working in the field of Mental Health for fifteen years.
Much of her work has been associated with male prisoners teaching inmate courses on Emotional Literacy as well as Vipassana meditation, an ancient meditation technique based on the teachings of Buddha more than 2600 years ago. Jenny has helped hardened criminals, many serving multiple life sentences, transform their lives by giving them tools to face their past to become more purposeful human beings.
Her book, "Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars," is a collection of letters and interviews from inmates who took part in the meditation course.
Oprah was fascinated by the book. She said according to Eckhart Tolle, who with Oprah, did the ten week New Earth Webinar Course, said all people are imprisoned within the confines of their mind.
We can all access the power of prayer and meditation no matter where we find ourselves, even if that place is in one of the most dangerous prisons in the world.
Jenny Phillips used to lead psychotherapy groups in prison. She saw something special about prisoners: they are searching for meaningful change.
The prison population is an under served group in our society. Jenny said she was not afraid of these men except maybe the first few minutes. She said they have bottled up misery and are searching for ways to rebuild their lives.
She said they don't speak of trivial subjects, similar to a person on her deathbed or a person in a war torn part of the world.
She learned that a person's act is not who they really are.
However, the general consensus here in this country is to throw "those people" behind bars and toss away the key.
But the truth is two-fold: These people are real and have much to teach.
And 97% of them will get out of prison one day.
Do we want chaotic, dysfunctional people to be prowling the streets again or do we want peaceful, purposeful, self-reflecting people to be released to the outer world, perhaps joining any one of us on the streets, the parks, or in the cafes all across America?
Jenny Phillips felt a calling to go to the Donaldson Correctional Institution to do her work. What she found were human beings in great suffering looking for solutions.
She set up shop in the prison psychologist office and one by one, prisoners were brought to her. She asked them poignant questions such as: What do you want out of life? What are your greatest dreams and hopes? If you could, how would you change your life?
After the prisoners were chosen to do the work, a Vipassana retreat was arranged: ten hours a day for ten days, sitting, breathing, silence, without TV, cell phone, radio, talking or any other common distraction we face in modern society.
They only ate healthy vegetarian fare.
What is the purpose of Vipassana? It is to take the journey deep within.
The only way out is in.
The first few days of breathing and sitting, following air as it moves in and out of the nose, is when the memories and regrets surface. This is when a man faces his past, faces what he really did to cause great suffering to another human being whether it be murder, accomplice to murder, rape, robbery, or any number of other heinous acts,
Questions may arise inwardly such as who am I at the core of my being? Preconceived belief systems from childhood resurface and are examined.
The Vipassana meditation experience gives these men skills and a safe place to explore the inner landscape of the mind, and is a help for them to come to terms with everything that has ever happened.
Or potentially will happen.
Oprah said, "My listeners will ask, 'Why should I care if these people feel safe or if they have skills to deal with their lives?' "
Jenny Phillips responded, "Because 97% of these prisoners will one day be released. And by creating a safe haven for them, everyone around them in turn feels safe. Murderous acts with in the prison walls are prevented. Correction officers are protected."
Jenny said that if these men continue to be treated without respect, with total disregard for their humanity, then they will come back to society and commit worse crimes.
The prison psychologist at Donaldson gives the book called, "Houses Of Healing" to every prisoner. The book teaches inmates how to meditate.
But Jenny Phillips is the first to teach Vipassana meditation in the prison system. She contacted the Vipassana Meditation Center to help her carry out her mission. After much discussion, organization and negotiation, Vipassana meditation teachers were recruited to Donaldson to institute and teach the program there.
The teachers were given a locked room overlooking the meditating prisoners and were available to help when needed.
Oprah said that this program and others like it are going to literally save the world because if we do not institute strategic programs NOW we will not survive as a species.
As Eckhart Tolle says, we must evolve or die.
The Vipassanan Bootcamp, as it is called, may seem like a dire and extreme solution.
But the prisoners worked very hard. They not only meditated the allotted ten hour period, but continued to meditated after the ten hours passed. These men were willing to sacrifice everything to find inner peace.
Their crimes were catalysts for extreme inner growth.
How many people in America can say the same thing?
How many of us are willing to do without computer, TV, cellphone for ten hours a day, for ten days of complete immersion in self-reflection?
These men are testaments that change is not only possible, but inevitable, if certain disciplines are followed.
Anyone can change.
Few choose to do so.
Radical honesty and humility is the key to this level of transformation.
May we allow the most feared people in society show us the way.