Monday, August 17, 2009

Counselors in Prison

A few months ago I was asked to lead a Buddhism/12 Step workshop in Solano State Prison, in Vacaville, California. I was invited by Tom Gorham the clinical director of Options Recovery Services ( Berkeley, a street-level non-profit, where I first taught meditation to addicts almost ten years ago. Tom is helping run a program to train clean and sober inmates to mentor and counsel other addicts inside, and potentially outside. The ultimate goal is for them to become certified counselors by the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (CAADAC). I was intrigued by the opportunity, and drove an hour north to the prison on a sunny day in late March.
As I drove the freeway, I thought about the prisoners. Just the simple act of driving was something they couldn’t do. I was once in jail overnight and it was the most frightening event of my life. The horror of loss of freedom came home to me that night. Like our health, our physical freedom is something we tend to take for granted, but when it’s threatened, we realize how wonderful it is.
Besides contemplating their existence in prison, I felt some trepidation about meeting these prisoners. Who were these men? What would they think about a Buddhist? How would they respond to meditation?
Tom met me at the entrance to the prison, got me signed in and led me to the building where I was going to be teaching. We walked past hundred of prisoners hanging out in the yard, and everything seemed calm and peaceful. But I couldn’t help noticing the guards in the towers watching our every move—and, of course, that of the prisoners. I tried to walk with mindfulness, to observe the whole scene and to feel my reaction to it all and to the situation itself. I wasn’t terribly relaxed.
We had to go through another gate to get to our building. The prisoners I’d be dealing with were privileged. They had passed through various hoops to get here, and almost all of them were active members of 12 Step programs, sobriety being a pre-requisite for the program. As we got to the building, more blue-jean-suited prisoners milled around, but here there was a definite change, a marked friendliness, people greeting me with nods and smiles. I began to relax.
Inside everyone gathered in a typical institutional setting, folding chairs, fluorescent lights, and grey linoleum floors. Tom introduced me, and I looked around at this group of men, ranging from their early twenties to well into their sixties. Tom had told me that some of them were lifers, while others hoped to get out and be drug and alcohol counselors some day. The majority were black; several were Hispanic; a couple were White or Asian.
Looking at their open, eager faces I felt a huge rush of respect: these guys were living in the most oppressive conditions you can live in in our country, but instead of rebelling, complaining, blaming, or giving up, they were trying to do something positive with their lives.
“You guys are a huge inspiration to me,” I said. “You exemplify the Twelfth Step: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to help other alcoholics. . . ‘ You get it. You’ve realized that happiness doesn’t come by satisfying your own personal desires, but by helping others.” It was awe-inspiring to think of the transformation some of these guys had made.
As I spoke the heads nodded, the smiles broke out. I began to talk about my own experience with drugs and alcohol. Then I told them about mindfulness and we began to meditate. Again, I felt some trepidation. Were they going to get it? Were they going to think I was just some flaky white-guy trying to spread some exotic Eastern religion? As soon as the meditation finished and they started asking questions, my fears lifted. They had the same questions that any group of beginners has; they were excited and engaged and just wanted to know more. In fact, there was a graciousness and politeness that surpassed my typical crowd. And their gratitude was palpable.
Quickly I was reminded of other teaching encounters, with the homeless at the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy; with people in treatment in Harlem; and with the addicts I worked with at Options. Each time I went in with pre-conceptions about who these people were, that somehow they were different from me, a different color, a different class, different educational background, and each time I learned that they were just like me. The men at Solano State Prison were smart, engaged, aware. Many of them were well-read and spiritually sophisticated. They were hungry for my teachings, and I felt honored and grateful to be able to give something to them. I also knew that what separated us was not any personal qualities, but rather the privilege I’d been raised in and the lack of privilege most of them had experienced. I committed many of the same crimes as them, I imagine. And the one time I was caught, my skin-color and my family kept me from bearing any serious consequences.
Today I received an invitation to the “Offender Mentor Certification Program Graduation.” I’m told that more than three-quarters of them passed their exams. I’m proud to have been a small part of their education. I feel lucky. Very lucky.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Family Retreat

For the past seven years, since my daughter was five, she and I have attended the Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s annual Family Retreat ( My initial impulse for taking her was to expose her to Buddhism and pass on some moral/spiritual training to her, since I haven’t practiced any traditional Western religious faith since I left the Catholic Church as a teenager.

The issue of how to raise your kids with spiritual values is one a lot of us face in this time of great spiritual change in our culture. I didn’t want to raise her in some religion that I didn’t believe in, and yet, having no religion seems like not the greatest starting point. She actually went to a Jewish preschool even though we aren’t Jewish, and I was pleased that she learned some of that tradition and was in an environment that fostered positive values in an ancient context.

Spirit Rock, where I now teach a monthly Dharma and Recovery class, is a very open, Westernized Buddhist center. It was founded by Westerners and is mostly populated by them (us). Before the first Family Retreat I attended, I’d taken my daughter to many of their Family Days, so I had an idea what to expect: lots of singing, some skits, and a little meditation, followed by the kids going off with counselors while parents stay with the teachers and get in some sitting and more serious Dharma teachings.

On that first retreat with a five-year-old, I discovered that the retreat really was a retreat. The first day was very tough. My daughter was restless, tired, and didn’t like the food. In the meditation hall she wouldn’t sit still (surprise, surprise) even for the 45-second meditations. In our little room, she slept on the floor and I on a bed, all our stuff crowded into this small space. By the end of the day I was stressed, frustrated, and wondering what I was doing there.

The next day things began to smooth out. I met some great parents, started getting into the music that was played in the courtyard before each session, and my daughter started to get into the spirit of things—she was having fun. At some point that day I thought, “This is just like a ‘real’ retreat. The first day was a difficult settling in, and now the second day is getting easier.” As the retreat unfolded, there were a lot of ups and downs, but I began to hold it all in the realm of retreat practice.

This year, it occurred to me during the retreat, that this annual event has been one of the most important ones in the development of my practice. What makes it a retreat, and what makes it practice, is that everything that happens, externally and internally, is held in the context of the Dharma. My usual reactivity gets highlighted because I’m bringing that awareness in. Impermanence, suffering, acceptance, and lovingkindness are constant themes. Besides that each year there is a formal theme for the retreat. This year is was “Equanimity.” There were songs, Dharma talks, skits, and discussions all focused on the topic. With that kind of immersion, there’s a real deepening of practice, of engagement with the Dharma.

As we try to integrate Buddhism, or any spiritual practice, into our lives, finding ways to become more seamless in practice is vital. For years I had the idea that my “practice” was sitting in meditation. I imagined that once I became “enlightened” that I would just feel like I was in deep meditation all the time, that my “practice” would somehow just take over. The result was that after a retreat I would have a grace period of a couple weeks where I’d feel very connected, but then it would fade and I’d just accept that the normal state of semi-consciousness was impossible to change. For some years I tried to figure out how to move beyond this, but it was actually when I began my teacher training that something shifted.

Our Community Dharma Leader (CDL) retreats were the first time that I was in a retreat environment without silence. We did a couple hours of meditation each day, and the rest of the time we studied, heard talks, did interactive exercises, and got to know each other. During these retreats I started to get a taste of what living a mindful life meant. Because I was in a retreat environment and with other committed practitioners, I tended to be more awake and aware and to view my experience through the lens of Dharma. So, if a strong emotion came up, rather than being reactive, I would look at it, hold it, explore it, and let it go. And because I was interacting with people, lots of normal egoic reactions appeared. Instead of being in the protective cocoon of a silent retreat, I was encountering all sorts of things that were common to my life. So I started developing many more skills for mindful living.

The Family Retreat is another form of retreat that allows for this kind of experience. What’s even more rich about the Family Retreat is the abundance of love. That first retreat I found after a couple days that I was falling in love with the other parents’ kids. This was a first for me, this huge open-heartedness that spread beyond me and my immediate circle. The music, too, is very heart-opening. And the sense of community and shared values is a powerful support.

I still believe that there is no substitute for intensive, silent retreat practice. Certain qualities get developed and insights get revealed in that context that you can’t get anywhere else. If you want to have a deep meditation practice, you need this. But we are beginning to see that other forms are also important. On my own Buddhism/12 Step retreats, I’ve tried to take these lessons as guides to structuring the day. While we have considerably more silence than a Family Retreat, we also integrate periods of discussion and sharing that aren’t available on the typical Vipassana retreat. All of these forms are tools for spiritual growth, and exploring different forms and practicing in different ways is a huge support to uncovering and healing the many aspects of the heart and mind that need care and cultivation.