This weekend I had the pleasure of doing a one day retreat with prisoners in northern Quebec, an experience that always seems to have a deep effect on me. I have always believed in the transformative power of meditation and have found that one of the places where it is most needed is in penitentiaries. Sometimes it takes the darkest places of human experience to really see what this practice can do. Many of you may be asking yourselves “What good can this do to people who may never be able to reintegrate into society, and for those who will, can this actually bring anything to them?”. I can say that this can have a positive impact on inmates and how they conduct themselves. It has also been proven that inmates that develop a meditation practice while inside have a greater chance of not being incarcerated once they leave. I often get teary eyed when the inmates thank me for coming and showing that someone actually cares about them on the outside, the gratitude that they express is very touching and sincere.
The inmates get to go through an extensive process of understanding how their childhood traumas and abuses shaped their past and the choices they made. The practice demands that they not only admit guilt to the crime that they came to prison for, but that they also hold themselves accountable for the impact that their crime had on their victims, on the victim’s families, on their own families, and on themselves. When one is meditating and looking inward, they are forced to look directly at their fears, ignorance, and how they have arrived to where they are in their lives now. Through this rigorous self-growth process, the inmates begin to understand how to recognize their own emotional states and how to take steps towards self-forgiveness. This step of self-forgiveness is crucial in being able to create an inner change that will bring them towards the freedom that we are all trying to achieve. I was able to witness this with certain inmates this weekend, they are working towards their self-forgiveness in the hopes of finding some freedom even though they are behind bars. There is a program in the United States that takes this even further, the Insight Prison Project will eventually bring about a panel where the inmate will be able to meet the victim’s family to allow them to explain their past, how they feel about the crime that was committed and hopefully allow an open and honest dialogue. Forgiveness is not a requisite, but some of the victim’s family will be able to forgive once they were able to discuss with them.
It is really inspiring to hear the inmates talk and witness with open hearts, many of them even talk about how they want to be able to get out to give back to society. The sense of service is very strong with them, a side-effect of compassion and the practice. The most common service among the inmates is working with youth to be able to help them not commit the same mistakes that they did in the past. Many of them will also tell me that if they had been exposed to this practice when they were thirteen, they would not be here today. I believe that people can and do change their lives for the better, this is most obvious and clear when I am inside different penitentiaries. It is really incredible how a solid and dedicated meditation can impact someone, it holds someone accountable for their crimes, and gives him the skills necessary to understand the choices he made, and how it teaches him the ability of witnessing himself so that he can make new and different choices now and in the future. These skills will be crucial for their re-integration back into society when they get out, something that is unfortunately not taught normally in penitentiaries.It is always hard to leave these men at the end of the day, or even the evening meditations that I do here also, I feel their open-heartedness, their willingness to learn and grow and change. I feel their sincerity and their love for each other and for me.
There are so many broken lives – lives broken by poverty, drugs, despair, mental illness, and so on. I endeavor to be of service… to help bring opportunities for healing to more of these broken lives.When it was time for them to return to their quarters, the guard checked us out. I walked out to the car noticing how free I was to go where I pleased. I turned around and took one last look at the penitentiary. As I drive through the Laurentians, I think to myself, ‘I just shook hands and hugged men who have committed murder!’ I thought this more during my first visits inside a prison, but you know, not once do I think of those men as murderers when I am with them. All day long, I felt so connected with everyone at the heart level, and I appreciated our shared humanity. These experiences and days are one of the greatest gifts of the dharma for me, to share my humanity with people who have been put aside by most of society and forever judged, to simply realize that we are all human and striving for the same thing: freedom.