What I Learned Teaching Meditation in a Maximum Security Prison

Two months ago, one of my students arranged a meeting between me and the counselor of the maximum security prison in the area.  I came to the meeting with a sense of excitement of the unknown.  As the meeting prolonged, the counselor talked about the inmates, their years in prison.  “Some of them,” she said, “are locked in their cell for twenty three hours per day.”  As I heard her speak, my feelings swayed from their initial excitement to “I better get out of it.”  I experienced a sharp pain in my heart and I wanted to run away from it.

Forty years ago, I asked Rudi why did I feel such unbearable pain in my heart when I saw or heard of human suffering.  “That’s why you are here,” he said, “that’s what brought you to me.” I’ll teach you how to detach and bring all this energy down into your system.”  I remembered his words as I drove home, uncertain of what was next.

The next day, I received another call from the counselor.  She was gracious and thanked me for volunteering to teach the inmates to meditate.  She said the warden wanted to see me.  I drove for about an hour to meet the warden.  The heaviness surrounding the administrative building was almost overbearing.  This was not yet the actual prison, for the main buildings lay a few hundred yards away.

 The warden was a very imposing figure with a very tall, firm physique and a steady gaze.  We talked for an hour.  He was very gracious and clearly grateful.  I had the sensation he was curious why someone would come from Carmel to his prison needlessly, however, that could very well have been my projection.

He started by telling me how they were trying to improve the inmates’ quality of life and of all the different self-help programs he had initiated.  I was getting very relaxed and comfortable when suddenly the gleam in his eyes changed and he started telling me of the rules while among the inmates.  “There will be no hugging, no physical contact of any kind,” he said.  I listened and breathed so as not to let my mind take over.

 “If you are taken a hostage,” he said,  “just press the alarm button on your belt or blow your whistle.”  I was to be equipped with both.

I was slightly shaken.  I kept smiling and asking him technical questions.  In hindsight, I felt I should have come up and told him ’”look, this is very unsettling for me, has this ever happened before?” The need to be a detached and brave kundalini master was so ingrained in me that I had succumbed to being an image rather being myself.  I came home less excited than before. “Why do I need that,” I asked myself.  “You want to grow,” I answered.

Driving to the first class, I was quiet and attentive to the road.  The night drive wasn’t one of my favorite things to do.  The scenery changed as we approached the prison and the drab town surrounding the compound.  The counselor came to meet us and after a thorough check up, in which I had to leave my cell phone behind, we started our journey into the prison.  We passed three humongous iron doors remotely operated by someone in the tower high above. They opened and closed with a deafening thud.  We came across a twenty foot high barbed wire fence with a sign that read “Mortal danger. Deadly-High Voltage.”  As we passed the wires, we reached the prison compound with yet another set of guards and checkups.  Now we were deep in the prison limits.  My guards walked me into a room where I sat and waited for the people who signed up for the class.  Two armed guards were present in the room.

Slowly, the inmates started appearing.  Great people.  Faces that expressed the odyssey of their lives.  They glanced at me and sat down.  Very unique individuals, stripped of many of their images.  I felt an immediate affinity to several of them. Living in Carmel for so long, I had forgotten at times where I came from.  These were the neighborhoods of my childhood in the crime infested streets of south Tel-Aviv.  These inmates looked like the tough kids I grew up with.

I was grateful I to have a tool that could help them.  And myself.

I knew I needed to change the suspicious gleam I saw in their eyes and make a connection.  “We all live in prison,” I said. “Yours is just more immediate.  It’s right there in your face.”  It took me two more classes to totally detach from the presence of the guards in the room and to flow without putting reins on my energy.  “We all have an expiration date,” I said, “And as crazy as this may sound,” I said,  “I can teach you how to open in this place and experience happiness.”

To be continued …