I recently spent a weekend at San Quentin prison learning mindfulness, sharing meditation, and holding space, I came to a deep understanding that when one travels across a long personal Spectrum, their experience and wisdom is so bright and so full of light. GRIP (Guiding Rage into Power) is a year-long training program for inmates to become group facilitators themselves. Started by Jacques Verduin 17 years ago, it is a terrific and successful mindfulness program. They have worked with over 181 inmates, 53 have received parole, and 0% have returned to prison. That is unprecedented in American prison lore. It is making moves and that’s why I signed up, I knew I had to jump on board and become a part of an inside-out revolution within the prison system. Learn more
I’ll start at the beginning because that’s often the blessed place to start. When I arrived at San Quentin prison I immediately noticed how run down and old the outside looked. I wasn’t shocked because it’s a state prison and a state institution. I don’t have much faith in federal or state institutions. I do believe that the government could do a lot to help us and to help those in our society so we can all become more civic. Some of the other participants in the program showed up and we naturally created a circle and I decided to spark a question for everyone to answer. Soon Jacques arrived and we bureaucratically entered the prison. (PS, Jacques is a REAL- life superhero)
I was pretty scared. I have faith that whatever is supposed to happen will happen but this was a territory I’ve never been in before and I had no idea what to expect except that there are a lot of rules and a great deal of fear upon entering for anyone who comes from the outside. I can’t even remember the rules because there were so many. I sometimes wonder why we have so many rules if no one will remember all of them because there are so many. Anyways, we entered and immediately I noticed a few of the inmates looking at us and so I waved as an experiment. They waved back and smiled almost as if they were children. We walked towards the chapel where we’d be holding our first meditation group with some of the inmates.
We all sat down and I noticed that everybody kind of clumped together. The inmates were sitting together. The GRIP trainees started mixing into the inmate crowd. I noticed an older Latino men sitting by himself on the far end of the room, and I couldn’t help but go and sit next to him. The conversation we ended up having was so deep and honest. I had an incredibly surreal moment noticing that I was being taught by a Guru. He explained to me that we need to rely less on our eyes and our ears and that we need to see without our eyes. He explained to me how important it is to connect the heart and the mind. I cannot express how endearing this man was and I also noticed as more people sat down that he was an outsider participating as an Insider.
The group started with a wonderful meditation and I immediately sensed the connection between everyone. It was so nice to see everyone; mixed races, mixed social responsibilities and behaviors, and mixed responsibilities all sitting together meditating. Everybody shared how mindfulness and meditation have changed their lives; I was blown away by the depth of the conversation from the prisoners. Some of the men were really funny and how they connected to mindfulness and they really inspired me to find new ways to teach mindfulness. One man explained how breathing and meditation have helped him to poop better. He explained that for almost 10 years he had all kinds of gastrointestinal issues that none of the doctors or nurses can help him with. And when he started breathing and being mindful of his breaths his number 2 was way more pleasing and comfortable. We all had a great laugh but this problem is not singular to a prisoner. This happens to professionals in almost every industry and is one of the most prevailing and unspoken issues in modern society. What a lot of people don’t understand about my work is that I really care about how people poop and how important it is to have a healthy gastrointestinal system.
At the end of the session several of the guys, old and in their mid age, came to me and shook my hand. We spoke and it was hard to move on to the next part of the day because they all had so much to share and were so excited. It reminded me of the orphans that I met in India. They had a sense of childishness and innocence like they had been reborn in prison and through this mindfulness to be sensitive, curious, and kind. I didn’t feel at all that I was around a bunch of violent criminal offenders. Rather I felt like I was around a group of excited and curious children. So we moved on to the next part of the day.
One of the inmates shared a short play he was writing. It was amazing. He explained how important acting, writing, and performing was for so many in the prison. Check out his work and others at http://marinshakespeare.org/stories-from-san-quentin/
We walked across the yard where the basketball courts were. There was a football field and baseball field and a gym. Everyone stared at us walking and I tried to keep in mind for to reciprocate and acknowledge them but also to remember something that was told to us at the beginning, “how you walk is your calling card in prison.” So I straightened my back and I puffed my chest and I crossed my eyes, walked and smiled and stared at people in the eyes and tried to be a strong loving conduit from the outside world. We walked up to the sections that were designated as a school and education service for the prisoners. One of the extensions ended up being where the GRIP program does its work. We gathered around with some of the group facilitators who are also prisoners. Our discussions, our meditation sessions, and our connections were so deep and so profound that no words that I write can ever do justice to them.
Here are some quotes by the men we met:
“The NEED to change turns to a WANT to change”
“I wanted to be somebody… but there was nobody to show me HOW I could be somebody.”
“Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people.”
This reminds me of a powerful Jewish story I read a while back. A father traveled near and far looking for a cure for his daughter and her sickness. He found nothing, until one day, someone suggested a holy man that lived in a humble cottage in a town not too far away. The father rushed there and begged the Holy man to heal his daughter. The Holy man refused, explaining that it was just her time to go. The father went home, saw his daughter, and decided to go back and beg the Holy man more. Finally, the Holy man agreed, and he ordered his assistant to find five of the worst criminals in town and around. The assistant brought them, and the Holy man asked that he, the five criminals, and the daughter not be disturbed for several days. The father asked the assistant why the Holy man needed criminals – the assistant had no answer. Finally, the Holy man came out of the cottage, and the daughter was healed. The five criminals walked out with a calm and composed demeanor and went on their respective ways. The father was elated, asked no questions, and went home to share the news and play with his healthy and happy daughter. The assistant asked the Holy man why he needed five criminals. The Holy man replied that in order to break into the gates of heaven, one needs the understanding and cunning of a criminal. In order to use the power of heaven, outside its natural order, one needs individuals who live outside order.
I felt like we were in a secret super conscious think tank. These men were guides to how we can change gang culture, violence in inner cities, and negative behavior in men everywhere. The conversations we had brought light to concepts like MORAL INJURY, the importance to RESPOND versus REACTING, and the power of circling to improve bonding and emotional empowerment.
One of the women involved in the training clearly stated that she had never been around a group of men as advanced, sensitive, and emotionally centered as these men. I agree with her because I sensed that they took full responsibility for all of their actions. Now they wanted to correct things, not only through the system and with the system, but they also had a perspective to go into troubling areas of society to stop systemic cycles of violence. Keep in mind that many at San Quentin are locked up for near life sentences so I will be advocating even more now that they get their sentences reduced and have an opportunity to make a difference outside of prison. Their ability to see both the black and the white and to live in the middle will make them much more effective citizens than most of us can ever say we are.
The first day was powerful, and the next day, even more powerful. We completed our training the following day, practicing techniques that have worked really well in San Quentin. More importantly, we met Bernard. He had become a GRIP facilitator in San Quentin, and eventually was released from prison a couple of months ago! He had been in prison for 27 years, 10 months, and 15 days. The way he lead the meditation was incredibly surreal. He was masterful, and a true leader. He is already leading groups and mentoringat-riskk youth in Richmond and nearby.
Here is what one of the inmates told the facilitators: “Better to be wanted by the police than by nobody. Better to be held in jail, than by nobody.”
The beauty of GRIP, and meditation training in prisons, is that it reconnects human beings with emotions. It reminds them that the present moment is an opportunity. An individual’s identity is not created by how others perceive them, but how they themselves carry their emotions, realize their purpose, and practice gratitude and abundance. The joy that Bernard carried, his incredible understanding and wisdom, and his bravery to shift perspectives showed me that there is GREAT hope in humanity.
I recommend everyone check out GRIP and support it.
Guest blogger Indy Rishi Singh is a well-being analyst. He studies individuals and organizational structures to unloosen blocks in their potential for wellness and prosperity. Mr. Singh is also a scholar of science, philosophy, technology, and mysticism. View his LinkedIn profile and his website, iLiving.
Read a blog about mindfulness, gratitude, and peace HERE on Values of the Wise
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