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Being Peace in Prison

By Schizusan, Matthew, Jim, and Nhut

A young man in prison sent a letter to the Mindfulness Bell. He was struggling with being peace in his noisy, violent, and chaotic environment. He requested an article that might help him and others like him. The letter was passed on to True Freedom, a prison Dharma-sharing practice formed eight years ago in Deer Park Monastery. Some of us are in prison; some of us are in the free world. We are pen pals. We all try to be peace, as Thay teaches us. We support each other, laugh together, and learn from each other. We asked our pen pals in prison to contribute to this article, and they amazed us with the following messages. We can all learn from them. I know that I do. Thank you, brothers, for your help and your kindness.

– Pete Murray, pen pal

I am writing to give my help to the guy seeking peace while in prison. For myself, I have been seeking peace for years in prison. A lot of people try to push your negative emotion buttons in here. When I feel my irritation child, my anger child, or depression child rising up, I embrace these negative emotions with compassion and love, through meditation, until my mind is calm and at peace again. The more that I practice this, the less my negative emotions stay around.

We need to see that others here are suffering too, even the people who push our buttons. Instead of reacting in a harmful way, wish them peace of mind and freedom from suffering and its causes. Embracing my negative emotions with my compassionate self helps me to be at peace. In meditation, I visualize my compassionate self hugging my anger child, depression child, or irritation child until I am calm again. I hope this helps. 

– Schizusan

What has helped me has been to rid myself of what I think ‘should’ be or not be happening while I meditate. While silence helps in many ways, noise can as well. There is always something. Even in seeming silence, there is noise from the air vent, the wind blowing outside, birds chirping, or the sound of our in-breath and out-breath.

Without the attachment to an idealized situation, my awareness lets the sounds fade and I focus on the contemplation of the breath. The more silence there is, the more that I’ve come to know a deeper, yet more subtle, kind of noise. I don’t get mad at it. It is out of my control. It is an opportunity, a chance to contemplate it. I can accept it and let it pass, as the thoughts do that flutter through my mind. There have been times when I was drawn into the words that I would hear, and want them to go away. But now, that is good too. If I am still, I can watch my thoughts and note what causes the most ripples in my awareness—talk of money, relationships, family, release dates. This helps me to get to know myself. Where my awareness is drawn in, there is information about me as well.

I truly hope that this helps in some way. The biggest thing is to trust in the journey. It is strengthening to know that no one who has decided to undertake this journey has failed. Some take a more scenic route, but we all arrive. Hopefully, this is a comfort in itself.

 – Matthew

Over the years, I’ve been offered all kinds of advice on dealing with the noise. None of it, perhaps due to my spiritual immaturity, was effective. Over time several things became apparent: people are going to be people; drunks are going to get loud; sports fans are going to yell; angry people are going to scream. 

So, what did I do? Run like a chicken, metaphorically speaking. It was time to avoid the noise if I wanted to maintain a sitting practice. This was accomplished by adjusting my schedule: Sitting in the afternoon when everyone was at dinner or early morning while most people were asleep. Adapting to the circumstances rather than trying to manipulate them has been key for me. 

About our little group here: In December 2014, four of us were called to the chaplain’s office and informed, in a most polite way, that there wasn’t enough interest in a Buddhist program in this unit to justify the time required to supervise it. Telling us this was akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. We began asking our friends to write to the chaplain and inquire about beginning a Buddhist program. We didn’t care if the writer was Buddhist or Baptist or worshipped traffic signals. 

And it worked. Not only were we allowed to meet once a week, but our attendance climbed to thirty people. Being numbered with people who are genuinely attempting (and succeeding!) to live on a deeper level, in the midst of so many challenges, has truly been an honor. You know, it’s true what Thay said: we really can be free where we are. 

– Jim

On one occasion, in our Buddhist study group, we were practicing walking meditation. The chapel area, where we meet weekly, is relatively small. At that time, we had about twenty participants walking in a circle, only a small distance apart. Once we started, our movements seemed to merge as if we were one collected whole. Then, abruptly, there was a loud BANG! Someone had tripped over a chair. As if we all understood, we silently continued to walk and finish our meditation. When the bell was rung and everyone came to a halt, we bowed to each other and sat down to discuss our experience. The question mark about what had happened was lingering in silence. As we took turns in a clockwise direction, everyone shared that they had an insightful experience and enjoyed the walk. Then someone said, “It was very difficult for me!” I asked why. “I couldn’t see anything with my eyes closed.” The group suddenly burst out in laughter. For me, it doesn’t matter where you are. A moment of happiness is a moment of happiness. 

– Nhut

The Mindfulness Bell gives much loving support to our friends in prison. We invite you to support them by offering a donation at mindfulnessbell.org/donate. 

Lay friends and prison inmates who are interested in becoming True Freedom writers, please contact: True Freedom, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026; dptruefreedom@gmail.com.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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