Sam Settle, editor of Peace Inside, examines how the time tested practice of meditation – sitting in silence and paying attention to the breath – is helping people maintain a healthy mind behind bars.
“If you don’t go into prison with a mental health problem, then you’re very likely to pick one up while you’re there. And if you do have a pre-existing condition – and many people who come into prison do – it’s probably going to get worse while you’re inside.” So said the head of the mental health team at an Oxfordshire prison, speaking recently to yoga teachers at a training run by our charity, the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT). Part of the PPT’s work is setting up yoga and meditation classes in prisons, training and supporting qualified teachers for this unusual work. There are currently 144 classes in 79 UK and Irish prisons.
We also send free books and CDs to people in prison who request help in establishing a meditation and yoga practice, and provide on-going individual support through the post with a team of trained volunteer letter writers who themselves have a meditation practice. While the PPT’s aim is to support prisoners in their spiritual lives through meditation, yoga, silence and the breath, its work can also be viewed through a mental health lens.
Our latest resource book for prisoners, Peace Inside, brings together letters from prison and replies from volunteers to provide an inspiring account of prisoners as they learn to meditate, and to make sense of their lives and prison experiences. It shows how people can not merely survive but even thrive in very demanding circumstances. While the practice is often an uphill struggle, with inevitable relapses and ups and downs, those willing to put in the time usually find their symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD, among other conditions, becoming less acute. The letters of such accounts, together with a simple guide to silent, breath-based meditation, are meant to inspire people in prison to take up a silent, breath-based meditation themselves. It may also help readers on the outside appreciate the struggles and successes of their fellow human beings who happen to be behind bars.
Here is part of the introduction to the section of letters called ‘Hope’:
Believing that things are going to be okay – or just believing that you yourself are okay – is not easy in prison. So many things about prison can make it easy for you to feel hopeless. But many people manage to find hope, which gives them energy to carry on, even if it’s hard at times. Ironically, it is by training their minds and hearts to be in the present that so many people say they find hope for what lies ahead…
Antonio writes about reframing a negative into a positive, turning a cruel bureaucratic decision into a source of joy. He found hope – not by blindly believing that the decision would somehow be overturned – but hope in himself, and in the human potential to flourish even under terrible conditions. He was able to do this thanks to the meditation and self-discovery he’d done in the previous months. Similarly, Hans finds himself thriving even in an unbelievably crowded and restricted prison in Thailand.
Hope doesn’t arise randomly in Hans and the others who share their stories here. It emerges because they regularly spend time allowing their minds to become still and focused in meditation.
With practice, the part of your mind that you are familiar with – the active, thinking mind – is allowed to rest, and another part of your mind comes forward. That mind is naturally bright and radiant, like the sun, and it’s begging to break through the clouds of your mind. Worry, fear, habitual thinking, planning, analysing, fantasising – these are the clouds that meditation helps dissolve. The thinking, controlling mind will start to slow down; this is the cloud cover getting lighter. As the sun gets stronger, you start seeing possibilities instead of dead ends. You notice beauty where previously all was grey. Where nothing had seemed worth your attention before, you are open to being awed.
On one hand, it doesn’t make sense that you could ever feel hopeful when your situation is so bleak or unbearable. But things do start looking up as you develop the habit of focussing your attention – for at least a short while each day – on something other than all the mental activity related to your situation. Each time you sit down to meditate, you are inviting hope in. It’s here already actually, clouds or no clouds.
And here, a prisoner writes about how her practice is helping her stay resilient in prison:
The psychiatrist here feels that I am a case for therapy rather than punishment as a year ago I was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Will you still be able to write to me when I am in a hospital for criminals with mental disorders rather than in prison? I do hope so.
The yoga routine you recommended makes me feel great. It is just what I need. With an extra towel in my room to use as a mat I can do more yoga in my cell.
Our yoga class here in Eastwood Park [prison] is currently under threat due to funding issues. We have all written a letter to the governor saying that it would be a great shame to stop the class as yoga becomes a way of life. With its physical and meditative dimensions, it is a real and practical tool for spiritual enlightenment and awakening.
Do I find it hard being in prison? Well, my incarceration in mental hospitals in the past has given me previous experience of tolerating being confined. I know how to just get on with it. If I had had a support network like yours when I first presented to a hospital I would have made a better recovery.
Mental illnesses often manifest as spiritual experiences which can be turbulent. Sadly patients are often put in front of psychiatrists, who attribute a label of disease to what is a rocky but positive process. They then try to convince patients that their experiences are not real and do not work through the issues with them. Sadly this often makes things worse.
Being confined in a low stimulation environment can be used as a good spiritual tool. I cannot escape from myself and get caught up in distractions so I’m meditating and reading more than on the outside. A saving grace has been the library service. I have also made great peace with silence and feel internally calmer. I’ve learned that I’m being taught a lesson in coping with loneliness. It’s bearable and another good spiritual exercise to go within myself and get to know the unadulterated me.
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