The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on earth. I’ve been honored to teach mindfulness and yoga in the prison system, and I’ve seen, firsthand, the powerful effects of transformation and awakening on a deep level. Join me for a podcast full of inspiration, wisdom and hope.
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “Dare to Awaken Podcast.”]
Welcome to episode number five of the Dare to Awaken podcast, “Mindfulness in the Prison System”. This is Travis Eliot and thank you so much for tuning in. A few years ago, my wife and I were invited to teach at the Maine State Prison by the Liberation Institute. This particular prison is a maximum security prison. Our first visit there was indeed completely life changing because we got to see, firsthand, the powerful effects that yoga and mindfulness were having behind these prison walls.
Our first visit, we went and taught for two full days. And at the end of the second day, we were invited to go back to solitary confinement with two of the inmates, Mike Bailey and another guy named Brad. And when we went back into solitary, we eventually went back to Brad’s old cell. And the staff graciously allowed us to have some time together in the cell. So we all sat down and we meditated for some time. And it – as you can imagine – was one of the most unique and maybe powerful meditations that I’ve ever had. I had my wife next to me, and I had these amazing men, Mike and Brad, that we formed a circle with. And as we meditated, in the beginning there was really a cacophony of sounds in the background; men yelling, bars being slammed, all sorts of noises that you could say would be highly, highly distracting and not the best environment for meditation. But as they say in the world of yoga, you should be able to meditate even in the most busy and hectic of places, including an Indian market. So it just became a challenge. It became a challenge to deepen our focus that much more. But it was also an environment that was so heightened with the guards walking around with assault rifles and full-on SWAT gear and the men that were often shackled at the wrists and the ankles, and a chain that would connect those two together up the body. The environment was so heightened. In a way, I couldn’t think of a more powerful place to meditate.
And after some time meditating, we came out of the meditation and we were all connected in a deep way. We all had peace in our hearts and peace in our minds. And as we left solitary confinement and we went back to the general population, known as GP, I remember Brad looking at us with tears in his eyes and just giving gratitude that we had come here, that we had traveled to this particular prison to come and offer these teachings. And that we had also gone back to his old solitary cell where he had endured so much trauma and so much challenge and adversity, and that this really completed his particular circle of healing.
Brad’s friend Mike, who really was the catalyst for how we ended up at this particular prison, because he had been the most misbehaved inmate, and he had transformed in the best-behaved inmate because of doing yoga and mindfulness practice while he was in solitary cell. I’ll read you a segment of a letter that Mike wrote me. He writes, “During the development of my 108-day yoga journey, my cell transformed into a cave in the mountains. At a time when I was in extreme isolation, loneliness, and despair, I began to practice. Then the shift started to happen. In a place where I was locked in, some days for 24 hours and other days for 23 hours, that isolation dissolved, and I expanded. The loneliness I felt was replaced with a new connection to myself in the world. The despair that lingered in the air, down in that place, was replaced with hopefulness and knowingness that I still belonged in the world.”
As Mother Teresa writes, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” These practices of mindfulness help us to remember that we do belong and that we’re not disconnected from each other, that we’re not isolated from the world. And the moment that we feel like we belong, as a part of the greater good and as a part of this beautiful, magnificent universe, then we start to feel that hopefulness. Then we start to feel that knowingness. So more than anything, mindfulness is just a reminder of who we truly are.
In our society, we often live by the motto of, “Out of sight, out of mind.” And that mentality is getting us into all sorts of trouble. It’s like kicking the can down the road and these issues never get resolved. These men behind bars never get truly rehabilitated because we just ignore them. We often neglect them. When again what they really, really need is to be seen, is to be heard, is to be honored, is to be seen as a human and not as an animal. What this speaks to is really what the Buddha used to describe as original goodness. So we see the original goodness of these men and these women behind bars, and that becomes a form of medicine. The medicine of transformation, the medicine of redemption, and the medicine of awakening. As Nelson Mandela said, “It never hurts to see the good in others. They often act the better because of it.”
Now the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on the earth. Back in the 1970s, we had about 300,000 people that were incarcerated. But now in 2020, 2021, we’ve blown up to over two million and we’re still growing. Research shows that crime rates have lowered, but changes in law have caused numbers to swell up. Sadly, this often affects people of color the most, which make up 37% of the US population but 67% of the prison population. This is often described as the prison pipeline where we’re taking these young men and women straight from the streets, straight to behind bars. And sadly, the prison is a for-profit model in many cases. And so people are profiting off of this prison pipeline project. Unwise societies, they only address symptoms. Same thing in healthcare. If you’re only addressing the symptoms, but you’re never addressing the cause of that symptom, you’re never truly going to affect lasting change. As a why society we have to look, we have to look deeply. We have to examine and unpack what are the true causes of these symptoms. Why are so many people ending up behind bars? Because when we look at the majority of inmates, there is a reason. There is a real reason why they’re ending up behind bars.
I’ll share this from one of the inmates named Steve. And Steve writes, “Through all the programming, and because of the education that is available, there is a transformation taking place. I have found most men have a desire to be connected with others and to become better versions of themselves. In society, many prisoners did not have the opportunity to grow. Their environment sucked. They were under serious stress and growth was not an option. A great example to consider is a small plant. When the soil is poor, when the sunlight is lacking, and when there is not much to nurture its growth, the plant either stays the same or it dies. People are not fond of looking at the plant. In fact, many people just throw it out because they didn’t have the skills to be a gardener in the first place. However, when the plant has everything it needs, the plant flourishes and typically outgrows the pot it is in.”
Humans are not too much different from the plant. Environment and conditions are everything for growth. Many prisoners grew up in an environment that was not productive, similar to a dry plant pot with no sun. Many prisoners share the same stories. There is a lot of trauma in their lives. Divorce, alcoholic households, single parents, parents with mental health issues, abuse, incarcerated parents. They call these adverse childhood experiences. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other symptoms such as anger exists. Deep mental health issues that could simply be cured with love. As the great yogic saint, Neem Karoli Baba says, ‘Love is the strongest medicine.’ When there’s love in our lives, we flourish. When there’s a lack of unconditional love, we begin to wither. Love is like the glue that holds all things together.”
Another man, Santanu, an Indian man, writes, “Prison reform is a national issue and social change can occur with education and better understanding. We have to start somewhere and what better place to start than with ourselves.”
And I love that. I love that because there’s so much wisdom within that and it’s so in alignment with these practices of mindfulness and yoga that teaches us that true change doesn’t start outside of us, it starts within. The word mindfulness means loving awareness. It teaches us to love all the parts of who we are, not just some of who we are, but all of who we are, even the broken and the damaged parts. Especially the damaged parts. Rumi writes, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” These broken parts of ourselves, these damaged parts of ourselves, these parts that are broken, is where the light of awakening begins to illuminate. It’s often within our vulnerabilities that our greatest strengths lie. Mindfulness is about bringing us back to wholeness. A person who is whole acts in a different way than someone who is broken into a million different pieces. In fact, you could say the journey of spirituality, the journey of being human, is that journey of putting all those pieces back together again to become whole.
Now, one of the men that we had a pleasure of working with was named Abdi. And Abdi was originally from Somalia and he was of the Muslim faith. But even though he was a devout Muslim, he found that yoga was still in alignment with his faith. He used yoga, actually, as a way to strengthen his faith. And on our third or fourth visit, we went and we taught a whole day of mindfulness practices and we were meditating all day. We did a little bit of yoga, a little bit of movement. We would break the guys down and they would practice teaching each other. And at the end of an eight-hour day, we’d finish with a closing circle where everybody could go around and share their final thoughts. And Abdi spoke up and he was lit up. He was so inspired and he said, “I’m going to go back to solitary confinement and I’m going to share these mindfulness practices with them.”
Some of the other guys looked at him and they piped up and they said, “Yeah, but you’re going to have to get shackled yourself at the wrists, at the ankles. You’re going to have to go through all these levels of security. You’re going to have to do this and you’re going to have to do that, just to teach them the mindfulness?” And he cut them off and he said, “I don’t care. These guys need these practices. In fact, they need it more than anybody else.” To see this level of devotion, to witness this level of kindness and compassion, this man who was willing to go through the whole rigmarole to even shackle himself up just so that he could teach and share what he learned to help another inmate out. And you see these stories one after another.
Letter from Abdi, who writes, “For the past two and a half years, yoga has become part of my sacred body and has changed my life for the better. Yoga brought so much happiness to my life and inspired me to take the journey to study yoga and its philosophy, which then led me to become a certified yoga instructor. I now hope to share with others the blissful state yoga has created in my life. Because of yoga, I experienced true peace for the first time in my life. Yoga guided me back to my faith. I rediscovered my true self. I got to know who I am. In the past, my heart was held hostage by the negative forces that emerged from the cracks of the prison concrete. Now my heart is bathing in the antidote to hatred, anger, and disparaging thoughts. Yoga has become the microscope to see the tiniest details of my life. It gave me strength to not let the waves of anger and regret swallow my purpose in life. That is the main reason I push this cart on the lonely, but actively watched footpath.” So he’s speaking about pushing this cart that carries the yoga mats from general population back to solitary.
He goes on to write, “One of my best memorable moments on the yard is one day when the class was coming to an end. The men were in Shavasana and I sat cross-legged on the concrete yard with meditation music playing from my education-issued laptop. We had visitors in the yard with us, a red ant and a couple of birds. Or maybe we could have been the visitors. Prior to my arrival, some guys left crackers from their lunch trays in the yard for the birds. While my guys were on the last relaxing pose of the class, I heard bird wings so close that it caused me to open my eyelids. The birds landed a few feet away, feasting on the crackers. Birds were not the only creatures that were having lunch with the forgotten ones. A few inches away from my feet, a small ant was carrying a piece of cracker. I looked around the yard at this moment watching as the guys lay on their mats so peacefully and the ant carrying a piece of cracker that weighed 20 times her body weight, as if she was carrying out the sadness and sorrow of this lifeless place. I found it ironic that birds are not afraid of us as much as we are of our own species. The birds are less afraid of us than we are of our own fellow human beings, the prison guards. A moment like this reassures me that my journey of yoga is present more than ever.”
“Soon afterwards, the men came out of Shavasana and moved to a final seated position to close the practice. We performed a short meditation of being grateful for all we have in life and all we do not have. When my practice draws to a close, I retrace my footsteps and I go through 17 doors, including my cell door, to reenter the regular prison population, what one of the guys compared to as a big city. Every time I leave this section of the prison, I leave a piece of me behind and take a handful of their suffering. Becoming one of these men is just one mistake away for me or any other prisoner, or even any other person on the planet, including the ones who currently hold the visible keys here. Life is too short and too precious to treat our fellow human beings like wild animals. Love and compassion will pave the way for these men, not metal cages that dehumanize them. Metal keys do not open human hearts. The human heart can only be unlocked by another human’s heart.”
The wisdom of loving awareness gives us access to these invisible keys that Abdi so beautifully and eloquently writes about. These invisible keys to help us unlock another’s heart, to provide compassion where there is suffering. And the circle of compassion must include all. It includes the inmates. Of course, it includes the victims. It also needs to include the prison staff and the prison guards. Working with these men behind bars has been such a gift. I often think that they are actually the ones that are teaching me and I’m their student.
Thank you so much for tuning in. Much health, much wealth, much love. May we dare to awaken.