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"In Vipassana meditation you focus on your breath to quiet your mind. We also use other forms of meditation like Father Thomas Keating's "Centering Prayer." In that method you choose a word like Jesus, love, or peace, or whatever works for you, and see it in your mind, focus on it until you go deeper and maybe have some insights"

 


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Home » Features » An Interview with Doug Booth

Finding Freedom on the Inside
by Sally Sommer




Do you teach only Vipassana meditation?

We generally gear the meditation classes toward what the men themselves want, what they need, and what their experience is. For those who have medita-ted before, for those who take ongoing classes, we often begin with a guided meditation, but there'll be mostly silence. For those who are new, just beginning, we give more explanation and often start off with the body scan-a meditation that focuses on different parts of the body in a progressive manner, starting at the top of the head-as a way of stilling the mind. If you can tune yourself into the sensation of the body and align mind and body in the present moment, you get a moment's relief from the "monkey mind" that's worrying about the future, dwelling in the past, and relentlessly bouncing back and forth between those two poles.

In Vipassana meditation you focus on your breath to quiet your mind. We also use other forms of meditation like Father Thomas Keating's "Centering Prayer." In that method you choose a word like Jesus, love, or peace, or whatever works for you, and see it in your mind, focus on it until you go deeper and maybe have some insights. We also work with guided visualizations.

I save lots of time for questions, and of course the meditation technique is important. It's funny; I find that in classes on the outside people are much more concerned with the exact elements of the practice and getting it right. The inmates are more interested in the larger picture, in what transformations are possible, so I let them talk. It borders on being sort of a support group with meditation as the anchor, and a means of opening up, of coming to a place of peace and, really, truth. So much of jail time is spent in bravado, bragging, comparing; talking about what you're going to do when you get out, all the women you're going to get, and all the cars you're going to buy. This is an oasis in the middle of all that; people can really come into their own truth. We keep everything confidential so that everyone can feel free to speak their mind and heart and not have it repeated outside the group. People who are interested really take to it.

You said you've done two-day, silent meditation retreats at the Santa Rosa prison. That doesn't sound easy! Please tell me more about that experience.

I brought in a film done by a man known as S. N. Goenka. He's a Vipassana meditation teacher, and his group is the only other one I know of that's done a long meditation retreat or any retreat at all in prisons-in Washington State and Alabama. Anyway, this film was about a ten-day meditation retreat at a prison in New Delhi, India. It was such a success that the Indian prison now has such retreats on an ongoing basis and actually has a wing of the prison set up for Vipassana insight meditation.

The men at Santa Rosa saw this video and they all wanted to do a ten-day retreat. I said, "Well, maybe we should try a two-day retreat." They said, "OK, we'll do a two-day retreat; then we'll do a ten-day retreat!" I knew that getting through even a morning of silent sitting and walking meditation would be arduous for them. They haven't spent a lot of time in silence, introspection, psychotherapy, or any of the things that make a retreat, perhaps, a little easier. For two days, eight hours each day, they were in silence. I asked them to try to keep the silence when they went back to the pod after the first day, knowing that would be difficult.

They were really blown away. They were very, very sincere in their effort. Even in "experienced student" retreats that are done in the Vipassana tradition in America or Asia, a certain amount of chatter goes on. These guys were absolutely silent; if they had to, they communicated in hand language to get their food, etc. The guards brought us the food on trays, with only a few extra ones. Using sign language, the inmates offered the extras to anyone who wanted them and took seconds themselves only after the rest had what they wanted. Their sincerity was touching.

Like most people on meditation retreats, their emotions ran the gamut: boredom, restlessness, anger, rage, peace, joy, happiness, tranquility, rage again, and impatience. But they learned that they could sit through it all without reacting, and that's half the battle: to understand that everyone has these emotions and that they can be managed. They could process and talk about these feelings in private interviews during the retreat, and later with the mental health department, and that's really the key to this work.

Some people had amazing openings. Many Christian prisoners (and the majority of these men are Christian) feel a lot of guilt and shame for their bad thoughts and actions. They believe that a part of them is evil and that they need to purge or suppress or exorcise it. The meditation approach is just the opposite. It promotes accepting these emotions as parts of themselves that have developed over time as a result of their experiences, but that do not define who they are. Those aspects of the personality are to be observed, understood, accepted, and learned from; only then will they subside and become more controllable. They really took to this new approach.

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