I started volunteering again at the Cook County Department of Corrections - the county jail - teaching mindfulness meditation to incarcerated women awaiting trial for whatever crime they were accused of committing.
Since early July I’ve been going every Tuesday from 12 noon to 1 pm. My friend Ruth goes with me to volunteer. Itʻs nice having a second person with me.
The approximately 30 women we work with live on the 2M Tier of Division 5 at Cook County Jail. Some have been there for many years. This is the maximum security tier where after their trial date, most will go on to a federal penitentiary.
I was a little nervous when Ruth told me she was going on vacation last week. I thought about emailing the administrators and telling them I couldnʻt make it. But my Zen practice is about sometimes sitting with difficult situations (including emotions like fear) and by breathing bearing witness to them and not turning away.
When I confided my nervousness to my friend Ruth, she looked at me square in the eye, and said, "you know you are absolutely safe there." I knew then my fear was something good to practice with, and I decided that of course I would go.
Division 5 is big and houses about 200 women. The 2M tier we go to is lit by florescent lights. There are some 15 cells for the women - housed two to a room. Thereʻs no door to the bathrooms so when someone flushes the toilet, the sound reverberates through the tier. I always stopped talking when someone flushed because I couldn’t compete with the volume.
There are three rectangular tables where most of the women sit on cold steel benches. Robinson was the name of the African-American guard who opened the door to the tier. She yelled at a few women to get off the pay phones because I was there. She was a no-nonsense woman who gave me a brief smile as she nodded for me to enter.
I noticed a small flat screen TV high up on the wall where inmates watched movies. The women were busy talking to each other. A few recognized me and started to settle down. I managed to get their attention and talked to them about the Path of Freedom - Fleet Maull’s excellent workbook teaching mindfulness for prisoners. I reminded them that even though they were physically incarcerated, their minds did not also have to be imprisoned. Mindfulness meditation can free anyone’s mind. This is the Path of Freedom.
About 1/3 of the women were listening to me. About 1/3 were zoned out - maybe on prescription drugs for anxiety. The rest were talking quietly to each other. I gave them some basic meditation instruction, and then we practiced meditation for a few minutes. I heard some laughter and talking, toilet flushes, and then more talking. I reminded them that just noticing sounds is good - making it part of your meditation is good - and just coming back to your breathing is the practice.
Carol, a tall, thin older African American woman, got really into it. After we ended meditation, she said sheʻd been practicing, and it had helped her tremendously. I could see that she was one of the most relaxed, calm, and clear woman there. Itʻs not easy living on this tier! One young Latina woman, Tracy, kept asking me questions about meditation. She asked, "Can it really help? My thoughts are all over the place." She was visibly tense - her shoulders all hunched up, her face drawn and worried.
Yes I assured her that it could help. I said, "you have to do the practice. Thatʻs the hard part. It’s simple but not easy to do. But it gets easier like any new habit you try to incorporate." The tier was getting noisier. My hour was just about up. As I was walking out, Tracy came up to me and burst into tears. My heart just about broke. Tracy said, "I hope meditation helps because I just found out that I need to be here a little longer."
I assured her that it would. Carol was next to me thanking me for coming and wondering if she could get a copy of the book The Path of Freedom. I gave her a copy of the first chapter I had with me - called Training the Mind - The Power of Mindfulness. When Carol saw Tracy, she gave her a hug, and said, “I'll help you."
Carol was like the coral rock in a rough sea. I saw love in that dark place. I knew that every life there was a work of art.
Malama pono (take good care of body, mind and heart),
June Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue
Kumu Hula and Sensei